On Writing


Anne Lamott

I've been reading a bunch of memoirs on writing lately, notably On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (pictured above). King's is gripping; not only as a study on the craft of writing and the vagaries of publishing, but also in its unflinching honesty about his battles with alcoholism, drug abuse, and rebirth after a near fatal run-in with a 15 passenger van.

What I enjoyed most about King's memoir was his honesty about where he comes from -- he was among the working poor most of his life -- and its impact on his life. What irritates me about Ms. Lamott's writing is her inability to grasp the effect of her socioeconomic status and racial privilege on her success.

Lamott says, of her college days, "I was drawn to oddballs, ethnic people, theater people, poets, radicals, gays and lesbians." By her own admission, she is normal, while the rest of us are different. Exceptional by virtue of our idiosyncracies -- be they race, gender, or sexual orientation.

In essence, she is a middle class, college-educated white woman whose father was a writer. There is a certain degree of privilege in that, but Lamott is unwilling or unable to own up to that privilege. She claims her experience as a universal one and, by omission, pushes all others to the margins.

Of South and Central American writers, Lamott writes: "When I read their books, I feel like I'm sitting around a campfire at night where they are spinning their wild stories...I understand why this style is so attractive to my students: it's like primitive art. It's simple and decorative, with rich colors...like watching a wild theater piece with lots of special effects."

She describes one character as "an old black woman from the South," as though this description alone is evocative, stumbling over her own predisposition for campfire/mammy imagery.

While I struggle to write the people in my life, many of whom happen to be "ethnic" -- for lack of a pithier, though less derogatory, adjective for non-white -- as real people and not caricatures, hundreds of successful writers sell books peopled by "old black women from the South."

It seems unfair that those of us who conceive of ourselves as "ethnic" must shoulder the burden of our sensibilities alone.

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