Commonplace

“I’m learning to call people all the time and ask for help, which is about the hardest thing I can think of doing. I’m always suggesting that other people do it, but it really is awful at first. I tell my writing students to get into the habit of calling one another, because writing is such a lonely, scary business, and if you’re not careful you can trip off into this Edgar Allan Poe feeling of otherness. It turns out that motherhood is much the same. I’m beginning to believe what I always tell my students, which is that someone, somewhere, is always well if you’re just willing to make enough phone calls.”

–Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (1993)

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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4 Responses to Commonplace

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I think elsewhere you mentioned Lamott’s Plan B, which I just finished reading the other day. I very much related to her basically fruitless struggles to forgive Dubya (don’t bother, you’ll just have to try again tomorrow! Wait till he’s out of office and get it all over with at once.). However, her books are very much about where she is at that time in her life, and for a while, there was a lot of frustration with young women in their late teens and early twenties, when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Now there’s a lot of frustration with women in their twenties and thirties, which I am. And I feel a bit of irritation with, sorry, the aging hippies and their, sorry, self-absorption. It’s still a good book, but I feel so very much that it wasn’t written for me.
    What do you think?

  2. QB says:

    I don’t concern myself with whether Plan B is “written for me,” because I don’t think that’s useful. Good books resonate not because they’re tailored for my tastes, but because they create worlds and characters so rich that they resonate and edify even if (especially if) they’re wildly divergent from my own life. A quick example: I differ from Lamott in many more ways than I’m like her. I’m not white, I’m not a woman, I’m not a Christian, I’m about 20 years younger than her, I don’t live in Marin County, I don’t have children. Politically, we’re well-aligned, but that’s the least significant aspect of Plan B. When she tries to forgive Dubya, that act could resonate with conservatives trying to forgive Clinton, or a son trying to forgive his father, and so on. The message was forgiveness. She was specific about her acts, so that we got a firm sense of her world and community, but the act itself resonated far beyond its original environment. So, I guess it was written for me, even though I don’t think Lamott had me in mind at all. I stand by Plan B–it’s the best book on faith I’ve read since Diana Eck’s Encountering God.
    I think it’s unfair to call her an aging hippie. She’s a hardcore liberal, no question, but she’s too bitingly cynical and self-lacerating to be a hippie. She’s got little patience for the “do what you feel” hippie ethos, which is refreshing to see in a liberal. She curses more, and has more politically incorrect thoughts, than most hippies OR most diligent Christians. And let’s remember that hippies aren’t exactly stereotyped as being fervent Presbyterians who force their teenage sons to go to church with them. In each book I’ve read by her, she’s got at least as much frustration with herself as she does with anyone else. Self-hatred is a brave thing to broadcast, and a thing that doesn’t indicate the pious smugness among the patchouli-wearing trustafarians that I saw at the nine Phish concerts I attended.

  3. susan says:

    Wow. That’s the first time I heard someone from generation post-boom refer to us as self-absorbed hippies. Ouch! Is that what you guys think of us? And why the heck do I get this nagging feeling you’re right???!!! Somewhere in our collective unconscious there is programmed a self-absorption bug. I blame my parents (kidding). Watch us, though. We turn over like ponds in springtime. We’ll fix it before we all die out.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I’m excited to have started some vehement debate!
    To address your first point, Mr. Quiet B, I can appreciate a book as being good whether it’s something I enjoy or not. I can see the value in Plan B, which you describe quite eloquently. I can see lots of value in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, too. But that doesn’t mean that I necessarily enjoy those texts.
    As dramaturg (in part, someone who reads and evaluates new scripts), this comes up all the time. One must always be aware of one’s bias, and attempt to appreciate a work in spite of that. But I don’t think that precludes having the freedom to like or not like a text. For instance, I might recommend a script to a particular company because I think their audiences would really love it, even if I would rather not buy a ticket to see it.
    As far as Lamott’s book goes, it’s probably “written for” anyone who is a questioning person who grapples with both the ordinary trials of one’s personal life and the extraordinary demands of today’s political realities. So far, so good. I suppose my reaction (and it’s a personal judgement, not an aesthetic one) is based on the fact that there are several instances in which I feel that I am the Other, the target of her resentment (which is not deep, and she usually acknowledges it’s a little silly). But that’s enough for me to go looking for other books to purchase rather than just check out from the library. Wait for me, Anne: twenty years should bring me up to your speed.
    “Aging hippy”: Oy, that’s gonna be tough to defend. I suppose that’s the shorthand I use for what has happened to the counterculture of the 60s since– the disillusionment, the realization that they’ve wound up following much of the same patterns as their own parents. I don’t see Lamott as perpetuating the idealism of the 60s, but instead, following the track of those who were heartfelt liberals of the 60s and 70s. I think that her grand capacity for self-examination springs from that.
    Susan, I’m sorry about that. My comments about the Boomer generation were a little harsh. Sorry! Perhaps having lived in San Francisco has given me a grand dose of cynicism regarding the counterculture– something which should be kept alive for the sake of us all, but is currently floundering in spectacular ways, and, well… under whose watch? Seems to me that those creators of culture who are subversive today are not running counter-culture, but running underneath and sapping it for their sustanence. Which has created some awesome works! But direct opposition has sort of puttered on many fronts.
    I should say that in no way do I absolve my own generation of self-absorption or any other neuroses or faults of personality. We have them in spades; it’ll just take some time to figure out what they are. We’re only just now getting around to realizing what the 80s were about, after all.

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