Anne Lamott, best known for her book about writing, “Bird by Bird,” has just published her fourth book about faith, “Help, Thanks, Wow” (Riverhead, $17.95). The title refers to what she calls her “three essential prayers,” the only ones she has ever needed. Lamott spoke by phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay area.
How is prayer reducible to these three words?
I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re doing is a form of prayer. “Help” is the main prayer. “Help” is the prayer of surrender and having a real shot at things beginning to change because you’ve finally run out of good ideas. “Help” is the hardest prayer, and it’s the most poignant. It’s a person being humbled. People say “Thanks” all the time in so many ways. Even people who don’t believe in God or in any kind of higher power notice when their family catches a break: The diagnosis was much better than it could have been; it really isn’t a transmission, it’s a timing belt; it’s something manageable instead of huge and awful. “Wow” is the praise prayer. I think every time you see a night sky full of stars, you say, “Wow.” It was so cold here today, I had to get up really early, and I stepped outside, and I was like, “Whooooa!” which is a cousin of “Wow.” It was so crisp, so beautiful. It’s like getting spritzed with a plant mister. It kind of wakes you back up.
Are you interested in proselytizing? Do you wish more people would turn to faith?
No, I don’t care at all. I mean, I never come on about Jesus or anything like that, though I’m always trying to get people to come to my church because we’re so tiny and we’re always barely able to pay our electric bill. I just talk about faith or how it animates my life. The single most important thing we can do is stop and get off the train of our own obsessive convictions and move into awareness of some sort of presence or the present time, the eternal now — whatever you want to call it — and breathe again. That’s about as prayerful as life gets. That is about as faithful and spiritual as I mean. And everyone can relate to that.
What’s it like being a progressive Christian?
I think there are millions and millions and millions of us. But it’s such better news footage to get very hysterical people in what I would think of as insane and hate-filled demonstrations against women’s rights, against Muslims, against gay marriage. It’s not that interesting to say, “Oh, yeah, well, I believe in God,” or “I try to take care of the hungry,” or “I give away as much as I can because I know that alone will fill me up.” That’s not great footage.
How do you react to people who disagree with you?
Lots of fundamentalist Christians believe I’m headed for hell. This is often communicated to me in the South if I’m on a radio show, and people with the sweetest, sweetest accents and voices call to tell me that I will go to hell because I’m pro-choice and pro-gay rights. People get to think what they think, and all you can say is, “Thank you for sharing. Next.”
When you’re writing, do you find yourself praying “Help,” “Thanks” and “Wow”?
Today on a radio station, they asked me to read something from this book on what prayer really is, and — this is awful, it’s so self-aggrandizing — I thought, “Wow! Did I write this? That’s really good. That’s what I was going for.” I’m not a writer who goes around saying, “Wow, am I on a roll.” Usually, you read what you’ve written and you wonder where your editors were.
Burns, editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between,” teaches creative writing at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales.