There's a bit of just about everyone in Anne Lamott. She's a born-again Christian, a writer, an iconoclast, a single mother, a recovering alcoholic, a former drug addict, a nursing home minister, a comedienne, a liberal, a neurotic girl, a sinner, a saint, a gay-rights activist, a Sunday school teacher, and a dreadlocked peace marcher.
If you're one of the above, Lamott is likely to raise your spirits in Bird by Bird with Annie. The 40-minute documentary, airing Tuesday night on PBS, flatters its subject by allowing her to narrate her own story. She does it casually, openly, hilariously. Indeed, the device works so well that you forgive the absence of an outsider's commentary and willingly let her do the talking.
The film is a win-win for Lamott. If you already relish the wit and candor that animate her bestselling collection of essays Traveling Mercies and her columns at Salon.com, you'll love her more after you see the documentary. And if you can't stand Lamott—perhaps for the cheap shots and liberal pandering that are routinely featured in her shtick, such as her gratuitous comparison of George W. Bush to a Klansman in a recent column, or for her bigotry against white Southern males in general—you might at least find yourself understanding her a little better. And, no matter how much you fight it, she'll get a belly laugh or two out of you.
The camera follows Lamott everywhere, and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock makes you feel like you do, too. You see Lamott working with writing students; you see her in a photograph as a girl with hair so unmanageable that she got teased for it in what she calls "drive-by shoutings;" you see her singing gospel songs at her church, driving a convertible in the Bay Area, weeping over a friend's death during a book reading, picking flowers with her ailing mother; you see her clutching onto her son, then under 10 years old, as she presides over a gay wedding ("with virtually no power vested in me that is recognized by the state of California").
The documentary opens with Lamott doing what she does best: getting writer's block sufferers to write something—a word, a sentence, a page maybe. She tells the classic story that inspired her guide for writers, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1994). When, over three decades ago, her older brother was struggling to write a school report on birds due the next day, her dad, a published writer, put his arm around him, and said, "Just take it bird by bird."
With a pink rose softening her dreadlocks, Lamott is an angel of understanding to the writers attending her workshops. "It's a given that it's hard to keep your butt on the chair," she says. A natural stand-up comic, she describes the way she bribed her inner writer to keep herself writing during the O.J. Simpson trial: "If you just write for half an hour, we will get up and watch a little O.J." The following, too, are breaks for writerly freedom: "Get one page down, and if you can't, get one sentence down," and "Anything anyone has ever done to hurt you, you own it! And they should have acted better if they didn't want you to shape a novel around it. You own that ex marriage."
Giving feedback to students reading their work at a Bay Area bookstore, Lamott is like a casually truth-telling yet admiring mother. "I just found it exhilarating to see how in charge of this you were," she tells one writer. "I just get this sense of confidence … a sense that you've bitten off a lot. Felt like the material didn't get away from you this time. … There are things you could cut though."
At the center of Lamott's life is her faith. The footage of her rocking gently, clapping, and singing hymns (with her eyes shut) pulls you in so close to her that you almost feel like an intruder. A scene at a fund-raiser reveals something that Lamott, to her credit, hasn't broadcast. Introducing the famous member of her mostly black congregation, the pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church says, "I see Annie nearly every Sunday bringing folk to the Lord, bringing folk to St. Andrew, and saying, 'You've got to see what I've found!' " The camera also captures Lamott leading the elderly in worship at a convalescent home. Another surprise: She's done that on Sunday afternoons for ten years. "I never want to go," she says, but "they fill me with something close to joy." Here, too, her son, Sam, is by her side.
He is the only person in the documentary who confronts the viewer directly—without realizing what he's doing, perhaps. On several occasions, the boy, frequently written about by his mother, looks straight at the camera with his huge dark eyes. It's as if he was protecting his mother, asking "What else do you want from her? Hasn't she given you enough already?" You feel like a peeping Tom.
"I wish I had a dad to hand him, and I don't," says Lamott at one point, slightly biting her lower lip. That's one among many signs that the documentary is dated. It was filmed in 1997. Back then, Lamott didn't know that she would, indeed, end up handing a father to her son—his own biological father.
As she told Books & Culture in an interview last fall, he's now back in Sam's life. "I go up with Sam to his father's house every year in Canada for Thanksgiving. We make angels in the snow with the father, I serve my terrible cooking to his new wife, and we bless it before we eat. We're all in love. Sam is chosen by his father, and is cherished and adored, and financially supported. That's a miracle."
Peek into it starting at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday April 22 on some PBS stations. Check your local listings.
Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today magazine.
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Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.
Agnieszka Tennant recently wrote a profile of Lamott in Christianity Today.
In December, Anne Lamott returned as a columnist for Salon.com. Her first column was free to all readers, but subsequent columns will only be available to Salon Premium subscribers. All of her old columns, however, are still available on the site.
Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Letter from Spain | A former resident returns to find that it is still stony ground for the Gospel. (March 31, 2003)
Lessons in Nation-Building From a Fledgling Democracy | Shays's Rebellion describes a time when revolution was no longer cool. (March 24, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (March 17, 2003)
Vanity Fair | A chronicler of religion plays the straight man. (March 10, 2003)
Diagnosing "The Doctor" | A new assessment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preacher. (March 3, 2003)
Taken Prisoner | Stories from the far-flung frontiers of the British Empire, 1600-1850, challenge our preconceptions. (Feb. 24, 2003)
Another Third Way? | The mixed record of Catholic social thought. (Feb. 17, 2003)
Divine Numbers | Can you say "Christian" and "mathematics" in the same sentence? (Feb. 10, 2003)
Getting Beyond Victimology | A provocative collection of essays for "the black silent majority." (Feb. 3, 2003)
Strange Bedfellows | Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell collaborate on a collection of political writing. Has the millennium arrived unnoticed? (Jan. 27, 2003)
Encounters of the Gods | Christianity and Native American religion in early America. (Jan. 20, 2003)
Books Present, Books Past, and Books to Come | Plus: A new format for this column. (Jan. 13, 2003)
Double Indemnity Meets Dead Souls | A conversation with novelist Richard Dooling. (Jan. 6, 2003)
Books of the Year | The top ten. (OK—make that twelve.) (Dec. 30, 2002)
Entertain Us | Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rapture of distress. (Dec. 16, 2002)
Boys Will Be Boys | A new book by a leading Christian feminist scholar inadvertently reveals the flawed assumptions underlying much talk about "flexibility" in gender roles. (Dec. 9, 2002)
Street Cred | Dave Eggers: The portrait of an artist as a … what? (Dec.2, 2002)