Novelist Anne Lamott has built a career of writing hilariously and movingly about her own shortcomings: She’s bossy, she’s anxious, she often forgets important lessons she’s already learned many times. Nevertheless, she has become a kind of patron saint to millions of readers, who welcome her advice on parenting, writing, faith and recovery from addiction. Lamott’s book of writing advice, Bird by Bird, is a bestseller. Her books on faith — Traveling Mercies, Plan B and Grace (Eventually) — are best-sellers. Her first parenting memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year is, yes, a mega-best-seller.
Now Lamott is back, this time with her first grandparenting memoir, Some Assembly Required: A Diary of My Son’s First Son. Written with her son, Sam Lamott, who was 19 when his first child was born, Some Assembly Required is an account of the year Sam learned to be a father and Lamott learned the difficult role of a grandmother: to love recklessly and keep her mouth shut as tightly as possible.
Lamott will appear at the Nashville Public Library on April 3 as part of the as part of the Salon@615 series. She answered questions via email about the new memoir — and about her new book on faith, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.
Over the years, many, many people must have asked you how Sam felt, as he grew up, about being the subject of Operating Instructions, and now Some Assembly Required conveys, in his own words, his unequivocally enthusiastic response. Still, the privacy of children seems to be a subject of perpetual debate among memoirists and mommy bloggers alike. Are there any guidelines you follow that might explain why Sam didn’t grow up resentful of Operating Instructions, and in fact loved the idea of working with you on a similar book about his own son, Jax?
I always ask Sam if I can use something, and have done so since he was 10 or so — I think it’s very easy to know when something is private or embarrassing. I have always asked myself sternly if this or that was something Sam could feel good about if it was public.
As you’re walking with a fussy Jax in the back of church one Sunday, a fellow congregant remarks, “You look beautiful in that grandson,” and in the book you write movingly about the advantages of grandparenthood: It offers a big-picture view of childhood and life, while being a parent is too often mired in the slog of just getting through the day. But there’s also, for you, a constant, wrenching realization that you’re on the periphery of this family, that Jax is Amy and Sam’s baby, not yours. Are grandparents even more vulnerable in loving their grandchildren than they were in loving their children?
Oh, no, much less. But all grandparents that I know are just pathetic, including me. You just fall so helplessly in love, and yet you really have no rights, and no one is interested in your opinion on how best to raise this precious child.
For you, part of the wonder of grandparenthood has been watching the transformation in Sam. Trying to balance school and fatherhood and an unhappy partner in a troubled relationship is far more than many 19-year-olds can manage, but Sam does. Surely he learned much of that resilience from growing up with you, a single, self-employed mother. What about you — did you learn anything from Sam in watching him wrestle with the sudden shift in his own life once Jax was born?
Well, I sure remembered how incredibly hard it is to parent; and how exhausted you are all the time. I learned once again that most difficulties pass (as do most beautiful patches of time). I think the faith he was raised in gave him a deep sense that we are not alone, and no matter how scared and overwhelmed you are, God will provide people and resources to help you through. Also, I got to see how a strong sense of humor is about 50 percent of the battle.
In Some Assembly Required, you refer many times to the emotional burden you carried for years because your parents’ marriage was so unhappy. Though you never make a direct analogy to Sam’s often-fraught relationship with Amy, I wonder if you’re relieved, now that Sam and Amy have split up, that Jax won’t have to contend with the toxic fallout that so scarred you.
Very relieved. Nothing is worse than being a child caught in a bad marriage.