Why We Read

I rarely quote entire passages from books I’m reading, but Anne Lamott has gone and made me cry this morning, reminding me of why I read, what it is I’m wanting when I read, and what keeps me reading and in debt to Amazon.com.

I’m reading Bird by Bird, Lamott’s book about writing, suggested to me by Lisa at Words at Play. Lamott is laugh-out-loud funny, and as an added bonus pretty much says what I’ve said about being published right in her introduction: “I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.” Reading this made me feel as right as a nun’s habit.

Early into the book, Lamott tells a story that made me cry, because it illustrates how a writer can suck us into her world and take us to where she is, right there in the same moment as she, smelling the smells, seeing the sights, feeling the raw emotions she felt when she was there. Writers enlarge us by giving us lives that are bigger than they would be otherwise.

As a girl, when childish talk turned to what super power we’d choose if we could only have one, mine was always invisibility. How I longed to be able to become invisible! If I could become invisible, I’d be able to walk down my street at twilight and, instead of merely looking into the homes I passed and gazing inside as the mother set dinner on the table and the father restlessly fiddled with his tie, I could be inside, sitting at the table with these people. I could listen to their conversations, discover what roast beef smelled and tasted like at their house, learn whether their mom made the thick, white, peppery gravy like my grandma made, or the thin, dark, oxtail-tasting stuff my of my German mother. If only I could turn invisible, I’d know so much more than my own life could teach me.

Years later, I realized that my compulsive curiosity and wish to live other lives, immerse myself in other places, and interject myself into other people’s routines was an outgrowth of my writerly self. We’re always wanting to travel, in figurative terms anyway.

So, here’s Anne Lamott’s story. I hope you like it as much as I did, and after you’re finished I hope you’ll see that only you can tell your story about what’s happened to you. It’s our job to get our stories out there, whether we speak them, preach them, write them, paint them, dance them, or simply talk about them on the bus or in the checkout line. Everybody has a story, the story of a real self that is a treasure in an earthen vessel. It’s our job to pour the treasure out. They are our surprises during the dull waiting of the queue.

From Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (1994, Anchor Books, New York, pp. 40-43).

Six or seven years ago I was asked to write an article on the Special Olympics. I had been going to the local even tfor years, partly because a coupl eof friends of mine compete. Also, I love sports, and I love to watch athletes, special or otherwise. So I showed up this time with a great deal of interest but no real sense of what the finished article might look like.

Things tend to go very, very slowly at the Special Olympics. It is not like trying to cover the Preakness. Still, it has its own exhilaration, and I cheered and took notes all morning.

The last track and field event before lunch was a twenty-five-yard race run by some unusually handicapped runners and walkers, many of whom seemed completely confused. They lumped and careened along, one man making a snail-slow break for the stands, one heading out toward the steps where the winners receive their medals; both of them were shepherded back. The race took just about forever. And here it was nearly noon and we were all so hungry. Finally, though, everyone crossed over the line, and those of us in the stands got up to go–when we noticed that way down the track, four or five yards from the starting line, was another runner.

She was a girl of about sixteen with a normal-looking face above a wracked and emaciated body. She was on metal crutches, and she was just plugging along, one tiny step after another, moving one crutch forward two or three inches, then moving a leg, then moving another crutch two or three inches, then moving the other leg. It was just excruciating. Plus, I was starving to death. Inside I was going, Come on, come on, come on, swabbing at my forehead with anxiety, while she kept taking these two- or three-inch steps forward. What felt like four hours later, she crossed the finish line, and you could see that she was absolutely stoked, in a shy, girlish way.

A tall African American man with no front teeth fell into step with me as I left the bleachers to go look for some lunch. He tugged on the sleeve of my sweater, and I looked up at him, and he handed me a Polaroid someone had taken of him and his friends that day. “Look at us,” he said. His speech was difficult to understand, thick and slow as a warped record. His two friends in the picture had Down’s syndrome. All three of them looked extremely pleased with themselves. I admired the picture and then handed it back to him. He stopped, so I stopped, too. He pointed to his own image. “That,” he said, “is one cool man.”

And this was the image from which an article began forming, although I could not have told you exactly what the piece would end up being about. I just knew that something had started to emerge.

After lunch I wandered over to the auditorium, where it turned out a men’s basketball game was in progress. The African American man with no front teeth was the star of the game. You could tell that he was because even though no one had made a basket yet, his teammates almost always passed him the ball. Even the people on the other team passed him the ball a lot. In lieu of any scoring, the men stampeded in slow motion up and down the court, dribbling the ball thunderously. I had never heard such a loud game. It was all sort of crazily beautiful. I imagined describing the game for my article and then for my students: the loudness, the joy. I kept replaying the scene of the girl on crutches making her way up the track to the finish line–and all of a sudden my article began to appear out of the grayish green murk. And I could see that it was about tragedy transformed over the years into joy. It was about the beauty of sheer effort. I could see it almost as clearly as I could the photograph of that one cool man and his two friends.

The auditorium bleachers were packed. Then a few minutes later, still with no score on the board, the tall black man dribbled slowly from one end of the court to the other, and heaved the ball up into the air, and it dropped into the basket. The crowd roared, and all the men on both teams looked up wide-eyed at the hoop, as if it had just burst into flames.

You would have loved it, I tell my students. You would have felt like you could write all day.

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