8:21 AM – Met Pepe for coffee. Discussed our late 80s golden age of television, the glory of Arrested Development, Jason Segel’s genius puppetry, the sincerity of youth, the ridiculousness of youth, the irony of a nonnative Spanish speaker teaching Spanish to native Spanish speakers who are failing Spanish, the current housing market, old people who prophesy, young men who don’t prophesy enough, Chicken Dinner’s squirrel obsession, our wives, chats worth mentally bookmarking. Pepe should have his own Podcast. He leads a good conversation, even at 6:45 AM.
“I tried not to make any big decisions about how to salvage the book or my writing life, because the one thing I knew for sure was that if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.” – Anne Lamott : from Bird By Bird ch. 11, “Plot Treatments”
In a chapter of Bird By Bird titled “Plot Treatment”, Anne Lamott briefly explores her three year writing process of her second novel, Rosie. As a person who has not written anything of great length or significance, Lamott’s recounting of this period in her writing life sounds about as appealing as a receiving chemotherapy during an uninterrupted tour of active duty. So much so that when I finished reading the “Plot Treatment” chapter, I immediately rose from my chair at Panera, walked across the parking lot to Half Price Books, and bought a copy of Rosie. I had to see what a three year writing process looked like in print. And by the end of Rosie, I understood why the novel required three years.
The plot of Rosie is simple: mother and daughter live in a house together, mother drinks, daughter makes jokes, people and animals walk into and out of their lives, hilarity and heartbreak ensue. Done. That’s the whole story. And like many good novels, that’s all the story needs to feel utterly engaging and rewarding.
Rosie marks the first fiction I’ve read from Anne Lamott. And as a third-time-through Bird By Bird reader, I should not have felt surprised that Rosie is drastically more character focused than plot driven. In Rosie, Lamott explores a tiny group of people and the invisible lines that connect these people to one another, to their community, and even to themselves. We meet Elizabeth Ferguson, a single mother with an paralyzing sense of self-doubt and fear of emotional intimacy, afflicted with an insatiable hunger for booze and unrealized glory. We meet Elizabeth’s daughter, Rosie, who simultaneously holds her mother together and breaks down many of her resolves, who possesses great humor and imagination, and who faces evil in brave, life-altering ways. And we meet Rae and James who bring all manner of complications and healing into the Fergusons’ lives.
I loved this book. I loved that Lamott allowed her characters to be so drastically flawed and static. I love that the book opened with a seething line against the lead character – “There were many things about Elizabeth Ferguson that the people of Bayview disliked.” – who we as readers learn to empathize with, perhaps even love a little, but maybe never actually grow to like. I loved Rosie and I liked Rosie because Rosie was a little kid with the world happening to (and often against) her. It’s tough to not love a little kid like that. But Elizabeth is the grown-up here. She’s the one making Rosie’s world happen. She’s the one willingly clenching to addictions and broken emotions and panicked thinking. Elizabeth reminded me too much of myself, while Rosie represented all that I wish I could be. And I ascribed my affections to these characters accordingly.
Also, as a person who loves words and feels determined to spend days spending words from myself, I recognize in these pages the value of creative labor, of long-hours “jamming” with characters, of welcoming the blank unknown to haunt the horizon of new pages, of writing and rewriting repeatedly until the dots connect, and even of allowing things to run amuck and unassured until interesting dots – dangerously forged – finally exist to connect in the end. Lamott’s purpose in recounting her writing process in Bird By Bird was to illustrate what can happen when a writer lets the characters and story work themselves out over time. The final product of Rosie was not the beginning inspiration. And that’s okay. Hell, for Lamott, that produced a bestseller.
Rosie gets 4 gentle laxatives on a first date out of 5.