Letters from Anne Lamott


No, I have not written correspondance with Anne Lamott, and I don’t have copies of any of her epistles. I do, however, have a copy of Bird by Bird, which I reread cover to cover today.

Two things that resonated with me particularly during this read had to do with letters, namely the first five of the alphabet.

Alice Adams’ ABDCE

In her chapter on Plot, Lamott reference’s Alice Adam’s formula for writing short stories. It goes like this:

  1. Action—This is how you start, how you get the reader reading.
  2. Backstory—This is how you set up for that action, after the fact, when the reader is already hooked and curious about your characters.
  3. Development—This is when you develop the characters based on their personalities and what’s at stake. If you know your characters, the plot will flow naturally.
  4. Climax—Everything comes together for the characters during the climax. Lamott says the climax needs to include a killing, a healing, or a domination. These could be literal or metaphorical. Either way, the characters are not the same after the climax.
  5. Ending—After the climax, the ending needs to make sense. “What is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?” (page 62)

Plotters and Pantsers

There are two basic types of writers: the plotter and the pantser. I’ll use extremes to illustrate my point, and hopefully you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle.

The extreme plotter plans before writing and risks writing something plot-driven rather than character-driven (I talk about that here). These are the people that write 28 trashy novels per year and somehow end up on the best-seller list. Their films generate a buzz and sell a lot of popcorn, but end up in the discount DVD bin five months after release. The extreme pantser writes by the seat of his or her pants, letting the story develop naturally and organically, and risks having an artfully written convolution that is unpublishable. These are the people who write fine literature that nobody particularly understands. Their movies are discussed primarily in film classes.

Sometimes you plan out a 4-foot-by-4-foot garden plot. You plant the seeds in even little rows, pushing them inches down into the Ph-balanced soil. But then you have a number of cold days, or not enough rain, and the spinach wilts and the corn grows and casts an eternal shadow over the unsuspecting peonies. Before you know it, the tomatoes are creating their own political party of radicals, hatching a plan to overthrow the oligarchy that is your authorship. Then you have to wonder if your garden needs a serious thrashing, if you should just plow it up and turn the whole thing into a compost pile, or if you should start a new, nonfiction book entitled “1001 Uses for Tomatoes.”

Sometimes you wander, barefooted, into a patch of wildflowers and lie gazing up at the clouds and enjoying the smells and sounds of the rustling, absorbing them into memory. You come back, day after day, while the Earth spins around and the seasons change, observing and absorbing, until you have a collection of lovely vignettes. But your editor just doesn’t see a story there. So you go back to your wildflower patch with a shovel, find a spot with a nice view, and you dig yourself a grave there and bury yourself up to your waist in dirt, and call a friend to come finish the job for you, because you can’t cover yourself completely without leaving some arm waving around pathetically.

Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, whether you’ve got a messy draft or are in the middle of a draft with no foreseeable future, you might want to consider a plot treatment.

Plot Treatment

A plot treatment addresses what happens and why. It tells you “who the people [are] and what the story [is],” (page 91).

Here’s how Lamott did it:

“I sat down every day and wrote five hundred to a thousand words describing what was going on in each chapter. I discussed who the characters were turning out to be, where they’d been, what they were up to, and why. [And] I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B. And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter. The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream.” (92-3)

Sound familiar? It’s a lot like Suzanne Johnson’s Relationship Arcs. Try my twist of a plot treatment with my Chapter Outlining Like a Pantser technique.

Don’t be afraid to plot. Plotting helps make your story a story. It gives you that beginning, middle, and end. Without it, you might have some nice images, but so does the Alzheimer’s patient down at Happy Acres. They might be real, truthful, and beautiful, but if you don’t link together the cat with three legs, your great aunt’s penchance for covering furniture with doilies, and the lingering smell of buttercream frosting together in a logical order, no one is going to have any idea what you are talking about, or why those things are important.


I’m a plotter, and I have an outline, but that plan has grown from my knowledge of my characters. They still surprise me from time to time, so if my outline changes, it changes. I don’t change my characters to fit the story, I change the story to fit them, but I have a pretty good idea of what decisions they’ll make for themselves based on their character.

I’ve spent half a decade with my characters, virtually taking them out to eat. Gareth and I always get cheeseburgers or waffles at indecent hours, constantly wiping our mouths of the ketchup or blueberry syrup as we talk about movies. Isolde and I get frozen ice cream topped generously with fruit and white chocolate or coconut, unless we are having a self-conscious day, when we’ll chat over salads between sips of lemon water. Robin is less predictable, wanting salmon one day and Wisconsin cheese baked macaroni another. I gaze at the menu in indecision while he talks about his latest wedding gig.

If you know your characters, the story will develop while they develop. If you don’t know your characters, take them out for coffee and let them order whatever they want. Listen to their story, and then go home and write it down.

I recommend borrowing Bird by Bird from the library, at least. If you are a habitual highlighter or underliner like myself, however, you can buy the book on Amazon here: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

4 thoughts on “Letters from Anne Lamott

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