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The Church of Anne Lamott; In baring her all-too-human soul, the author of 'Traveling Mercies' has become a minor deity to her fans.


Anne Lamott understands.

Mayer Baker kneels before her, the first supplicant in a line of more than 100, a line that stretches from literature, through genre fiction and all the way to biography in the Pikesville Bibelot bookstore. Baker has with her seven copies of various Lamott titles, including four of the latest one, "Traveling Mercies," a book of essays billed as "some thoughts on faith." It's also about hair and dogs and parents and how screaming at one's child is akin to "bitch-slapping E.T.," a characteristic Lamott-ism. But, primarily, it's about capital-C Christianity. No getting around it.

Not that anyone here wants to get around it. This is the book tour as tent revival.

"You have phrases that are like pearls on a necklace," one woman gushes during the reading, and another shakes her head and says something that sounds like "Yes ma'am." But it just might have been "Amen."

The kneeling Baker is, in her words, "trying to be a writer." There is no doubt that the writer she wants to be is Anne Lamott, or someone like her. Someone who's funny and heartbreaking, who tells you the most horrible things she's ever done, then makes herself sound like an OK person, because she, at least, has confessed.

"My twin sister and I feel she's our honorary triplet," says Baker, who identifies herself as a mother, volunteer and book club member. "We love everything she says and the way she says it."

Baker moves on, and now it's Joni Vaughan's turn. Vaughan, a graphic artist, has driven all the way from Richmond. She, too, wants to be a writer. She scoured the Internet for a hardcover copy of Lamott's very first novel, "Hard Laughter," published almost 20 years ago. "She touches you on a gut level," Vaughan says.

And so it goes, down the line, to the woman who announces she feels about her chest the way Lamott feels about her hips, to the old boyfriend who gives Lamott a McGovern pin for her pink sweater, to the Goucher classmates and professor who knew her when, to the people who think they know her from reading her books, and maybe they do.

Lamott takes her time, tries to find a balance between the shark-like demands of the signing line and the raw neediness of the individuals in it. So many seem sure they could be her best friend, if only there were time.

Local writer Zippy Larsen holds up a copy of Lamott's book on writing, "Bird by Bird," and announces that it made possible her self-published book, "How to Find a Fella in the Want Ads." Lamott asks for a copy and promises she will read it. "Will you tell me what you think?" Larsen asks. Not necessarily, Lamott says gently.

Lamott knows the other side of the signing table. When she was in her 20s, already a published novelist, she wrote a fan letter about "Happy All the Time" to its author, Laurie Colwin.

It was a funny letter, a good letter, Lamott is sure of that. Finally, a reply arrived, a postcard, handwritten and addressed, but not terribly intimate. "I remember it really hurt my feelings, I felt awful about it, because I loved her so much. I felt, 'Oh no, we're not going to be close, we're not going to be best friends.' "

She figures she answers about 75 percent of her mail. But, inevitably, she meets people who want to know if she received their letters from a year ago, two years ago, five years ago. Each person says this as if it's the only letter ever written, as if she could not have forgotten this particular letter. "Maybe it never got to you," one woman said helpfully, earlier on this tour.

Maybe, Lamott agreed.

Traveling mercies

Lamott, two months shy of her 45th birthday, is a recovering alcoholic, a single mother and a former bulimic. But the most difficult thing she ever copped to was believing in Jesus Christ.

"Jesus was the hard part," she says over a brownie pick-me-up before her talk at Bibelot last week. "I didn't tell anyone at first."

She is pretty, much prettier than her author photos or self-deprecating prose would have you believe. She is not fat, despite recent claims in Salon, the online magazine. One has to look closely to see the delicate, enameled cross hanging on a chain from her neck.

She grew up in an intellectual Marin County, Calif., family where belief in any deity "meant that you were stupid," she says in "Traveling Mercies." "Ignorant people believed, uncouth people, and we were heavily couth."

Yet Lamott believed. Not in God, or Jesus, but in someone. Someone who listened. The Lamott household was big on secrets -- "The one rule was not to tell anything about the family to the outside world," she says. She simply added this secret to the others.

At Goucher College in the early 1970s -- her mother attended the school, as did her aunt -- Lamott had a moment of revelation while studying Kierkegaard with a beloved professor, Eva Gossman. In reading the philosopher's retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac, Lamott experienced what she describes as a lurch of faith. She decided to become Jewish.

It was a start. She left Goucher at the end of her sophomore year to return to California, ready to start life as a novelist. By age 26, she had published "Hard Laughter," her way of coping with her father's death from cancer. Writers like Anne Tyler praised it, but there were just enough negative responses to feed Lamott's neuroses.

She was writing every day, and drinking every night. Also smoking what she calls "non-habit-forming marijuana" and pursuing ill-advised love affairs. She published another book, "Rosie," based on her experiences as a teen-age tennis champion, and began work on her third, "Joe Jones."

Into a church

In 1984, around her 30th birthday, Lamott began attending St. Andrew, a Presbyterian church in Marin City. She stumbled on the church because it was across the street from a huge flea market where she liked to be when "hung over, or coming down from a cocaine binge." The gospel music drew her in. She always left before the sermon.

She had an abortion, and spent the next week on Bushmills Irish whiskey and codeine. One night, after bleeding heavily, she writes that she "became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus."

She wasn't ready for him; she compares Christ to a cat who won't go away if you give him so much as a saucer of milk. But the next time, she stayed for the sermon. And found it ridiculous, by the way. Yet the cat followed her home that day, and this time, she let him in.

In 1986, she quit drinking; the next year, on Valentine's Day, she sought help for her bulimia. By 1989, she was pregnant again, and this boyfriend made it clear motherhood would be a do-it-yourself project. She had the baby, Sam, anyway. At the same time, her best friend, Pammy, was diagnosed with the breast cancer that would kill her by age 37.

Her fans at Bibelot know all of this. They know about Pammy, and how Sam couldn't pronounce his "l's" when he was a toddler. They know her dog's name is Sadie, that her brother is called Stevo. They know how Lamott, who now sports dreadlocks, has spent a lifetime listening to people ask: "Did you stick your finger in a light socket?"

They know these things because Lamott, highly praised as a novelist, found a mass audience in nonfiction. "Operating Instructions," a beyond-candid book about the first year of Sam's life, was a surprise best seller in 1993.

She followed it with "Bird by Bird," a writing book that sold even more copies, about 80,000 in hardcover. Now "Traveling Mercies," based on a series of Salon columns, has sold almost that many copies in just three weeks.

But Lamott maintains she reveals only what she wants to reveal. As for Sam, she now seeks permission to write about him. She may resort to bribery, but she gets permission.

"They know what I decide to tell them and I don't tell the really private stuff," she says. "I tell the fairly private stuff. If I'm writing about my darker side, or my shadows, or my meanness, I make it funny, you know? I mostly make it funny.

"For the most part, I'm always doing spin control."

A small epiphany

It is after 9 o'clock when Lamott signs the last book. One woman seems upset that the line has grown past her -- "I was the last one, I thought I was going to be the special one," she says.

Instead, that honor falls to a man who confides: "You're one of the writers I read obsessively the year I quit drinking."

"So you're a friend of Bill," Lamott says, referring to the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. "It's weird, isn't it?"

"Took me about a year to think straight," he replies.

"It took me about a year to think straight, too," she says. "I didn't write for almost nine months."

As she told the crowd, she tries to write every day and she hates it, just hates it. "I'm never in a good mood and I never have any hope," she says. "I very rarely have what I call good days, you know, where I sit down and think, 'Oh it's just so fun to be me today, I have this wonderful gift, and I'm so talented and all these people came to the reading in Baltimore, and I must be so talented, let me at it.' I've never had a day like that, except when I was on drugs."

First drafts are awful; she has an unprintable pet name for them, as aficionados of "Bird by Bird" know. She always thinks she's finished after the second draft. She's not. Each of her books has taken four to five drafts.

Nailing it

Twice, only twice, has she written something knowing she was nailing it. One was the memorable opening to her fourth novel, "All New People," her first book written sober. The other was the introduction to "Traveling Mercies."

"Creativity is about taking things out," she tells her audience at one point. "As is spirituality."

The British writer Martin Amis once said the desire to bond with a writer is a form of communion. The observation has never seemed so apt as does tonight, in the Church of Anne Lamott, where so many people have thrown open their arms and declared: "I have so much to tell you."

The temptation is to join them. You want to share, too, to tell about your Anne Lamott moment at lunch, when the waiter brought the wrong special and you were too overwhelmed to say anything, so you ate food you didn't want, then hated yourself for it. Or about what you did at the local video store to exact revenge for a small misunderstanding. You want to talk about prayer and ask if Lamott's Jesus would forgive an 11-year-old girl who promised to give up peanut M&M;'s if he would come through for her. Jesus kept his end of the bargain. The girl didn't.

It is only when Lamott leaves, heading out into the night with her turkey rotolo and media escort, that the epiphany is complete: You came for the music, you stayed for the sermon.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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