The 28 best Anne Lamott quotes on books and writing, including the best Anne Lamott quotes on writing as a way of life, writing the truth, the writing process, shitty first drafts, and the magic of books. This post may contain affiliate links.
“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.”
That quote always makes me breathe deep and smile. There’s something about hearing our deepest feelings spoken back to us by another person that makes life feel less scary and alone.
Are you a quote collector, too?
Words are more powerful than almost anything else, and so I love collecting little gems of insight from across the ages that I can flip through when things feel overwhelming or confusing. (I catalog a lot of favorite + prettily designed quotes over on Pinterest–follow me there!)
But some of my favorite quotes to collect are quotes about books and writing. Because if there’s one thing that heartens me, it’s remembering that books are pure magic.
So today I’m sharing some of my favorites: these are the 28 best Anne Lamott quotes on books and writing. Many of them are from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, but there are just as many that were found and collected from her other books or other writing.
Confession: I meant to keep this list to under 10 (ha!), but I just could not cut some of these gems. Even reading through these Anne Lamott quotes while I was compiling this list made me feel more at ease and focused. So while it seems silly to say you can have 28 best Anne Lamott quotes, I present them to you anyway. To me, they are the best.
And I hope they also give you a few moments of breathing deep and smiling today.
The best Anne Lamott quotes on books
“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.
We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
The best Anne Lamott quotes on writing as a way of living
“My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”
“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible.
So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean.
This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”
“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
“I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
“Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”
“This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of–please forgive me–wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.
Try walking around with a child who’s going, ‘Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!’ And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, ‘Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at the scary dark cloud!’ I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world–present and in awe.”
The best Anne Lamott quotes on shitty first drafts
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”
(I love this Anne Lamott quote so much I turned it into an art print. Click here to access the archive of literary printables for free!)
“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.”
“If you don’t believe in God, it may help to remember this great line of Geneen Roth’s: that awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage. I doubt that you would read a close friend’s early efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker. I doubt that you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat. I think you might say something along the lines of, ‘Good for you. We can work out some of the problems later, but for now, full steam ahead!”
The best Anne Lamott quotes on writing the truth
“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”
“You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”
“But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to.
When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.”
“The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”
“Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We *told* you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.”
“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.”
“Toni Morrison said, ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else,’ and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. Not everyone will be glad that you did. Members of your family and other critics may wish you had kept your secrets. Oh, well, what are you going to do?”
“We write to expose the unexposed. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words – not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues. You can’t do this without discovering your own true voice, and you can’t find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder.”
The best Anne Lamott quotes on writing and the writing process
“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given- that you are not in a productive creative period- you free yourself to begin filling up again.”
“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.”
“Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.”
“There is ecstasy in paying attention.”
“Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.”
“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”
“You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.”
For more inspirational quotes on books and writing:
What I’m Reading This Week
How Reading Rewires Your Brain for More Intelligence and Empathy (Derek Beres for Big Think, via Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy): Readers won’t be surprised by this, but isn’t it fun to feel just a tiny bit smug that we’re not just piddling away our time with books?
How To Be a Person Online: How to Put the Heart Back Into Your Business Blog (Ashley Brooks of Brooks Editorial): I love this piece by Ashley. I’m also so tired of shout-y blogs that all sound the same, and for every time I tell one of my authors to “write your manuscript in your voice,” I’m also going to start nagging the bloggers. (Does that mean my real voice is just naggy? Let’s not answer that.)
The “Butter-Chicken Lady” Who Made Indian Cooks Love the Instant Pot (Priya Krishna for The New Yorker): Have you heard of the Instant Pot? (Ha ha ha; no one can escape it.) But seriously. The description of this butter chicken and of the kheema sounds so good that I might cave and buy an Instant Pot. I’ve fought buying a slow cooker or pressure cooker for years, but my resolve wanes in the face of instant Indian food…
Some of Our Favorite Literary Bears (Elizabeth Rowe for Bookish): I mean. How was I not going to click this? (Although, I’m not sold on their pick for the #1 cutest literary bear. Pooh still ruins me.)
Are you going to be at IACP this year?
If so, I’d love to meet you! I’ll be speaking on Sunday at 12:15 on a panel called “Publishing Insiders and Outsiders: Learning from Editors turned Agents” alongside Rica Allanic, former Executive Editor at Clarkson Potter, and Lori Galvin, former Executive Editor at America’s Test Kitchen.
The nice folks at IACP gave us panelists a friends and family discount–if you use the code SPEAKER40, you’ll get $40 off your conference registration. (That’s not an affiliate link and IACP isn’t giving me anything to say so– I just think you shouldn’t pay a speck more than you need to for anything in life!)
Did you read anything noteworthy this week? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
What We’re Eating This Week
I’m off to NYC for meetings, lunches, and drinks with editors, so is that an acceptable accounting? No? Well. Here we go, then.
Monday: Shrimp sushi lettuce wraps with wasabi mayo dressing, which I smeared all over my face, shirt, and dining room on the way to my mouth. (Don’t I make a delightful dining companion? Pepper won’t even look at me at the table anymore.)
Tuesday: You tell me. (No, seriously. Accepting ideas from now until forever.)
Wednesday: A very, very belated birthday dinner with my family at The Pig and the Prince! I will now spend the next 48 hours examining the menu and trying to answer: “Who am I, in entrée form?” After all, you only get one shot. (At dinner per day.)
Thursday: My mother-in law is coming to visit for the weekend (yay!), but that doesn’t mean I have any better ideas about dinner. Maybe…………Chipotle? (Divine intervention: please cometh!)
Friday: We’re going to see Ricky Skaggs at the Birchmere, and I am told they serve food there. Hallelujah.