Anne Lamott Is Right

September 2, 2016 § 80 Comments

zz shriner

Ellen Shriner

By Ellen Shriner

Whenever I tell people I’m a writer, they always ask, “Are you published?” For years, being published was my primary writing goal. So when I first saw Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird, my reaction was, “Yeah, right”—

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 dothe actual act of writingturns 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.

At that point, I was in my 40’s and had decided to split my time between my career—writing marketing communications—and my passion—writing essays and memoir. I was determined to get serious and break through. Lamott’s words sounded inspirational, but I wanted to be published. Anything less and I was a wannabe.

A decade later, I rediscovered her comments and wished I believed them. Then my infrequent publications would feel OK. I was in my 50’s and had been steadily working at the craft of writing: taking classes, participating in a writers’ group, submitting pieces, and revising my memoir. BIG publication (i.e., a book) was elusive but still seemed possible. Despite my skepticism, something about her perspective compelled me, so I filed it away.

Like most writers, I crave the cosmic acknowledgement being published brings. Publication means an editor or publisher considers my writing worthy. But at 62, I have to admit cosmic acknowledgement has been sporadic: a dozen of my pieces have been published in anthologies and literary magazines. And yet, I’m still writing.

I have begun to see the wisdom in what Lamott says. After devoting ten years to writing and revising my book-length memoir and several more years to seeking publication, I’ve accepted that it’s unlikely to be published. Although I was sad to let go of that dream, it was also a relief. The single-minded pursuit of that book meant I didn’t have much time for new topics or styles of writing.


Writing is its own reward

Today, I write essays and I blog. Initially, WordSisters was meant to build my platform so I’d be more attractive to publishers. After a few months, I discovered I liked the discipline of blogging. It’s a shared blog, so I have to come up with something every other week. And I do. When it’s my turn, I complete a short piece and put it out there. Now and then, a blog falls short, but many of them are pretty good.

Some weeks I feel like I’m whispering into the void. Half a dozen people like the blog on Facebook and even fewer comment on it. That’s disappointing, but I try not to dwell on it. Many people deal with an onslaught of written words every day. It’s inevitable mine will get lost now and then.

After I focused on writing essays and blogs, I sensed the magic of Lamott’s advice. At first, tiny glimmers of peacefulness replaced my anxious striving. Just sitting down to write is a win. Of course, I get discouraged and feel loser-ish sometimes. But more often, I feel flashes of contentment and simple joy in the work. I’m holding up my part of the writing bargain, regardless of what editors do with it.

These days, I’m writing whether or not anybody publishes it. Because I want to. When drafting, I love being caught up in the rush of ideas and words. When revising, I enjoy the challenge of coaxing meaning and clarity from my jumble of thoughts.

Anne Lamott was right: writing is its own reward.


Ellen Shriner is one of the founders and contributors to WordSisters, a shared blog ( Her short memoirs have been published in several anthologies (The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, Mourning Sickness, and It’s About Time). Her personal essays have appeared in Wisconsin Review, Mothers Always Write, BrainChild, Midwest Home, Philosophical Mother, Minnesota Parent, and Messages from the Heart. She has written a book-length memoir about coming of age in the workplace during the late 1970s. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, and she has two grown sons.



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§ 80 Responses to Anne Lamott Is Right

  • YES YES and YESSSS ELLEN! Thankyouuuu. I also love Anne LaMott and agree 100% with this. I just self-published two books (Poetry compilations) so I suppose i am PUBLISHED but I didn’t wait for a permission slip to publish.I also designed my book cover and illustrated much of them. I also have a half written Memoir which I do believe WILL be published someday. I feel it in my bones but for now I truly am having too much fun writing to worry about the whole marketing madness. My book is getting almost all 5 star reviews on Amazon which is not the reason for my writing but it does acknowledge the fact that aI AM on the right writing path and I know I will never stop! I do love blogging too but like you I might only get 4 to 6 who give a damn about it!haa:) thank you for this excellent reminder.

  • herheadache says:

    Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
    This is the second time I’ve heard Anne Lamott mentioned today. That must be a sign of something. This writer seems to have it right. Writing can and should be enough.

    • Thanks for reblogging the post. I love the way blogging lets me connect with people I’ve never met. I also like the creative control bloggers have. Good luck with your writing!

  • Excellent, Ellen. Thank you.

  • Thank you! Lots of wisdom here . . .

  • […] via Anne Lamott Is Right — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Katherine says:

    Thanks for this essay, a great reminder of what I love about writing. Here’s to glimmers of peacefulness and flashes of joy!

  • Fred says:

    Thank you, Ellen, for a helpful post. I wrestle with why I write and recently came to the conclusion that whether I’m published is not the point. Rather, as I wrote, I’m “one who must think about life, with all its difficulties and beauty, and then attempt to process those thoughts and ideas through writing.” Because, as you said, I want to. The act is reward enough for me.

    • I certainly sympathize with the self-doubts. Glad you’ve made peace with them. Good luck with your writing!

    • YES Fred. The ‘act’ is enough of a reason for me also. I am publishing my 4th book now. On one hand I am glad it is resonating with some people (gotten great reviews thus far) but more importantly I KNOW I must write to please my ‘muse’. SHE is who I write for:)

  • Thank you for this! I’m 33, and just getting started. I’m tucking this advice in my heart.

  • Ellen, I love your essay. I’m so glad to be reminded of that Ann Lamott quote, one of my favorites that I’d forgotten about. You and I sound so similar…two grown sons, writers of memoir, feeling as though no one is reading your blog….Thanks so much for writing this. I would be so interesting in coming of age in the 1970s workplace, which is what I did, too.

    • Thank you! I like getting to know people through blogging–like you. I bet we could trade some hair-raising stories about launching careers in the 1970’s. Is writing your vocation or your avocation?

      Also, I like the premise of your blog — Books Can Save A Life — so true!

      • Well, I wrote a lot during my career for several jobs I had, mostly marketing and pr and such. The hard writing I really wanted to do…for a while that was my avocation, now I suppose you could say it’s my vocation, thought I certainly don’t earn any money from it. A calling, as it sounds as though it is for you, too.

    • YES Valorie! Thanks for your comment. I write my blog for ME mainly. It is funny whe I only get 3 or 4 people looking at it or commenting on it. I’m not sure that matters though. In the long run I write for ME. Don’t all writers write for themselves first?

      • Michelle, I have found that writing the blog makes me think about what I really care about and identify my priorities, for writing and for life. It’s so beneficial. And it’s a great discipline that keeps me consistently expressing myself, even if it feels like no one is reading.

  • kelly says:

    I loved this so so much. Keep whispering into the wind. The wind carries.

  • Even for someone who does not consider herself a writer — I found writing (and blogging) definitely has its own reward. Great post!

  • Darlene Mueller Morse says:

    Ellen, I’m right there with you. I’m 65 and have been working on a memoir for many years. I’ve been published here and there for small things and I’ve had that feeling of not being “quite worthy” because the memoir is still in progress. But yes! Ann Lamott is right and so are you. I have discovered, and rediscovered, that writing is its own reward. And after this discovery, I’ve found that yes, there are people who like what I write and that is bonus.

  • Thank you for your wonderful article — and reminder to those of us who toil away unseen that writing is its own reward. Good luck to you, and all of us!

  • You’ve made a great point in this post. It all comes down to one’s personal definition of success. The world will tell you it means one thing, which has to do with a measure of acknowledgement, or perhaps monetary value, but I don’t believe success is a particular pinnacle. I think success is in the value of how we spend our days. If one is satisfied and fulfilled in how their precious time is spent; if their daily activity brings them a sense of purpose and accomplishment then it is more than enough! I’ve always thought, when it comes to writing, there is no “there” to get to; it is a process of growth no matter what. This is the very meaning behind the idea of art for art’s sake.

    • Thank you! Such wisdom in what you said: “I think success is in the value of how we spend our days. If one is satisfied and fulfilled in how their precious time is spent; if their daily activity brings them a sense of purpose and accomplishment then it is more than enough!” It took me a long while to understand that. But now, I couldn’t agree more. All the best!

  • Jim McDonald says:

    I would say when I become a writer, then my Professor would say, “Do you write?”

    I would say, “Yes.”

    She said, “Then your a writer.”

  • Ellen, so honest and gracious, thank you. I, too, am in my 60s, have published about as you have and pitched my novel a few times with a couple of nibbles but no final “yes.” And I also keep on writing–as I am more myself when I write, have been passionate about it since childhood. I feel most fulfilled and challenged working with words and story. Then I discovered blogging, as you did, and enjoyed myself right away. Now there are over 12,000 followers. Which may not mean much, in the final analysis! But it doesn’t matter as I just want to write and share. I post one fiction and one nonfiction piece weekly as well as poems and photos. But we just keep writing if we love it. I wish you all the best in your endeavors.

  • Thank you for your comments. It means a lot to hear from someone who feels as I do.

    You seem to have a nice balance–finding joy in writing as well as knowing your writing reaches others–12,000 of them! All the best

  • Lani says:

    You touched upon so many good things, things that resonate with a lot of us trying to paddle our own boat. There is something to be said about not ‘waiting for permission’ and I think that is why Lamott’s advice sticks. This is also why so many of us have decided to self-publish. I know I found satisfaction in getting my memoir done and putting it out there.

    As far as blogging, it’s sooo hard. I know I work and try to be on social media, but bloggers are a transient community and there is so much competiton and noise for attention. I try to cultivate relationships and keep going. It’s all we can hope to do!

    Thanks for saying what so many of us feel.

    • I appreciate hearing from you. I look at my blog as self publishing for essays and memoir and I love the sense of empowerment it gives me, but it is hard to cut through and be heard. Hope you have good luck with your memoir.

      • Lani says:

        Definitely. I’ve been blogging consistently for over 7 years and I don’t feel like I’ve made any great progress. However, when I did release my memoir, many of my blog readers purchased and read the book.


    • yes Lani! You are already a SUCCESS by publishing and putting your work out there. I feel that way totally with my work. I have 2 books published and am working on my next 3 books plus a Memoir. its ALL about doing the work!! YEA!!

  • dorothyrice says:

    Loved this. So much of it rang true for me . . . also 62, also often feel as if I’m “whispering into the void.”

  • Barb Knowles says:

    I want to say “yes, but…..” In my 60’s I’ve found, while I always knew my talent was in nonfiction and not fiction, a love of blogging and memoir writing. I’ve felt that being chosen for a literary magazine or contest (that hasn’t happened) would mean my writing is worthy. I was fortunate to be “Freshly Pressed” last year on WordPress and barely slept for three days because I was so excited. But then that was it.
    I’m just starting to understand that the blogging, creative nonfiction essays and memoirs are worthy in and of themselves. For my improvement in writing, for memories that I’m coaxing out of the recesses of my brain and for these stories about which my children say “You never told us that.” In many ways, my memoir is a legacy for them.

    But still……….

  • Being ‘published’ has never been a driving force for me. Perhaps it is having been a reporter I felt ‘published’ each time I had an article in the paper. Now I so thoroughly enjoy spending hours at the computer just writing and reading other blogs. I find it amazing what comes through my fingers that often are a mystery to me. Thanks for the book quote, it is a good reminder that writing is the reward in itself.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Interesting about being “published.” For years I saw my words in print in the newsletters, ads, and brochures I wrote for a living. But it still pleases me to see my ideas out there whether in a blog (self publishing) or a literary magazine (traditional). Like you, I love the surprises that come with writing –when something surfaces that I didn’t expect.

  • John Maberry says:

    I don’t need the money. In the 3rd age we have retirement checks and more. My wife mentioned the other day how much work I invested in the stuff I was writing for the web and what a shame how few people were reading it. It bothered me quite a bit. I do much of it for the platform and networking that’s supposed to help have people see the books I have yet to write. (I do have one self-published memoir in print and eBook). It’s a constant struggle spending time on blogs and a quarterly web magazine–which takes away time I could be spending on short stories and novels. But I will get there. But it’s good to be reminded of the value and the rewards of the writing regardless. Yes, I want to reach many people; it’s not just for catharsis–but I can still feel good about the writing process itself.

    • I sympathize with the struggle to find time for all the kinds of writing you want/need to do. In retirement, I try to judge my day’s efforts by answering the questions, “Was it fun?” or “Am I meeting MY goals?” — that helps keep me focused. Hope you have good luck with your projects.

  • bikurgurl says:

    Writing is it’s own reward for me — doing it better may be nice, but I think this is true of anything in life. If we look for acknowledgement, and only were able to do things to that end. We’d all be social media self-centered humans only looking out for ourselves. I’m so happy to hear your making your own happiness happen!

    • YES Bikurgurl! Writing IS its own reward. NO doubt. I just got my first negative review on my poetry book.( I recently published two). I am looking forward to starting my next books now, MORE than being concerned with the response I’m getting from past books.

      • bikurgurl says:

        Good for you, Michelle! If YOU are satisfied with your work, it is enough. YOU are enough. Not every reader is for every writer, and not every writer is for every reader. Live in YOUR truth 🙂

    • Thank you! You’re so right about not waiting for permission or acknowledgment. I wish I’d figured it out sooner, but I’m there now!

      • bikurgurl says:

        It’s funny – it would not have been enough in the past, but I’ve been on a journey of self acceptance and being enough. Grace and Space. 🙂

  • Katie Marie says:

    This was awesome, I personally found getting published to be a bit of an anti climax. I was so thrilled, then the next day I woke up and looked about, was a little surprised I wasn’t any different than I had been before and went back to writing which I truly enjoy.

  • Kim Gorman says:

    Don’t you just love it when you revisit a quote or passage some years later and it finally clicks in just the way you need it to? It’s wonderful you’re writing a memoir. It will be a precious piece of family history for your descendants.

  • LOVE this quote from Roosevelt. I am IN THE ARENA writing books. If you are ‘doing it’ than thats what counts.

    ‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
    ― Theodore Roosevelt

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  • I recently finished BIRD BY BIRD, and was smacked in the face by Lamott’s words on every page I turned. Sometimes I feel like I’ve squandered the last 10 years of my writing life until I realize that what I’ve experienced in the last 10 years is actually, in its own way, what informs the material I write now. I was thinking just yesterday how a book doesn’t make a writer. Words make a writer. Writing makes a writer. If you knew that zero people would read what you write and yet you still write, then you’re blessed with a curse or cursed with a blessing — however you want to look at it. Keep writing is all I say.

  • Sue J says:

    Great post! Very much relate to this. I’m at the cusp of that 10-years-in, fully admit to currently seeking validation (seeking pats on the back by being published here and there), and working on two memoirs with the hope one might be a sharable book some day. I know in another 10 years, I’ll likely be where you are now and expect to be content with writing for sheer joy. In the meantime, I remain distracted. 😉

    I will say that in the past 4 years, my most favorite moments at the keyboard, spinning words, have often been with the posts I wrote for my very first blog (Swimming in the Mud), and usually when I was writing something primarily for myself, rather than the reader, trying to please (or appease) myself, rather than them. 🙂

  • lynettedavis says:

    Reblogged this on Memoir Notes.

  • jozumwalt says:

    Many comments here reflect my beliefs. In my memoir I have a chapter titled “My Writing Life” and it begins “Writing is seldom considered in the same way as other hobbies. For example, a man may spend all his spare time golfing and no one wonders if he’s won any tournaments or when he plans to go on tour. People may paint or play an instrument and not be asked when they are going to have an exhibit or concert. But a writer is inevitably asked, ‘What have you published?’ I think that’s because for most people, writing is hard work. Why would anyone do it except for money?”
    I then enumerate reasons for writing and describe my compulsion to write, publishing be damned!

  • sultanabun says:

    On a good day I would have been too busy writing to have read this. Today, words are swimming but refusing to line up so I browsed down my reader and found you. Thank you so much for standing in my path and reminding me why I’m at this blue desk. Good luck to you.

  • Dahlia says:

    Excellent post and a much needed reminder. I was feeling guilty for not making a greater effort to be published and instead just go with the flow. But now I can go back to just writing and have fun blogging 🙂 Cheers

  • Sara says:

    So good to read these thoughts. I find great encouragement in the sentence “Half a dozen people like the blog on Facebook and even fewer comment on it.” Some days I write and think I’ve really posted something great — and then find I’ve been appreciated only by those half dozen readers who are reluctant to comment. It’s easy to be disheartened and throw in the towel — but then I find another message or story or moment that I simply must consider or share… and so write I do. Great advice from Anne; nice, down-to-earth, transparent perspective from you. Thank you!

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    So much of today’s re-blog is “about” me — echoes where I’m at…

  • How did I not read this five years ago? Thank you.

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