“I’m the opposite of Marie Kondo,” writer Anne Lamott says. “I believe that an incredibly clean desk is a sign of being stuck, but of course everyone has their own way of making a desk safe or comforting for them. I like piles of paper, and I like notes everywhere.”
Anne, who has authored 19 books, is diligent about her writing schedule. Her work is largely autobiographical, from motherhood to alcoholism, spirituality to depression. She scribbles out the details of her life—sometimes literally on her arm—nearly every day from her home in Marin County, California, where she transformed a former enclosed porch into her writing studio.
Perhaps her favorite part of her office is its exterior door—a passage back to her lush garden. “[My husband and I] very rarely buy new, and we found this beautiful Dutch door on eBay,” Anne says. “We painted it this fabulous warm alpine sky blue, so what you see when you come in from the outside is this great window, and this beautiful Dutch door that just suggests opening, fresh air, a welcome—which are the three things that are probably the most valuable adjectives for a writer to get in the mood.”
When I speak to Anne in spring she’s in a period of “not writing very effectively,” she says, which is normal in the two months leading up to and after she has published a new book. (Her latest, Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage, came out in March.) It’s the part of her process where she keeps writing every day, though no new book material may come from it. “Who knows if there will even be a book 20,” she says.
If you’ve read one of her most well-known works, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, you know Anne has a lot to say about process—notably that all writing starts as a shitty first draft. And that’s fine. Good, even. As in writing, much of Anne’s house was a project—not necessarily a shitty new draft but definitely a revision.
Anne calls the century-old home a “funky ramshackle of a house,” but one with good bones that she and her husband, Neal Allen, could mold into what they needed, and where her son, Sam; grandson, Jax; and Neal’s kids could stay as long as they wanted.
“We needed a house with a lot of space so we could have this hippie compound,” she says. One of the first things to get fixed up was the old barn in the backyard; it was renovated into a complete living quarters for Sam and Jax. Then each project happened—well, bird by bird—to make it feel like home. “Neal and I together had a vision of how magical the space could be, and we set about creating that space,” Anne says.
So there was Anne’s writing studio, to which they added the blue Dutch door, windows to overlook the backyard, and new flooring. Then there was the garden itself. Now thriving with green everywhere, when they bought the property it was a plant graveyard, everything already dead or dying.
“My husband had never gardened before, but he’s the kind of person who reads owners’ manuals, which is just so odd and not me,” Anne says. “He read everything he could about gardening, and we pulled up the hardscape. He put in rose gardens and trees. We drove about an hour to Santa Rosa and got a redwood. He put in camellias. He figured out how to make a beautiful garden space out of what was rocky dirt and horrible hardscape.”
Another of the home’s quirks: the green plastic panels that are a stand-in for some of the windows in the house, like stained glass but not, cloaking parts of Anne’s house in an alien-green light. On a visit to the junkyard in town—one known to be a popular dumping ground for leftover remodeling materials—Anne came across a huge round window. Engraved with a large tree, clouds flitting across the sky, it was Italian maybe, and in beautiful condition.
I’m the opposite of Marie Kondo. I believe that an incredibly clean desk is a sign of being stuck.
“I had to talk Neal into it because it was so eccentric. I basically said if we don’t install this window, the marriage is off,” she says. “Of course then it became our favorite area in the house. Instead of this green plastic panel that flooded that room in this extraterrestrial light, as if a spaceship were landing over you, now we have this beautiful museum-quality, muted light coming in.”
Then there’s what Anne refers to as “the altar” in the living room, a collection of cherished objects that are so loved “we want to be sure we can look at them every day.” For Anne, that means stand-ins from her collection of Virgin Marys—a glittery one from Mexico and a porcelain Art Deco interpretation—next to the Buddhist goddess of compassion Guanyin; a statuette of a chubby, bikini-clad woman gifted by her late friend and actress Carrie Fisher; and a ship in a bottle made by Jax. For Neal, a snow globe from the last time the San Francisco Giants won the World Series sits as revered as the rest.
But perhaps one of Anne’s most sacred objects, a 1959 sage green Volkswagen Beetle, is in the driveway. “It’s one of those very rare experiences in life when it was its own utter perfection upon my first seeing it,” she says. It was sitting beside the road, a “for sale” sign hanging off of it, price slowly lowering for nearly two months before she finally let herself take it on a test ride.
“The person who had put in a new engine and interior used this Asian red Naugahyde. It was so perfect,” Anne says. “I would walk by it every day with my dog Lady Bird, and I would think I couldn’t afford it, that it was something Jay Leno or Brad Pitt would own.”
At the time, it was almost Anne’s 60th birthday. Neal wasn’t in the picture yet, and thinking she would be undergifted by Sam and Jax for such a celebratory occasion, Anne offered the owner $6,500 for it. “I needed to take a stand and celebrate my 60th year of my life on this funny blue marble,” she says. “The owner thought I was stealing it from him at that price, but then I mentioned that I could show up with 65 $100 bills, and it was just too much for him to turn down.”
Her car, her home—they are both a collection of memories, not unlike her writing. Truth be told, Anne says her best work as of late has come from not her writing studio but the time spent writing in her bed, where her cat, Rosalie, likes to curl up beside her.
The piles of papers are accumulating in her bedroom now, next to whatever book she’s reading. And she’s almost always reading. “If you’re a serious writer, you’re either reading or writing,” Anne says, though she seems to consistently manage both.
Right now she’s deep into All Things Cease to Appear, a literary thriller by Elizabeth Brundage. “It’s inspiring me. It’s so beautifully written and so wise that it makes me want to write a novel again—and I don’t think I’ve said that in two years,” Anne says. “But do not hold me to it, because I will come after you.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Sixtysix Issue 06 with the headline “Anne Lamott: Author, Marin County, CA.” Subscribe today.