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BOOK REVIEW / NON FICTION : Practical Passages on Producing Some Publishable Prose : BIRD BY BIRD: Some Instructions on Writing and Life By Anne Lamott ; Pantheon $21, 239 pages


"People need us," says Anne Lamott of writers, "to mirror for them and for each other without distortion--not to look around and say, 'Look at yourselves, you idiots!' but to say, 'This is who we are.' "

And this is part of her larger belief that "good writing is about telling the truth." "Truth," she writes, "seems to want expression." So, a good writer needs to get at the truth. This is not easy because it is so often buried, obscured or dangerous.

Writing about one's childhood becomes very important because it is a good exercise in overturning the stones under which truth might be buried.

For example, writes Lamott, as a child you might have been told in answer to your question "'Why is Mom in the bathroom crying?' . . . 'Mom isn't crying, Mom has allergies.' Or if you said, 'Why didn't Dad come home last night?' you might be told brightly, 'Dad did come home last night, but then he left again very early.' And you nodded, even though you knew these were lies. . . . "

Uncovering the truth and turning it into something digestible, even beautiful, seems to take more self-knowledge, compassion, interest, clarity and talent than most of us believe we possess, which makes writing a scary--some would say stupid--profession.

Lamott remembers a jewel of a story from her childhood, in which her older brother was trying to finish a report on birds due the next day. Their father, also a writer, "put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.' "

Lamott's writing has always been about real, important things: a dying parent, raising a child alone, being a good friend. Above all else, she has impeccable timing. Her language is simple, clear, beautiful, sometimes odd (words like keen and mewling), and always crackling. It is never, never boring (a serious contribution with a book about writing).

She plays a reader's emotions by carefully balancing the funny with the desperate, so you never ever feel scared reading her work, even if you know that she is one of the most terrified people alive (she tells us all the time) and even if you're weeping like a madwoman. And these are things you learn only by reading her; timing is hardly mentioned in the book at all.

All this sounds very earnest, which is perverse and willful of me because Lamott is anything but earnest. She is a class A smart aleck, a relentless smart aleck in the fine tradition of J.D. Salinger.

This is delicious icing on the cake in the practical passages about how to write. It's kind of unnecessary in the passages about oneness and compassion. She's a graceful enough writer to make these things palatable without having to entertain everybody all the time.

If one of the joys of being a writer, as Lamott observes, is "being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company," then she can relax a little. We're getting enough to eat and we're having a hell of a good time.

The practical suggestions make writing for a living seem plausible. They make sense. Sit down at the same time every day. Write three drafts. Multiple drafts are unavoidable. Only one of her writer friends writes elegant first drafts, but "we do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her."

Avoid perfectionism because it is "one way our muscles cramp." (One suggestion for opening up--write about school lunches.) Plot grows out of character, and main characters must, ultimately, be likable but not too perfect. Read your dialogue out loud.

(A wonderful suggestion for revealing a character's character--have him describe his day to his wife and note what he neglects to mention!) Write out of vengeance, as long as you "do so nicely."

Change details to avoid libel.

Above all else, it is fun to read Lamott and learn from her. She's a veteran of so many wars, large and small, and she is so very generous.

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