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Bird Brain

book cover

Bestseller is smart, funny and mesmerizing -- and not about birds.

Bird by Bird
By Anne Lamott
Doubleday; 237 pages; $12

Reviewed by Traci Hukill

Everyone knows a book can't teach you how to write. This is one of the first things books about writing tell you, just before they tell you that the only way to learn how to write is to--pardon the expression--just do it. In theory, they tell you right off the bat that reading them is a waste of time.

So why do we keep buying them? And worse, why do we keep passing them on to our friends?

Because good books about writing aren't just about writing. They're inspiring and more than a little like having an imaginary childhood buddy drop into town. They're invigorating and reassuring, and some of them, like Bird by Bird, are also uproariously funny.

This is how native Northern Californian Anne Lamott explains dropping out of college at 19 to become a famous writer: "I moved back to San Francisco and became a famous Kelly Girl instead. I was famous for my incompetence and weepiness."

And here is how she coped with bad news from her editor one time. "I went to the house where I was staying with old family friends, slammed down a dozen social drinks with them, and then took a cab to meet some other friends. I had a few hundred more drinks with them, and the merest bit of cocaine--actually, I began to resemble an anteater at one point."

But there's plenty of meat, too--and Lamott fears no truth. Unlike reigning how-to-write diva Natalie Goldberg, whose bestseller Writing Down the Bones turned writing into a spiritual and meditative exercise for thousands of Americans, Lamott takes a more earthy approach to the craft.

She devotes quarts of ink to insecurity and neurosis and the tricky problem of discipline, and to plot and publication anxiety and how publication really works. And to getting an agent and dealing with jealousy and busting writer's block, which she says is really writer's emptiness. She wraps the nuts and bolts--and the pins and needles--in humorous anecdotes to soften the edges, and the reading is so easy and comfy it seems like a novel, not a how-to.

In fact, the practical advice, like how to write dialogue or avoid libel, often takes the rumble seat to how not to succumb to paranoia or depression as you pursue this most solitary of vocations. In just a couple of chapters near the end, Lamott runs short on her wonderful humor and long on the self-help rap, but in the end her charisma and the book's honesty save the show.

Every writer I know who's read this book loves it, but you don't have to be a writer to enjoy it. More than anything, it's about keeping your faith and humanity intact and enjoying life as you watch it unfolding, piece by piece and bird by bird.

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From the August 29-Septmeber 4, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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