A guide for living crafted on a wing and a word

October 23, 1994|By Ann Egerton

In 1935, Cornell professor William Strunk Jr. gave us "The Elements of Style," a little book on how to write clear English prose. In 1959, E. B. White added an introduction and some gentle revising, and over the years, the book has come to be known to students and writers as simply "Strunk and White."

Now, writer (and former Goucher student) Anne Lamott has produced a longer, more free-form guide and thrown in some advice on living, which also often applies to writing. Add James J. Kilpatrick's pungent essays on the subject, and you have a meaty contemporary American collection.

Ms. Lamott, who lives in northern California, has written four novels, and early last year produced "Operating Instructions," the hilarious and wise journal of her son's first year. She is a past recipient of a Guggenheim grant.

While Strunk and White concentrated on structure and composition -- the nuts and bolts of writing -- Ms. Lamott talks about the experience of producing written works, especially fiction. A teacher of writing, she covers various stages in the life of a writer, from "Getting Started" to "Dialogue" to "Publication." (This is a fairly optimistic book.)

Through it all, she nimbly mixes memorable advice, home truths and wonderful, zany humor. The title reflects the advice her father gave her 10-year-old brother, who was in tears over the huge prospect of writing a paper about birds. "Just take it bird by bird, buddy," he said.

Ms. Lamott advises that we take writing word by word; an output of 300 words a day, minimum, should be feasible. Or, write down as much as we can see through a 1-inch picture frame. She quotes E. L. Doctorow's advice: "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." Above all, she insists that the writer tell the truth; she knows that fiction is obviously made up, but explains that "You make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. . . . If you don't believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. You might as well go bowling."

One of Ms. Lamott's skills, just exemplified, is juxtaposing the sublime with the ridiculous. This is, evidently, an inherited trait from her father, who "could take major events or small episodes from daily life and shade or exaggerate things in such a way as to capture their shape and substance. . . . I suspect that he was a child who . . . accepted being alone a lot." Just as she teeters toward the mawkish, she observes, "I think that this sort of person becomes either a writer or a career criminal."

Such deadpan acidic comments on the heels of soaring lyricism are Ms. Lamott's trademark. But she doesn't always protect the reader from discomforting feelings about important things. She describes an agonizingly slow participant in a Special Olympics race, which she was assigned to cover, and says the occasion was "about tragedy transformed over the years into joy."

There's more on living and writing, advice on listening to your intuition ("don't crowd it"); marvelous descriptions of paranoia and jealousy, which are universal feelings, but which "at least a writer can use as material." A poem by Clive James, "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered," is a great solace to her. Then she is able to compare jealousy to the agony of AIDS and see a strange compassionate beauty rising out of both.

Ms. Lamott talks about the usefulness of writer's groups as well as treatment of writer's block ("Live as if it's your last day on earth"). On giving as a writer, she remarks, "There's no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver." Minor quibbles: She does not stay in the background as Strunk and White advise, but who does these days? And while she still gets away with her (very funny) cries of angst, she's becoming well-known and admired now, and the cries are less apt.

The main thing is that Strunk, White and Kilpatrick all stress clarity and telling the truth as cardinal rules of writing, and so, while the wrapping is different, does Ms. Lamott. She holds her own in strong company.

2& Ms. Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

Title: "Bird for Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life"

Author: Anne Lamott

Publisher: Pantheon Books

Length, price: 237 pages, $21

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