BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE
By Anne Lamott
Anchor Books, 239 pp., $11.95
HOW TO WRITE: ADVICE AND REFLECTIONS
By Richard Rhodes
William Morrow & Co.
229 pp., $22
'Writing is easy,'' journalist and scriptwriter Gene Fowler once said. ''All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.''
Anyone who has tried to write anything, from a homework assignment to a novel, can appreciate Fowler's quip. Facing a blank page or computer screen can feel a lot like staring into the abyss. New books by Richard Rhodes and Anne Lamott help take much of the terror - and mystery - out of the writing process. While the two are very different in their styles and approaches to their subject, each offers practical advice and encouragement to writers at nearly all levels of experience.
Both books take it as a given that writing can be taught and learned. ''If you want to write, you can,'' Rhodes states simply in ''How to Write: Advice and Reflections.'' ''Fear stops people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is.''
''How to Write'' is like an informal tutorial, conducted in shirt sleeves by one of this country's most accomplished men of letters. Clear, succinct, and superbly written in Rhodes's singular style, it is a must-read for anyone with a desire to apply words to paper.
Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for ''The Making of the Atomic Bomb,'' discusses the nuts-and-bolts of writing, as well as related concerns, such as using a computer, finding an agent and publisher, and getting a grant. Having worked for 30 years in numerous forms - the novel, narrative history, autobiography, and every conceivable type of magazine article - he has a broad range of experience to draw on and to share.
''[W]riting is a process not of inspired free association but of concrete problem solving,'' he states. His detailed discussions of solving specific writing problems are highly instructive.
Rhodes's discussions of language and meaning, and using words to achieve precise effects are especially interesting. At one point, he tells about writing an article for Playboy magazine that was subsequently edited, badly, by publisher Hugh Hefner. At the end of the account, Rhodes describes himself as having been ''grandiloquently tycooned.'' Later in the book, in a chapter on editing, Rhodes relates the lengthy process of looking up words and weighing their meaning that led him to ''grandiloquently ty cooned.'' He demonstrates the inspired hard work that a good writer will devote to finding just the right words.
While Rhodes is very encouraging of the would-be writer, he is blunt about the difficulty of getting published and the even greater difficulty of making a living as a writer. But he speaks very persuasively of the therapeutic value of writing for its own sake, quite apart from the prospect of commercial gain.
Anne Lamott, a moderately successful novelist who broke through to a wider audience with the publication in 1993 of ''Operating Instructions,'' a memoir of her son's first year, also believes strongly in the rewards of writing. And she is far more derisive than Rhodes on the subject of getting published. In this paperback reissue of ''Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,'' she cautions: ''[P]ublication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.... The act of writing turns ou t to be its own reward.''
Lamott is a skillful and witty writer, and a wonderful storyteller. If nothing else, this is one of the funniest books on writing ever published.
But it is more than an amusing read. Written in a style that can best be described as ''new-age comedy,'' Lamott shares her experiences and offers counsel and encouragement on everything from getting a project started to knowing when it's done.
Lamott has been teaching writing for more than a decade. As a result, she is especially attune to the fears and anxieties of people, particularly young students, who desperately want to get published, but only half-heartedly want to write.
While much of the discussion of technique is geared toward fiction, writers of nonfiction will find ''Bird by Bird'' worthwhile reading as well. Much of the book is given over to solving the mental problems of writing, including chapters on false starts, writer's block, confidence and intuition, the tyranny of perfectionism, even a chapter on how to handle jealousy.
The autobiographical sections of both books provide valuable glimpses into the lives, work habits, and mental states of two working writers. These offer their own kind of instruction. It is comforting to learn that even seasoned professionals experience some of the same problems that novices face. As Rhodes says near the end of ''How to Write'': Even now, all these books and articles later, writing often feels to me like groping in darkness along a wall.'' Nothing in either of these books is going to sp are the would-be writer from the hard work of sitting down alone, facing blank paper, but there is much in both to make the task a little easier.