BIRD BY BIRD is a beautiful, soulful laugh-out-loud book: the sort that you find yourself reading out to friends. Ostensibly, it's about how to write. It's also about motherhood, finding God and dying gracefully; about why we read books and the need to express life's inexpressibly beautiful moments - the ones that change and deepen us.
Written by the American author Anne Lamott - political activist and former Salon.com columnist - was originally published in the United States in 1994 and now released in Australia in 2008.
The daughter of writer Kenneth Lamott, she recalls when she was a child, his friends - all writers - would come over for drinks and then "pass out over the dinner table". Her father's writerly advice was: "Do it as a debt of honour". And make a commitment to finishing things".
Why we write is not so important, neither is being published, Lamott likes to remind us. What is more pertinent is becoming conscious to use writing as a tool, "to live as if we are dying".
By drawing on her own experiences, she illuminates the trials of being a writer and there are many.
There is no secret to her success, although Lamott's own routines are instructive: She sits down around the same time every day - to train the unconscious to kick in creatively - and then tries to quieten her mind to "hear what that character has to say above the other voices (which) are banshees and drunken monkeys". Writing is also about listening - to an inner voice - and she likes to imagine this voice as a "long-necked, good-natured "Dr Seuss" who invents characters.
Chapters are dedicated to all aspects of writing - character, plot, dialogue, set design - and how to move beyond "really shitty first drafts". She hoards ideas and whispers on index cards, stuffed into her back pocket. Occasionally she'll pull out gems such as one about her young son, Sam, looking up at a cold starry night and saying "It smells like moon".
For all her compassionate intentions, Lamott is often at her most hilarious when she's being bitchy about other writers, especially when the green-eyed monster grips her. If she's brutal about some of her friends, she's also brutal about using everything in life as material - just changing it enough so the person won't notice.
At times the book feels like a passionate manifesto. "Tell the truth," she urges. "If you're a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act - truth is always subversive".
Her words could put off aspiring writers or those foolish enough to think that it ever gets any easier. For the committed, she will INSPIRE!
Kakadu, Northern Territory, May 2007 - Australian Heron ready to fly