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Procrastination Therapy 

Writing guide comforts, soothes and nudges

Books about writing are the highly addictive painkillers of the would-be writer. Plagued with the guilt, shame and frustration of spending years walking around thinking about writing, those of us who read writing guides consume these books like so many Percodan -- when we read them, they lull us into a comfortable haze from which, in our stupor, we can feel we are actually doing something about our procrastination problem.

Admit it, junkies, you know who you are. When one of these books hits the market, you swoop upon it in hopes that it will offer you the perfect little pill you've been looking for all these years -- the tidbit of advice that will turn you into the next Anne Tyler, popping out novels like a bakery turns out loaves of bread.

I read books about writing, because since I was 8 years old, I have wanted to write a novel. In the time between then and now, I have written just about everything but a sustained piece of fiction and have steadfastly avoided making that plunge; but reading about writing keeps the flame alive.

And the best books about writing, naturally, come from actual writers.

Now comes novelist Elizabeth Berg's new book about writing, a perky, comforting and thoroughly readable entry into the genre. Berg writes like a dream. Her novels -- Talk Before Sleep, Durable Goods, Joy School -- are slim, elegantly written and generally non-adventurous. She writes almost exclusively about girls, and Escaping Into the Open is a girly book as well, encouraging writers to do the kinds of things for themselves you read about in women's magazines -- write to the light of a candle; reward yourself with a chocolate-covered cherry; take a long bath; etc. This kind of overt sweetness gets old by the end of the book, but it is balanced by plenty of plucky advice, a good deal of cold, hard honesty, and some ingenious writing exercises.

Berg covers the standard territory -- getting started, moving from non-fiction to fiction, techniques for getting unstuck, the business of submitting work for publication, pros and cons of writing groups and writing classes. No surprises in any of these chapters, but Berg strikes some nerves in the chapter where she takes on "Myths To Ignore." Going straight for the jugular, she demystifies such chestnuts as "writing is hard," "you have to know someone to get published," "first drafts are always terrible" and "what's depressing won't sell." The author's impatience with advice that keeps would-be writers stuck in the morass of self-defeat comes through here, loud and clear.

But the single best reason to indulge yourself in this book is the chapter titled "If You're a Man, Be a Woman." Berg offers 30 pages of suggested exercises to tickle your creativity and get your pen moving, and they are among the most interesting I've ever read (think Natalie Goldberg's Wild Mind except better). Here are a few:

Through the window of a Laundromat, you see a woman folding underwear. Describe her. (Face? Clothes? Hands? Vocalizations?)

Situation: A nurse walks into a room to take care of a patient and abruptly discovers that he-she was her/his lover for a brief time, thirty years ago. In dialogue only, write the first few things these people say to each other. Use no description, no "he said" or "she said," just use straight lines of dialogue.

Using one character and no dialogue, write a brief scene that occurs in each room of your house. The scene should tell the reader something definitive about the character.

Demonstrate great wrath in a person by describing only the way he or she is smoking a cigarette. Now great fear. Now sorrow.

Now. All you junkies who are reading this review (remember, I know who you are), let's form a support group to assure that we will actually do the superb writing-practice assignments Elizabeth Berg offers in her book, not just read them at bedtime, swallow them like a Percodan and wake up the next morning not one step closer to writing our novels. What do you say?

But please, no chocolate-covered cherries.

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