Surviving a Writer's Life By Suzanne Lipsett; HarperCollins; 1994; 220 pages; hardcover; $18.00.

Suzanne Lipsett's book, "Surviving a Writer's Life," fits neatly into the hand, like a travel journal that invites the reader to re-experience a journey of great significance. In a way, it is a travel journal, because it records trips through Africa, the Middle East, Europe. But it also documents the writing life of its author: another kind of journey.

Lipsett's introduction is like a list of things to pack--it looks tentative, unsure, crammed with metaphors as if the author wasn't sure what to take on this journey and decided to take everything just in case.

Explaining yourself is hard. Showing is easier, and Lipsett loosens up and writes with more introspection and leisure once she has left the ground and has given herself over to the journey. Leaning back and sighing, "No good--no way--to try to duck out of it now," Lipsett tells her struggles and revelations, knowing that her intended readers and traveling companions--other writers--genuinely care about how she evolved, how she brought together truth and fiction and began to realize where writing was taking her.

Lipsett explores the foundations of her writing in sections called "Tilling," "Planting," and "Cultivating." Her early family life, especially her relationship with her father, is the fertile ground in which she begins her tilling. Her book opens to 1968 Kenya. Lipsett is a passenger of a car which is, just then, being viewed by a bull elephant as the enemy. Relatively safe inside, the young Lipsett realizes that the trumpeting and unpredictable animal reminds her of her father and she chooses the elephant for his symbol throughout the book. The elephant that trumpeted in Lipsett's childhood, and, ironically, silenced her mother's death, makes itself heard through much of her life, and though this powerful and protective man barred doors to her past--writing gives her the tools and motivation to reopen them.

Lipsett begins her travels after a brutal rape. She tries to write its story, to make sense of it, but after "a hundred false starts crumpled into balls around my chair," Lipsett gives up on writing for a time and joins a Peace Corps boyfriend in Somalia where "the sun bleached away my recent past and with it the craving to write." What at first looks like escaping turns into growing, opening, healing, becoming radiant and aware, that an exploratory life, the same as a writer's life, leads to answers.

In a particularly beautiful chapter, Lipsett arrives in Istanbul, just off a ship, tired, dirty, and distant, having just been assaulted by a crew member. She goes to a public bath, and, safe among women who have removed their trappings of class and status and uncovered their age, is wordlessly massaged by an old woman. Through her busy hands, she seems to understand Lipsett's dissociation, her distance from herself after the rape and the assault on the ship. The young woman emerges re-membered, able to see clearly and taste beauty once more: "I was clean and warm, a child in the hands of an old, knowing woman whose very body spoke survival of her own nameless ordeals. To have come to this place of women and fallen into her hands was a lifesaving accident, and though we never spoke and I never knew her name--and in fact she left me before I roused myself and I did not see her again--I think that old woman saved me for the rest of my journey."

Trains stop in places you don't expect, writing takes writers to inner landscapes they didn't know were there, and in day-to-day life people can appear out of nowhere, beyond coincidence. In Lipsett's final sections, "Blooming," "Fruition," and "To Market, To Market," Lipsett has periodic visitations from her friend Carol, high school classmate, leader of her late 60s women's reading group. Carol is seen swooping around Berkeley in her "long black-and-white Moroccan hooded cape and tall leather boots," helping Lipsett to open doors, reminding her of her purpose or appearing incongruously pregnant. At another point, Lipsett, the developing and sometimes doubtful writer, runs into Ron Kovic, whom she had just been thinking of. He asks her for a hug, and Lipsett "embraced him in his chair , pressing my temple to his and secretly attempting to draw the courage I needed to tell the story of my darkest hours."

Lipsett's book is an account of how travel, intense writing, and being meticulously aware of her life all work to put the puzzle together. "Surviving a Writer's Life" is a guide, good to bring along when traversing physical or psychic borders.