the writing life, by annie dillard

October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is a reread from a few years ago. (June 11 2008 – wow! More than three years!) You know, back in undergrad, I didn’t do prose writing on any kind of regular basis. This, despite the fact that I a) wrote for the university paper, b) interned for a Bay Area weekly, c) was in and out of fiction workshops for several years, d) co-taught a writing class in the English department, e) was briefly an editor with a campus literary review, f) wrote a bi-monthly newsletter for my job, and g) developed close relationships with crazy writer people (and imagine me saying this in the most affectionate way possible). These people were hardcore. They had penned fantasy trilogies as adolescents. Every November they stockpiled white bread and nutella, shoved a chair under the doorknob, and ran through a few relaxing yoga poses, such as standing on their heads, to keep their bodies limber and their minds prepared. Then they got right down to it. By this I mean they put ass to chair and banged away at their keyboards, every day for the next thirty days.

Anyway, that’s all to say that my friends were amazing, strong-willed, and driven. They were Possessed by their Art. I wasn’t. I was just pretending to be so that I could hang out with them.

Three years later, I’m trying to do it every day, and for the most part succeeding. While working full-time can be draining, it also allows me to clear away the brainspace for what’s important. I’ve been doing this for coming on three and a half months now, and while there’s still not a respectable story in all the rubbish that’s accumulated in the dragnet, and certainly nothing to rival the efforts of some of my former peers, I have gotten a little bit better. So I decided to read this book again, thinking it might have something new to offer me. You know, like scintillating insights, or horribly embittered jokes.

When I read Dillard’s The Writing Life the first time around, I found it okay. It didn’t really “speak” to me. Oh, there was much to like. It was the same things that distinguished Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim Creek from shelves of other books. That style that seems both economical and wildly luxurious. Her wisdom and piercing insight. Those sentences.

“They seemed too well to be altogether good for them.”

But now that I’ve made this a habit, I understand everything. Everything. I understand the story at the end about the airpilot executing rolls and curls and pirouettes and mid-air twirls. I understand the comparisons to surgery, painting, alligator wrestling, confronting a lion with a chair for a buckler, rowing a boat against the tide. I understand, despite all those flashy images, her assertion about the reality of writing: it is unromantic, insufferably lonely and very often miserable work. I understand her slightly manic, self-berating humor (“I had written a complex and long-winded narrative essay about a moth flying into a candle flame. No one understood it except for a Yale critic and he understood it perfectly. What was I doing with my life?”). I understand how difficult it is to work yourself up to the task, how much cajoling, self-bribing, email-checking, diversionary reading, guilt-tripping, and last-ditch dish-washing needs to happen before I take a final uneasy look at the clock and click to open that cursed text document; how, if you let a WIP lapse mid-tell for more than a few days, it grows and grows and becomes this gross, struggling, unmanagably large thing. I constantly point at things on the page in stunned recognition–this! this is me!

Possibly this conveys something alarming to you about my current mental state? Well, yes. Don’t do it if you can help it. GO! LIVE! STOP BLOGGING*! SAVE A CHILD FROM A BURNING BUILDING.

(*Actually, don’t. I enjoy reading your blogs very much. Please don’t stop.)

Dillard on facing down the blank page (The Nothing, the abyss, the ravening pit of despair and futility, etc, etc):

“Every inchworm I have seen was stuck in long grasses. The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grassblade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail. What! No further? Its back pair of nubby feet claps the grass stem; its front three pairs of nubs rear back and flail in the air, apparently in search of a footing. What! No further? What? It searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. By dumb luck it touches the grass. Its front legs hang on; it lifts and buckles its green inch, and places its hind legs just behind its front legs. Its body makes a loop, a bight. All it has to do now is slide its front legs up the grass stem. Instead it gets lost. It throws up its head and front legs, flings its upper body out into the void, and panics again. What! No further? End of world? And so forth, until it actually reaches the grasshead’s tip. By then its wee weight may be bending the grass toward some other grass plant. Its davening, apocalyptic prayers sway the grasshead and bump it into something. I have see it many times. The blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings it to the universe’s rim. And now—What! No further? End of world? Ah, here’s ground. What! No further? Yike!”

On the fear that your story/book/poem/screenplay/nonfictional research project on the phenomenology of hermeneutics in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy is stupid and trivial and what are you doing you should be a fire woman or a special ed teacher or a pro-bono lawyer (can I do this last thing while still writing a book? What do you mean, I will need to toil away all the waking hours of my next ten years of living to pay off $200K of debt?):

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

The wonder and suspension!

“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

The contemplative vs. the active life:

“The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses–the imagination’s vision, and the imagination’s hearing–and the moral sense, and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks you and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from the loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its up and downs and louds and softs.”

And most of all:

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hopes for literary forms? Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. If we are reading for these things, why would anyone read books with advertising slogans and brand names in them? Why would anyone write such books? We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”

I know I have a few writer people from uni friended on this account. Keep at it, you guys. And read this book if you need encouragement.


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