The Writing Life


The Writing Life by Annie DillardAuthor: Annie Dillard
Publisher: Harper Perennial (1989)
Number of Pages: 111
How long it took me to read: 2 days
Where I got this book: I bought it from the college bookstore for a creative writing course my senior year.
ISBN: 978-0-06-091988-7

Like a Moth to a Flame

I read this book once in college, and at the time, it was a challenge—a compelling, poetic reason to work harder and keep moving. It wasn’t the message itself that was so gripping, but the way it was written that pulled me out of my stasis and commanded me to create. Emotionally and creatively, I feel like I need that sort of bullwhip right now.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.” (pp.13-4)

4. “Foolishly, not dreaming I was about to set my own world tumbling down around my ears, I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else. He was amazed. He said, ‘That’s like a guy who works in a factory all day, and hates it.’ Then I was amazed, for so it was. It was just like that. Why did I do it? I had never inquired. How had I let it creep up on me? Why wasn’t I running a ferryboat, like sane people?” (p.53)

3. “But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?” (p.47)

2. “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?” (p.72)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” (pp.67-8)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“The book opens with a painful discussion on revision, which for me is the hardest part of writing. Lately, when I revise, I’ve been hearing William Faulkner’s advice in my head: ‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’ Sometimes, I think the things I’ve written best have the least to do with the overall piece—so they have to go, to strengthen the work. ‘Kill your darlings’ becomes a mantra as I revise and rewrite and cross out. It doesn’t matter if what needs ‘killing’ is a part of me—because it is, it all is—it has to go…like trimming hair, filing nails, losing baby fat. It was important; now it’s not. Now, something else grows in its place, or nothing at all, which may be better.”

“On page 7, Dillard muses on the background of a story and asks: ‘Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it costs the writer personally?’ I practically blush when I read that. The answer, obviously, as a reader, is ‘no.’ The answer as a writer is ‘but!’ When we struggle with something and then overcome it, in any part of our lives, we want to be rewarded for our struggle and have people admire us. So of course, when we, as writers, turn out a perfect sentence, we want the world to recognize its greatness! But so often, in rewriting, a once-perfect sentence becomes unnecessary. Paragraphs, pages, chapters are sometimes unnecessary. Keeping in a turn of phrase you like when it doesn’t fit has the same effect as a badly Photoshop-ed picture.”

“Dillard voices the fears that keep me from writing: there are enough great manuscripts in the world; no one would notice if I didn’t write; my writing is only important to me.

“Those miserable thoughts keep my words trapped in my head, though interestingly, my words are more often shackled by the hopeful and perhaps more terrifying thought that they may drive someone to action. Do I really want that responsibility? Between the two, which thought is worse: that I’m not that good or that I am that good? Most days, it seems safer and easier not to even try. I’d sometimes rather never find out if I were a failure or a success.”

“My most convenient excuse for not writing is that I’m busy. When my son is awake, I care for him and play with him. When he is asleep, I clean, I cook, I do laundry, I pay bills, and if I’m lucky, I sleep. If I blow off housework, I have a spare hour here and there. Very soon, though, and the sweet rustling inside of my womb reminds me as I write this, I will have a second baby, and I will never stop moving.

“What will I do then? It’s a stupid question: every season of life is temporary, and I know that. But I have my excuse ready—until Dillard tells me that Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks in his spare time after working a twelve-hour shift of manual labor. If that is true, shouldn’t I be able to accomplish more? (Unless I don’t want it enough… Unless I’m not really all that good.)”

“Dillard mentions another writer, Charlie Butts, who makes up distractions for the purpose of writing quickly, so he doesn’t have time to ruminate on whether it’s good or bad; he works around self-conscious writing that way. So maybe there is hope for me. Plenty of women have had more children, less time, and accomplished much. I should not use my fear as a crutch.”

“In the first chapter of her book, Dillard can come across as discouraging: she suggests I shoot myself rather than write another great manuscript (of which we already have enough), and she reminds me that no one cares as much about my writing as I do, that shoe salesmen are more important than writers. All of that is true, but I do not think of it as discouraging. Instead, it is clarifying, illuminating.

“The way I see it, writing can’t be important on its own. It requires a partner: a reader. And it requires the right reader. I don’t care how many people like Jane Austen; I don’t care for her and I never will. I can’t be intellectually pressured into liking her, Poe, Dickinson, or Hemingway. I’m sure this makes me a terrible English Major, but I never would have published their works. Still, I recognize that their work has staggering importance to many other people. I’m not their partner. I’m not their perfect reader. And that’s okay. We write for ourselves, we write what we know to be true, and we trust that a kindred spirit finds staggering importance in what we say, even if that happens after we die. We have to trust that there will be a reader who will make our work important. Changing one life can change hundreds.”

“I hear different things about the lives of writers. What Dillard has to say about them (us?) is that their (our?) lives are boring, that writers spend most of their time away from everyone else and writing off of distant memories (hence the amount of early childhood accounts). It reminds me of an old movie I watched once, ‘The More, The Merrier,’ where an old man tells a young, journal-keeping girl that there are two types of people in the world: people whose journals are full of the things they wish they were doing, and people whose journals are empty because they are out doing things. Is that right?”

“Should I write for an audience, or should I write and wait for my audience to find me?”

“Dillard’s recurring theme of the unimportance of a writer’s life does not escape me. She openly admits to much of her writing process being procrastination. It reminds me of one time in high school when I was out with friends and met someone new.

“ ‘What do you do?’ I asked, a funny question since we were both still students.

“ ‘I’m a musician,’ he said, ‘which basically means I do nothing. You?’

“ ‘I’m a writer,’ I said, ‘which, yeah, basically means I do nothing.’

“I liked identifying myself as a writer until one day, still in high school, a grown-up asked me, ‘What do you do?’

“ ‘I’m a writer,’ I answered proudly.

“ ‘Oh? What have you written?’”

“Looking back on it, I think the whole conversation was him teasing me, just like the old man in the Chinese restaurant who spouted off a Mandarin monologue when ten-year-old me offered the one phrase I knew: ‘Nĭ hăo ma? How are you?’

“But I was embarrassed. What was I supposed to say—‘I’ve written my journal?’ I hadn’t done anything important. To this day, I hate that question—‘What do you do?’ It feels like the question of someone who wants to brag about their greatness by way of inquiring after another’s smallness.”

“In the fifth chapter (page 69 specifically), Dillard repeats what experienced manual workers in France would say when an apprentice got hurt or tired: ‘It is the trade entering the body.’

“What does that look like on a writer? Not good, I would guess. When I have an idea I’m working on, I get mean and unpredictable. Once, rushing to catch my thought before it left me, fingers flying, my husband said something—who knows what—and I said something back that I have no recollection of—and the tone of his response made me realize I needed to apologize (as soon as I finished my sentence). When I looked up at him to lamely explain, ‘I was writing,’ I could tell by his face I’d been unnecessarily hurtful. What had I done? What rabid beast had he seen in me? Had I been spinning in circles and barking in madness like the baby fox he’d once spotted at the edge of the woods? Were my eyes crazed and my voice sharp as I snapped at him, foam gathering around my mouth?”

“What drives us? What makes us keep going after something, even if we hate it? Even if it hurts us? Even if we’re tired, worn out, near death? I read a short piece by Bukowski once—he said he writes to get the tiger off his back. I think that so often, we don’t have an idea so much as an idea has us. In all things, not just writing. Whatever your passion is, it’s not your passion; it’s the other way around. You are possessed by a passion, by an idea or ideals.”

“Dillard mentions an island she and her husband used to visit, one that was hard to access because there were no ferry boats going to it, one where there were no electrical cables or telephone cables on it. On page 83, she says the people live there ‘lonesome and half mad.’ She’s been there, so if she describes it that way, perhaps it’s true, but is it really madness to want a different life from what is considered normal? There are days I would gladly give up contact with the outside world in exchange for serenity, for living life without being watched. Clearly, she must feel the same way, or else why would she continually go through the trouble of getting herself back to that secluded island?”

“Is it possible to live a life devoid of art? What I mean is, everyone must feel a drive to create something, express something. Everyone’s life must hold art or creativity somewhere. Not everyone is an artist as we know the word, but isn’t everyone a creator at some point?

“Dillard’s final chapter focuses on a very serious and well-educated stunt pilot. She makes him sound almost humorless when she meets him, but her descriptions of his stunts make his flying into an art.

“In high school, I had a very narrow definition of what art could be, thinking it could only be found and appreciated in the most obvious ways, like the creative activities my friends and I enjoyed: sculpture, painting, poetry (everyone wrote poetry), drawing, music, dance, theatre. It didn’t occur to me that art had a greater scope than that and could be found anywhere. But then I went to college and had one of those experiences that changed the way I saw the world. I met a girl who looked artistic and I asked her what she did in her spare time. She liked biology. Today, I can see the beauty of that; at the time, I asked her, ‘Do you write poetry?’ But she didn’t. She didn’t even like it. Immediately, I thought, ‘If she doesn’t write, we will never have anything to talk about.’

“I felt like a huge jerk, still do, for dismissing her that way. How small-minded of me to turn my nose up at the beauty she found in nature. I sometimes wonder what else was hidden beneath her surface that I missed out on in my snobbery.”

“I keep thinking of all the ways Dillard describes her procrastination. This sounds stupid, but I don’t have time to procrastinate—at least, not like she did. She makes no mention of having any other responsibility in the world beyond writing, so her days are filled with ways to procrastinate. I’ve already described the business of my days to you; if I put off projects in the small amount of free time I carve out for myself, that’s it. I’ve used up my free time. I have no choice, then, but to view all of my busy hours as procrastination.

“I remember interviewing for a job at a book store when I was a teenager. The woman interviewing me pressed on me the importance of keeping busy. ‘We pay you to work here,’ she explained, ‘so if you aren’t working, you’re stealing from us.’

“Though I didn’t take that particular job, her logic stuck with me throughout every job I ever had, and kept me very productive. Even now, it’s become my guiding principle as a writer: if I am not writing, I am wasting my time, and wasting my time is robbing myself of the few moments I have to create.”

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