To write is to create and destroy. What once was constructed can be torn down at any moment, and yet what remains can very well be so effective as to be forever built upon. Words act as the vehicle for our everyday lives. Without language, we cannot express the kaleidoscope of human emotion, nor impact future generations.
A slim book, “The Writing Life” strikes me as a work to be read carefully, inviting rumination upon and thoughtful examination of the prose written within. Each chapter expounds upon the previous, stirring further the complexity of life, writing, and our own experiences.
Annie Dillard is author of many works, including “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Writing mostly non-fiction narrative, Dillard has also produced many works of poetry, essays, literary criticism, and much more. She continues to write even today and lives in Connecticut with her family. Published in 1989 by Harper & Row Publishers, “The Writing Life,” according to Dillard, “recounts what the actual process of writing feels like—feels like inside the mind at work. It tells a complex story. It offers technical information. It shows the writer teetering at the tip of the line of words. This is not a meditation—God save us from meditations—but adapted from the desk. It is about work.”
In many instances Dillard compares writing to the art and act of painting. “A painting covers its tracks,” she mentions early on in this work. That is, with a painting, you only see the finished product, and the process of painting itself covers up any drafting. Sketches can be made separately of course, but when one paints, all the beginning marks are covered up.
Another of my favorite moments is Dillard’s disdain for the haughty author who wishes to bequeath to the world their pristine manuscript: “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?” As someone who finds it hard to cherish and honor the so-called canon of literature, I found her words refreshingly buoying. Why do authors so choose to instill in their works such an amount of power and privilege, when the same words that make up their story are those used by men and women every day?
In one chapter, Dillard mentions Thoreau and his method of catching bees. “So a book leads its writer,” she comments. I could not, nor would I so attempt to, reproduce her artful story on bees, so please check out this chapter for the wonderful description.
On the subject of each chapter, Dillard begins most metaphorically and really speaks to the act of writing in general, without a specific memory or context. She introduces many literature greats, and quotes as well, which help to portray her writing style and voice. Each of the subsequent chapters recollects instances in which she is writing and moments of her own life are interwoven. I believe Dillard’s reasoning is that most readers do want some sort of philosophical soapboxing, if you will, but that readers all want the same thing: to read a story!
“One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” Dillard describes the various ways in which writing is accessible to us, arguing, “A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.” While it is true that we all live in this world and experience a multitude of events each day, it is before we learn to write that we can only really observe. This particular sentiment rings true in my mind, for my own experiences, as I remember quite clearly knowing the moment I wanted to write, and from then on thinking about the world as if I would one day have to explain it to a deaf, blind, and mute fellow.
One scene that sticks out to me includes a chess match with an unknown opponent. I will not spoil the episode, but I do recommend ruminating upon the descriptions there. Another scene which I truly favor describes the author splitting wood, and her attempts and approaches to such a physically demanding job.
Here are Dillard’s words regarding the incident: “You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it.” I took this to mean, among many things, that aiming past a work is really what will help you get through it. If I want to finish my chapter, I have to aim for completing my novel and publishing the final product. I agree it is important to focus on the task at hand, but remembering the overall goal and keeping it in sight is key as well.
I want to leave you with one final quote, which struck me as something one could write underneath their name in an email signature, or use as their senior quote in high school. I do not wish to demean the words, but rather invite would-be readers to ponder the message within, and to understand that a writer’s work is only finished when he or she has shown the world only what can be shown by him or her. I highly recommend journeying with Ms. Dillard by reading her text, which is as much about life as it is writing.
The following are words that only Annie Dillard could have imparted, and I take away a sense of fortitude from the sentiment: “Admire the world for never ending on you—as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.”
Rebecca Henderson holds a Master’s in German and a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing. Best expressing herself through the written word, she enjoys the smell of burning rubber and can recite the ABC’s of the automotive world upon command. Rebecca hopes to shift your world perspective through her words, because looking out the same window every day hardly makes for an interesting life.