The Writing Life (1989)
Harper Perennial, 68 pages from 617pp
(Paired with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood)
The Writing Life, Annie Dillard’s commentary on the creative act, is a distinctive, deeply personal tract. A short piece – just 68 pages – it nevertheless manages to pack a wealth of detail, both biographical, philosophical and bibliographical that, as the Detroit News said, “has the power and force of a detonating bomb”.
Annie Dillard is an American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The majority of her work is non-fiction, and is often imbued with the spiritualism that defines her. The defining aspect of The Writing Life is that unlike other memoirs of the craft, Dillard has realised that her interaction with the world at large is as important to good writing as the understanding of the technical aspects of it. To that end descriptions of a flight over the wilderness and her encounter with a brilliant pilot are as important as the details of her writing. Landscape is important. “That island on Haro Strait haunts me.”
She asks: “What is this writing life? I was living alone in a house once, and had set up study on the first floor. A portable green Smith-Corona typewriter sat on the table against the wall. I made the mistake of leaving the room.” Though this anecdote leads into a description of her typewriter exploding, the paragraph ends there leaving a thought unexpressed but implied burning beneath it. This writing life is not leaving that room, it is continuing to work even if the typewriter is exploding. There then exists the contradiction of not leaving the room and understanding the necessity of meeting other people, of living in the landscape and appreciating it. But this is how Dillard’s prose works – it is not surface, it is depth, and one needs to read between the lines to truly appreciate everything that goes on in a writers mind.
There are lines and thoughts here that dazzle, that are true, that if we are to succeed as writers we must be attuned to.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.”
All this rhetoric, this codifying is to say the most famous cliché of all: A writer writes. There is no escaping it. If you are not writing every day, if you are not breathing it, sleeping in it, dying with it, then you are not a writer, you are just someone who writes occasionally. A writer is defined by his work but is never satisfied. As Dillard says, “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object n a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength…. One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.”
Dillard’s book is good on such things. Her wisdom shines through. Every writer should know these things but it is worth reading them, even if it is so you read Annie Dillard, a great writer, deep in thought.