Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life (1990) provided a little more than 100 pages of essays, forming a montage of her interpretation of writers and writing. Dillard’s style was clearly illustrated, from her opening paragraphs:
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory… You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. (p. 3)
Dillard’s use of rhythmic repetition was at its most effective when she kept her language simple; but for me, her imagery and often her opinion varied from:
- The Banal: “Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating (p. 11).”
- The Strangely exaggerated or inaccurate: “Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year (p. 13).”
- Uncomfortably alliterative: “The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses… (p. 15).”
- Evocative: “The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees (p. 10).
- To finally, the somewhat overwrought: “You may… poke the spot hard till the sore bleeds on your finger, and write with that blood (p. 20).”
As a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, Dillard’s advice on life as a writer was no doubt sage and pertinent, but inevitably colored for me by her prose. As a result, I found myself searching more for her observations on the process of writing, than trying to emulate her technique. If I have learned anything from Dillard’s work and my experiences on the scholastic writing course, it has been that emulating unfamiliar—even uncomfortable—styles and methods of writing are learning experiences, never mistakes; and as such, I would recommend her observations to any budding writer.
Dillard’s (1990) description of her cluttered desk and her pine study—a prefabricated pine shed on Cape Cod (p. 25)—was one of her shining moments. Predating Betsy Warland’s (2010) remarks of the importance of a writer’s workplace, Dillard recounts how she shuts out the stunning vista of saltwater bay and sand-dunes. “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided.” She states, “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark (p. 26).”
This is Dillard at her most evocative, discussing the physicality of the writer’s life: the time her old electric typewriter exploded (pp. 63–64); recurring themes of being surrounded by paper (p. 44, 46, 48, 51, 57); drinking cup after cup of “refried coffee (p. 50)”. These themes obviously enthused her and through that enthusiasm, the contagious nature of her emotion infects the reader. Here too is a lesson the novice writer can learn—write with true emotion and there is a higher probability of engaging your readership; feigned passion is too easily detected.
Equally engaging are the anecdotes of her daily walks, and of other writers’ efforts to commit words to paper. At one point, Dillard (1990) likens returning to a work in progress to entering a lion’s cage:
You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’ (p. 52)
I imagine myself to be one of only a minority of people to have read this passage, who have actually stepped into an occupied lion’s cage; and whilst raising a chair and shouting at the cat is far from what I would recommend, I do recognize the trepidation with which I would approach the venture. I can appreciate what the author means when she says:
One of the 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. (p. 78)
Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes (p. 79).
I have heard other graduate students refer to this as being in the zone. If you can write, then write; get your ideas committed to paper, or the binary data of your chosen 21st century digital medium. Hold nothing back and communicate your thoughts and enthusiasm as the Pulitzer Prize winner has advised—or tomorrow, when you open that safe door, the phoenix may not arise from the ashes.
Dillard (1990) concludes with a graceful essay about Dave Rahm, a brilliant stunt pilot she described as, “the air’s own genius (p. 93)” and “pure energy and naked spirit (p. 96)” whose daring twists and rolls, with their accompanying stress on mind and body, provided an apt metaphor for her interpretations of the writing life (pp. 93–111). Dillard explained her writing as an unmerited grace, explaining that, “[i]t is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you (p. 75).”
Whilst I would imagine that the agonizing process Dillard depicted has been experienced by most of us that have sat in front of an empty page, it is a passing sensation. If you persevere, if you write whatever you can and just get it written, sooner or later the current will take you out to the middle of the channel, and the tide will take you to that final period.