Read to Write | The Writing Life by Annie Dillard | Karen Kao

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard writes poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. For more than 20 years, she also taught writing at Wesleyan College. She was such an influence on Alexander Chee that his desire upon graduation was to become Annie Dillard.

Like all good writing teachers, Dillard believes in reading. Listen to this anecdote.

"A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, 'Do you think I could be a writer?'
'Well,' the writer said, 'I don’t know. … Do you like sentences?'
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences?
If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, 'I liked the smell of the paint.'” 

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (Harper Perennial 1990)

A Tough Life

It’s hard to tell if Dillard likes sentences or really anything about the process of writing. Most of The Writing Life is devoted to discomfort. No sunny office with a cat purring at her feet for Dillard. Give her a windowless garden shed or a carrel in the bowels of a library. Let her stare at a blank wall rather than the sea.

The Writing Life comforts me. I hear Dillard acknowledge how hard it is to write. Time attacks from without and within. There’s never enough time and yet, once you have a few minutes to rub together, few of us have the strength to use it. That’s where a schedule comes in.

"A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order — willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself decades later, still living."

But schedules and blank walls notwithstanding, Dillard dillydallies, too. She chops firewood or obsesses over the sexual preferences of male butterflies. Dillard works slowly, painfully, on some days hardly at all. She quotes from a Maine trapper’s diary: "Another day, another dollar; fourteen hours on snowshoes and wish I had pie."

A Hard Teacher

Dillard is not a gentle soul. She mocks a 20-something wannabe poet who cannot name a single poem he admires.

"In his youth, he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat."

There are so many wannabe writers more interested in a hat than the writing life. Some of them might even be talented but talent alone is never enough.

Alexander Chee was a 20-something wannabe writer when he entered Dillard’s class. One of his assignments came back with this note: Sometimes you write amazing sentences […] and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence. Dillard banned the passive voice, gerunds, and adverbs. She ended the class on this cheerful note.

"If I’ve done my job, she said in the last class, you won’t be happy with anything you write for the next 10 years. It’s not because you won’t be writing well, but because I’ve raised your standards for yourself. Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there." 

Alexander Chee, “Annie Dillard and the writing life” in The Morning News (undated)

A Good Life

If Dillard is hard on her students, she’s even harder on herself. On her website, she disavows The Writing Life as “embarrassing”. She warns potential fans and wannabe writers that she won’t respond to requests to review manuscripts or write blurbs. She grumbles a lot.

"It’s a matter of time, not of heart. If I answered one-twentieth of the mail, I could neither read nor write, let alone take care of family."

Who does Dillard read? Hemingway, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Ralph Ellison. Like Francine Prose and my own teaching collective, Dillard believes in reading the classics. Every day of the week.

"There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life."


This book review was originally published by Karen Kao on her website Shanghai Noir.


Umberto Tosi said…
I must put Annie Dillard's "A Writing Life" on my list of books by writers about writing - and their lives, invariably - one of my favourite genres. I concur with your post, and Ms. Dillard's counsel: You want to write? Start by reading. Singer and Ellison are among the gods in my temple too. Thank you for the illuminating post.

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