As I sit here eating a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese, while staring out the window to gaze at this overcast day, the grey skies and near-rain, I feel a great sense of coziness. I begin to think about the authors I’ve “discovered” who, upon reading one of their works, I realize I’ve been missing out on something dear and true, and so rush out to buy everything else I can find and plan extensive projects to explore their works and lives in as much detail as possible. This happened to me with Kurt Vonnegut, and again with Joan Didion. It happened with Virginia Woolf, and again with John Steinbeck (all of that completely out-of-order.) And it’s happening again, now, with Annie Dillard.
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life was not what I expected, but it was exactly what I needed. It was, much like this bagel and today’s atmosphere, cozy, quixotic, and just the tiniest bit mercurial, as if to say, “yes, take comfort in this thing that you’re doing, but remember these full clouds, and the wind, and the traffic that sometimes rushes by and threatens to swallow you up in it, or mow you down.”
I assumed The Writing Life would be something like Ursula k. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a book that covers various topics about writing well in narrative form and then supplements that narrative with some kind of exercise, or tips. Instead, rather than a “how to guide to writing,” Dillard simply writes about her life as a writer, and everything that means in the various moments when the two intersect inextricably, sometimes brilliantly but sometimes painfully. Within these explorations and reflections are remarkable gems of wisdom and instruction about writing and about life, too.
She begins her study with one of the most brilliant metaphors I’ve ever read, where she compares the writing process to the life of an inchworm who, upon making it to the tip of a blade of a grass and imagines itself at the end of the world, finds that world bending forward terrifyingly until it touches another blade of grass, and the inchworm begins all over again. (“O Me! O Life! of the questions of these recurring.”) I remember being stunned by this opening, laughing out loud. And as I return to my copy, I see the simple annotation, written in barely legible blue ink along the margin, that sums up my entire experience with the book: “Ha! Brilliant.”
This is a short little book divided into seven short little chapters. Yet, it packs a punch that has left its mark on me, for how long now? A month? Two? I’ve been unable to write anything about it, because I simply want to read it again and again. To combat what would be perhaps a futile practice in indulgence and avoidance, I instead went to Barnes & Noble yesterday to buy Teaching a Stone to Talk, which I will commence reading shortly. And I wrote these little thoughts down. But okay, I’ll probably read this one again soon anyway.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”
For the ink-hearted
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You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. Octavia E. Butler
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