The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard’s publisher, Harper Collins, blurbs it this way:

“In this collection of short essays, Annie Dillard—the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood—illuminates the dedication, absurdity, and daring that characterize the existence of a writer. A moving account of Dillard’s own experience, The Writing Life offers deep insight into one of the most mysterious professions.”

This is an excellent book, mentioned in numerous ‘best of’ lists, and Harper Collins should hire better blurb writers. It’s a short book ( slender, as they say) and anecdotal. This is not a textbook, and It’s not like being in English class. There are  people who complain that there’s not  enough specific writing advice. This is, perhaps, a thinking about thinking book, which might be  of greater value.

The Writing Life contains one of my all-time favorite quotes:

“Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

And also…

“One line of a poem, the poet said – only one line, but thank God for that one line – drops from the ceiling… and you tap in the others around it with a jeweler’s hammer.”

How great is that?  From the initial trepidation of the word ‘tap,’ followed by the perfect metaphor of ‘the jeweler’s hammer’  — such a concise, elegant way of implying eventual mastery, fineness, precision, and power.  It slays me.

Other great Annie Dillard quotes include:

“No one escapes the wilderness on the way to the promised land.”

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. 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.”

This is, of course, big-picture stuff. She doesn’t fuss much about adverbs or the Oxford Coma. There are other, prosaic sources for that. More:

“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. . . . Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Ashes, people. Lets not make ashes of ourselves.

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

and finally,

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. 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!”

Not all of these quotes are in this book, but I just want you to understand what a pleasure it is to rattle around in her brain for a while.

Highly Recommended.

What did you think?  Have you read this, or other books by this author?  What was your favorite part?  Is there another, similar book that you prefer?  Is there anything you wish the author explained in greater detail?  Do you disagree with something they said? Let me know in the comments section, below. Thanks!

Need this book? Here are some options;

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