Dialogue with Annie Dillard on "The Writing Life"

I read Annie Dillard’s book “The Writing Life” years ago and reread it recently.

It was a huge inspiration to me then as now, full of practical advice about the craft of writing—its how and why and what–as well the thrill of writing, and the mystery that lies at its heart.

Below, you will find a “dialogue,” if you will, between Dillard and me on the practice and art of writing. Mind you, it will be a dialogue between master and novice. While I’ve been writing all my life, I haven’t done much with it, until recently. For all my years, and all my years writing, I’m still what you might call an “emerging” writer.

Still, from a very early age, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. It’s what I am. Nothing else I could say about myself rings as true. How else could I identify myself?

As teacher, activist, community leader? I was all that, once upon a time. But it was what I did, not what I was. And besides, even then, even in those roles, writing was the way I made my biggest contribution to those fields. I taught writing, I wrote as an activist, I let my words and the passion of those words drive the work.

As a mother? Maybe. Although my children are grown and no longer need mothering, or at least need less of it than I have to give. I mother my writing now.

As wife? Perhaps. Although my husband and I grow more apart the older we grow. We still connect, but sparsely. Our marriage is mostly skeletal now: bone, little flesh. But it still provides a kind of structure for our lives, shapes our days, a spare drawing: a few lines, lots of white space. The space that holds my writing, or waits for it.

As lover? Oh yes. I am that. My life is shot through with love. I cannot lift my head without finding something to love. I could sit still and do nothing all day but love. I dither away my days loving sky and oak and bird and bee. Loving rock and rose and river. But the writing is all wrapped up in that. The loving and the writing are so closely intertwined, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes.

Truth-Seeker? Without a doubt. My reading is endless, and the thing I am looking for in my reading is that nugget of truth, the thing that pierces me with its truth, that hits me full in the face, that I taste and say, yes, salt. That I taste and say, yes, bitter. That I taste and say, yes, sweet, and I feel that sweetness spreading through me. And I know then, this is true.

But the truth-seeking is all wrapped up in writing, the reading and the writing wrapped together, and all of it is tied up in love. A big, bright bow of love.

I seek the truth of the things I love, and writing is the instrument I use to do that.

So how does one write? How and when and what?

Let’s see what one master has to say on the subject. Below are a few nuggets of wisdom drawn from Dillard’s book, and my responses to them.

Learning to Write

At one point, a student asks Dillard: “Who will teach me to write?” She answers:

The page, the page, that eternal blankness . . . ; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act . . . ; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against with you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

Practice and persistence are her answers. And perhaps, too, simply having the will to write, and the courage to face a blank page, to “ruin it,” knowing that so much you write will be thrown away.

It’s sitting down, again and again and again, and simply doing the work. We learn from that. Like practicing scales on a piano, over and over again—monotonous but necessary. Doing so, we learn something about the simple mechanics of writing as well as its rhythms, its flow, its necessity. And if we are lucky, the very act will carry us into the flow. We will no longer be practicing. We will no longer be playing those notes. We will become the music, and feel it pouring effortlessly through us, as us.

This more than anything may be how we learn to write: When we learn to love it, love being the writing, love letting it flow from us. This is what brings us back to that blank page, again and again. The chance to experience that, to let the writing flow through us as mere instruments of the muse.

It doesn’t happen often. It’s not what gets the work done, the novel written. But, for many of us, for me at least, it’s what fuels the desire to write, what makes me think I am a writer, that mind-soul-meld. When I’m there, in that, I’m home, in a way I rarely experience outside that, except, sometimes, in meditation, in mindful contemplation, in deep moments of love, when I’m all love, when there’s only love. That’s why I write. To be that. To be me.

What to Write

The passage below is probably my favorite in her whole book, because she’s saying something I had not heard another writer say in quite the same way. And it strikes me as “true.” It gives me license to pursue some of my own quirky interests.

A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. Strange seizures beset us. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickenson her slant of light; Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree.

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.

You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

My own astonishment, yes. To give voice to the things that seize me, that take me by the throat and shake me. Or is it me taking the thing by the throat and shaking it? Trying to shake loose its truth, the thing I want to know, the thing I know is there, but haven’t quite gotten it yet. The thing that must be seen, must be spoken. The thing I need to say.

When I look at the things I write about, that I’m drawn to write about, that seize me, here’s what I see, what I’m drawn to explore:

The gap between appearance and reality; between what’s real and what’s not, and how we can ever truly know for sure. If it’s possible at all.

The dark and the light, good and evil, beauty and brutality, the foolish and profound: how they play together, how they are all wound up in each other, how it’s almost impossible to tear them apart, as least in our ordinary, daily experiences. They lay side by side, or one on top of the other; they copulate over and over, and we, this life itself, is what they give birth to.

Mind and matter, nature and art, science and spirituality: They too seem rolled into one. It’s hard to separate the one from the other. They are shot through with each other. What fascinates me is how certain patterns emerge over and over. How they seem to tell us something about Life, about ourselves, about what this whole world stretching out beyond the cosmos is all about. If you pay attention to the patterns, to the fractal self-similarities, you taste something that smacks of truth. Of what we were created to discover.

When to Write

This is my great failing, my falling, my torment.

One day when I was a young mother, I decided that I would put off my writing. I would wait until my children were grown. I found when I wrote I worked myself into such a torment, into such a heated frenzy, that when my children came home from school or needed something when I was writing, I could not tear myself away. Or if I did, I was in a rage, and I resented them. I did not want to spend time with them. I wanted to write. That’s all I wanted.

And I hated that. Hated being that way, feeling that way, toward them. I thought: they are little only a little while. I want to enjoy them, every minute I can of their young lives. I want to be here now, with them. So I put my writing away, taking it out only when I knew for certain I had the time to devote undisturbed, with the understanding that my children came first. My writing was hidden away in a drawer like a caged beast. It growled at me. It said: I will make you pay for this.

So I wrote less and less. And the years went by, and the children grew up. But there was always something more important than writing to devote myself to: teaching, social justice, community work, politics; saving the world, preserving the environment, protesting for peace, for a living wage; helping the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised.

And the years went by and all the writing I had done was work related: political, social, economic.

Then I retired to write full-time. And here I am. But do I write full-time? No. There’s beds to make, and floors to shine, and gardens to weed, and windows to wash. There’s non-stop news on cable aabout wars and scandals and school shootings and missing planes and police brutality and social unrest. The whole world, it appears, spinning out of control, and I must witness its unraveling.

There’s the internet too, Facebook and Twitter and Google and a thousand interesting stories, important stories, must-read stories, calling me like Odysseus’ sirens, driving my boat onto those rocky shores, turning me into a grunting boar, rooting for the latest news; or turning me into a statue of myself, frozen, unable to move.

I let my fierce beast out of its drawer at long last, and it curled up like a kitten and went to sleep.

So now I must wake it, shake it, make it roar again. And then I must tame it. But how, how?

I read what Dillard says about taming the beast. And I cling to it like a life boat.

What then shall I do this morning? 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 life boat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

So I create my schedule. I cling to it like a life boat. And someday, someday soon, I hope to climb all the way inside. I hope to inhabit my life boat. To live there. Waiting for the writing to emerge as a “blurred and powerful pattern” stitching my days together.

There’s more. So much more from Dillard’s book I want to share with you. Next time.

But today, today I must shake out my schedule. I must return to my novel. I must resist the news and internet and beds and gardens. I must be a shut-in. I must shut myself into my novel. I must do the work of writing.


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