Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

Maybe Higgins wanting to read aloud is explained by Annie Dillard’s claim that “The written word is weak” (p. 17). Yet for Dillard writing is a trade, like carpentry, or plumbing, hard work. The writer is a day laborer, digging a ditch, head down, not looking at anything, the ditch caving in, dirt falling back in with every shovelful pulled out. Dillard’s book is more lyrical than the books on writing by Higgins and Stegner, figurative, full of metaphorical explanations. But she affirms that writing is hard work. Here’s an example that illustrates how hard, in her figurative style: “Half naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over” (p. 75).

“Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” Roger Angell tells us in the foreword to the fourth edition of The Elements of Style, the E. B. White classic. Stegner politely offered that writing is hard work; Higgins gave the sentiment a powerful place in his book. 

And Annie Dillard agrees: “It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years” (p. 13). She points out a few exceptions, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: “…in six weeks; he claimed he knocked it off in his spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job performing manual labor” (p. 13). We get the point; Faulkner embodied the idea of the exception. But like Higgins, Annie doesn’t want us paddling out short of wax, so she repeats and clarifies: “Writing a book, full time, takes between two and ten years…On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away” (p. 14).

But hard how? “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark” (p. 26). We see Annie in some of her writing hideaways, and while the locations look like vacation spots, she convinces us that writing is hard mainly because of the isolation, the solitude, the boring act of sitting. “I write this in the most recent of my many studies – a pine shed on Cape Cod. The pine lumber is unfinished inside the study…” an 8 by 10 shed, “Like a plane’s cockpit…” (p. 25). The plane motif introduced here foreshadows the last chapter, devoted to a stunt flying ace Annie met and went up with but who later crashes – and flying solo in a small plane performing tricks above the heads of an audience becomes an extended metaphor for writing. Then she’s in another cabin, this time on Haro Strait, in Puget Sound, where “The cabin was a single small room near the water” (p. 41). 

In fact, “It should surprise no one that the life of the writer – such as it is – is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world” (p. 44). No doubt, yet it’s still somehow difficult to square this writing is hard, lonely work business with “During some of the long, empty months at work on the book, I was living in a one-room log cabin on an empty beach” (48). Add a little sun and a few waves and what’s the problem? Of course, we wouldn’t get much writing down.  

Dillard knew “a joyful painter” who became a painter because “He said, ‘I liked the smell of the paint'” (p. 70). It’s apparently not as easy to like the smell of sentences, and this also makes writing hard work: “…I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else” (p. 53). But, “It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick” (p. 71). 

Dillard, A. (1989). The writing life. New York: Harper & Row. (111 pages)

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