Reading for Writers: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Chapter 1.1

In her first chapter of The Writing Life, Annie Dillard begins to explain the complexities of writing.  She hones in on the process.  She starts with the importance of the word as a tool, a hammer, a pick, that gets to the root of the gold you are searching, plumbing depths and getting you closer to truth.  But she also asserts the need to know that many of your words will need to be scrapped, thrown away for the good of a piece.

This first chapter is a perfect example of sparseness that works.  Dillard moves back and forth between musing about writing and metaphors for writing.  For example, she tells of the inch worm that is constantly searching climbing a blade, “in constant panic” (7).  When putting forth her metaphors, she does not fumble with explication or transitions. Instead she boldly throws the metaphor out juxtaposed with her thoughts about writing and allows her reader to draw their own conclusions about the meaning and purpose of the metaphor.  This book would be a quick and easy read; this first chapter is a mere 21 pages.  But Dillard trusts that her reader will stop and parse the nuance behind her words.  This makes for an enjoyable, engaging experience for the reader and an excellent example of how to write in a way that engrosses the reader.

I loved her discussion of why to write word by word:  “The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses – to secure each sentence before building on it – is that original writing fashions a form.  It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop.” (15)

Though she also discusses the merits of writing like a steam train, without thinking and just going, going, going, this quote really resonated with me and with the way that I write.  I love a little and while I am writing.  Sometimes I feel the need to find just the perfect word and when I do, it leads me on a new idea or metaphor that runs away into the sky in beautiful swirls of words.  This happens also with Wikipedia. Often I have a question or want to know more about some small detail I am including and once I get into Wikipedia, I’m off on new paths that I never imagined but are wonderfully complex and inspire the piece I am working on to go further than I ever thought.

My creative nonfiction professor balked when I told him how long it took me to do our weekly three-page exercises.  I was often spending hours on an assignment that was intended to take only one or two. “You’ve got to learn to write faster. There’s going to be demand for your work and you’re going to have to fill it.”  I tried to explain that I wasn’t being overly meticulous or editing as I wrote, necessarily, but that my process for creativity and association took a lot of time and consideration to come about.

I love the non-linear, associative, over-the-top writing of someone like Tom Robbins (some of you might know that he’s one of my favie faves), who said in an interview with the New York Times, “The reason I write so slowly is because I try never to leave a sentence until it’s as perfect as I can make it,  so there isn’t a word in any of my books that hasn’t been gone over 40 times.” I think this kind of consideration and thorough thought about each word is exactly the reason that Robbins’ sentences are so jam-packed with meaning and imagery and purpose and humor.  They leave me both feeling full and always wanting more.  In the same interview Robbins says that he often starts with just a title, and you can easily imagine how you can go from just a title to a whole whirlwind of a novel if you building it word by word in this way.

The quote above from Dillard helped me to remember why I write this way.  After a failed (well, 17,165 words, which was excellent for me, but not the 50,000 word target) attempt at NaNoWriMo and a push from my nonfiction prof, I was doubting my process and this little aside in The Writing Life reminded me that my process is my own. It does get results and I do love what comes out of it.  So, I can let go a bit on this insistence on word count and instead remember that what I need to put in is time.  Sit so the muse will show up.  And when she does, I’ll be there, listening slowly and conscientiously, even if she gives me only 100 words a day.


*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

23 thoughts on “Reading for Writers: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard”

  1. There seems much that is useful there. Still, I believe the writing process is as individual as the products should be. Some people have a clearcut idea of exactly where the story is supposed to go, so for them it is just a matter of putting down the best words for the job.
    Mine is a different style – the story carries its own momentum, and happens while writing. Thus I rush along, and go back to tidy up later.

  2. I think of Annie Dillard as that kind of writer (brilliant) who somehow (brilliantly) manages to close the gap between thought and word to absolutely nothing. When you read her it’s as if you are in her head, in her thoughts. It’s not like you are holding a book that contains words that “tell” you her thoughts. The words are not an explanation of her thoughts. They are her thoughts and as a reader, you are within them.

    Thanks for writing about her book on writing. I’m going to check it out.

  3. Ah, damn! And here Christmas has just passed–this would have been a perfect gift to ask for. Oh well. Thanks for the review! This is on my list now. So I guess I’ll just have to be my own belated Santa Claus.

    1. I agree @lensandpensbysally – Brenda Ueland’s book, “If You Want to Write” is wonderful, so encouraging for writers. I also found great value in Anne Lamott’s “bird by bird” – which is an entertaining read even if you’re not a writer!

  4. Thanks for whetting my appetite! I’m going to get this from the library as soon as I get back into town, though it really seems like the kind of book you should have at your desk at all times. Dillard’s writing is so wonderfully rich; I am constantly doing cartwheels in my heart while reading her. What a remarkable craftswoman. I love that bit from Robbins as well. He’s one of my favie faves as well (:

  5. You have written well on the art of writing. Writing sure is a mysterious process and I follow the streams of consciousness approach. Yes, one has to be creative to invent tropes. Anand Bose from Kerala.

  6. Writing one word at a time and searching for perfection on the way is contrary to the way I write – I prefer to fill in the gaps once the story has told me where it’s going, rather than having my infernal internal editor stop me before I can even get started. But we’re all different, and it’s good to hear how others create. Thanx!

  7. I’ve always loved Dillard–and this book in particular–moved me to try my own hand at writing. It’s a book to own, because you’ll want to return from time to time. You’ll find something new in it each time you return.

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