There’s so much to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life that I feel like I should be reading it more slowly. Today I read 30% of it in one sitting and I could barely contain all the thoughts that it brought up in me. I sat in the airport and both laughed and cried in the short time that I read. Other passengers stared. The ideal way to read it would be to read just one page or one section a day, and ruminate on and write about that one bit. It’s so dense with wisdom, with feeling. It’s the kind of book needs to be chewed, tossed on the tongue and savored. It needs to be digested and felt.
The part I found most encouraging in the sections that I read was Annie’s descriptions of her own writing processes. I see quotes like Bukowski’s “If it doesn’t come bursting out of you, don’t do it,” and sometimes feel that I am on the wrong track. There are days when I sit in front of the computer screen and need to walk around the room, have a coffee, make myself a sandwich, have another coffee, and still it’s like pulling teeth to get anything out. Some days I know that all that I wrote that day will be useless in the final draft. In terms of word count for the work I’m wrestling with, I’ve done nothing all day. I think about Bukowski’s quote and think about how it’s not bursting out of me, it’s not even coming out when I’m trying. Maybe the muse isn’t smiling on me. Maybe I’m not chosen. Maybe I’m just a fraud thinking I can write when really I can’t.
But Dillard experiences the same frustration. The same feeling that it’s coming too slowly – or not at all. She also makes her two cups of coffee and “fools around all day” when she’s trying to write. The honesty and authenticity with which Dillard writes about her writing process and her struggle brings tears to my eyes, inspires me, and soothes my soul.
She writes, “Even when passages seemed to come easily, as though I were copying from a folio held open by smiling angels, the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle-bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes, and burns.”
Writing isn’t easy. It’s a process, a life. For most of my writing life, I followed Bukowski’s advice. I only wrote when I felt like I was going to explode if I didn’t. I waited, passively, for Calliope to smile upon me, to fill my chest and my mind until my hands couldn’t write fast enough. In the last ten years, all this waiting got me maybe fifty pages of writing that I was proud of. Sure, when I was bursting, my writing was good. But I made a promise to myself that I would no longer wait for my genius to show up, but I would work at it. And I’ve written the same amount of work that I’m happy with in the past six months as I had in the ten years prior.
Yeah, sometimes it’s wrestling. And sometimes nothing comes out. Sometimes what comes out is terrible. But showing up means that Calliope visits more often. It means that I have time set aside in my day to work, to think about writing. It’s not as easy as passively waiting for the muse, but the more often I show up, the more often it comes bursting out of me.
*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.