5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard explores the ups and downs of being a writer. Her beautiful prose will capture all of your writerly emotions and leave you feeling a little less alone. She’ll somehow express all of your frustrations and triumphs, your courage and fears, your craziness and determination (sometimes all in one paragraph).

If you are a writer looking to understand or be understood, turn to Annie Dillard. She’ll slap you in the face and give you a hug all in one motion.  

NOTE: This book is summarized in a Q&A format; all answers are directly from Annie Dillard (not lil’ ol’ me).

What do you think readers are looking for in the books they read?

In my view, the more literary the book--the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep--the more likely people are to read it. The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have.

How do you know if what you are writing is actually good?

Another luxury for an idle imagination is the writer’s own feeling about the work. There is not a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed but not indulged.

What type of workspace is best for the writer?

You can read in the space of a coffin, and you can write in the space of a toolshed meant for mowers ad spades. Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. Once wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.

I lived on the beach with one foot in fatal salt water and one foot on a billion grains of sand. The brink of the infinite there was too like writing’s solitude. Each sentence hung over an abyssal ocean or sky which held all possibilities, as well as the possibility of nothing...The wide days split life open like an ax. When I sketched or painted the island shore, even with the most literal intentions, the work twined into the infinite again and dissolved, or the infinite assaulted the page again and required me to represent it. My pen piled the page with changing clouds, multiple suns, circles, spirals, and rays. I used the pages at night to light fires. Shall we go rowing again, we who believe we may indeed row off the edge and fall? Shall we launch again into the deep and row up the skies?

How would you describe the act of writing?

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

Here is a fairly sober version of what happens in the small room between the writer and the work itself. It is similar to what happens between a painter and the canvas. First you shape the vision of what the projected work of art will be. The vision, I stress, is not marvelous thing: it is the work’s intellectual structure and aesthetic surface. It is a chip of mind, a pleasing intellectual object. It is a vision of the work, not of the world. Its structure is at once luminous and translucent; you can see the world through it. After you receive the initial charge of this imaginary object, you add to it at once several aspects, and incubate it most gingerly as it grows into itself.

Many aspects of the work are still uncertain, of course; you know that. You know that if you proceed you will change things and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that change will not alter the vision or its deep structures; it will only enrich it. You know that, and you are right.

But you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing, or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.

Here is how it happens. The vision is a set of mental relationships, a coherent series of formal possibilities. In the actual rooms of time, however, it is a page or two of legal paper filled with words and questions. Nevertheless, ignoring the provisional and pathetic nature of these scraps, and bearing the vision itself in mind...you begin to scratch out the first faint marks on the canvas, on the page. Now the thing is no longer a vision: it is paper.

Words lead to other words and down the garden path. You adjust the paints’ values and hues not to the world, not to the vision, but to the rest of the paint. The materials are stubborn and rigid; push is always coming to shove. You can fly--you can fly higher than you thought possible--but you can never get off the page. After every passage another passage follows, more sentences, more everything on drearily down. Time and materials hound the work; the vision recesses even farther into the dim realms.

And so you continue the work, and finish it. Probably by now you have been forced to toss the most essential part of the vision. But this is a concern for mere nostalgia now: for before your eyes, and stealing your heart, is this fighting and frail finished product, entirely opaque. You can see nothing through it. It is only itself, a series of well-known passage, some colored paint. Its relationship to the vision that impelled it is the relationship between any energy and any work, anything unhanging to anything temporal. The work is not the vision itself, certainly. It is not the vision filled in, as if it had been a coloring book. It is not the vision reproduced in time; that were impossible. It is rather a simulacrum and a replacement. It is a golem. You try--you try every time--to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.

What are your thoughts on consistent writing schedules?

I have been looking into schedules. How we spend out days is, of course, how we spend our lives. A schedule defends from the chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern. There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading--that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?

How would you describe the life of the writer?

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. This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper. Inside the small room, the writer is deeply preoccupied with things hitherto undreamed of. He finds himself inventing wholly new techniques in the service of his art. Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.

Living thus you may excite in your fellow man not curiosity but profound indifference. It is not my experience that society hates and fears the writer, or that society adulates the writer. Instead my experience is the common one, that society places the writer so far beyond the pale that society does not regard the writer at all.

What do writers need in order to write?

How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you need paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall.

Remarkably material also is the writer’s attempt to control his own energies so he can work. He must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not. For writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours along with a hundred other Zulu warriors, you might be able to prepare yourself to write. If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance that on a certain morning the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals, you might, when the time came, be ready to write. But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?

How would you describe your relationship with your books?

The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. This is your life. You are a Seminole alligator wrestler. Half naked, with your two bare hands, you hold a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over. At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then--and only then--it is handed to you.

I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better. This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you. A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. 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 and the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

Sometimes part of a book simply gets up and walks away. The writer cannot force it back in place. It wanders off to die.

Why do you write?

One rainy day, a member of the real world gave me a ride home. Politely, he asked me about my writing. Foolishly, not dreaming I was about to set my own world tumbling down about my ears, I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else. He said, “That’s like a guy who works in a factory all day, and hates it.” Then I was amazed, for so it was. It was just like that. Why did I do it? I had never inquired. How had I let it creep up on me? Why wasn’t I running a ferryboat, like sane people? I hid my amazement as well as I could from both of us, and said that actually I avoided writing, and mostly what I did by way of work was fool around, and that for example that morning I had been breaking my brain trying to explain Whitehead to my journal. Why, he wanted to know, was I doing that? Again I stopped completely short; I could not imagine why on earth I was doing that. Why was I doing that? But I rallied and mustered and said that the idea was to learn things; that you learn a thing and then as a matter of course you learn the next thing, and the next thing…”And then,” I finished brightly, “you die!” At this we exchanged a mutual and enormous smile. Still nodding and smiling in perfect agreement, we ended the visit and walked to the door.

How can we learn to write better?

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know. The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; 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 which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write. There is another way of saying this.

In the good old days, I did not know how to split wood. One night, I had a dream in which I was given to understand, by the powers that be, how to split wood. You aim, said the dream at the chopping block. You aim at the chopping block, not at the wood; then you split the wood, instead of chipping it. You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.

How can we find our unique voice?

A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light. Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you avert 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. You were made and set her to give voice to this, your own astonishment. “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.” Anne Truitt, the sculptor, said this. Thoreau said it another way: “Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life...Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.” Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

What distinguishes an expert from an amateur writer?

The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know. The writer knows his field--what has been done, what could be done, the limits--the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that experts, he, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature.

If you ask a twenty-one-year-old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, “Nobody’s.” In his youth, he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes on the role, the thought of himself in a hat.

Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gauguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work’s possibilities excited them; the field’s complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks.

What are the biggest challenges writers face when writing a book?

Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can every write this book. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.

Why are reading and writing important to you?

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? We still and always want waking.

Nothing on earth is more gladdening than knowing we must roll up our sleeves and move back the boundaries of the humanly possible once more. “Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote.

How can writers improve their craft?

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks. Admire the world for never ending on you--as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes form him or walking away.

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. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend 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.

My 5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways are:

  1. Choose a workspace that is so boring, your imagination can’t help but come out and play.

  2. Don’t expect yourself to effectively capture the vision. The task is impossible, but for some reason, we feel compelled to try.

  3. Your feelings that the work is magnificent or abominable are “mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed but not indulged.”

  4. You must visit your work every day to reassert your mastery over it.

  5. Just like you cannot chop wood cleanly unless you aim for the chopping block, you cannot write well unless you treat the book as the transparent means to an end. Aim past it.

To free the writer today, write down a quote from Annie Dillard that effectively captures your current writerly emotions (whether that’s frustration, elation, anger, sadness, hope, etc). Put it somewhere you can see it.

My current writerly feelings are best captured by this gem: “You asked me how my work is going. The current’s got me. Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now. I just keep at it. I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.”

Feel free to share your own in the comments below.


A writer like you: Andrea Nourse

A writer like you: Andrea Nourse

A writer like you: Louisa Dwyer

A writer like you: Louisa Dwyer