The Writing Life

Exquisite slender book by Annie Dillard on writing which I wish were twice its size so I could swim laps in the prose and enjoy the cozy feeling of her words. This more than makes up for my bewilderment over not liking Holy the Firm, which she continually refers to in this book as “difficult,” thereby rendering me obtuse for not enjoying it. Despite that, I loved this book. She offers vivid, real advice on writing, to go forth and build and tear down and not save the good bits, just to write and write and wring it out and suffer and yes it is not pleasant and yes it is painful and yes it is difficult but it’s the only thing to do, you see. She has long digressions about describing the places she’s worked, whether cinder block cage of a library or a frostbitten cabin on an island, closing the blinds so that her only sight is in her imagination, drawing a picture of what is outside the window and pasting it on the closed shades. She talks about the incredibly slow pace writing takes, how some of the most prolific writers throughout history churned out a page a day, just a page a day, so a book a year if they were lucky. By far one of the best books on writing I’ve read-a must for any writer’s bookshelf.

Some bits I loved:
* “Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous odor.”
* “How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed 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. I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.”
* She quotes Anne Truitt (sculptor), “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.”
* Michelangelo’s note to his apprentice, found after death, “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”

Postscript: I just came across this essay about the experience of having Dillard as a writing teacher. Beautiful.