The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

I felt a little duped by this, since it’s mostly a rehashing of essays I’ve previously read by Dillard with a foreword by the wretched Geoff Dyer whom I’ve vowed never to read again (“The chimera of Dyer’s talent I first peeped in Zona turned out to be nothing but a blotchy oil spill farting and leering at women’s breasts.” – from my review of Another Great Day at Sea). Skipping the foreword, I was still delighted by Annie Dillard’s poetic trance and relished her dance through the pages.

She starts with a piece about the 1979 total eclipse, especially timely to read a few weeks after our 2017 eclipse; wild, ragged, and beautiful sentences capturing the eeriness, the oddity of ending up at a diner with other eclipse viewers eating eggs and hearing a boy say that the ring looked like a Life Saver in the sky.

The rest of the essays are taken from Holy the Firm, An American Childhood, The Writing Life, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Teaching a Stone to Talk. I’m reminded to try again to read Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a book Dillard credits with making her want to write when she was 16, a book that I gave up on after a few pages. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, will try again.

An American Childhood

I am firmly under the spell of Annie Dillard’s magical way with words. This is a focused autobiographical look at her childhood growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, a privileged daughter with two younger sisters, grandparents firmly entrenched in Pittsburgh high society and wealthy enough that her father could quit his job to float down the Ohio River for a few months and then figure things out. Dillard reads a ton of books, begs for a microscope for Christmas, nurtures the budding scientist/botanist/naturalist that she later becomes, and also offers a look at someone raised with Church as purely a social event and debutante expectations.

“I began reading books, reading books to delirium.”
“In fact, it was a plain truth that most books fell apart halfway through. They fell apart as their protagonist quit, without any apparent reluctance, like idiots diving voluntarily into buckets, the most interesting part of their lives, and entered upon decades of unrelieved tedium. I was forewarned, and would not so bobble my adult life; when things got dull, I would go to sea.”

The chapter on her mother was particularly delightful, an intelligent energetic woman with a penchant for word play and mischievous tricks. She planned for weeks for an eye surgery by saying right before she went under, “Will I be able to play the piano?” to which she expected the doctor to say “Yes my dear brave woman, you will be able to play the piano after this operation,” to which she was going to reply “Oh good, I’ve always wanted to play the piano.” She regarded the instructions on bureaucratic forms as straight lines, “Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence?” After some thought she wrote, “Force.”

One Sunday afternoon Mother wandered through our kitchen, where Father was making a sandwich and listening to the ball game. The Pirates were playing the New York Giants at Forbes Field. In those days, the Giants had a utility infielder named Wane Terwilliger. Just as Mother passed through, the radio announcer cried–with undue drama–“Terwilliger bunts one!”
“Terwilliger bunts one?” Mother cried back, stopping short. She turned. “Is that English?”
“The player’s name is Terwilliger,” Father said. “He bunted.”
“That’s marvelous,” Mother said. ” ‘Terwilliger bunts one.’ No wonder you listen to baseball. ‘Terwilliger bunts one.’ ”
For the next seven or eight years, Mother made this surprising string of syllables her own. Testing a microphone, she repeated, “Terwilliger bunts one”; testing a pen or a typewriter, she wrote it. IF, as happened surprisingly often in the course of various improvised gags, she pretended to whisper something else in my ear, she actually whispered, “Terwilliger bunts one.” Whenever someone used a French phrase, or a Latin one, she answered solemnly, “Terwilliger bunts one.” If Mother had had, like Andrew Carnegie, the opportunity to cook up a motto for a coat of arms, hers would have read simply and tellingly, “Terwilliger bunts one.” (Carnegie’s was “Death to Privilege.”)

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.

Holy the Firm

Weird– today is officially Annie Dillard day, because I searched for my review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and found that I finished it a year ago today. Which must be why I was compelled to make a journey this morning during a window between rain spurts to the main library so that I could dig through their Annie Dillard stacks. I came away with this slender volume, along with a collection of 3 of her other works. But honestly, this one fell short for me. I’m a fan of Dillard, and a lover of the Pacific Northwest, but the overindulgence of “God” in this leaves my head hurting. Best thing I got out of it was the recommendation for a book about Rimbaud. Dillard most recently rose to mind due to paging through the latest issue of The Atlantic, wherein William Deresiewicz somewhat tears her apart for her decade-long silence.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

When I first dipped my toe into the creek, I wasn’t in the right mood, tossing it aside for a week to give myself time to regain perspective. Sometimes that’s all it takes, just a few days and how you respond to a book is entirely different. When I picked it up again, the clouds parted, the sunlight sparkled in, the birds chirped in my ear. She goes into the woods near her Virginia home to pay attention deliberately, reeling in the light show put on by the sun, the mountains, the trees. Fascinated by her descriptions of the von Senden book, Space and Sight, a collection of histories of cataract patients blind since birth, detailing their sense perceptions before and after operation. “Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables.” There’s the patient who called lemonade “square” because it pricked his tongue as a square shape pricked the touch of his hands. Another marvels that everyone who visits her in the hospital has a different face.

I’m not sure what allows her the space and time to spend all day throughout the seasons observing the woods, but she describes it ” I have at the moment a situation which allows me to devote considerable hunks of time to seeing what I an see, and trying to piece it together.” She marvels at the strength of trees and plants, the chaos spinning around the natural world with no one minding death but us humans, “Our excessive emotions are so patently painful and harmful to us as a species that I can hardly believe that they evolved.”
Describing the wonders of seeing a mockingbird drop from a roof onto the ground:

I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do it try to be there. (p 10)

On seeing the tree with the lights in it:

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. (p 36)

After driving for many hours, she stops at a gas station and pets a puppy, watching the sunset, being intensely present, but as soon as she acknowledges it, she’s lost it. “Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills up his cup under a waterfall.” It is this self-consciousness that hinders experiencing the present:

Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people – the novelist’s world, not the poet’s. I’ve lived there. I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clattering of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, “next year… I’ll start living; next year… I’ll start my life.” Innocence is a better world. (p 82)

More of giving up self to spend hour upon hour motionless, observing:

(the muskrat) never knew I was there. I never knew I was there, either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions… I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self-consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly… I have often noticed that even a few minutes of self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves. (p 200)

Battling her monkey mind, the scenes that drift across her memory from nowhere:

All right then. Pull yourself together. Is this where I’m spending my life, in the “reptile brain,” this lamp at the top of the spine like a lighthouse flipping mad beams indiscriminately into the darkness, into the furred thoraxes of moths, onto the backs of leaping fishes and the wrecks of schooners? Come up a level; surface. (p 95)

I love this:

Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?” If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” Einstein said; and so I life my microscope down from the shelf, spread a drop of duck pond on a glass slide, and try to look spring in the eye. (p 123)

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Tipped off to this book’s existence by an Atlantic piece forwarded by B.