The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My Year of Overdue Books--books I honestly should have read by this time in my life--continues with The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. I rescued this book from the free table at work a few years ago; as an editor and a writer myself, I thought it was certainly worth giving some time to. Then it sat on my shelf for years. Probably my coworker who left it on the free table has seen it sitting there and silently judged me on more than one occasion.
Annie Dillard published The Writing Life in 1989, well into her writing career. She could legitimately claim, at age forty-four and with multiple publications to her credit, the writing life she claims in the title. She had already won a Pulitzer Prize for her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and had written quite a lot besides. Any writer could write a book about writing; Annie Dillard is the kind of writer whose book on writing people want to read.
At 111 pages you'd think this book would be barely a walk in a park. But it takes a long time to read. That's the nature of Dillard's writing, which is slow-cooked and well-crafted. You can almost make out the beads of sweat in between the lines that bore the prose from draft to draft. "Writing a book, full time," she claims, "takes between two and ten years" (p. 14). That's funny, because I've written two books and a booklet, all part time, and the time between contract and publication for each was never longer than fifteen months (and a good chunk of that time was taken up by the publisher's work). There is, I'm left to understand, a difference between the avocational writer, such as myself, knocking out prose in the cracks of the day, and a Pulitzer-level writer who gives her life to the work.
So, all props to Annie Dillard. That being said, I had a hard time reading the book. There's something about writing about writing, honestly; we're curious about how great writers do what they do, but we go into it knowing that their experience is distantly removed from our own, and so we take their counsel with a grain of salt. Annie Dillard writes in a converted toolshed in late winter because she likes a bleak space with nothing to distract her; I'm writing this review on my laptop in my family room with an episode of Kevin Smith's television show Comic Book Men playing in the background. Annie Dillard is trusted with a key to the local university library so she can work in dark solitude in the wee hours of New Year's Eve; I write when I can't think of anything better to do. I simply can't relate.
I'm glad I read the book. It's good for me to read up to such writers. I learn from their style, from their craftsmanship, and I also learn to recognize the distinctions of my own style. I'm not holding my breath for a Pulitzer, but I do hope to continue to write. I got very good advice once, on a first draft, from a friend who's much closer to Dillard's aptitude than I am; he told me to go through the manuscript paragraph by paragraph and drill down deeper at every point. I thanked him and set about revising, but I'm sure I didn't get as deep as he would have wanted me to. And I'm sure Annie Dillard would have read the finished product and sighed in frustration at what weekend writers such as myself are doing to her craft. But every draft--even the last--is in a larger respect a work in progress. We archive moments in time by what we write, but we don't cease to think and reflect and evolve and erode once the publisher presses "Print." Whether vocationally or avocationally, we write for our lives--which is as it should be. Dillard's advice on page 68 I will take to heart, albeit half-heartedly: "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?"
Well, when you put it like that . . .
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