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The Writing Life Paperback – November 12, 2013
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Annie Dillard has spent a lot of time in remote, bare-bones shelters doing something she claims to hate: writing. Slender though it is, The Writing Life richly conveys the torturous, tortuous, and in rare moments, transcendent existence of the writer. Even for Dillard, whose prose is so mellifluous as to seem effortless, the act of writing can seem a Sisyphean task: "When you write," she says, "you lay out a line of words.... 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." Amid moving accounts of her own writing (and life) experiences, Dillard also manages to impart wisdom to other writers, wisdom having to do with passion and commitment and taking the work seriously. "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.... Something more will arise for later, something better." And, if that is not enough, "Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients," she says. "That is, after all, the case.... What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"
This all makes The Writing Life seem a dense, tough read, but that is not the case at all. Dillard is, after all, human, just like the rest of us. During one particularly frantic moment, four cups of coffee and not much writing down, Dillard comes to a realization: "Many fine people were out there living, people whose consciences permitted them to sleep at night despite their not having written a decent sentence that day, or ever." --Jane Steinberg
From Publishers Weekly
"In this collection of short essays, the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood probes the sorcery that levitates her own writing, discussing with clear eye and wry wit how, where and why she writes," said PW .
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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But rather than being a handbook on how to write, The Writing Life is a collection of stories accumulated during the writing of several books. Annie Dillard does not explain how to write books — she explains how to live a life in which you write, all day every day, and try to create with words on a page. There are few techniques here; rather, the book is filled with stories of how it feels to be stuck in a spot in the book (been there) and why the end product is never quite what we’d imagined starting out (felt that).
Mostly, The Writing Life tells you what to expect if you’re going to write books. It teaches you how to see stories with your eyes so that you can transfer them to your medium: the printed page. For me, it stirred a few deep thoughts, reminding me that I really couldn’t give up writing — and that’s what the writing life is. Closing the back page left me wanting to run and work on my writing from years ago. If you’re a writer — or wondering if you ought to keep trying to be a writer — The Writing Life will tell you.
Like any other of her books, Annie Dillard fills this one with many ridiculous stories and illustrations that capture her point. Her books are like a million sparks that fly up from a burning log: filled with many individual, unique stories. And here’s where the similarities to Pilgrim begin. Much like that book, the stories in The Writing Life made me want to follow in Dillard’s footsteps. This, I’d guess, is exactly why the book was written.
I’d recommend The Writing Life if you are looking at being a writer, are a writer, may someday be a writer, are married to a writer — if you’re at all connected to writing, you’ll enjoy the stories and message of this book. And if you’re not sure if you’re cut out to be a writer, give this a read: it’s only 120 pages. Maybe, like me, you’ll find out that you can’t not write.
A student of life in all forms (including moths and cats), Dillard illustrates that everything can be a subject worthy of writing about. How does she do it? Is there a secret? No. What she does is seclude herself from the world in places such as remote cabins and small rooms. It's a lonely life, often frustrating and aggravating. Once while working in an office on a university campus, Dillard kept the blinds closed to shut out the world. One night she kept hearing what she thought was a June bug hitting the window pane, and when she peeped behind the slats, she saw fireworks exploding and blossoming in the night sky. She had been so into her work that she had forgotten it was July 4th.
What I especially enjoyed about the book were the several stories about topics ranging from playing softball with young music prodigies to flying with an ace pilot. Every story has something relevant to the writing life. My favorite story was that of Paul Glenn when Dillard asked him how his work was going. Glenn told of a man who had been carried out to sea trying to bring a log in; despite the tides and currents, the man kept on rowing, just like Glenn kept on writing. Reading about the habits and inspiration of other writers was interesting too. Who knew that Eudora Welty loved Chekhov?
As a would-be writer who sometimes finds herself doubting whether people would be interested in reading what she has learned, I was encouraged by Dillard's comment, "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."
Appealing workplaces are to be avoided—imagination should meet memory in the dark. Writing usually comes slowly and with struggle.
Writing is “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.” This seems to capture so well the intersection between the labor of writing and the gift of something wonderful that takes us by surprise.
Dillard talks of following where a work leads; of discovering where it is going. She also suggests that art is sometimes like rowing against the tide. You keep at it and it doesn’t always seem to be getting you anywhere, but still you keep at it, trusting that it will.
This was lovely to read—full of striking metaphor and sharp images, and there were good bits throughout.