The Writing Life is a very small book—only 111 pages—that has been in my bookcase for many years. Its author, Annie Dillard, is well known in literary circles. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her 1975 book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and was included in Random House’s survey of the century’s 100 best nonfiction books. Her books have been translated into at least ten languages.
The back cover of The Writing Life is filled with glowing praise, such as this quote from the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We may fairly ask that a book about writing be, itself, a work of art. And that is what Dillard offers… Anyone hoping to see inside the process of literary artistry is unlikely to find a more lucid, sensitive or poetic view.” The Cleveland Plain-Dealer described her advice to writers as “encouraging and invigorating.”
This last comment caused me to question my own impressions because I did not find her advice to writers to be either encouraging or invigorating. I read every one of those 111 pages and didn’t find any advice that I could apply to my own writing life. I am going out on a limb here as probably one of the few book reviewers who did not like this book. I found absolutely no parallels between Ms. Dillard’s experiences and mine. Her book is filled with many unconnected little stories, analogies and metaphors, and descriptions of the places in which she wrote, all of which seemed to need a better heating system.
I did not find this an easy book to read. One reason was that it felt disjointed as if the author was just jotting down whatever came to mind at that moment. The other reason was she made the writing life sound like the last thing in the world any intelligent person would choose as a vocation—that being a writer was a pretty painful business. What follows are a few of Annie Dillard’s thoughts. (I know they are out of context, but they jumped off the page at me as I was reading and seemed to encapsulate her feelings about her chosen craft.)
- “It takes years to write a book—between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant.”
- “On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of days he concludes he must throw them away.”
- “I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit then struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.”
- “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.”
- “Why people want to be writers I will never know unless it is that their lives lack of material footing.”
- “I do not so much as write a book and sit up with it as with the dying friend.”
- “I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else.”
- “It should surprise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation.”
- “I asked myself where my life had gone wrong. I was too far removed from the world. My work was too obscure, too symbolic, too intellectual. It was not available to people.”
The following sentence seems to prove her point: “The irrational haunts the metaphysical. The opposite meet in the looping sky above appearances, or in the dark alley behind appearances, where danger and power dual in a blur.” What does that mean?