Why I’ve always loved Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard has been a writer in the fringes of my consciousness since I was a fledgling adult. Despite having only ever read one of her books, I’ve always talked about her being ‘my favourite writer’. The question is: Why?

Uh, so you’ve only read ONE of her books??

When I discovered The Writing Life, I was a full-time writer. I was about 20 years old. I was in the second year of a professional writing degree. I did literally nothing else but read and think and write. There weren’t any exams, it was all tradesmanship and art.

I read The Writing Life and felt like someone had breathed my life onto a page. For the first time, I felt like someone understood my epic battles with this thing that I was called to do. While all the study in the world is important, for the first time I felt like someone was really speaking to my soul.

The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Dillard was the only one to tell me not to write about what I know. Instead, she told me to write about the things that perplexed me, amazed me, bewildered me. She told me to take the things that I fail to understand, and to chase them, chase them, chase them, until they made sense to me.

This is why the dog-eared pages in this book lie as flat now as if they were manufactured that way.

This is why the margins of this book are forever marked with wiggly lines telling me to read it, read it, read it, read it again.

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?

Write about winter in the summer. Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris. Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartleford, Connecticut. Recently, scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I blame Dillard’s commentary for the reason why the Spanish sequences in The Integration Project caused its early-draft critics to comment, ‘Those are more realistic than everything else’. I’ve never been to Spain. I’ve never set foot in Europe, much less drunk coffee in Barcelona. But the scenes I wrote about Barcelona were more realistic to Australian readers than the scenes having lunch in an Australian pub.

Go figure.

Dillard’s words resonated in my abdomen because we’re the same species.

Annie Dillard challenges boundaries

I’m not going to get scholarly on you or on myself. Academics have done this so much that Dillard herself has lost track. Instead I’ll suggest that the boundary-challenging nature of Dillard’s work is more of a boundary-dissolving. The reason why I feel like she is inside me when I read her work is because she and I aren’t separate people. That boundary of selfhood is imaginary: I am you, you are me, and we are also the trees. Our experience of this multi-selfhood is just rare in a digital age that forces individualisation.

The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

On her website, Dillard has left commentary above each item in her bibliography.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes, was ‘trying my hand at prose’.

Holy the Firm, she writes, took her 14 months to write though critics suggested that it was written hastily. For that book, she resolved herself to write about whatever happened in her environment over the following three days… and then a plane crashed nearby.

About The Living she writes that she ‘talked myself’ into writing an old-fashioned novel. But it was the process that got her there, not her intention.

Tellingly, Dillard conceives The Writing Life as ’embarrassing nonfiction narrative’.

Here I’ll stop. You can read her annotated bibliography on her website.

Perhaps it’s the embarrassingly nonfiction narrative that speaks so warmly. It wouldn’t be embarrassing if it weren’t an extended moment of vulnerability. Paradoxically, Dillard voices the same things that I’ve also come to think about my art.

Foolishly, no dreaming I was about to set my own world tumbling down about my ears, I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else. He was amazed. He said, “That’s like a guy who works in a factory all day, and hates it.” Then I was amazed, for so it was. It was just like that. Why did I do it? I had never inquired. How had I let it creep up on me? Why wasn’t I running a ferryboat, like sane people?

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I’m currently reading Annie Dillard’s back catalogue

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m beginning the back catalogue with Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, which was Annie Dillard’s first published volume. I mean, I’m writing poetry right now. It would make sense, wouldn’t it, artistically and numerically? I have a friend who does that. He decides he wants to read an author, and reads their entire catalogue of works beginning with the first one. He reads them in sequence. I am in much admiration for his attitude and restraint, but I live a much more haphazard life. I am digging at random. I am reading wherever my heart takes me next.

This means that I’m beginning with For the Time Being. It tells me that my magnet isn’t back to front. From the earliest pages I found myself grinning in recognition:

Ted Bundy, the serial killer, after his arrest, could not comprehend the fuss. What was the big deal? David von Drehle quotes an exasperated Bundy in Among the Lowest of the Dead: “I mean, there are so many people.”

Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

Dillard found Bundy’s conception of numbers hilarious.

(So do I.)

What will happen if I decide I’m wrong about Annie Dillard and her work?

What if, after reading several more of her works, I decide that she’s a pompous git? A brainless twat? A self-absorbed person with ridiculous views of the world, and not a real sense of being Person? What if I read her work and become tired, or bored, or put off forever?

What will happen to my own concept of my life—my artistic life—if somehow Annie Dillard falls from the pedestal upon which I have placed her? Will her works fail in esteem? Will I never read them again, never recommend them, pass over her volumes in a library?

No, it’s unlikely.

Annie Dillard was a gateway drug. She was one of the first writers I’d encountered who was able to bring nature onto the page for me. Up until I read The Writing Life I had mostly read fiction and creative nonfiction essays. Most of those were about people, characters. Dillard wrote life.

After trembling so violently that it seemed it must blow apart, the moth took flight. Its wings blurred, like a hummingbird’s. It flew a few yards out over the water before it began losing altitude. It was going down. Its wings buzzed; it gained height and lost, gained and lost, and always lost more than it gained, until its heavy body dragged in the water, and it drowned before my eyes without a splash.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Without having been primed by this introduction to nature writing, I could still have read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and enjoyed it. I could still have read Underworld by Robert Macfarlane and felt rocks as brethren. It is simply that Dillard primed me to understand the intensely personal nature of experience. That priming enabled me to let go of myself more fully so that I could walk barefoot with Shepherd over the heather and feel how she stepped sideways over the foliage to maintain her pace. That priming enabled me to become overwhelmed by a desire to dive into a subterranean river just because it gushed so spectacularly, when Macfarlane had a moment of ridiculous exuberance.

What is important for me is that Dillard enabled me to identify with her. To grudgingly accept this fledgling artistry in myself. To know myself as artist, even if—when I first read her anyway—I was on a fast-track to running away from that artist in fear.

Why are we afraid of our art? Why are we so absorbed and consumed by it? Why do we do foolish things, imagining that they will help?

We do them because art is such a solo endeavour, so maligned in our society, that it’s hard to find the baring of an artist’s soul beyond its art. It’s uncommon to see an artist fuck it up.

It’s uncommon to see an artist admit it.

…I did not yet know how foolish it was to plan days of solitary confinement, days in which my only activity was walking four or five feet from the bed to the desk. […] The task was to change intellectual passion to physical energy and some sort of narrative mastery, from a standing start.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Unconscious imitation is a powerful tool

Once you know that you are using it, you can use it. The risk, as any artist knows, is that you are unaware of it.

In my early years, training this writer’s fire hose into some sort of shape, I was taught that imitating others is a powerful way to find your own voice. You begin to write. You write in the voices that you’re reading. You do this enough and eventually you break into your own style, your own voice, your own method. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

At this point in my life, where I feel like I am starting all over again (years of writing for others notwithstanding), I have to ask whether I’d be happy to imitate Dillard unconsciously. I probably would.

But in the context of admitting an undying love for a writer’s style, perhaps a better question is: Would I be happy not to?

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