Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, was an interesting one to read directly after Stephen King’s book (On Writing). The two are so different. I’ve loved Dillard for a long time, although I have read strikingly little of all that she’s written. I wrote a long essay inspired by one of her essays for one of my favorite writing classes in college.
In this book, she winds metaphor after metaphor, linking them with a few real-life stories, to describe what it’s like to build a life as a writer.
You lay out a line of words.
And then another.
The page is what teaches you to write.
That’s her thing.
At times, she seemed to be trying to hard, but I also wanted to be swept up in her descriptions of nature and loosely connected threads of thoughts. She acknowledged this perceived high-brow-ness with a story; she was humbled when a child referenced one of her essays that she thought only “the critics” had appreciated. So that helped.
It’s a short book – barely a hundred pages. Fun fact: I own a first edition, which I must have gotten from a used bookstore. Reading her perspective reinforced the ideas that I started marinating after King’s book. There were a few more relatable moments with Dillard, though. She has a love-hate relationship with the practice of writing, and I FEEL that.
She talks about chopping wood. By the way, context: she would spend whole seasons in a cabin on an island somewhere off the coast of Washington. So, that’s where she’s coming from…we have the same life…
She talks about trying to chop wood and aiming for the log itself and getting nowhere. She only started chopping through wood when she aimed for the chopping block. That hit me like a ton of logs in the moment when I understood exactly what she meant about writing.
Another very relatable thing that I appreciated was her hypothetical timeline for writing a book. Stephen King’s is three months. Annie says, “It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant…Out of a human population on earth of [billions], perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too.” I was definitely laughing out loud. Every writer/person is different, y’all.
Read these little quotes that express my feelings, and then I’ll talk more.
“…your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several close judgment calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality.”
“What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days….Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading – that is a good life.”
“Politely, he asked me about my writing. Foolishly, not 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…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?”
And this, quoted at the beginning of Chapter Seven: “It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.” – Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
(Although I would say that a lot of my anxiety comes from the fact that…most people are calling themselves writers, man. There just isn’t a market for that…even an intellectual/individual market. I can’t possibly read all of the personal blogs by people I know who are good writers, and keep up with whatever kind of journalism I’m into, and read books, and read emails, etc. And neither can you. How are you even reading this? And if I’m really just one of the voices screaming into the void, and not good enough to pursue publishing – or not productive enough [duh] – then what am I doing? Just more triviality? This is my spiral.)
Writing all day everyday is not a real thing. It’s not a full-time job unless you’re living on an inheritance or have a spouse that’s supporting you and your children and your nanny…which I suppose is more realistic than being an heir to fortune.
But even if it seemed like a real possibility, I’m not sure I would choose it. It’s not that I mind being alone. (Frankly, I often choose it, mostly because I tend to feel like an idiot whenever other people are around. I lose my speech because my head empties of anything interesting and fills up with vapidity, and I know that everyone in the room is more immediately interesting to everyone else and I would prefer to go home where there’s nobody making their first impression of me or affirming their first impression of me or giving me a chance which I will somehow butterfinger away.) I am obviously more comfortable by myself. But hours upon hours? With just my thoughts? The above parenthetical rants are pretty good examples of what that’s like. It also means there’s a deficit…the inspiration well is never being filled up. In one way, that’s part of writing. To quote Dillard one more time, “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the writer’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.” She’s not exactly endorsing that approach, but I think every writer is probably in danger.
I want to do more tangibly meaningful work. I also want to write tangibly meaningful work. But like I was saying, most writers have to make it work. Stephen King and his wife worked long hours in low-wage jobs, scraped by with little ones, and he wrote in the back room or the hallway or wherever he had to, continually trying to get paid for it. I’m not used to having to work that hard. Privilege has been my reality, and it has given me so much to be grateful for. It has also robbed me of some valuable life lessons, so that I’m a little behind and a little bit eating-humble-pie about it. Oh, you have to work and try and fail and keep going if you really want to do something? What if it’s too hard? Then maybe you’ll just never do it.
Oh, also! This is the book that the quote at the top of my blog’s home page came from. SHOUTOUT! Here’s the longer chunk that bit came from:
“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.
Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”
Podcast: Pass the Mic
Show: Brooklyn 99
Music: supafun new singles from Arcade Fire. Also, Blind Pilot always. Listening to them riiight nowwww and feelin’ warm like whiskey. The Staves. Music is my writing backdrop sorry.