Books about writing are loved by some and despised by others. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life was such a joy to read. The book is not what I expected originally – I thought it would be more of a “how-to” read – but pleasantly surprised me. It read like tokens of wisdom or short pieces of a conversation that you would have with Dillard herself. The book is full of similes and insight. It is fascinating how much knowledge she has on various topics and I found myself wondering if she gained it from life experiences alone or by researching random topics that she felt were worth comparing to writing.
The Writing Life is more a collection of thoughts or essays subdivided into chapters. With only 111 pages, it is a short read but not entirely an easy one. Dillard’s writing is sophisticated and complex and I found myself daydreaming and having to go back to reread passages. Nevertheless, her writing is brilliant. She is a skilled author and I found it refreshing to read about her writing process, bringing to light the struggles that we all encounter in this career.
Writing a book is not something that comes easily to everyone and to most authors, it is a constant struggle; this is a recurring theme throughout her book. A great example of her thoughts on this is a short piece she wrote on page 46:
The materiality of the writer’s life cannot be exaggerated. If you like metaphysics, throw pots. How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often “written” with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.
Reading this and many other parts of her book made me so relieved that I am not alone in the struggle. Early in the book on pages 13 and 14, Dillard gives the example of how it takes the average writer five to ten years to write a book and how the few prodigies that wrote books in a week or a month or even a year are statistically irrelevant. She says, “Out of the human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.”
I could go on and on in breaking down this short book that is stacked with Dillard’s musings but I am going to control myself and suggest that you read it for yourself. Until next time…