The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. 111 pp. $9.56
Sometime after the excitement of beginning her book a serious writer will discover her work’s own “intrinsic impossibility,” says Dillard. Eventually she’ll probably throw out the main point, her grand vision, and settle for the more modest discovery she made in writing.
If a writer had any sense, she’d devote herself to a career selling catheters. The Writing Life is about persistent inquiry and love. A sort of commiseration, it contains rules of thumb: throw out the beginning; the book begins in what you thought was the middle. It can take years and heartbreak to see that—another given.
“Once, for example, I learned from a conversation with a neighbor that I had been living in a fool’s paragraph,” Dillard says.
Neighborly advice is unintentional, however. Anyone who’s written a creative book is full of woe and wonder, but Dillard notes in her dry way that civilians really don’t care. (How much do you crave tales of your brother-in-law’s plumbing supply business?) However, as a veteran, she offers this: “It makes more sense to write one big book—a novel or nonfiction narrative—than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’ inventions and richnesses.”
There’s a lot of reading: a writer must study literature, must know what’s been done so she can try to exceed it. Dillard adds this spooky caution:
“He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”
She’s on record elsewhere as advising writers to read history. She counts a life spent reading as a good one, though her fascination with bugs and rocks and stars draws her outside. She’s the plucky one with binoculars around her neck. When writing her books, she stared at the wall:
“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”
Years after The Writing Life she worked on a novel set on Cape Cod. She piled up 1,200 pages. It took ten years. Then she saw the book’s heart, a love story, couldn’t bear the weight of geologic history and began cutting. The Maytrees, a shimmering work of art published in 2007, is 216 pages. [Since reviewed here.) She said it almost killed her and announced her retirement after twelve books.
Her book on writing is rare because it isn’t aimed at complete beginners—of course, she calls it a memoir. Sometime during the two to ten years it takes someone to write a decent book (another precept) the writer should read The Writing Life. The book (Dillard’s, that is) won’t make much sense otherwise. It isn’t much of a how-to guide unless someone has sweated through a manuscript, and then it’s the best.