Annie Dillard on structure in nonfiction

from “To Fashion a Text,” collected in Zinsser: Inventing the Truth

“I like to be aware of a book as a piece of writing, and aware of its structure as a product of mind, and yet I want to see the represented world through it. I admire artists who succeed in dividing my attention more or less evenly between the world of their books and the art of their books. In fiction we might say that the masters are Henry James and Herman Melville. In nonfiction the writer usually just points to the world and says, ‘This is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. This is what Abraham Lincoln was about.’ But the writer may also make of his work an original object in its own right, so that the reader may study the work with pleasure as well as the world that it describes. That is, works of nonfiction can be coherent and crafted works of literature.”

“When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted fifteen years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.”

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-narrative, fiction, flow, NOTED, poetry, structure

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