I keep returning to Annie Dillard, poetic, astringent, profound, gnomic. I just read this great essay by writer Alexander Chee at The Mourning News on what it was like to study with Dillard as her student at Wesleyan University. It appears in the new book Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers On the People Who Changed Their Lives edited by Elizabeth Benedict. An excerpt from Chee’s remembrance:
“ ‘Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader,’ she announced. This seemed obvious but also radical—no one had ever said it so plainly to us. She spoke often of ‘the job.’ ‘If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.’
“We were to avoid emotional language. ‘The line goes grey when you do that,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad.’ When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. ‘She isn’t angry,’ Annie said. ‘She throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.’
“In the cutting and cutting and the ‘move this here, put this at the beginning, this belongs on page six,’ I learned that the first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four. That if the beginning isn’t there sometimes it’s at the end, that you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning, and that if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.
“One afternoon, at her direction, we brought in our pages, scissors and tape, and told to bring several drafts of an essay, one that we struggled with over many versions. ‘Now cut out only the best sentences,’ she said. And tape them on a blank page. ‘And then when you have that, write in around them,’ she said. ‘Fill in what’s missing and make it reach for the best of what you’ve written thus far.’
“I watched as the sentences that didn’t matter fell away. You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free. . . .
“ ‘Talent isn’t enough,’ she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. ‘I started with people much more talented than me,’ she said, ‘and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.’ . . .
“ ‘If I’ve done my job,’ she said in the last class, you won’t be happy with anything you write for the next 10 years. It’s not because you won’t be writing well, but because I’ve raised your standards for yourself. Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.’
“She paused here. This was another of her fugue states. And then she smiled. We all knew she was right. ‘Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go,’ she said. ‘Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.’ ”