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The Writing Life
Annie Dillard
Published by Harper & Row in 1989
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©1999


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This is a thoroughly enjoyable book. I found out about the book while reading The Writing Trade by John Jerome (see ARJ), in which he writes about the year 1989 as he lived it working in his trade as a free-lance writer. He had quotes from Dillard's book sprinkled throughout his book and now I see that Dillard's book came out in the year 1989 Jerome must have read her book while he was writing his. Jerome's book was a snapshot of his life during one year whereas Dillard's book is more like a series of video vignettes or music videos compiled from her life as a writer covering several years and writing locations that varied from the San Juan islands on the West Coast to the Cape Cod seashore on the East Coast.

She writes beautifully crafted metaphors, and the very first lines of the book grabbed me in two ways: as a writer and as a wood carver.

[page 3] When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner's pick, a wood carver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

Wood carving or wood sculpture is a subtractive medium you start with a block of wood or a section of a tree trunk and you subtract wood by digging away wood with a gouge. The block of wood is the blank page on which you write with the gouge, but unlike blank sheets of paper, each piece of wood has unique characteristics of texture, grain, knots, soft spots, etc. You start with a block of wood and a plan, but soon the wood begins to dictate and shape the plan as you remove successive layers of wood with your gouge. Soon the wood's plan becomes clear and you must merge your plan into the wood's plan. Writing is more like wood carving or stone carving and less like the metal sculptures of Rodin, where the beauty is in the precise execution of a pre-ordained plan in metal. When a writing piece is complete, the author knows that a single line can neither be added nor subtracted from the work without harming it. So, too, with wood carving.

In the process of editing one's writing, the metaphor becomes that of home renovation. You know the drill there's a wall here that must go in order to make room for a large Jacuzzi bathtub. You begin your editing process and:

[page 4] The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years' attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference., Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.

The next metaphor is about submissions and this time you are a photographer who submits pieces of your work to a professional for appraisal. He puts the landscape in the bad stack. Next time your photographs are submitted along with the same landscape, which again goes into the bad stack. Finally the pro asks why you like the landscape so much. What do you answer? "Because I had to climb a mountain to get it." (Page 6) I would be tempted to tell you, "Thank God you don't have to climb a mountain to discard it."

How do you catch the first idea to begin writing? Annie tells the story of an Algonquin woman that the writer Ernest Thompson Seton came upon he noticed a scar on her thigh and asked through his interpreter how she got the scar. In a winter camp everyone but she and her baby had starved to death. She walked to the lake and found a fishhook. She rigged a line and cut a strip from her thigh for bait.

[page 13] She fished with the worm of her own flesh and caught a jackfish; she fed the child and herself. Of course she saved the fish gut for bait.

How do you know whether you're wasting time or that your writing is working? Annie tells of having to split wood to keep warm in her small writing hut. Her attempts to split the wood always seemed to create small splinters of wood and once she ended up with a pyramid of wood remaining which she attempted to balance on its peak and split with the axe before it fell over. Her splitting activity drew spectators who would drop by to watch her. She truly warmed herself in the process of chopping wood thus. Then one night a voice in a dream said, "Aim for the block!" The next day she successfully split every log with one clean stroke she aimed for the block and her axe sped through the wood in one stroke, contacting the block with a satisfying thunk! Unfortunately the wood splitting went so fast that she never exerted herself enough to warm up. "I lost the knack," she says on page 43.

On a day when any reasonable person would be sleeping for its duration, how did Dillard crank herself up? "I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist." (Page 49) After her judicious application of coffee, she finally got to her writing task. "I inserted words in one sentence and hazarded a new sentence. At once I noticed that I was writing which, as the novelist Frederick Buechner noted, called for a break, if not a full-scale celebration." (Page 50) More boiled Brazilian fuel later and soon she was too wired to write or do much of anything else:

[page 51] Now, alas, I had cranked too far. I could no longer play the recorder; I would need a bugle. I would break a piano. What could I do around the cabin? There was no wood to split. There was something I need to fix with a hacksaw, but I reject the work as too fine. Why not adopt a baby, design a curriculum, go sailing?

What happens if you stop working on a book for a couple of days? From my work on my dolphin novel, I can only echo the sentiments that Dillard writes below:

[page 52] A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. . . . it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, "Simba!"

What if a writer hates to write would prefer to be doing anything else? If so that person is "living as it were in a fool's paragraph." (Page 53) When Dillard shared with the ferryman that she hated to write, he told her, "That's like the guy who works in a factory all day, and hates it." That did it for her and she thought to herself, "Why wasn't I running a ferryboat, like sane people?"

If you want to be a writer, if you would like to write lines and see where they take you, if you would like to spend time in "a small room in the company of small pieces of paper," if you like sentences, then perhaps the writing life is for you. If you're not sure, The Writing Life is for you.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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