Read This!

I’m so tired lately…tired with a capital T, life-tired, so I haven’t been able to write things specific to this venue…but an old mentor, a lovely and talented woman, told me this was good, so I give you this, as a paltry holiday gift…pay it forward.  Spread it liberally.  Fuck copyrights and plagiarism.  I’m sure someone’s said all this already anyway…

Review of The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard

The concept of instructive texts or handbooks runs the gamut from the totally inane and worthless to the simple, straightforward didactic.  On the former end we have Sex for Dummies, or any text that seeks to teach how you to do something that is biologically intuitive (imagine, Breathing for Idiots!)  Nearby is Rhonda Byrnes’ The Secret, and the myriad other works that show you how you can be happy all the time and get what you want by expending little-to-no effort.  On the latter end, we find step-by-step books, recipe books, exercise methods, etc., texts which involve less metaphysical output and more purely temporal effort and investment.  And then in the middle is the murky area, the place where we find the books that try to teach us those things that involve equal amounts of faith and perseverance, of luck and talent, of passion and detachment.  These are the books in which the writer wishes to teach, or impart wisdom regarding, artistic endeavors: painting, photography, sculpture, music, writing, and parenting.  (She says without a hint of sarcasm.)  The people who author these books-in-the-middle best take a position from which they can both denigrate their chore (as small, meaningless, and simple) and revere it (as all-encompassing, essential and mystifying.)  They must do this because they must know, and in turn be able tell the reader, that their success and authority comes from two places: the smallness of their chore, the banality of it, the scheduling and discipline and eschewing of the more sparkly things in life in favor of work work work, and the grandness of it, the talent that has, in a sense, been bestowed upon them by God.  Without finding such balance, the writer is likely to adopt a tone either too passive or too aggressive, and in either case, will alienate the reader.  Annie Dillard finds such a balance in her book The Writing Life. She does not alienate the reader, though she keeps him at arm’s length.  She inspires awe for many reasons.
The first thing one will notice about Dillard’s book is that it is a slip of a thing, a mere 111 pages, the perfect length for something so calm and meditative.  Any shorter and it would have lacked conclusion; any longer and the reader might be lulled to slumber.  It is also, one will notice upon beginning, certainly not a chronological narrative, though it becomes increasingly more so toward the end.  Dillard begins with small passages about the writing life, the terror of it, the boredom of it, interspersed with short, poignant anecdotes from her personal life and musings on the failures and successes of literature itself, mostly the failures.  She talks about the concept of a schedule, describes the habits of other masters and how even the most prolific differ in what they need.  She equates the work-in-progress to a febrile creature, something sickly and desperate, something you must tend to.  The unfinished piece is seen as something flawed, overly sensitive and liable to combust; a sputtering, fat moth, for example, or a person on the edge of death.  She talks about Chasidic wisdom, about the moment of peril between the invocation of God and the asking for his forgiveness.  As the book moves forward, she describes in detail her life in silent, lonely places: a pine-shed-cum-study on Cape Cod, an isolated island off of the coast of Washington, the silent nights of dark libraries and abandoned university buildings.  She struggles to write on the island, which I envision as all mist and wooden oars, to write and to chop wood, until the wisdom is bestowed upon her in a dream.  “Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”  Each subsequent chapter seems to be more subjectively unified and at the end you realize they were all leading up toward Chapter Seven, which is almost entirely focused on the character of David Rahm, a stunt pilot Dillard met and flew with out in Washington state.  It is in this chapter that the reader should realize that Dillard has built us up for this ride with Rahm; she has prepared us for taking flight, for the barrel rolling and the nausea-inducing dip a wee bit close to the snowy mountain tops, by giving us the spiritual strength for it.  She has told us, in so many subtle ways, ways only understood retroactively, perhaps, about the danger of walking on the edge, about how it may amount to nothing, about how it may feel unpleasant in the moment, but that you must go on, you must “give it, give it all, give it now.”  Learn from me, she has said, and from the great ones, and from the Rabbis and the inchworm and the painters and the dreams.  “Aim past the wood…aim for the chopping block.”
A very interesting thing about this personal work is that while there are parts of it aimed at a very particular audience –– that of writers –– Dillard never makes it explicitly clear that she’s instructing the would-be bard or journalist.  When she is speaking directly to them/us, it is usually a seamless narration, something done on the sly, so you barely realize she’s giving you advice or encouragement as a writer.  Often time, when constructing a metaphor for writing a book, she puts the reader in the “you” position of the writer.  “You climb a long ladder until you can see over the roof, or over the clouds.  You are-writing a book.”  She hands out small pieces of advice to the writer-reader but is rarely overly sure of herself or her process; her suggestions seem just that, kind acts of benevolence on her part.  One of the most striking and direct things she offers the reader is advice to give writer friends discouraged with their pace of work.  This small piece gives the reader the sense of being cherished as an equal (for I know you will have to comfort your colleagues about this problem, she says) and yet also instructed as a pupil, by a master.  The fact that the text as a whole isn’t shouted at the writer-as-reader (How to Write a Book in Seven Steps!) leaves it open, though, to people who perhaps don’t have the urge to pick up those tools she describes at the opening.  It is not E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, something that might read as too dry or too specific for the lay person.  The Writing Life can also be read as a glimpse into the existence of another.  Dillard takes us into her world, as simultaneously serene and turbulent as the sea, and shows us what it’s like to live there.
What makes Dillard’s quietude bearable is her wit and its acuity.  It is not something she wields often, as it has the power to devastate the more sensitive at heart, but it is a welcome relief from what often reads as melancholy soliloquy.   She does not want the reader to harbor delusions about the life of a writer, the futility of the operation as a whole, the long days and nights of no-sound, but she isn’t about to entomb us without humor.  In fact, for someone whose tone is so often gentle and smooth, Dillard can bite, and does so fiercely.  “Few sights are so absurd as that of an inchworm leading its dimwit life,” she writes.  Or, when discussing the advantages of writing long works, Dillard philosophizes, “It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick.  So you might as well write Moby-Dick.”
Dillard shows us what she goes through in the name of writing, what we go through for it, something that many of us, including her, actively despise: the humor-as-defense, the distracted, lonely mornings at the seaside, finding the edge, spinning, becoming nauseated with mental energy, obsessed, lost.  Adrift, forced to use only our hearts and our prayers to keep us afloat.  She shows us that, and then at the end, without explicitly doing so, she shows us that we’ve been doing it the whole time.  Even in moments of sleep, we have been there, in what the Chasids call tveykos, which means we have lost ourselves in “a transcendent state of cleaving to God.”  We are brave, always, holding our breath for the last magnificent trick, for the crash.  By reminding us of this, the fear and the fact that we are overcoming it, always, she gives us further courage, courage to go and hack away at a sentence, dissect a thought, structure a foundation.  She has given that to me, and off I go, all the while aiming at the chopping block, not the wood.


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