It’s hard for me to overstate how much of an influence Annie Dillard has been on me over the years. A short story about weasels in her essay collection Teaching a Stone to Talk is a big part of my call story. The one about a man pursuing her as a child through the snow in her hometown of Pittsburgh is still one of my favorite images of prevenient grace. I can practically see the angels she describes assaulting her in a deserted field. There’s always a hint of danger in her writing as well as the presence of gobsmacking divinity.
“Everywhere I look I see fire,” she claims as she walks through Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. “That which isn’t flint is tinder and the whole world sparks and flames.”
So it’s a bit of a surprise to me that it has taken me 30 years and more to get to Dillard’s slim volume on writing, The Writing Life. It is not strictly a guide to writing. There are hardly any how-to’s. In fact, it seems like another collection of her essays about nature, since finding herself in space is such an inescapable theme for her. But writing is always in the background here as she details her study carrell at Hollins College or her cabin on a Puget Sound island.
Writing, she seems to say, is a mystery best approached indirectly. You can see your way to it in the way a stunt pilot rolls and pirouettes in the air. Or in the daylong mission of a neighbor in a row boat, fighting the tide to land a treasured floating log. Mostly you have to put yourself in places that feel like the verge of something awe-full.
No one describes the verge better than Dillard, who went to the island because it was so remote. “Once you’ve gone so far, you might as well test the limits, like an artist playing the edges, and all but sleep in the waves.” (83) It was my experience of going to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I clung to that small strip of land at the edge of the continent like Dillard did to the island. “That island haunts me,” she says. “I was not in prison there, but instead loosed on the shore of vastness.” (89)
There is more prosaic instruction here, though some of it comes off as a mere warning about becoming a writer. Describing the common writer’s lament about finding a fatal flaw in their work, Dillard says, “Once you find it, and if you can accept the finding, of course it will mean starting again. This is why many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade.” (10)
But Dillard is too addicted to the wonder she encounters to truly put a real writer off. She knows how vital writing that touches the spirit is. And she can’t turn away from the bone and marrow of it.
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you be writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? (68)