The Writing Life

The Writing Life

3.5 11
by Annie Dillard

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Annie Dillard has written eleven books, including the memoir of her parents, An American Childhood; the Northwest pioneer epic The Living; and the nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A gregarious recluse, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Annie Dillard has written eleven books, including the memoir of her parents, An American Childhood; the Northwest pioneer epic The Living; and the nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A gregarious recluse, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
For nonwriters, it is a glimpse into the tirals and satisfactions of a life spent with words. For writers, it is a warm, rambling, conversation with a stimulating and extraordinarily talented colleague.
Boston Globe
A kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer's task...Dillard brings the same passion and connective intelligence to this narrative as she has to her other work.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
For her book is...scattered with pearl. Each reader will be attracted to different bright parts...Gracefully and simply told, these little stories illuminate the writing life...Her advice to writers is encouraging and invigorating.
Detroit News
The Writing Life is a spare volume...that has the power and force of a detonating bomb...A book bursting with metaphors and prose bristling with incident.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st ed

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Chapter One

When you write, you lay out a line of wards. The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver'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.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins.

The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your cracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

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.

Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bakereality: this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start, over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter hogi excellent in themselves 'or hard-won. You can waste a' year worrying about it; or you can get it over with now. (Are you awoman, or a mouse?)

The part you must jettison is riot only the bestwritten part; it is also; oddly, that part'which was to have been the very' point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang; and from which you'yourself drew the courage to begin. Henry James knew it well, and said it best. In his preface to The Spoilt of Poynton, he pities the writer, in a comical pair of sentences that rises to a howl: "Which is the work in which he hasn't surrendered, under dire difficulty, the best thing he meant to have kept? In which indeed, before the dreadful done, doesn't he ask himself what has become of the thing all for the sweet sake of which it was to proceed to that ektremity?"

 So it is that a writer writes many books. In each book, he intended several urgent and vivid points, many of which he sacrificed as the book's form hardened. '"The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon," Thoreau noted mournfully, "or perchance a palace or temple on the earth and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them." The writer returns to these materials, these passionate subjects, as to unfinished business, for they are his life's work.

It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.

A painting covers its tracks. Painters work from the ground up. The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them. Writers, on the other hand, work from left to right. The discardable chapters are on the left. The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere, in the work's middle, and hardens toward the end. The earlier version remains lumpishly on the left; the work's beginning greets the reader with the wrong hand.

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The Writing Life 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Skills are those little beasts we have conquered, tamed into submission, and made our own, but instinct¿ that is that inner whisper that will not be quiet, even when we beg. It points us toward the light, every time. Its sound raises the little hairs on the back of our necks. Even when we choose not to listen - it speaks, it taunts with its truth. Annie Dillard is, to me, as a writer, as a woman, very much like that inner whisper of truth. She points me to the light, every time. Her words raise the little hairs on the back of my neck. When my creativity runs bone dry, I pick up a Dillard book ¿ and The Writing Life is almost always first off my shelf ¿ and I hear that whisper again. And oh, how delicious, to know that a writer such as Dillard can run just as bone dry, be just as tormented a writer¿s soul as the ¿common¿ rest of us.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I enjoyed deciphering this book and all of its hidden/implied meanings, the intended audience is definitely writers themselves. I saw no inspiration/motivation in this book for life in general. The focus is on steps you should take as you author a literary work. Sometimes the sense of humor of Annie Dillard just did not amuse me. I recommend this book to those who wish to be writers in the future or are currently working on something of their own.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, published in 1989 with 111 pages of large font text is an easy read. It has weathered the almost two decades since it's first issue simply fine. It consists of six chapters which I've roughly titled: What writing is about, Where we write, The writing life, Writing a book, Being stuck, and The writer as an artist. Chapter four, clearly headlined: 'SORRY TO TELL YOU A DREAM!' is two quick pages, and I, having not understood the heading, thought it was a very strange chapter indeed. In 2004, I began my reviews in the belief that reviewers should actually read the book they are writing about and delineate enough of the work so that their readers might have a good idea whether they'd like it enough to purchase it, rather than issue some vague verbiage almost always in an effort to promote sales of the book. With that in mind, and never having been a pleaser 'unless it involves my paycheck' I can tell you that I am simply unworthy to critique Ms. Dillard's work. I read chapters one and two gasping with my mouth locked wide open, shaking my head at the incredible word work of Annie D. while flinging my caffeinated saliva about the coffee shop. I drained so much of my pink highlighter on those pages, that I almost was forced to borrow a 1400 watt hair-dryer from the salon next door to blow them dry. As it is, the book, wetted from such frequent highlighting, almost appears as if it had been left out in the rain. Which in this Sonoran Desert is as rare as writing as good as her's is. Thankfully by chapter three, the author backs off and begins putting down sentences as if she indeed is someone born on this planet. Had that not happened, I am fairly sure I would have built an alter and begun worshiping the unseen artist of the text. While the book is certainly more of a biography than a how-to-write primer, I cannot imagine any person who enjoys writing and wishes to learn more about the craft not gaining buckets of insight, a few smiles and a handful of touching moments from The Writer's Life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found it to be pretentious and boring. Dillard went off on many tangents that had nothing to do with writing, and the book is barely 100 pages.
Connie_Mace More than 1 year ago
In this scattering of personal reflections and insights on her life as a writer, Dillard ponders the emotional angst common to many writers. Yet she weaves nuggets of humor throughout. “Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.” She reflects on authors who clutch tightly ideas which no longer work in their manuscript, yet the writer is loathe to give up: “How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord…Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer personally?” While defining writing as just “a line of words”, Dillard ponders the inchworm: “It wears out its days in constant panic…The wretched inchworm hangs from the sides of a grass blade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail. What? No further…End of world?” “'Why don’t you just jump?’ I tell it, disgusted. ‘Put yourself out of your misery.’” Writers often lament distractions which keep us from sitting in the chair to write. Dillard scolds, “If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours along with a hundred other Zulu warriors, you might be able to prepare yourself to write.” I found this book to be worth a read and enjoyed Dillard's ability to laugh at herself; A worthy trait, lest we take ourselves too seriously. I give The Writing Life by Annie Dillard 4 STARS **** Good book–ask for it at your local library.