The Writing Life

The Writing Life

by Annie Dillard


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 In this collection of short essays, Annie Dillard—the author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood—illuminates the dedication, absurdity, and daring that characterize the existence of a writer. A moving account of Dillard’s own experience, The Writing Life offers deep insight into one of the most mysterious professions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060919887
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/12/2013
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 68,214
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.29(d)
Lexile: 880L (what's this?)

About the Author

Annie Dillard has written twelve books,including in nonfiction For the Time Being, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Holy the Firm, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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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 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 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.
L. K. Simonds 11 days ago
Cami is twenty-nine and enviously successful. Her first novel was a sleeper hit, turning Cami into a best-selling author and minor celebrity. Based on outward appearances, Cami has it all, but underneath the façade, she's fading fast....Cami's character is more in line with the gritty female protagonists found in mainstream fiction, reminding me closely of Gillian Flynn's Camille Preaker or Amy Dunne from Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, respectively. Further, Simonds' writing is equally raw and uncompromised, not shying away from Cami's promiscuity and substance abuse. Again, All In feels more like the mercilessly-honest styles of current literary stars like Ottessa Moshfegh and Celeste Ng, and not at all like a Christian Fiction novel.
origprod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought this was dreadful, 110 pages of navel watching, embellished with self indulgent poetic musings. Others have found it spiritual, sensitive and lucid. I thought it was a real yawn.
kateking on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Annie Dillard does not glamorise the writing life. She tells it as it is - mostly hard work, occasional high flying. Many of the metaphors and little stories she tells to describe the life of a writer are amusing, but hit hard at any romantic notions about writing. The cameo story she tells of an inchworm climbing one blade of grass after another, searching frantically for the next step at the top of each blade, resonated with me. Hammering together lines of words, probing ideas, keeping the whole thing together never gets easier. We just keep blindly on, climbing the blade, searching for the next, leaping into the void in faith. So often we write into the dark. Even long-published, feted writers like Annie Dillard, fear that no one reads them, except maybe nerds, academics, or other writers in the same field. Once, after publishing a long and complex essay partly concerning a moth and a candle, she thought that no one but an academic critic had understood it, or even read it. Some little boys came to the door as she was despairing about her wasted life. One of the children noticed a picture of a candle and asked if that was the one that the moth had flown into. Annie was bowled over. A child had heard the story and understood it well enough to tell it back. Such incidents lighten the solitude of writing and make the grind worthwhile. I highly recommend this small book to any writer or aspiring writer. It is full of pearls of wisdom and Annie Dillard parables. It encourages even as it sweeps the rose-coloured glasses onto the floor.
wewerefiction on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My experience with NaNoWriMo this year reminded me of high school and, oddly enough, reading The Writing Life reminded me of NaNoWriMo. It's not mutual, however; this book only reminded me of high school in the sense that I could imagine being required to read and analyze it on a high school level. Maybe it's because Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood are both reading list titles here (though I was never required to read them), but I still found myself picking out phrases here and there that in my brain sounded like the clanking and clinking of doing dishes. Those were the sort of wincing noises I hear now while reading phrases and excerpts that "discussion" questions would have been based on. (They were never really discussion questions, were they? You could answer them quite simply in 2-3 sentences and being that they had right or wrong answers, there wasn't much to discuss once someone got them right.)NaNoWriMo reminded me of high school primarily because of this excerpt on pages 70-71:Hemingway studied, as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hansun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Thoreau loved Homer; Eudora Welty loved Chekhov. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; E. M. Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust. By contrast, if you ask a twenty-one-year-old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, "Nobody's." In his youth, he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat. Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gauguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work's possibilities excited them; the field's complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks.It's not that I don't think anyone at NaNoWriMo is a real writer; it's more that the majority of the people I conversed with during my time at the forums weren't. This was their first foray into writing and they believed themselves to be absolutely brilliant. Had they read anything in the past year? No, just magazine articles on pop celebrities. It's the idea that people only write to wear "the hat," to take the role, to call themselves "an author" after they've spit out a load of filler material to make a certain word count. It's that people think writing a novel within a month is enough, that they'll get published immediately even sometimes without editing. Falling in love with the first draft never gets anyone anywhere. Most final drafts only slightly resemble first drafts. That's how it should be, but the "twenty-one-year-old poet" who likes "Nobody's" poetry ruined the whole experience for me. That's not to say that I discourage people from writing for the first time, nor do I discourage anyone from striving to make a great work of writing even if it's their first time. This is why I've fallen in love with NaNoWriMo: because even if you have no experience with it, the community strives to encourage you to reach your goal. Some people might get high-hatted believing only in their brilliance and their certain success, but the world outside of NaNoWriMo is full of people who think they're more important than they are. It's one of those "double-edged swords" that people talk about, like the argument that Oprah's book club is awful in the mind of a reader of literature, because no one would have read One Hundred Years of Solitude were it not for h
rmckeown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book ages ago, and its quiet simplicity makes it one I return to again and again. If you like reading and writing, this slim volume will surprise and please you to no end.Here is an example of Dillard¿s delightful style: ¿Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature. It is a subtle thing ¿ a poor thing, but our own. In my view, the more literary the book -- the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep ¿ the more likely people are to read it. The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have¿ (19).You need this book. You need to sit down some quiet afternoon and read it. Then, keep it close by and read it again when the fancy strikes you! 5 stars--Jim, 11/24/09
miriamparker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I remember loving this, but I have absolutely no memory of it except something about staring at a brick wall.
melydia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a group of short essays more or less about life while writing (well, except for the last chapter, which is entirely about a stunt pilot). While I usually find books around writing inspiring and informative, this slim volume did nothing for me. The author spends a lot of time describing the agony and tedium of writing right after saying that the amount of work put into a book is irrelevant to its quality. Some of the language was kind of pretty, but in general it felt disjointed and self-serving, like reading an amatuer's blog.
kathysoper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The work of writing, examined in lyrical, sophisticated prose.
pw0327 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was in search of books on essays, not so much on how to write but how to go about writing. The approach, the discipline of writing. I have been a writer of technical material most of my life and I wanted to look at non-technical writing. This little book was not what I was looking for at the time, but it is definitely inspirational in unexpected ways.The book seemed to be unstructured, even though it is. The ideas within each chapter leads nicely into one another and it tells Annie Dillards story of what she fights with daily as a writer and what joys she finds in writing, the joys which continues to propel her onward at her craft. I enjoyed the book thoroughly even though I stumbled onto it by accident. Ms Dillard kind of gave me a "hang in there, I've been there too.." feeling, which is always comforting. She also uses some incredible writing to convey her experience. So you can look at the book on many levels, as a very nice work of writing, as an advice book, and as an enjoyable read.
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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.