Annie Dillard

The Writing Life

“One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

In Annie Dillard‘s (born April 30, 1945) right hand the pen, before her eyes the computer, and around her shoulders a dark cloak of uninterrupted, protected space.

Once, in order to finish a book I was writing and yet not live in the same room with it, I begged a cabin to use as a study. I finished the book there, wrote some other things, and learned to split wood. All this was on a remote and sparsely populated island on Haro Strait, where I moved when I left Virginia. The island was in northern Puget Sound, Washington State, across the water from Canadian islands.

The cabin was a single small room near the water. Its walls were shrunken planks, not insulated; in January, February, and March, it was cold. There were two small metal beds in the room, two cupboards, some shelves over a little counter, a wood stove, and a table under a window, where I wrote.

The meandering and even whimsical The Writing Life, from the mesmerizing Pulitzer Prize novelist and nature writer, launches with a truism advised by so many creatives: Sit down, stay there. Write.

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. 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.

This “staying put” is about existing with and within your work. It is characteristic of Dillard. Her 1974 groundbreaking Pilgrim at Tinker Creek explored an existence within nature and changed nature writers from being visitors to inhabitants.1

I’m on a little island shaped like a tear in the middle of Tinker Creek. On one side of the creek is a steep forested bank; the water is swift and deep on that side of the island. On the other side is the level field I walked through next to the steers’ pasture; the water between the field and the island is shallow and sluggish. In the summer’s low water, flags and bulrushes grow along a series of shallow pools cooled by the lazy current… Today I sit on dry grass at the end of the island by the slower side of the creek. I am drawn to this spot. I come to it as an oracle.

From Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The steady accumulation of time “piece by piece” unrolls nothingness into nothingness and suddenly, into being.

The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses—to secure each sentence before building on it is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop. Perfecting the work inch by inch, writing from the first word toward the last, displays the courage and fear this method induces.

Preface to Oliver Twist Cheap Edition by Charles Dickens, 1850. Featured in Sol Stein's "Stein on Writing" in the Examined Life Library.
The hand-written preface to a reprint of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist in 1850. Between the drafts is Dicken’s writer-self, I feel him when I look at this. Learn more. Courtesy of Mark Charles Dickens, © CC BY 4.0

Writing needs a space to lay out words, a writer must exist within that space. Dillard advised four corners and four walls and an utter avoidance of comfort and intrigue.

Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window. Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder-block cell over a parking lot. It overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. This pine shed under trees is not quite so good as the cinder-block study was, but it will do. “The beginning of wisdom,” according to a West African proverb, “is to get you a roof.”2

The winnowing down of necessity and reducing the fear of being interrupted holds the writer in a tiny space between the eyes and the monitor, the mind and the writing.

Now you watch symbols move on your monitor; you stare at the signals the probe sends back, transmits in your own tongue, numbers. Maybe later you can guess at what they mean – what they mean — what they might mean about space at the edge of the solar system, or about your instruments. Right now, you are flying. Right now, your job is to hold your breath.

But the smoothness is momentary, the tangent meeting the circle. More often than not, the writer is suffering, hopeless and alone.

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see emotion.

Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.3

As you float and suffer and write in this protected “horizon of consciousness”, Dillard is emphatic that not only must we leave the writing there (Jane Austen used to tuck manuscripts into drawers so she could exist apart) but we must also leave our writer-self there.

How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord? How many gifts do we open from which the writer neglected to remove the price tag? Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer personally?

Photograph of my garden shed. Featured in Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life" in The Examined Life Library.
British gardener Gertrude Jekyll once sighed that she longed for a small shed in the garden where no one would bother her. My garden – sometimes writing – shed. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The consciousness of writing is unbearable.4 I knew I was no fiction writer when I failed to let my plants die (“Let the houseplants die” urges Dillard). My pothos gleamed in the sun as my fiction withered in shade.5

Writing demands an emotional space, the writing-self demands an emotional space.

Reading also demands a space, so I gently invite you to enter these works in hopes you too are met with grace. Anna Deavere Smith’s hearty advice for young creatives, my own study of the emotional space created by tea and poetry, the symbiotic relationship between freedom and discipline, and a study of our need to empty ourselves in order to be filled.

Illustration of Annie Dillard for Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" in the Examined Life Library.