The Writing Life by Annie Dillard is a poetic look at what is means to be a writer; albeit, the process explored is Dillard’s own and unique. However, her experiences of self-doubt, of frustration, even of fear, are familiar to anyone who has read a book about the writing process by any other writer. Or all the more familiar to anyone who has actually tried to write.
To be clear, this is not a practical guide. You won’t find pithy exercises telling you to set a timer, pick up a pen, and write. Nor will you find lengthy quotations from the canon or elsewhere. Instead, what you have is Dillard, sharing in a prose that is often so elevated it almost reads like poetry.
Now, it wasn’t too long ago that I gave a lukewarm review to her book Holy the Firm and I stand by that review. I don’t think I appreciated it although I truly tried. So imagine my delight when Dillard shares some doubts about a book she’d written, a book that is obviously that book, and how only a Yale professor critiqued it well. I admit, I am not at the standard of a Yale professor and if all of the other criticisms she received for that book missed the mark I somehow feel better. But that she conceded she may have been too obscure if only one critic appreciated what she was trying to do allows me to feel vindicated.
If I didn’t get that other book, at least she gets why. I think. (I also think I’ll end up rereading it someday because I could see that there were allusions to Julian of Norwich and the story of the moth reminded me of Don Marquis and maybe, just maybe, if I read it again I’ll have an epiphany that puts me on par with that Yale professor.)
But this review is not about that book.
There are times, even whole chapters, when Dillard seems to be writing about something else, anything but writing. However, the author uses metaphor the way a surgeon uses a knife, with a precision so intense that later only a sliver of scar remains to indicate something was cut at all. She uses her metaphors to get beneath the surface and, where other writers stop after they’ve shared their doubts and fears about their own writing or writing process, she is telling a story about chopping wood or about a mysterious chess game or a pilot. Only the attentive reader—or the writer who maybe has traveled, if not the same, a similar writing road as Dillard—will realize that every word of this book is about writing. Every story is a metaphor for some aspect of what it means to sit down and shut up and just write.
No Dillard doesn’t make it sound easy. It’s not. But her prose is dazzling and I’m glad I didn’t let one bad reading experience keep me from checking her out just one more time. Now I know there will be other times. And maybe time to reread that one book when I’m either more sophisticated or more innocent. I’ve a feeling one or the other will help me make sense where I could make none before.