Dr Anjuli Pandavar
Review

Annie Dillard
The Writing Life
New York, Harper Perennial, 1990
111pp. US$13.99
978 0 06 091988 7

“When you write, you lay out a line of words. 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,” p3.

This is the opening paragraph of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, in which she describes her dwelling inside her writer’s consciousness. It is an opening paragraph that encapsulates the whole book, just as that first sentence encapsulates the first paragraph. This reminds me of the first time I appreciated the power of an opening paragraph and especially the opening sentence. It was from Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, a very different kind of book, of course. The opening paragraph reads:

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as 'an immense accumulation of commodities,' its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”

Wow! I was hooked. The opening paragraph of The Writing Life hit me in a similar way. If you’re entering a life of writing, then enter The Writing Life. That’s what “When you write, you lay out a line of words,” said to me. It said, trust me, I know what I’m talking about, as did that first line in Capital, all those many years ago.

The book has seven chapters, but interestingly, no Table of Contents. That, too, says something, for while there is a clear flow from beginning to end, there is a certain amorphousness to the structure that echoes the writer’s mind at work. It is not a manual on “How to be a Writer in Ten Easy Steps,” rather, it is a richly anecdotal meander through the lessons she’s learnt along the way. The anecdotes serve to build up to the lessons. One such lesson, pertinent to most writers, including me, is writing doesn’t qualify for inclusion in your book just because you put so much effort into it. It has to be good writing, even if it came to you in an instant. She tells the anecdote of a taxi ride:

“The cabdriver sang his song to me, in New York. Some we sang together. He had turned the meter off; he drove around midtown, singing. One long song he sang twice; it was the only dull one. I said, you already sang that one; let’s sing something else. And he said, ‘You don’t know how long it took me to get that one together.’
    How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical chord? 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?” p7.

How often do we not hear books juxtaposed with films. ‘I wasn’t as good as the book,’ or ‘I’ve read the book and don’t think I want to see the film’, or ‘You’ve read the book, now see the movie!’ Dillard talks about how the silver screen sneaks its way into the writing of a writer with a screenplay version already pressing at the back of his mind. She’s very clear about this. There are people who prefer films and people who prefer books. The people who want books want books for what books do. So write good books, not book that try to be films. “I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place,” p19.

She writes quite a bit about the physical space in which the writing takes place, again mainly anecdotally. What the space needs to be like, what has to be in it. What her space was like and what was in it (and not in it). How what the writer sees and doesn’t see of the world around them while writing. I think I much prefer Dillard’s citing of the west African proverb, “The beginning of wisdom, is to get you a roof,” (p27) to Virginia Woolf’s, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Over three brilliant pages, pp56-8, Dillard describes, “What happens in the small room between the writer and the work itself.” This is pure writer’s heart talking to writer’s heart. She talks about the original vision and how the writer has to understand that the work is not the vision, but one particular expression of it, bound in time and space. The vision lives on independently in the heart and breast of the writer while it is frozen, stiff and rigid, in dried ink on pages of a book. The vision is where the next book will come from, different to the first, and the next and the next. “Its [the work’s] relationship to the vision that impelled it[. It] is the relationship between any energy and any work, anything unchanging to anything temporal,” p58. As she warned, ‘fairly sober.’ Indeed.

And as for the idea that everyone has a book in them, she warns, “The body of literature …exists outside some people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature shape her, can she perhaps shape literature,” p69. Annie Dillard hasn’t given us a manual on how to be a writer. There are no bullet-points, subheadings or sidebars. It is written and presented in the way writer’s mind works. She has shown, rather than told.

But above all, The Writing Life is reassuring. It is reassuring to know that despite the physical and psychological trials the writing life brings, in the end, good writing is possible and a good writer is just the person to do it.