On Rereading The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

I’ve read several of Annie Dillard’s books. I like her writing style, and I appreciate her philosophical observations mixed with comments on nature. I’ve read The Writing Life before too, but the last time was several years ago in Greece.

The Writing Life is a small book. It’s just over one hundred pages, has wide margins, and a lot of the pages are blank (each chapter has a full title page of its own with nothing on the reverse side). As I have mentioned before in another post, this book would have fit nicely and snugly within one of Dillard’s other more substantial essay collections. Be that as it may, the writing is artful and elegant, and some of her observations are astute. However, I realized as I reread it this time that I disagree with some of her main points.

In this book, Dillard says that she hates to write. She claims that the drudgery, to her, is no different than working in a factory all day, and she takes any excuse to go off and do something else. I couldn’t understand this. I love to write. In this statement I am referring to my fiction and memoirs. The articles I sometimes write to pay bills bore me sometimes, but still I’d rather be writing them than doing anything else I’d have to do purely for the money. The way that Dillard describes the ordeal of writing, I wonder how she kept up with it. She felt compelled to do it, of course; this I can understand. But for me writing is mystical and magical. It’s absorbing and thrilling and I feel honored to be able to partake of the practice.

Dillard also insists that it takes a long time to write a book, and you have to throw out much of what you write in the initial draft. Perhaps that’s true of her, but it’s not true of all authors. I typically write a novel in about three months. I proofread it a few times, sure, and change words that are repeated too often or misspelled, sometimes rearrange sentences or even paragraphs, but all in all, once I’ve written a novel – or a short story for that matter – afterwards it remains pretty much as it came out. I usually write in increments of five hundred to a thousand words, and when I begin the day’s work, I first go over what I did on the previous day. I’ll correct what needs correcting and then go on.

One interesting facet of The Writing Life involves Dillard’s descriptions of where she works. She prefers isolated places, of course: a cubicle in a library, an isolated cabin on a small island in Puget Sound, or another isolated cabin in the woods. That’s all fine if a writer has access to these places. As for me, I work in my bedroom in the apartment that I share with two of my sons. It’s the only possibility. It’s a small bedroom. My desk faces a blank wall, which is fine. In an ideal situation, I might have a separate study, although I would still like it to be adjoining my bedroom. My study would have windows that look out on natural beauty for those moments when I glance up from the page, and it would have a balcony or a porch on which I could step out for some fresh air from time to time.

In conclusion, this book is very well written and very opinionated. I like to read how other writers get their work done, and every writer is different. Just remember that what works for Annie Dillard may not work for you, and formulate your own schedule and work habits.

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