“The Writing Life”

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Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and many of its messages have stayed with me these past few weeks as I continue to read and write, and a few in particular have even carried over, playing like background music, as I live.

There’s no denying the fact that Dillard hits the nail on the head when she describes what it’s like to be a writer. I mean, wow. I felt this way in the early chapters when Dillard spoke of the pain and importance of rewriting, chopping, developing the “courage to tie off the umbilical cord” of first drafts, pushing through mistakes, and even as she touched upon writing habits like drinking too much coffee. So many times, I saw myself in Dillard’s stories and explanations.

Honestly though, I could do without so many personal anecdotes. While a few have been spot on and managed to open my eyes wider and make me think, there were those, too, that left me scratching my head. Some of Annie’s stories missed quirky and landed on mundane. I still don’t understand the points in sharing the coffee pot story, the butterfly mating story or the dream in chapter four. I found those to be confusing in general and, at times, even a little boring. That’s not to say I won’t have some sort of eureka moment later and suddenly understand.

Still, I love when writers share with us these types of personal insights into their own lives and explain why and how they write. I love the sneak peek into their writing processes, methods, thoughts, fears and quirks.

That said; when I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or King’s On Writing, I got the feeling that these writers lived and wrote. They ate, drank, traveled, experienced different cultures and people… they lived (and in King’s case continue to live) full, satisfying and interesting lives. But I don’t get that same message from Dillard. Dillard says “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.” By her own description, she locked herself away and missed the fireworks (literally). I find that sad. I also think that feeling comes across in her writing. While I think Dillard writes beautifully and intelligently, I wish her stories came from living rather than from hibernating. She’s such a strong writer, I’d be curious to know how much more wonderful her stories might have been if she allowed herself to live more.

I want to live and write. In fact, I put off writing (full time anyway) for a long time so that I could live. Rather than pursue a writing career straight out of college, like I always thought I’d do, I chose another route—a fun, scary and far more adventurous route. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a conscious choice to collect stories and experiences to later write about. I simply craved knowledge and experience. Looking back, I know my writing is a product of my experiences, old and new, and my relationships, those I’ve nurtured along the way. If I don’t live my life, I’m not sure what I’d write about. And while I, too, lock myself away these days to write (and though Dillard hates the idea of “trancelike” writing that’s often what I do) and, in doing so, I ignore and shut out the rest of the world, I still take breaks from writing to live, love, laugh and learn.

For my own writing, specifically the novel I’m currently overhauling (for the fourth time), Dillard’s many messages are both poignant and practical. Dillard gives me perspective and a welcome shot in the arm when she says things like “what would you write if you knew you were going to die soon?” but she also gives me hope with things like “it takes between two and ten years” to write a book and “it is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion.”

Sure I’m obsessive and completely bullheaded, dreamily optimistic and borderline nuts, but those qualities are normal for a writer with a dream. Those qualities, I believe, eventually pay off and take us where we want to go.

In this week’s lecture, Professor Hurt selected the quote: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book; or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things will fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

That quote really spoke to me, as well. In fact, I typed it up, printed it out and taped it to my laptop. I need to read this message every day. I also made it my Facebook status. I wanted to share it with other writers and even non-writers. I want to remember it as I write this draft, as I try my best to “give it all” this time. And while it’s a lesson on writing it’s also a metaphor for life—another twist on the classic “live life to the fullest.” Not only is this a theme throughout Dillard’s book but it’s also an important life lesson. Isn’t living life what we all want to do? Writers are no different except we need to live life and write about it to the fullest, too.

Over the break, I finished reading Miss Hempel Chronicles. The novel turned out to be wildly different from what I expected after reading that first chapter. The book is a compilation (or chronicle) of multiple stories and that chapter was just one of them. It didn’t take long for my quirky, fun and funny middle school adventure to morph into a wacky, strange, sometimes sad and heavy flashback of this woman’s soured life and disappointing youth. I wasn’t expecting any of that. Without revealing too much and ruining the literary experience, which really was a good one, the book was really two stories—two completely different stories—in one. But this works perfectly because, in a nutshell, Miss Hempel Chronicles is a story (or two stories, really) about a woman who lives two different lives. Circling back to Dillard and her message, Miss Hempel Chronicles captures Miss Hempel’s whole life, not just her life as an elementary school teacher. It succeeds because it doesn’t save the good stuff. It leaves nothing out.

In my writing and in my life, I plan to do the same.

One thought on ““The Writing Life”

  1. I had the same reactions regarding Hemingway, King, and Dillard, though I’d suggest that Hemingway seemingly had a much more satisfying and interesting life than King or Dillard. I was so put off by Dillard’s dourness I thought to myself that I had to take a different path than she did. She’s a complainer, arguably a malcontent. Does that lead to great writing? Maybe for some, but definitely not for me.

    Hemingway’s life was big in so manner ways, yet he became an indelible figure by keeping his sentences small. That’s an interesting legacy. If he kept himself holed up in small room on an island somewhere, I think it’d be safe to say he couldn’t have made the mark he did on American literature.

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