Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Reviewed by Beth Adele Long
© 2001, Beth Adele Long
Holly Lisles Vision Book Reviews. It is here that you, the aspiring
autho r, will come to find the latest and best books on writing technique,
genre writing, and manuscript submission, as well as author memoirs and
other books for writers.
r, will come to find the latest and best books on writing technique, genre writing, and manuscript submission, as well as author memoirs and other books for writers.
opens Annie Dillard's The Writing Life.
You don't have to read much farther before you realize you have a
gem of a book in your hands. It's
a slim book, with only 111 pages in the paperback edition I own, and its
combination of economy and completeness have earned it comparison with the
classic English stylebook, Strunk and White's Elements of Style.
does not approach writing head-on; she sidles up to it, walks around it,
maps the surrounding territory. This
is not a how-to manual, or a dry dissertation on the forms and conventions
of fiction. Dillard practices
her craft even as she discusses it, using metaphors and stories and vivid
imagery to communicate the joys and struggles of the writing life.
"You write it all," Dillard says, "discovering it at
the end of the line of words. The
line of words is a fiber optic, flexible as wire; it illumines the path
just before its fragile tip. You
probe with it, delicate as a worm."
Dillard is hilarious. "In
subsequent years, once [Jack London] had a book of his own under way, he
set his alarm to wake him after four hours' sleep.
Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged
it to drop a weight on his head. I
cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is
strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort
of frequency - but you wouldn't think a man would claim credit for
it." Bits like this will
pop up here and there, unexpected, making you laugh out loud.
is blunt. "Your
manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it
knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes
more." On some pages,
you might get the idea that Dillard thinks writers are insignificant and
their task trivial. Not so.
She knows the value of literature, the value of "a line of
words," and elsewhere she discusses literature's importance.
But precisely because she knows the value of literature, she puts
writers in their place. You
may do an important thing in writing a book.
But the writer must remember that a shoe salesman does an important
work also, and a much more necessary one.
No writer can come away from this book with an over-exalted view of
herself or her task.
is also practical. She speaks
of the real concerns of a writer. "Appealing
workplaces are to be avoided. One
wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the
dark." She speaks simply
and frankly of the fundamental issues of writing: "Writing every
book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do
it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer
discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles."
of the marvelous things about this book is Dillard's sense of perspective. She has been writing since the 1960's, and The Writing
Life first came out in 1989. In
that span of almost thirty years of writing, Dillard has learned a thing
or two. The resulting sense
of perspective, of taking the long view, gives the book a richness that
most younger writers could not provide.
"There is no shortage of good days," she writes.
"It is good lives that are hard to come by.
Who would call
a day spent reading a good day? But
a life spent reading - that is a good life.
A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or
twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one.
But who would not call Pasteur's life a good one, or Thomas
often makes seemingly paradoxical statements, being perfectly comfortable
with apparent contradiction. She
knows the truth that underlies conventional perceptions is both simpler
and more complex than most people allow.
She doesn't let the reader get away with one-dimensional
perspectives. An amateur artist herself, Dillard understands perspective,
and dimension, and representation. The
attentive reader will learn much from following her trained eye and hand.
word of warning: Dillard's spare prose and oblique approaches may be
off-putting to some. Don't be
scared away; if you can adjust to Dillard's style and fall into step
beside her, you will soon be captivated by her eye for detail, her
delightful humor, and her gift for unifying the numinous and the practical
in one sentence. If she seems
too oblique, too round-about, keep reading. Follow the wandering path Dillard takes you along, and you
may turn a corner only to find yourself abruptly at the center of the very
matter you thought Dillard was avoiding.
It's a startling sensation, and a wonderful one.
sums up The Writing Life: it's a startling book, and a wonderful
one. I imagine it would be possible to write a review that was
longer than the book itself, but that would be pointless. Why read a review when you could be reading the book itself?
For that matter, why write a review when I could be re-reading the
The Writing Life. No
writer will regret the time spent on this magical little book.
Publisher: Harper Perennial paperback published 1990, original HarperCollins hardback published 1989.
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