Annie Dillard, July 1987, Getty Images
One of the things I love about Annie Dillard’s book “The Writing Life” is how it addresses both the drudgery and the ecstasy of writing, the torment and bliss, the good days and the bad.
It is both a comfort and an encouragement that other writers–esteemed writers, prolific writers–have felt at one time or another all the highs and lows of my own experience in pursuing the writer’s life.
Preparing to Write
Writing is both craft and art, but to move it from craft to art requires a certain kind of mental preparation that many writers refer to, sometimes as ritual, sometimes as muse. For Dillard, that preparation is particularly intense:
Writing a first draft requires for the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours . . . you might be able to prepare yourself to write. If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance . . . the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals . . . you might be ready to write. By how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?
How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge—a dangerous edge—and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?
How to set yourself spinning? That’s the question, isn’t it? What lights the spark within that catches fire and sends us breathless to the page to capture that flame before it dies. What brings us back there, again and again, each day, to complete the work? How to ignite it again? Sometimes it does seem that we have to enter that extraordinary state of mind that the Zulu warrior or Aztec maiden prepares for with such zeal and passion.
For me it often comes when reading poetry, or philosophy, or other writers I admire, and something catches–a phrase, a thought, an image, a rhythm in the way the words flow. I’m snagged, and I feel I am being carried to a new place, and I see things in a new light. This new seeing, this discovery, is so exciting, it looses something in me and I run to grab a pen so I can capture it before it disappears.
It’s returning to that, that “felt sense” of things, that spark of discovery, that brings me back into the state of mind where I can re-enter the work, and keep writing, keep unspooling what’s there, discovering as I go where I’m going.
“A dangerous edge” – yes. It is an edge, a precipice, beyond which “not-knowing” lies. We have to be willing to throw ourselves over that edge, enter the “not-knowing,” submit to it, let it take us where it will, and trusting it will take us where we need to go.
E. L. Doctorow once famously said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Writing Through the Flow
In that almost hypnotic, expectant, trustful state of mind, the writing is joyous, thrilling. We’re “in the zone.” As Dillard writes:
The line of words is heading out past Jupiter this morning . . . The line of words speeds past Jupiter and its cumbrous, dizzying orbit; it looks neither to the right nor to the left. It will be leaving the solar system soon, single –minded, rapt, rushing heaven like a soul . . . . Right now, you are flying. Right now, your job is to hold your breath.
Elsewhere she elaborates:
The sensations of writing a book are the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring.
The sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you.
Writing Through the Resistance
But sometimes it’s not handed to us. Sometimes we search and break our heart and break our back only to find—nothing. Sometimes the work does not speak to us.
Sometimes the “not knowing” feels like a brick wall, huge, monstrous, holding us back, walling us out, keeping us stumped. We feel dumb, tongue-tied, speechless, like a brute trying to talk. We choke on our own words, the words that will not come, the words that weigh us down, the words that feel dry and brittle and useless in our mouths.
We’re stuck. Blocked. We hit that wall and would rather do anything but write.
At one point in her book, frustrated by her writing, Dillard exclaims: “I hate to write. I would rather do anything else.” She tells us:
I avoided writing, and mostly what I did by way of work was fool around.
One day, full of such thoughts, I tried to work and failed. After eight hours of watching helplessly while my own inane, manneristic doodles over stepped their margins and covered the pages I was supposed to be writing, I gave up. I decided to hate myself, to make popcorn and read.
Pacing the Writing
So how do we negotiate that space that lies between inspiration and resistance, between “not-knowing” as a precipice from which we gladly leap, flying, and “not-knowing” as a wall around which we cannot reach?
Pacing. Pacing is the answer. Slow and methodical, or brisk and determined, or steady and sure. Whatever. Just keep one foot moving forward at all times.
On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away. These truths comfort the anguished. They do not mean, by any means, that faster-written books are worse books. They just mean that most writers might well stop berating themselves for writing at a normal, slow pace.
I was working hard, although of course it did not seem hard enough at the time—a finished chapter every few weeks. I castigated myself daily for writing too slowly. Even when passages seemed to come easily, as though I were copying from a folio held open by smiling angels, the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle—bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes, and burns.
This revelation was particularly encouraging to me—how slow Annie writes. Doing so can be discouraging, but doing so still gets the work done.
You are writing a book. . . . you do not hurry and do not rest. You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark. When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb. The sun hits you; the bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.
You do not hurry, you do not rest. My mantra now.
Pacing is key: Fast, slow, in-between. Doesn’t matter. Moving forward, steadily, one word after another, is all that does matter.
Pacing – II, Tending and Taming
Sometimes another kind of pacing is needed, knowing when to patiently nurse the writing, and knowing when to beat it into submission. Both are sometimes required, as Dillard will tell you.
I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.
This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.
A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.
Pacing – III, Emotional Distance
A third kind of pacing, or maybe “spacing,” emotional distance, is also needed: The ability to regard our work from a “Goldilocks” zone: Not too close, not too distant.
[A writer] must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not.
Finding the right balance in our relationship to the writing is important when it comes to evaluating and revising our work. The failure to do so can either distort or block the writing. Another hindrance, another kind of wall that can block the writing, or distort it, is our own evaluation of the work.
There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its action quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
I’ve been snagged by this before, so much so that I could write a whole blog post about this, and probably will. So I’ll reserve that for later. The thing is, when we get too close to the writing, when it thrills us, we may think it’s magnificent, and forget, as Dillard writes below, that the reader, who is not sitting at the top of that roller coaster ride with you, may find our writing not quite so thrilling as we do. Dillard warns:
The writing that you do, that so thrills you, that rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing: it will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and sounds and softs.
On the other hand, in trying to distance ourselves from our own words so we can read them “objectively,” sometimes moves us so far away from our writing that we view it not as a living thing with breath and a beating heart, but as a cold-blooded stalker bent on murder might: as a thing, an object: cold and dead. Do not trust these kinds of reading, neither the cold-blooded kind, nor the thrilling roller-coaster kind. Step back, but not too far. Regard your writing kindly, and kindly look for ways to improve it, not destroy or abandon it.
Too many of us thin-skinned writers, I believe, are too eager to either kiss our darlings passionately to death, or to dispassionately murder them instead. I’ve never bought into the “murder your darlings” advice. Regard them kindly, wisely. Cut the fat, trim the ribbons, make sure she’s buttoned up nicely, and let her work her magic, if she can, upon the readers who, like me, eagerly look for and highlight “the darlings” we encounter.
Whatever you do, for the reader’s sake, don’t cut the heart out of your writing:
Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?
Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer . . . will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.
The Heart of Writing
For many of us, writers as well as readers, what we’re searching for when we write, when we read, is the heart of the beast—that bloody, bleeding, throbbing heart. The place where you know you are holding something live and tender and immensely precious is in your hands and you hold it with reverence. Because you recognize it. It’s your heart. Yours. You are holding it in your hands. You are seeing it for the first time. And it’s beautiful.
Finding it, cutting it out, laying it on paper, as the writer does, is not easy. As Dillard knows.
The line of words fingers your own heart. It invades arteries, and enters the heart on a flood of breath; it presses the moving rims of thick valves; it palpates the dark muscle strong as horses, feeling for something, it knows not what . . . . [S]ome film of feeling, some song forgotten.
[T]hese fragments are heavy with meaning. The line of words peels them back, dissects them out. Will the bared tissue burn? Do you want to expose these scenes to the light? You may locate them and leave them, or poke the spot hard till the sore bleeds on your finger, and write with that blood. If the sore spot is not fatal . . . you can use its power for many years, until the heart resorbs it.
Writing as Dying
It is not easy, digging into the heart of things. But it’s what we live for, many of us, to reach the beating heart of existence. To hold it in our hands.
Perhaps this is why Dillard urges us to:
Write as if you were dying . . . write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you should die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.
Who but an artist fierce to know—not fierce to seem to know—would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.
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.
Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.
The Aim of Writing
There’s another succinct piece of writing advice that Dillard gives, that if she said nothing else about the art of writing would suffice. She compares writing with chopping wood and tells us:
Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood, aim for the chopping block.
So what is the chopping block in this metaphor?
Call it the heart of the matter. Call it the “deepest mystery,” as Dillard does, that which lies beneath all things and upon which all things lay. But whatever we call it, when we write, we must aim past the words, past the writing itself, toward that “deeper penetration into the universe.”
What Are We Here For?
Toward the end of her book, Annie asks: “What are we here for?” I’m not sure if she is asking us that as writers, or as human beings. But her answer could be applied to either.
She replies: “Propter chorum, the monks say: for the sake of the choir.”
Our one small voice is essential to the whole.
“The Writing Life” ends with the following quote, and so too shall I end on this high, clear note:
“Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute. To see this is to be made free.”
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If you missed part one of my dialogue with Dillard, you can read it HERE.
More on Dillard’s book can be found at Brain Pickings, which includes a link to a free public library e-book.