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The Writing Life

By Staff | Jan 6, 2014

By Michael Tidemann

Staff Writer

This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0060919887.

This is probably the only time you’ll see a review of a book by the same title as this column.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard could be considered a paean to all writers – published or unpublished. In so doing, Dillard offers an inspiring – yet realistic – perspective of what it is to be a writer.

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which you now cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. 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.”

Dillard is of course talking about the writing process itself here – and what it’s like to be deeply embedded within it.

Replete with analogies, a writer’s best fodder, Dillard’s book is a refreshing approach to what many of us may have been taught long ago in school – the best way to write is to outline everything, have a thesis, have topic sentences, blah, blah, blah, gag, gag, gag.

“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.

Dillard isn’t afraid to borrow ideas from other genres or even art forms. Here’s what Anne Truitt has to say:

“The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own intimate sensitivity.”

What Dillard – and Truitt – are talking about here are entering the writer’s or sculptor’s studio and leaving the outside world behind. Art becomes one’s life, one’s reality.

This idea is antithetical, even heretical, perhaps, to the idea of the artist in control.

Says Dillard:

“Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature.”

And this of course means pushing the envelope.

“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 where understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.”

And this means holding nothing back, not saving something inside us for that next story or novel.

“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 fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

This classic and inspiring book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author is one that’s likely to never be dated.

For the writer seeking inspiration, it’s a necessity.