Book Review: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard


Book Review:

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Reviewed by Beth Adele Long

© 2001, Beth Adele Long


When you write, you lay out a line of words.  The line of words is a miner's pick, a wood-carver's gouge, a surgeon's probe.  You wield it, and it digs a path you follow.  Soon you find yourself deep in new territory.  Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject?  You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.


So 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.  

Dillard 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."  

Sometimes 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.

She 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.  

Dillard 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."  

One 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 Mann's?"  

Dillard 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.

A 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.  

Which 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 book?  

Find The Writing Life.  No writer will regret the time spent on this magical little book.

  The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Publisher: Harper Perennial paperback published 1990, original HarperCollins hardback published 1989.

ISBN:  0-06-091988-4