Annie Dillard walked by my side when I lived on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island in 1975. My isolation was no less than hers, although I was surrounded by people: loggers, fishermen, trappers, hunters, chefs, waiters and a bar full of whiskey that I was in charge of. During my hours off-work, I hid in a cove down by the harbor, or I went to the dump to be entertained by the bears. Always, Annie came with me. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” gave me everything a solitary girl needed. Her words were my refuge, my delight, my confusion, my comfort. When I think of the six months in Port Hardy, I think of Annie.
“The Writing Life” is full of her parables: a man who rowed against the current until the current changed and brought him home; chopping at alder logs like a crazed woman until she learned to chop through the wood and the logs relented; watching Rahm roll his stunt plane through the air, making beautiful patterns like the precise blue-green swallow, and learning that it was all about sticking with the rhythm and paying attention to the lighting. All her stories trap the reader’s attention and pull them in until they realize she’s teaching about writing. It makes me wonder if Annie has ever written about anything else. Aren’t all her books, when you get down to her basic message, about the writer’s life?
Annie secludes herself. She goes where she cannot be distracted by the usual daily din, finds a small, often cold and somewhat dark, shack of a room to write in. She tells me to “spend it all; play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.” She warns me not to hoard a good phrase for a later time, for in the hoarding act, it will be lost. It must be freely given, she says, reminding me of what my Dad used to tell me, “Nothing is yours until you give it away.” She bids me to “examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art.” She describes watching parallel rows of ocean waves breaking up, as if they were “reproducing the sensation of reading, but without reading’s sense.” (Brilliant, Annie – just brilliant observation!)
Annie wrote a whole chapter in one and a half pages. She warns that the writer’s life is wrought with danger – especially when the writer leaves the work. She uses an erupting typewriter and her struggle to prevent the room from catching fire as the only scene/event in the chapter. Her final statement, instead of giving explanation, assured the reader that though she’s had no trouble with it since, she knows it can happen. She never says if it ever really did happen, (she might have dreamt it), or whether she invented the whole scene as a metaphor for the labor a writer goes through, only to face complete destruction. It doesn’t even matter that we don’t know. She pulls off another parable, so powerful, that it took less than 2 pages to leave me contemplating the scene for half an hour, playing with her words and wondering what gave her the courage or even the idea, to write a whole chapter in five short paragraphs and teach a lesson about sticking with it no matter what.
I love you, Annie. Show me that trick again.
I want to tell Annie my parables; about the bears I watched, and how I learned that you have to respect the mother. I want to show her how the rescued bird looked out for his brother and saved him from starving. I want to show her how the English robin’s hunger, keen sense of hearing, and his successful hunt convinced me that I could return to America and make a new life out of nothing. I wonder, when Annie ponders the world she secludes herself in, does she have a question in mind that nature answers? Or does she gaze and observe until nature teaches her the question? Perhaps the result of every writer’s work is in reality nature’s own act of learning.