Discussion of author Annie Dillard, Nature and The Writing Life

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.



Filed under Non-Fiction, Uncategorized

56 responses to “Discussion of author Annie Dillard, Nature and The Writing Life

  1. Terry Lee

    Very nice work of writing, I really enjoyed reading it on a Sunday morning.

    • Thank you, Terry! M. inspired me to think about this author the other evening when we were discussing our favorite books. I suspect M. would love to read her work. She’s a prolific writer with beautiful voice, language and intelligent flow of thought.

  2. Barbara

    You’ve inspired me to start reading “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” again. I had finally found it at my favorite used book store and began reading it, but then got distracted when I also found her novel, “The Maytrees.” It is set on Cape Cod, which is my sanctuary and refuge. There is something mesmerizing about the light there, especially in Provincetown, and Annie weaves it into the story. As you say, the book is about a writer, a rather self-absorbed poet, in my opinion. Perhaps a pitfall, one of the dangers you mentioned, confronting writers.

    You’ve written a thoughtful, lovely tribute to your beloved nature-loving author. I can’t wait to get to know her better!

    • Barbara, thank you so much for your comments. I’ve never read Annie’s novel so you’ve inspired me to get a copy! She is a master at describing the effect of light, so I can’t wait to read what she did with Cape Cod. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this essay. It’s different than my usual postings so I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested. Now that at least two people enjoyed the experience, I will try writing more of this genre. By ‘observing’ the writer when I read, the reading experience becomes more of a conversation between me and the writer, so their work has a greater and more valuable impact. My problem these days seems to be time. It’s a challenge to be writing a novel (discipline of minimum 1,000 words daily), keeping up with blog-writing, reading mind-inspiring books and articles, as well as caring for house, dog, partner, etc. The house these days always seems dusty, as if my brain is spewing out clouds of exhaust from all those mental goings-on. Hmmm, maybe there’s a poem in there… Thanks again for visiting and your kind comments. I appreciate it so much.

      • Barbara

        I’ll have to give ‘observing the writer’ when I read a try. I hear you in the time department… I’m on-call for the needs of my elderly father (87) and aunt (95), and tend to spend my “free” time reading and blogging instead of dusting and weeding the garden! Looking forward to your future posts! 🙂

        • Bless you for being there for them; Your time is well-spent. Who cares about dust anyway? And weeds – well, it’s all relative, isn’t it; they have a certain charm when you’re an insect traipsing through the jungle…
          Will try to post more soon – just burning the mornin, noon and midnight oil on my novel at the moment. I look forward to reading yours too. I noticed you have a new post – will get to that later today. Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. This was the perfect read for me! Cuz I was feeling so bogged, that I thought I really needed some clarity! And this post, with subtle hints at attaining that fulfillment was JUST what I needed!
    Thanks for this lovely post, Cindy… You and Annie made my day!!
    Much love to you!

    • Kavita, thank you for your refreshing enthusiasm and …bubbles. Whenever I think of you, I just see these happy bubbles rising and bursting with energy. Bogs are not the place for you – light, air and mental joy where you can play with language, words and images. So glad you felt inspired, girl. Happy reading, joyous writing.

  4. Pingback: Dillard nature | Joininghandsca

  5. Now added Annie Dillard to my reading list. The way you describe her works and words are truly beautiful. A blog post that has replenished my soul. Onwards and upwards towards the finished novel.

    • My admiration is yours – to be true to your soul-cravings when raising children and husband (I meant that as written; it wasn’t a grammatical blooper)is a challenge many weak-hearted give up. Keep writing and reading quality work, as and when you can. And thank you for your very kind words!

  6. Excellent writing, captivating. I had to go back a couple of times to re-read parts so I could extract all the deliciousness from your words. And ah yes, some excellent writing wisdom as well. Keep up the great work…

  7. Yes, Annie is an inspiration. And a model. You are also both.

  8. jmchri13

    Reading “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” in high school is what made me want to become a writer. Annie Dillard was the first serious nature and nonfiction writer I came across. And while I’ve read the works of many nature writers over the past several years, Dillard is the one I keep coming back to the most. And I’m never really “finished” reading her books-I have most of them on my bookshelf, and am always going back and opening them to random chapters, just for the the pleasure of reading them again. Glad to know someone else appreciates her as well.

  9. I’ve been reading Pilgrim for the past 3 weeks. That’s agonizingly slow but the book is so profound I have to keep stopping. I’ve learned a lot about writing from Dillard, but the bigger lesson has been on thinking. What a brilliant thinker she is.

    • I’ve found there is only one way to read Annie: slow, repeating, and introspective. She invites you to join her. It’s impossible to run beside someone who breast strokes. Good for you to take the time; you will never regret it.

  10. very nice post.. thanks

  11. I was never so surprised as when I learned that she’d written Pilgrim in a library carel, and not the little house in the wild. Disillusioned? No. Inspired? Yes.

  12. A very thoughtful and interesting read, indeed.

    • Mirror mate – I like it. When you think about it, we’re all playing that role for each other to some extent; perhaps only as facets of broken mirror shards. Thank you for visiting.

      • There are many reflections in a persons life. Even as shards, we still can see everyone, everything that has touched our life. It is from this, we see the beauty of all existence around us.

  13. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  14. You draw some lovely imagery with your words. Thank you for sharing with us.

  15. Thank you for this essay. I think I found it just in time. You have reminded me of what I needed to be reminded of, and helped me get into that mode again for the writing life. I love the way you can write your thoughts and feelings so well, and with authenticity, in this lovely familiar way.

    • “at times I thought I was reading a different book (maybe it was me)….”
      You have recognized your own authenticity, and that’s always mesmerizing. Thank you for your comments, Helen. Keep the creative torch lit.

  16. Tamika Simpson

    I think you just made me fall in love with Annie, thanks.

  17. Her work is always a great place to go when the creative spark or the logically illogical can’t seem to form on the page. Her struggles as a writer are brilliantly captured by her work.

  18. Reblogged this on A Faith Filled Fatherhood and commented:
    A great reflective write up on the work of Annie Dillard, writing and the wanted struggle to write. Highly recommend the read.

  19. I listen to “My Writing Life,” by Annie Dillard at night when I can’t sleep sometimes. Favorite. Thanks for the blog post.

  20. Gracehasnoend

    Reblogged this on The Curious Christian Cat and commented:
    Oh Annie, what big eyes you have.
    All the better to see the world with, my dear.

  21. Oh how comforting and inspiring four words were this morning. I was drawn right in with, “Annie Dillard walked by my side when…” In 1997 Annie was by my side as I read, The WritingLife and immediately after, Tinker Creek. Not only did she mentor me , she gave me the courage to untangle the web of words trapped inside and consequently I wrote like my life depended on it. Looking back, I know it did.
    Your words are rich and come alive as I read them. Thank you for your lovely reminder to rekindle old friendships. I’ll be calling Annie out of seclusion this weekend.

    • Good writing does inspire and it transcends time. John Clease said that after filming Monty Python sessions he just felt tired, but after writing, he felt he’d actually created something – something that had only just begun. He felt alive.
      Good stuff. Keep untangling those word webs. Your life still depends on creative flow. And… thanks.

  22. I am new to blogging but your post is inspirational, thank you!

  23. ChaptersofVajraAnanda

    I am adding this book to the list!

  24. What a lovely reminder of Annie Dillard’s classic book. I have it on my shelf and need to dip into it again. You chose some wonderful quotations to highlight. I love the part about spending it all freely and examining things intensely. And I also love how you concluded this, with your own parables and your questions to her. Wonderful writing–both of you. Thank you.

  25. I love Annie Dillard’s works. I think my favorite of hers is “For the Time Being.” I appreciated reading your experience with her nature writings–thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you Kari! I missed that book somehow and haven’t read it, but will order it right now. I had no idea so many people would feel such passion and appreciation about Annie’s work. She seems to have touched a deep chord of recognition that we Annie-lovers share and packaged it in the most beautiful paper of words.

  26. Such a nice peice on Annie Dillard. I think every writer should read “The Writing Life” — it’s an inspiration.

  27. Well, yum! Beautiful post- thank you!

  28. Super writing. I thoroughly enjoyed this. I look forward to your next post.

  29. Very inspirational. I have not read her book(s?) but will definitely be ordering “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

  30. ‘gaze and observe until nature teaches us the question’

    Beautiful sentiment – and how true. So often in my own work I’ve found myself stranded by thinking too hard what I should be asking of the landscapes I am exploring, when really if I were to let it go and merely observe and absorb, the questions and answers make themselves apparent in ways that it wouldn’t be possible to find whilst expressing *looking* for them.

    Great post 🙂

    • I just visited your blog and was so enchanted, I shared it on Facebook and sent the link to two friends. You write naturally, making the reader feel like they are walking with you. Wonderful blog – great way to live life.
      Thank you for introducing me to your work via this comment.

  31. myffybos

    I loved this, writing is one of the best things in my life, and this was full of inspiration. Annie kind of reminds me of me in the bit where she goes into a dark and often cold room to write. It does seem to help. Thank you for all the inspiration. Just when I needed it too!

  32. Writer's Dream

    Love your work!! It takes me away to the country!

  33. I’m just beginning to read Annie Dillard and I know I will probably never really finish reading her, but will return again and again for inspiration.

  34. i remember reading annie dillard’s book in my early twenties and i’m sure it set me up for a life of delightful solitary ponderings.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s