Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too—the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.
That’s from Annie Dillard’s 1989 New York Times essay “Write Till You Drop,” quarried from her book The Writing Life.
Yet she promises:
At its best, 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 fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.
On her website, Dillard dismisses The Writing Life, published in 1988 and reviewed here, calling it “an embarrassing nonfiction narrative fixed somewhat and republished” in 1998. On her “Uncollected Essays” webpage she takes cracks at two of her other pieces on writing. Of the sublime “To Fashion a Text,” published in William Zinssers’ Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, she says: “This is emphatically not interesting; I renounce it.” Of her “Advice for Young Writers,” which appeared in Image, she says: “Do not read this crap.”
I guess Annie feels that giving writing advice makes her look smug or preachy. It doesn’t. But her comments crack me up. Yet this begs the question: Why would Dillard disdain work that most other writers would be proud of? First, it’s published; second, it’s smart; third, it’s helpful, inspiring.
Recently I stumbled across an analysis of her in Sven Birkerts’ superb The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again that applies. Discussing her memoir An American Childhood, Birkerts calls her fundamentally a “philosopher of being” who is “grounded in a metaphysical astonishment at the fact of existence.”
I agree. So if that’s her orientation, and with existence her primary subject—thus illuminating why some love her and others are left cold by her astringent or gnomic passages—then her writing about writing that makes her comfortable is in Living by Fiction, not in The Writing Life, which contains seemingly personal advice that makes her queasy. Her real interest is in the fact and nature of writing. In writing as a tool of exploration, as a phenomenon, as an artifact of consciousness.
But a simulacrum of advice clings to her insights about what she’s noticed in writing books. How could it not? So she got stuck with what appears to be a self-help book to others and what looks like a smarmy mess to her. Read her quote at the top of this post. Yep. Right again, Annie.