Obama honors Dillard

[President Obama awards a National Humanities Medal to Dillard in 2015]

Saint Annie grants a rare interview & reveals why she retired

Dillard-The Abundance

New Yorker editor David Remnick has scored a coup, or at least a scoop, by interviewing the reclusive Annie Dillard for the magazine’s radio show. The occasion is Dillard’s retrospective essay collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. The book has spurred a flurry of speculation in the literary world about Dillard’s retirement, notably a strained essay, “Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?”, by William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic positing that Dillard somehow boxed herself in with her mystical interests.

So the key question Remnick asked was why did she retire from writing, some years ago now, to spend her days painting? She wrote by hand, she told him, and one day couldn’t remember where she was going with the start of a promising sentence she’d left the previous day on her legal pad. Short-term memory loss, in short, is her explanation for her retirement from writing. Dillard, now 71, does not sound, in this rare interview, to be a victim of Alzheimer’s, as has been rumored. She sounds sharp as a double-headed tack.

Of her books, she prizes most my favorite: For the Time Being (reviewed). She marvels, “Writers adore that book,” but then she’s always been a writer’s writer. In it, she said, she bites off a big chunk of her preoccupation with human existence. All I can say is it’s in my pantheon as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Remnick questions her about her spooky essay “Total Eclipse,” which she reads from and analyzes. She explains her goal was to invoke the experience of the eclipse in readers. But the challenge was keeping them reading—dense description of the long event and Dillard’s reaction would lose them, she felt. Hence her decision to keep returning to the eclipse, repeating, each time at a deeper level, her experience of the power and primeval horror of the light’s loss.

The Abundance at first strikes me as redundant, the “new” in the subtitle a marketing ploy, but then again it collects stray essays like “Total Eclipse,” which appeared as part of Teaching a Stone to Talk but has taken on a life of its own in collections and in pdf form in classrooms. A nice surprise heading the collection is the eloquent Introduction by Geoff Dyer—tied with Anthony Lane as my favorite sardonic Brit—author of the hilarious Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence and the delightful essay collection Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.

In his introductory essay, which appeared on Lithub, clearly the postmodern appeal of Dillard’s genre-defying nonfiction drew Dyer to Dillard:

Genre-resistant non-fiction may be a recognized genre these days but Dillard awoke to its possibilities—and attendant difficulties—back in the early 1970s when she was writing what became Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “After all,” she noted in a journal, “we’ve had the nonfiction novel—it’s time for the novelized book of nonfiction.” Easier said than done, of course. As she puts it in The Writing Life, “Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it?” . . .

“What kind of book is this?” she asked herself of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a question that will continue to be asked for as long as the book is read. We read it, in part, to find the answer and, after we have read it—this is the great thing—are still not sure.

Geoff Dyer

[Dyer: tart Brit a total fanboy.]

Dyer says D.H. Lawrence and Rebecca West were two of the writers who prepared him for Dillard. Though Dyer and Dillard have both written novels, it was her nonfiction that galvanized him. She showed him how a writer can go deep in her work, he writes, “by stripping it of a lot of the clutter—the furniture of character—required by the novel but the physicality of story-telling has to remain strong, has to be doubly strong, in fact.”

Dyer’s authorial persona is of a slacker, a stoner, a failure, but that’s in comedic tension with his own work, which belies that, and the Oxford man leaves evidence, in stray lines, of his own spiritual interests. He may overstate when he calls Dillard a comedic writer, suffused by the “comedy of rapture.” She’s got a goofy sense of humor, no doubt—Dyer calls her “pretty much a fruitcake”—but in my reading she takes her altered mental states seriously or at least hungers for them.

He’s on firmer ground when he makes connection with her as a nature writer—he is too, covertly. In the midst of a riff during one of his aimless comedic journeys he sometimes meditates upon or describes nature in the most arresting way.

So no wonder—and so neat—to discover he too is a Dillard fanboy.

Dillard's wisdom

[Found at Write to Done: http://writetodone.com/inspiration-for-writing-2/]


  • Richard, I seem to remember you writing about Dillard before, so if this is a repetitive question, feel free to snap my head off as a dullard, not a dillard. But, is there a favorite sentence or a couple of them which has always haunted you from what she wrote? Something that just sticks and won’t go away? I would ask for a paragraph, but I suspect you’ve already covered that. I mean just that sentence or two that haunts your imagination (though of course with a writer like her, it may be hard to choose).

    • Richard says:

      From For the Time Being:

      Observing a Chinese man pulling a plow he’s harnessed to his body: “His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.”

      “In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.”

      “Many times in Christian churches I have heard the pastor say to God, ‘All your actions show your wisdom and love.’ Each time, I reach in vain for the courage to rise and shout, “That’s a lie!”—just to put things on a solid footing.”

      There are many lovely sentences from The Maytrees, but I can’t put find my copy! Of course, I marked about every page, so it’s a slow process to review what and why I marked.

      From The Writing Life:

      “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

      “Once, for example, I learned from a conversation with a neighbor that I had been living in a fool’s paragraph.”

      “He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”

      “It makes more sense to write one big book—a novel or nonfiction narrative—than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’ inventions and richnesses.”

  • Thanks very much, Richard. I think my favorite two of the ones you’ve provided are the two that most resemble pithy bon mots, the one about a “fool’s paragraph” and the one “he is careful of what he reads, and etc.” Particularly that second one. I don’t want to go in fear of any book, and say “That’s bad for me to read, because it has bad writing habits in it,” I want instead to believe that I am capable of sifting successfully through such things, except that I know for a fact that I have more than once picked up something unintentionally, a way of turning a phrase, a “tone of voice,” if you will, from an unadmirable fast read of some sort that I didn’t go adequately in fear of, and thus….she is quite a person, and a writer, is Annie Dillard.

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Thank you for this heartening news-worthy post Richard.

    About two years ago I bought a quite lovely water color by Annie Dillard and was told that she had Alzheimer’s disease, but that her ability to paint was left intact. Being a psychiatrist, I am able to report the on the basis of the interview, I would say that she does not have the disease, which is most often characterized by steady progression. “For the Time Being” is one of my very favorite books.

    Love the pic with Obama.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your educated perspective, John. It does seem that, over ten years into retirement because of her memory problem, she’d seem a lot more impaired if it had been Alzheimer’s in the first place. Seems a lot isn’t known about such impairments.

      • Dear Richard, Though I have no professional capacity to comment on Allzheimer’s, I have some anecdotal information, which may be somewhat correct. I had an uncle-by-marriage, a very loved member of the family, who was said at one point to have Alzheimer’s, but when a special doctor examined him he told us that when all was said and done, there was really no absolute way to confirm the diagnosis until after the patient was dead and an autopsy was performed on the brain. In my uncle’s case, he said there were numerous kinds of dementia which were often confused or conflated with Alzheimer’s, such as the variety my uncle had, which started with a number of seemingly small and insignicant ischemic incidents, later defined as strokes. Maybe Dr. Wylie would be able to comment on this, this is all I know.

        • J.V. Wylie says:

          Yes, that is true, there is no absolute way to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease except upon autopsy. The most common other type of dementia is vascular caused by small strokes, which sometimes manifests with a step-wise pattern of deterioration. In my experience, it is rare that Alzheimer’s would have progressed so little as indicated in the interview over the years that she has had it. As we get older the incidence of Alzheimer steadily increases such that in the 90s it is extremely common.

          • Richard says:

            Thanks, John. It appears that a degree of mental deterioration is simply part of aging.

            Dillard’s degree of memory loss seems fairly low, based on her performance in the New Yorker interview, but her standards for writing are so high. She retired herself. Thank God she seems happy and productive as a visual artist. What a creative response.

            I cannot help but think this is further testament to her extraordinary nature as revealed in 25 years of writing.

            • J.V. Wylie says:

              Richard, You remind me of another aspect of Dillard’s case, and that is that she started out at such an extraordinary high level of intelligence that, even with significant deterioration, her functioning remains very good.

          • Thanks very much for your response. I guess it is as you and Richard say below, that Dillard was lucky to have a second arrow to her bow, and to be able to fulfill her creative urges with that. I don’t want to come up with some cockeyed and potentially unsavory theory, such as that her left brain was the logical part more concerned with her writing, and the right brain was the part, presumably left more undamaged, which was responsible for her painting, but it’s tempting to try to account for such miracles. But probably the nicest thing about miracles is that we don’t really have to account for them, just enjoy them. I would love to see some of her paintings. I wonder if there’s any free site online that might have a showcase of them.

  • Richard, thanks much for alerting us to this interview. It’s a bit like hearing Dylan interviewed; your sense of the “her” behind the writing gets twisted up and into this arch persona who says, “Heavens no” or “I couldn’t find my way to the end of the sentence.” What a crafts(wo)man she was. TL

  • Quite an interesting post, Richard! Have always been a Dillard fan and the March/April issue of Poets & Writers featured her work, lifestyle, residences, many interests, etc. She strikes me as a rather well-balanced author … someone who looks at life in various ways, at various times. My first encounter with her work was reading An American Childhood … her persistence, continual curiosity, and high energy persona came through loud and clear in that book. I don’t have any passages marked, however, which is quite unusual for me … but in glancing through it just now, this jumped out at me: “How many filaments had Thomas Edison tried, over how many years, before he found one workable for incandescence?” She goes on to offer a few more examples, later noting: “It was all the same story. You have a great idea and spend grinding years at dull tasks, still charged by your vision.” Sounds like the writing process … the hopeful evolution of a book. Dillard, when read carefully, seems to effortlessly merge the simplistic with the substantial; not an easy task. Good to see the photo from the White House … I’d missed that! Thanks for reminding me how much I will miss her one day … even from afar.

    • Great examples, Daisy. I love: “Dillard, when read carefully, seems to effortlessly merge the simplistic with the substantial; not an easy task.” Her account of being chased with other children by a man furious because they’d hit his car with snowballs is sublime. I’ve seen it broken out as a separate essay, which can be found by googling Dillard and “The Chase.”

  • shirleyhs says:

    Saw this one while traveling and had to unpack it after I came home. I enjoyed the conversation here in the comments also. I taught Dillard in one form or another to every group of seniors in our English senior seminar course. Simba!!

    • Richard says:

      Hooray, Shirley! As I mentioned above, I just found online another great one to teach, her essay “The Chase,” which is a excerpt from her memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. It’s really intense and funny, about the furious young redheaded man who chased Dillard and their friends after they hit his car with snowballs. I think kids (maybe older adults too) would love it. And it has great prompt possibilities, such as recalling a time in childhood of doing something naughty, or a time you were scared but enjoyed it, or maybe a time an adult wouldn’t let something drop. Who hasn’t experienced at least one of those!?

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