The Writing Life is Pulitzer-winning writer Annie Dillard’s attempt to answer the twin questions that haunt anyone seeking to create thoughtful works of literature: why write, and how might one write well?
In this short collection of essays on craft, Dillard meditates on what it means to become a writer as well as why someone might want to write in the first place. Dillard wrote and released the collection in 1989 as her seventh book, almost fifteen years after receiving the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. The writer’s perspective across the seven essays of the collection, unsurprisingly, is informed by her awareness of the cultural capital that her critical success has afforded her. She wastes no time pretending that she is writing for any but those interested in writing the most serious of works, and she on occasion settles for leaving a thought half articulated, knowing that she can do so because of her reputation. The 111-page book can read as a bit scattered, even at times as underdeveloped, but Dillard consistently raises interesting questions for aspiring and experienced writers alike to consider, even if her answers sometimes leave something to be desired.
Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. (67)
The collection as a whole frames the writing life as a quasi-religious vocation that demands both hard work and curiosity, daring and endurance, from those drawn to it. Dillard’s language is clear, her transitions smooth, her pacing swift. Her prose flows calmly from one point to the next, and her attention to detail makes the essays stimulating to read. She interweaves cultural history, anecdote, philosophy, and autobiography to make literary tapestries of illustration and insight. The impact of Dillard’s style of writing upon present-day American essayists such as Rebecca Solnit or Alexander Chee is clear.
Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.
The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless. (58)
Throughout the collection, Dillard revives the Romantic concept of the writer as a solitary figure removed from the spheres of society and commerce, and she attributes to writing a kind of spiritual fervor that ties the act to the sublime, which the essayist often codifies here as “the infinite.” Far from associating good writing with spontaneity, though, Dillard also stresses how much labor is involved in completing even a single work of writing, and she insists that writers not be interested in fame. She disentangles the claim that writing is a special type of labor from the patriarchal lust for power via literary renown. All this makes for a curious argument that mystifies the writing life, elevating it above other kinds of work, without idolizing the writer as celebrity.