Immersing Myself in The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard lived on my bookshelf for years before I got around to reading what she had to say. Although I don’t remember what motivated me to open her book, I finally did. I must have seen a quote from Annie Dillard while reading the blogs of others and I promised myself I would read her. My journey into her books started with The Writing Life about three weeks ago. I wanted to learn more about how to write. The quote in the photo above comes from The Writing Life, which I finished last night.
In The Writing Life Dillard states that “The writer studies literature, not the world.” The point she was making was that only as we let literature shape us, can we maybe begin to shape literature.
Dillard had obviously observed the world, at least the world of nature, carefully, as even the first chapter of has shown me. She warns us that we should carefully choose what we will read, since that is what we will write. If we would write literature, we must read it. If we would write poetry, we must read it. If we want to even blog, we must read other blogs.
Exploring Tinker Creek With Annie Dillard as Guide
After finishing The Writing Life, I began to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Unlike many of the books I’ve been reading and reviewing, this one requires slow reading. I keep a notebook and pencil within arm’s reach. It’s not normal for me to study a book this way, but there is too much for me to grasp unless I take notes and write quotes.
It’s important to study Dillard’s use of words and the way she constructs the sentences she spends so much time writing. I use the notebook to record my observations as I read, as well as some examples of her effective use of words. As I continue to study the book I will try rewriting her ideas in my own words. Benjamin Franklin learned to write by copying the ideas of others and trying to rewrite them, without looking, in his own words.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not a book most people would enjoy. It is a book of exploration, heavy with ideas. As Annie explores Tinker Creek, she compares herself not to a scientist, but to an infant exploring his environment, bewildered by all he sees, trying to figure out his world and where he fits into it. She describes it this way on page 12: I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.
This echoes what I feel when I sit down to write. I want to reveal to others something they might utterly miss were I not to write it down. But first I must catch sight of it myself as my spirit interacts with what I see in the natural world and I perceive a new truth or relationship to a previous observation.
Walks with My Camera Help Me Observe
Annie walks, and so do I. She observes much more than I do, and she is much better at putting what she sees into words. Walking exposes one to nature as nothing else does. When we walk we slow down to a speed that allows us to see.
I take photo walks with my camera in my hand. Somehow that camera helps me see more, since I continually see photos in my head – single shots that force me to concentrate on my subject in detail. The photos also help me recall the details when I want to write. Walking is one way I cure writer’s block when it dulls my senses and sucks my motivation to write from me. I cannot take a walk without observing something in a way I’ve not regarded it before.
My Reading Goals
I plan to spend much more time reading Annie Dillard. I probably will never write as well, but I can learn something by Annie’s example that will help me improve.There is much to use as a model in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
I will be buying the book so I can mark it up as I read. Studying a pro will help me discover the shape and style of my own contribution and bring it into being. Meanwhile, I will practice. And I will continue to read The Writing Life. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you get a copy.
How did you discover your writing style or voice?