Quiet – Author Suffering

The Writing Life.

By Annie Dillard.

Harper & Row. $15.95.

Annie Dillard’s is a literary career with a difference. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) was the first of seven nonfiction books that she has published, all of them so difficult to classify that one hardly knows in which section of the bookstore to look for them. Nature? Philosophy? Religion? Biography? Travel? Belles Lettres? New Age? Dillard’s putative topics differ from book to book, but her underlying thematic concerns remain the same: the mysterious nature and significance of life, the enigmatic role of human existence and creativity in the universe, the eternal omnipresence of God. Dillard herself acknowledges, on the first page of Living by Fiction (1982), that “this is, ultimately, a book about the world. It inquires into the world’s meaning. It attempts to do unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup. The teacup at hand, in this case, is contemporary fiction.” The statement applies as well to Dillard’s other books, with the difference that in, say, An American Childhood (1987) the “teacup” is Dillard’s own early memories; in Encounters with Chinese Writers (1984) it is a series of cross-cultural authors’ gatherings; in her latest book, The Writing Life, it is the act of literary creation.

The epigraphs with which Dillard prefaces many of these books (or the chapters within them) give a good sense of her characteristic tone. The opening quotation of Pilgrim—an assemblage of meditations inspired by the natural wonders of Dillard’s then Blue Ridge Mountains habitat—comes from Heraclitus: “It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.” Dillard’s sole collection of poems, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), features a line from the naturalist John Muir: “Beauty beyond that everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever.” Living by Fiction quotes Teodor de Wyzewa: “Art must recreate, in full consciousness, and by means of signs, the total life of the universe, that is to say, the soul where the varied dream we call the universe is played.” And The Writing Life opens with a mot from Emerson: “No one suspects the days to be gods.” No one, of course, except Dillard. In the world according to Dillard, every day is a god, and every sentence a fervent prayer. In book after book, she maintains the ardent, transcendental tone of her epigraphs, intensely rendering moments when she feels “more alive than all the world,” her prose dense with exorbitant conceits, with repetitions that are designed to be incantatory, and with grand-sounding, abstraction-ridden pronouncements: “Knowledge is impossible.” “The universe is illusion merely.” “Of faith I have nothing, only of truth.” “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” Holy the Firm (1977), a nature journal composed during a period when Dillard lived alone near Puget Sound, begins in typical fashion:

Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.

I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. . . . This is the one world, bound to itself and exultant. It fizzes up in trees, trees heaving up streams of salt to their leaves. This is the one air, bitten by grackles; time is alone and in and out of mind. The god of today is a boy, pagan and fernfoot. His power is enthusiasm; his innocence is mystery.

Dillard is capable of carrying on in this vein for dozens of pages at a time.  As a rule, however, her images  are notable  more for their audacity than for their effectiveness, failing either to produce a clear picture in the mind’s eye or to make a coherent point. Not infrequently, they cross the border into unintelligibility. “Time and space,” Dillard declares in Holy the Firm, “are in touch with the Absolute at base.” And: “When the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will.” While such prose may quite sincerely be intended to convey a sense of wonder and immanence, it generally reads as if its chief purpose is to let us all know, beyond any possible doubt, how sensitive its author is to the glorious mysteries around her; at times one even has the impression that Dillard is less genuinely taken by the world around her than by her own endless capacity to respond effusively to it. Indeed, despite the rhapsodic, detail-heavy references to earth and ocean and sky that abound in their pages, Dillard’s books  too  often  feel  airless  and confined; there is, one feels, too much of the author here, and too little of other people.

What’s more, when her fellow humans step onstage, Dillard can sound remarkably insensitive. Observing a hospital patient who has been badly burned, she imagines herself addressing the woman: “If you’re scarred, you’re scarred. People love the good not much less than the beautiful, and the happy as well, or even just the living, for the world of it all, and heart’s home.” How callous this is! Dillard shows no sign at all of having had her view of things shaken (or her prose rhythms disturbed) by the woman’s tragedy; instead of empathizing with her horror, instead of being shocked by it into harsh new insights, Diliard makes this tragedy an occasion for yet more giib, graceful generalities. She comes across as exploitative, heartless. And such heartlessness is especially disturbing in an author who can solemnly announce (in Pilgrim), “I want to think about trees,” and who (in the 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters) can profess to wonder, “What does a weasel think about?” Dillard’s inability to show as much interest in the thoughts of the woman in the burn ward as in those of a weasel underscores a cardinal weakness of her books: that, for someone who depicts herself as relentlessly inquisitive about God’s creation, and who strives to put into words every trifling, nebulous thought that crosses her own mind, Dillard shows very little curiosity about or sensitivity to her fellow human beings.

“Why,” she wonders in Teaching a Stone to Talk, “do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?” The question takes one aback, for in it Diliard hits precisely on another of her weaknesses: namely, that she comes off not as a “habitan” (to borrow Whitman’s word) of God’s creation but as a gushing tourist, too zealous and impatient in her quest for the Absolute, too quick to assert her discovery of it, and too passive in her ultimate relation to it. A third problem is, simply, dullness. “Nothing is going to happen in this book,” Diliard brags at the outset of Holy the Firm. “There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time.” And it’s true: nothing does happen. Dillard yammers on in grand and obscure fashion about time, death, beauty, innocence, the weather, water bugs, mockingbirds, and the thoughts of weasels; but she doesn’t really say much of anything. Indeed, the apparent intent of books like Pilgrim and Holy the Firm is to steer clear of ideas—to eschew cognition, as fully as possible, the more purely to experience and express physical and spiritual sensation.

The unfortunate irony in all this is that Dillard really has quite a good mind (she was trained as a literary critic, and describes herself as having “a background in theology”), and when she allows herself to think, she usually does an impressive job of it. Amid the naturalistic ditherings in Teaching a Stone to Talk are some well-argued criticisms of the use of secular music in church services; likewise, in Living by Fiction she offers an absorbing and straightforward discussion of the ontology, morality, and ever-changing strategies of literary fiction, arguing that “literature as a whole has moved from contemplating cosmology—Dante—for the sake of God, to analyzing society—George Eliot—for the sake of man, to abstracting pattern itself— Nabokov—for the sake of art.” Its consistent clarity and precision, its devotion to principle and refreshing indifference to trends, and its lively, unashamed intelligence make Living by Fiction Dillard’s finest book by far, and one can only wish that in her other volumes she had heeded her own testimony in its pages that “the life of the mind … is, despite some appalling frustrations, the happiest life on earth.”

One might have anticipated that Dillard’s new book on literary matters, The Writing Life, would share at least some of the virtues of Living by Fiction, but such is unfortunately not the case. If the earlier book explores literature from the point of view of the reasoning critic, the new one—in an apparent attempt to give the layman some sense of what happens when a writer sits down to work— regards the same subject from the perspective of the intuitive author in the throes of creation. If in Living by Fiction Dillard exalts the life of the mind, in The Writing Life she asserts: “Much has been written about the life of the mind. I find the phrase itself markedly dreamy. The mind of the writer does indeed do something before it dies, and so does its owner, but I would be hard put to call it living.” On the contrary, she insists, a writer’s life “is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation.”

And so, alas, is this book (which, like most of its predecessors, is exceedingly slender, wide of margin and large of type, and comprises a series of unconnected passages that range in length from four lines to five pages). Nowhere has Dillard’s prose been more aggressively vacuous and claustrophobic, and nowhere has she more tiresomely indulged her penchant for cryptic, self-dramatizing jabber, for outsized abstractions, and for pretentious and (yes) markedly dreamy imagery. “The line of words,” she muses on the first page, “is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow….You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads.” Four pages later, she adds, “The line of words is a fiber optic, flexible as wire; it illuminates the path just before its fragile tip. You probe with it, delicate as a worm.” In succeeding pages she compares the line of words to a construction job, describes it as “finger[ing] your own heart,” envisions it “feeling for cracks in the firmament,” imagines it “heading out past Jupiter” toward the end of the solar system, “single-minded, rapt, rushing heaven like a soul.” And she proffers this little fantasy:

Every morning you clirnb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. . . . Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that rums the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.

To be sure, the book doesn’t consist entirely of esoteric metaphors for writing. Dillard also offers a number of anecdotes, mostly personal, that are presumably designed to illuminate the act and art of authorship. Some of these anecdotes are mundane and pointless {for example, a page-long story about a faculty-lounge teakettle that she once inadvertently scorched because she was so busy writing that she forgot she’d left it on the stove), some fantastic and pointless (for example, a weird symbolic tidbit about a typewriter exploding). She offers advice, some of it relatively lucid (“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now”), some not. She asks questions and sometimes, in her own idiosyncratic manner, answers them. Question: Who teaches one to write? Answer: “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 a necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly. . . .” (And so on for another ten lines.) Once or twice, to one’s immense gratification, she actually develops an idea (for example, about “commercial intrusion” into books); but for every such instance there are ten in which Dillard, seemingly on the verge of elaborating upon an observation or an opinion, instead skips a space and—frustratingly—leaps into the next baffling anecdote, the next hyperbolic metaphor.

Dillard is as different as can be from a writer like Somerset Maugham, who—though hardly an intellectual, or even a reflective man by habit—managed to provide, in his book The Summing Up, an astute essay on the literary calling as well as an explicit and entertaining account of his own creative procedures. Dillard, by contrast, seems determined in The Writing Life to come across as vague and abstracted—engrossed with nature and art, to be sure, but in an idly sensual rather than a rigorously analytical way. “Why people want to be writers,” she remarks, “I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.” And that’s all she has to offer on the question; she brings it up only to confess that she has nothing to say about it. Plainly, she doesn’t want any truck with concepts, doesn’t want to theorize about writing; she is more comfortable declaring her ignorance, her failure to think systematically about the subjects with which this book is concerned. She recalls telling a ferryboat crewman on one occasion that she hated to write and “would rather do anything else,” to which he replied: “That’s like a guy who works in a factory all day, and hates it.” Her reaction: “I was amazed, for so it was. It was just like that. Why did I do it? I had never inquired. How had I let it creep up on me?” But she has no thoughts on the topic. And so she skips a space and moves on to something else.

What’s going on here? Is Dillard out to make us think she is dense? No; she’s out to show us how far her sublime writerly rapture takes her from the dreary world of rational thought and logical discrimination. The baleful consequence of this strategy, however, is that she imparts a highly misleading view of the writing process. Her metaphors, for one thing, relate almost exclusively to the first-draft stage, not the rewriting stage; what fascinates her is not the deliberative work of revision but the existential act of facing the blank page, of hewing a path into the unknown. And she drastically simplifies and romanticizes even this first-draft stage: few writers, I daresay, are as much in the dark about where their next several pages will take them as Dillard would have the reader believe, and few, I suspect, proceed directly from beginning to end of a long manuscript without backtracking to make changes, to shift bits and pieces around, and the like.

Finally, Dillard makes writing—and artistic creation in general—seem a far less cerebral activity than it really is. She would have the reader believe that the true artist, far from shaping a work, is instead engaged in “following the work wherever it [leads],” in riding a current and “hoping the tide will turn and bring [him] in.” Undeniably, there are forces involved in the creation of any piece of art that are beyond the artist’s conscious control; but Dillard’s view amounts to a nearly wholesale abdication of intellect, a New Age-style surrender to forces beyond oneself. Dillard concludes her book with a quotation from Teilhard de Chardin: “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute. To see this is to be made free.” Perhaps. But the Absolute does not exist apart from mind—and the sort of near-mindless pursuit of the Absolute that Dillard celebrates in The Writing Life has nothing at all to do with the art of writing.