The Writing Life: Quoting Annie Dillard

I’ve mentioned writer Annie Dillard a few times in the past week because I’ve recently re-read The Writing Life and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I think Dillard must be one of my favorite contemporary writers, and her book about being a writer is also one of my favorites.

The most surprising thing about Annie Dillard’s ideas as a writer is that she says she often, if not usually, hates writing. She is more than passionate, she is driven, pursuing the next line or paragraph like an addict pursues his next fix. While I don’t share an intensity of feeling for writing that makes me hate it, her relationship to her work fascinates me. I can’t imagine myself writing in a converted tool shed in freezing temperatures as she did.

But, then, I haven’t won the Pulitzer Prize as she has, either.

What I appreciated most about The Writing Life is that Dillard explains that books take a long time to write, more than a year or two. During her writing career, she has averaged a book every three years, compared with the average of some mass market authors such as Danielle Steele, the most successful and prolific author alive, who often works on as many as five books at a time every year.

Because I’m turning my energies back to my own writing, it helps to pick up some old favorites about writing. I’m not sure what I’ll read next (Stephen King’s is one of my favorites, even though I’m not such a big fan of his fiction).

What are your favorite books by writers about writing?

Quoting Annie Dillard

The Mechanics of Writing

Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.

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 heart, your back, your brain, and then-and only then-it is handed to you.

He was following the work wherever it led.

If he had noticed how he felt, he could not have done the work.

Writing Books

Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it?

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free.

It takes years to write a book-between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. [. . .] Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year.

I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. [. . .] This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you. A work in progress quickly becomes feral. [. . .] As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”


Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever.

The Writer

The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. [. . .] This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.

You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

People Who Read

The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have. [. . .] People who read are not too lazy to flip on the television; they prefer books. I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.

Learning How to Write

Who will teach me to write? A reader wanted to know. The page, the page, that eternal blankness, [. . .] that page will teach you to write.

The writer studies literature, not the world. [. . .] He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

The Writing Spirit

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.

A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. 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.

. . . the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

16 responses to “The Writing Life: Quoting Annie Dillard”

  1. writer reading Avatar

    Annie Dillard is a gift to all writers. These are wonderful quotes. It’s nice to see you writing about writing.

  2. lalber Avatar

    I was going to mention Francine Prose’s book, too, but Nova beat me to it. Another that I’ve liked is Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” She’s irreverant and insightful and inspirational.

  3. deb Avatar

    I read Stephen King’s book on writing and loved it. I am not a fan of horror but he is an amazing writer.

    “It takes years to write a book-between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant.” A good reminder for me. Thank you.

  4. Eve Avatar

    Mum and Nova, thanks for your suggestions. I’ve not read Miller’s book nor Prose’s, so will order them through Amazon.

    Reading about writing seems to focus my intentions, and it’s so helpful to know what the boundaries of “normal” are for other writers. Such as reading that there’s no substitute for just doing it (as Anthromama keeps pointing out) or that some writers hate having to write, or that it can take years to write a good book.

  5. Eve Avatar

    Anthromama, I just ordered Writing Down the Bones because it looked good. And So You Want to Write is another favorite. She say something along the lines of her best advice being, “Insert butt in chair. Write.” Right to the point.

  6. nova Avatar

    These quotes are fantastic!

    A book I found inspiring and helpful most recently was Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I’d definitely recommend it.

  7. cerebralmum Avatar

    Oh, that is just what I needed to read right now!

    As for other books, I love Henry Miller, so Henry Miller on Writing. But he probably isn’t to everyone’s taste.

  8. Terry Finley Avatar

    “No shortage of good days”: I like that.
    Great article…thanks.

  9. henitsirk Avatar

    I’ve read Writing Down the Bones, and So You Want to Write, both of which are pretty good. I like that “you may not let it rip”. Of course: that’s what blogging’s for 🙂

  10. helenl Avatar

    Then you start to live it and revise to the image or the music or both. And perhaps check your spelling. 🙂

  11. helenl Avatar

    Great post, Eve. I haven’t read Ann Dillard’s book but have read Stephen King’s a while ago (far enough ago that I’d have to pull it off the shelf for anything specific). I do write some prose but mostly poetry, and I haven’t seen much on the poet’s life. I do think I’m a bit too “balanced” to fit the definition most of these books come up with.

    When I was writing my master’s thesis, my adviser said, “Don’t work hard, work steady.” It worked. But many poets I know do not write poetry everyday. They’d like to, but life gets in the way. I think one reason I enjoy poetry is that to get into revision (which is truly the best part) all you have to do to get “in the zone” is read the poem. The you start to love it and revise to the image or the music or both. (Of course, putting a manuscript together is a different task. )

    1. Gregory Hartzler-Miller Avatar
      Gregory Hartzler-Miller

      I met a man today who works as a dishwasher at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore’s inner harbor, and he says he learning the importance to the Bible teaching, “Don’t work hard, work steady.” I have heard that teaching several times when I have been doing manual labor, but I don’t find it in the Bible. I also don’t find it much on Google search. This was my only hit! I bet your thesis adviser spent some time doing manual labor.

  12. Eve Avatar

    Caroline, hello and welcome! I know what you mean about picking up style, and I do think that it’s a normal human tendency to adopt some of the traits of those we associate with–even if the association is made through reading.

    I thought that what Dillard meant was more quality than personality, though. I mentioned elsewhere that I recently read Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, a tawdry book with little merit in my opinion, but with gross mass appeal. Just ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. I think I’d feel ill if I had to read too many books by authors like him.

    Another book I recently read was Honeymoon, by James Patterson. It left me feeling like I feel when I visit my mother-in-law and eat one too many of her desserts: bloated.

    I find that if I want to write well, I need to stick to the good books. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, it doesn’t matter what sort of literature it is, as long as the author is writing from love or passion, desperation or, yes, addiction to writing. But if the book is about money or mass appeal, it doesn’t help me.

  13. Eve Avatar

    Charlotte, I wish you well on your writing retreat. When I read about it on your blog, I felt so jealous! Heaven!

    Godspeed to you.

  14. Caroline Avatar

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

    The style of the writer of any book I’m currently reading somehow finds its way into whatever I’m writing concurrently.

    So I have to be especially careful what I read!!

    I wonder if this is the same for others who write?

  15. charlotteotter Avatar

    That’s so inspiring, especially as I am heading on my six-day writing retreat. I particularly like the one about giving it all now, not hoarding it for another place in the story.

    I’m going to print this out and take it with me. Thanks, Eve.

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