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.

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