Notes from ‘The Writing Life’


Annie Dillard, in her book, The Writing Life, shares some profound wisdom from her life as a writer. In this blog post, I will share my understanding of them.

One of the most important themes the author touches is how mindfulness is a critical aspect of the writing life. She approaches mindfulness in two ways – solitude and information consumption.

Regarding solitude, she points out that writing is a personal journey and it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s strategy to start writing, and that is boredom.

The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it.
Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing; literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses – the imagination’s vision, and the imagination’s hearing – and the moral sense, and the intellect. 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.
A. E. Housman, almost predictably, maintained, “I have seldom written poetry unless I was rather out of health.” This makes sense too because writing a book you can be too well for your own good.

This mindful living in solitude serves as a creative constraint to bring out the best work.

You adjust the paints’ values and hues not to the world, not to the vision, but to the rest of the paint. Time and materials hound the work.

Regarding information consumption, the author talks about how writers must be comfortable with the value of unlived lives by overcoming their fear of missing out (FOMO), a theory explained by Adam Phillips.

The mind of the writer does indeed do something before it does, and so does its owner, but I would be hard put to call it living. It should surprise no one that the life of the writer – such as it is – is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.
This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience. Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper. Inside the small room, the writer is deeply preoccupied with things hitherto undreamed of. He finds himself inventing wholly new techniques in the service of his art.

Why people want to be writers, I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing. The materiality of the writers’ life cannot be exaggerated. If you like metaphysics, throw pots. Remarkably material also is the writer’s attempt to control his energies so he can work. He must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not.
For writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce. But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior nor Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning? How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge – a dangerous edge – and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?
I did not yet know how foolish it was to plan days of solitary confinement, days in which my only activity was walking four or five feet from the bed to the desk.

As William James wrote in The Principle of Psychology Vol.1, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

Recently, scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room. The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience. 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.

Annie Dillard also shares a few tips for writers. She offers consolation to writers about the pace of writing, articulation, and the motivation to write.

Regarding the pace of writing, here’s what the author says.

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. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.
Graham Greene noticed that since a novel “takes perhaps years to write, the author is not the same man at the end of the book as he was at the though (the novel) were something he had begun in childhood and was finishing now in old age.
On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days, he concludes he must throw them away. These truths comfort the anguished. They do not mean, by any means, that faster-written books are worse books. –
“Do not hurry; do not rest.” – Goethe
There is neither a proportional relationship nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses – to secure each sentence before building on it – is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. A pile of decent work behind him, no matter how small, fuels the writer’s hope, too; his pride emboldens and impels him.

Regarding articulating things to write, the author insists on the importance of finding one’s writing voice.

There is something you find interesting, for a reason had to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your astonishment.

The author also, mentions that all you need is the willpower to write.

You can read in the space of a coffin, and you can write in the space of a toolshed meant for mowers and spades.

Annie Dillard advice writers to get over writers’ block by giving examples of how to choose topics to write.

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
Write about winter in the summer. Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy.

She also encourages writers to dance with fear, an idea also, spread by Seth Godin.

I had thought that danger was the safest thing in the world if you went about it right.

Regarding editing one’s work, Annie Dillard mentions that earlier versions are not the part of the work, unlike in painting.

Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. It is the beginning of work that the writer throws away.

On how to learn the craft of writing, she offers a profound thought that sort of resonates with Neil Gaiman’s boredom strategy discussed earlier.

Who will teach me to write? A reader wanted to know. 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, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page in the purity of its possibilities; that page will teach you to write.
There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block. You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it.

The author also talks about the commercial value of writing as mentioned in the following quotes.

Many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade.

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. 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. In the democracies, you may even write and publish anything you please about any governments or institutions, even if what you write is demonstrably false.
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. You are free to make several thousand close judgment calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality.

The printed word cannot compete with the movies on their ground, and should not. Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor.

I was too far removed from the world. My work was too obscure, too symbolic, too intellectual. It was not available to people.

My favorite part of the book is when the author mentions what constitutes a good life. It resonated with my current obsession of crafting a solid daily routine.

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. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order – willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
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. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading – that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?

Lastly, the author talks about how learning to see the world as it is can set us free.

Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe. The world is filled and filled with the Absolute. To see this is to be made free.