The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: not a work of genius but a source of pleasure
A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s old favourites
Annie Dillard in her writing shed in California. Photograph: Richard Howard/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty
I’m still largely unacquainted with the work of US writer Annie Dillard, which may make The Writing Life, her book on the experience and nature of writing, a strange place to start. It came to me unexpectedly, a gift from my mother, a fellow writer, to whom I had no doubt been lamenting my own paltry writing life. Perhaps moaning about writer’s block or, conversely, an egoistic unwillingness to edit (so, the usual).
When she handed the book to me, it was December. I had just turned 27, and was initially, irritably, unconvinced. More correctly, I was resistant, which often happens with books that say true things for which I am not ready, or simply don’t want to hear. Dillard made writing sound so arduous, so unromantic. Yet it kept coming back to me.
Images bubbled up over the following days and months – Dillard chopping wood, playing chess with a ghost, watching a looping and twisting aeroplane, at her desk, writing-not-writing. I remembered the graceful turn of certain sentences, as well as the rousing sentiments, such as this: “Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that is engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free.”
A year later, I returned to The Writing Life, and apparently only then was I prepared for all that Dillard had to teach me – not didactically, but with a genuine love for her craft, with grace, with humility. Now, I have returned to it so many times, the spine is loose and the pages are covered in pencilled underlinings.
This book is not a work of genius, it’s not world-altering; but it is informative, and a genuine source of pleasure. It’s a writer expressing candidly and skilfully both the difficulties and pleasures of writing. It’s accessible and conversational, funny and heartbreaking, and tackles, sometimes directly, often obliquely, those questions of method and purpose that can haunt those who’ve made the mad decision to dedicate their lives to art.