What does a writing life look like? Most of the time a person of my ilk wants to be handed a list of 10 things to do to be a writer – knowing that doing these things will lead to a published book. In school if I followed the teacher’s instructions I would receive an A and eventually I would graduate. At work I could list goals, work towards them, and get a raise. Success came via pretty clear roads. However, with writing, as with most things, I’m beginning to see that this isn’t reality.
Annie Dillard expresses this very idea in her book, The Writing Life, by providing a view into her life of writing. Several reviews I read on Amazon were critical of the book because it did not contain that step-by-step guide. As if by reading enough books on writing one can actually write. Even though I may find a sense of comfort from those type of books, a sense that I’m doing something to further my writing project, I’m actually just putting off the real work.
Instead of providing a fool-proof system, Dillard pulls her readers out of their comfortable pictures of writing – just as she pulled her readers out of a romantic image of nature in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Within these pages we are accosted not with images of writing at a desk overlooking a scenic lake – but of needing to find a place in a library where no outside experiences will intrude. Or, a cabin or tool shed where only the essential items are present – and sometimes absent, like heat. For Dillard, “Appealing work places are to be avoided.” She closes herself off from potential distractions in order to practice a great discipline of focused composing. Yet, this is an element of her writing story, not something she claims is necessary for everyone.
Most importantly she shows that a writing life is a life first. It’s not about being holed away and creating an alternative world – that can come later. Instead it’s about living in this world and writing out of that living. She emphasizes that “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” (32). A writer does not wait for something to happen, but lives into the story. I’m reminded of Donald Miller’s book A Thousand Miles in a Million Years later that explores what it is to live a better story. As far as a road map to living a better story – it’s basically doing it, not following a list of instructions.
Dillard even pulls apart the tried and true method of planning to write – working towards a well conceived vision. The vision of a piece of work is not what the final work will be or even an outline to complete. It is a way to start, though, through the very act of writing, the vision itself may never fully be realized. The material elements of paper, pen, screen and keyboard serve to limit, or change,that vision. Words elicit other words. Sentences, paragraphs, and pages evolve.
I’m not sure if I go along with Dillard’s spartan view of writing space. Though, for me, maybe a seat belt may be in order to keep me sitting long enough to write deeply. However, I’m with her in her call to living. This book does not provide a path to writing success – go and find a spartan room and write. Instead what the life in this book provides is a call to a waking life because “we still and always want waking”.
“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.”