Here is a peek at the grad school process: for each of the thirty-two books I've read this year, I need an "annotation," which is an odd species of writing, "like a writing journal, but thoughtful," said one person. "Everything you'd need to know from a book" said another-- but the annotation is supposed to be less than two pages long. "Everything I'd need to know" is much, much longer! I feel like each annotation is closer to a draft than to a review, because I also turn in creative writing, which is the real focus of my studies, and three critical papers each year, with the annotations taking the lowest priority.
So here's my annotation for The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
…the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle—bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes and burns. p 29
Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world…. Writers…surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in 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. p 44
Seven chapters, one hundred and eleven scant pages, not much of it encouraging, most of it fearsome—this book is one of the wittiest I’ve read, and the most dead-on discussion of writing. Had I read this book sooner, it would’ve scared the bejeezus out of me. Later and I might hang onto romantic notions about writing longer than I can afford. At the end of my first year in the MFA program, this must be the right time.
Chapter One introduces “a line” for the writer to pursue, and a handful of metaphors for building and testing that written line. The chapter is nearly unbearable, damning the foolishness of writing:
…your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one cares whether you do it well, or ever….Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality. p 11
Chapter Two exposes a writer’s daily grind of isolation and sensory deprivation, stripping the writing “nook” to its cinderblock necessity. Chapter Three describes how to chop wood—and write-- ineffectively. Chapter Four tells the self-combustion of a typewriter. Chapter Five invokes mastery as a slow process in painting as well as literature. Chapter Six answers “how’s it going?” with the self-same slowness described in Chapter Five.
Today, this book is like a beating—I am tired and perhaps I’ve only truly just begun at the work of writing. I’m okay with being a beginner of sorts—I am. (This is what education does: prove that The Task I’m learning is more complicated and subtle than I could’ve known.) Over two days I’ve started reading the book, stopped, taken a break, considered quitting the book altogether for fear that I’ll be too depressed to go on—and then the sentences I’ve noted are so apt and funny that I need to read the next section and the next. Writing IS absurd. But Dillard gives herself over to it, and her irritation with her calling is fun to read. It won’t get any worse than she describes, and she’s really good at this art. She never once says she loves writing and in fact she admits that she hates it and she can’t explain why she does it. There is some weird joy to the head-banging process of writing, some weird joy to her obvious devotion.
The pull of The Writing Life is beautiful sentences, odd but not overwrought (as I felt The Maytrees was overwrought). I could underline the entire book or read it out loud, the language is so playful.
Chapter Seven never mentions writing: it is about flying “a line” for the sake of beauty. And now the whole book is about flying, carving, looping, redefining what a line is. The whole book is about cracks and fissures and volatility in mountains, flaws that might destroy, fires in typewriters, dizziness, speed, hardnosed devotion and mystery. The whole book must be read again to “prove” the final chapter. I am the one thrilling like a spectator at a flight show, watching someone do this writing thing spectacularly well. Dillard is clear that writing this way is a dangerous undertaking. She lays down the gauntlet: are you a woman or a mouse?p 4. You can waste a year worrying about it or you can get it over with now. The brute edge of the truth is helpful. I am definitely not a mouse, and I’d best get over it now. I started reading, glum and getting more so by the minute. But there is something odd and perfect about this book. I end exhilarated, hungry for more reading and hungry for the next writing pursuit.