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Posts Tagged ‘Annie Dillard’

26 MARCH, 2014

Annie Dillard on the Art of the Essay and Narrative Nonfiction vs. Poetry and Short Stories

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“Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White remarked in his reflection on the art of the essay. And yet there must be a reason why the essay is what we turn to when we set out to assess human potential, as in college applications, and discuss matters of cultural charge, as in op-eds. For Annie Dillardmodern mystic, sage of writing, champion of the creative spirit — the essay is not only an immensely valuable genre of literature, but also a pinnacle of thought and a hallmark of the writer’s aspiration for significance. In the introduction to the altogether excellent anthology The Best American Essays 1988 (public library), which she edited, Dillard explores the misunderstood merits of the essay, a form she considers to be the short form of nonfiction, much as the short story is the short form of fiction. She places particular focus on the narrative essay — a genre that “demonstrates the modern writer’s self-conscious interest in writing” — especially narrative essays that “mix plain facts and symbolic facts, or that transform plain facts into symbolic facts.”

A great many narrative essays appear in the guise of short stories… My guess is that the writers (quite reasonably) want to be understood as artists, and they aren’t sure that the essay form invites the sort of critical analysis the works deserve.

Her aspiration in editing the volume, Dillard notes, was to coax essay writers “out of the closet.”

Comparing the extinction of the essay with the shrinking of other literary forms — including a particularly ungenerous but, perhaps, tragically accurate account of poetry’s role in the literary ecosystem — Dillard presages the rise of the narrative essay:

Poetry seems to have priced itself out of a job; sadly, it often handles few materials of significance and addresses a tiny audience. Literary fiction is scarcely published; it’s getting to be like conceptual art — all the unknown writer can do is tell people about his work, and all they can say is, “good idea.” The short story is to some extent going the way of poetry, willfully limiting its subject matter to such narrow surfaces that it cannot address the things that most engage our hearts and minds. So the narrative essay may become the genre of choice for writers devoted to significant literature.

She goes on to explore just what makes the narrative essay such a winsome genre over short fiction and poetry:

In some ways the essay can deal in both events and ideas better than the short story can, because the essayist — unlike the poet — may introduce the plain, unadorned thought without the contrived entrances of long-winded characters who mouth discourses… The essayist may reason; he may treat of historical, cultural, or natural events, as well as personal events, for their interest and meaning alone, without resort to fabricated dramatic occasions. So the essay’s materials are larger than the story’s.

The essay may deal in metaphor better than the poem can, in some ways, because prose may expand what the lyric poem must compress. Instead of confining a metaphor to half a line, the essayist can devote to it a narrative, descriptive, or reflective couple of pages, and bring forth vividly its meanings… The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than that of poetry. And it can handle discursive idea, and plain fact, as well as character and story.

The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do — everything but fake it. The elements in any nonfiction should be true not only artistically — the connections must hold at base and must be veracious, for that is the convention and the covenant between the nonfiction writer and his reader. Veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the writer; there’s a lot of truth out there to work with. And veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the reader. The real world arguably exerts a greater fascination on people than any fictional one; many people, at least, spend their whole lives there, apparently by choice. The essayist does what we do with our lives; the essayist thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically. In either case he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts.

Annie Dillard, 1988. Portrait by Richard Howard.

Dillard argues that American literature “derives from the essay and hinges on the essay,” for it stems from Emerson, who was an essayist. She lists among the notable godfathers of the genre Thoreau, Twain, and Poe, then turns to Melville and what his underappreciated essays reveal about the general cultural conceits toward the genre:

There is no reason why anyone should read, touch, or publish this brilliant stuff (“The Encantadas” [Melville’s essay about his ephemeral experience of the Galapagos Islands]) as fiction — except that the world is curiously blind to the essay, and to the essay’s imaginative and narrative possibility, as if it didn’t exist, or as if a work by its very excellence should have mysteriously tiptoed out of its proper (but dull-sounding) genre and crept into a more fashionable (but incorrect) one.

Noting that understanding history is a recurrent theme in her selection of essays, as well as in literary nonfiction in general, Dillard captures the cultural role of the writer beautifully:

Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.

And yet that is an act that requires mastering the art of uncertainty, of “the unknowingness that is the nub of any intimacy”:

We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees.

(It is rather ironic, given Dillard’s dismissal of poetry as a lesser form, that it was John Keats — a poet — who best articulated this notion in his famous concept of “negative capability.”)

Dillard returns to the cultural journey of the essay:

The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them. The material is the world itself, which, so far, keeps on keeping on. The thinking mind will analyze, and the creative imagination will link instances, and time itself will churn out scenes — scenes unnoticed and lost, or scenes remembered, written, and saved.

Complement The Best American Essays 1988 with this meditation on what makes a great essay by Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series, from the 2012 edition of the anthology, then revisit E.B. White on egoism and the art of the essay and Annie Dillard’s collected wisdom on writing.

HT Alexander Chee

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09 AUGUST, 2013

Annie Dillard on Writing

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“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.”

What does it really mean to write? Why do writers labor at it, and why are readers so mesmerized by it?

From Annie Dillard’s timelessly wonderful The Writing Life (public library) — which also gave us her vital reminder that presence rather than productivity is the key to living richly and her meditation on what a stunt pilot teaches us about creativity and the meaning of life — comes her infinitely resonant insight on the magic and materiality of writing, a fine addition to famous writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.

Dillard begins:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

Dillard examines the necessary casualties of the writing process and how it differs from other art:

It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.

A painting covers its tracks. Painters work from the ground up. The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them. Writers, on the other hand, work from left to right. The discardable chapters are on the left. The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the work’s middle, and hardens toward the end. The earlier version remains lumpishly on the left; the work’s beginning greets the reader with the wrong hand. In those early pages and chapters anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings, and laboriously learn a setting now false.

She later considers both sides of whether or not to edit in stride:

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. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop. Perfecting the work inch by inch, writing from the first word toward the last, displays the courage and fear this method induces.

[…]

The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph’s role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work’s ends.

“Be merciless on yourself. If a sentence does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way,” Kurt Vonnegut admonished in his eight keys to the power of the written word, “scratch it out.” Dillard puts it even more beautifully: In a testament to the notion that creativity is subtraction, she considers the enormous act of courage that self-editing requires:

How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord? How many gifts do we open from which the writer neglected to remove the price tag? Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer personally?

At the same time, writing a book requires enormous structural craftsmanship and logical stamina, a failure of either of which could produce what we often call creative block. But Dillard proposes a strategy for diverting disaster:

When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle — or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse, and you do not know about it yet, quite.

[…]

What do you do? Acknowledge, first, that you cannot do nothing. Lay out the structure you already have, x-ray it for a hairline fracture, find it, and think about it for a week or a year; solve the insoluble problem. Or subject the next part, the part at which the worker balks, to harsh tests. It harbors an unexamined and wrong premise. Something completely necessary is false or fatal. Once you find it, and if you can accept the finding, of course it will mean starting again. This is why many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade.

Like many celebrated writers, Dillard recognizes how vital a daily routine or daily ritual is in lubricating the machinery of this painstaking process:

Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. 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.

But beneath this magic lies a subtle recognition of its necessary dark side:

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. . . .

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.

In fact, echoing Tchaikovsky’s wisdom on work ethic, Dillard admonishes against this precious solipsism of the writer’s world:

The notion that one can write better during one season of the year than another Samuel Johnson labeled, “Imagination operating upon luxury.” Another luxury for an idle imagination is the writer’s own feeling about the work. There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a 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.

Dillard offers another necessary antidote to the preciousness of the writing process by reminding us of the demandingly physical world it inhabits:

The materiality of the writer’s life cannot be exaggerated. If you like metaphysics, throw pots. How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often “written” with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.

And yet writing necessitates a certain higher-level awareness of life and its opposite, something Christopher Hitchens would come to echo in asserting that “one should write as if posthumously”:

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?

[…]

Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

Dillard adds to other literary icons’ reflections on why writers write, including George Orwell, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr, Joy Williams, Isabel Allende, Charles Bukowski, and Susan Orlean :

The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring.

[…]

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.

But Dillard’s most poignant and timeless insight is the reminder that this gift is one to share, not to keep:

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 save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, 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.

The Writing Life is absolutely indispensable in its entirety. Pair it with these 10 essential books on writing and literary icons’ collected advice.

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24 JUNE, 2013

What a Stunt Pilot Teaches Us about Creativity, Impermanence, and the Meaning of Life

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“Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?”

“Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow,” Virginia Woolf observed in her timeless meditation on language and impermanence, “But words, if properly used, seem able to live for ever.” “I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth,” Henry Miller reflected. And yet our notion of creativity is very much linked to the visible, the tangible, the audible — in other words, the palpable and lasting. But if we were to take Brian Eno’s advice — “Stop thinking about art works as objects,” he urged, “and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” — what, exactly, would that mean? How would those creative experiences manifest?

From The Writing Life (public library) by Annie Dillard — the same gem of a book that gave us Dillard on presence over productivity and an altogether indispensable addition to the collected wisdom of beloved writers — Dillard adds to history’s finest definitions of art through the story of a stunt pilot she befriended and the unrelenting dedication with which he pursued an art that is purely ephemeral, exemplary of precisely such a “trigger for experience”:

The air show announcer hushed. He had been squawking all day, and now he quit. The crowd stilled. Even the children watched dumbstruck as the slow, black biplane buzzed its way around the air. Rahm made beauty with his whole body; it was pure pattern, and you could watch it happen. The plane moved every way a line can move, and it controlled three dimensions, so the line carved massive and subtle slits in the air like sculptures. The plane looped the loop, seeming to arch its back like a gymnast; it stalled, dropped, and spun out of it climbing; it spiraled and knifed west on one side’s wings and back east on another; it turned cartwheels, which must be physically impossible; it played with its own line like a cat with yarn. How did the pilot know where in the air he was? If he got lost, the ground would swat him.

Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure 8’s, snap rolls, and hammerheads. He did pirouettes on the plane’s tail. The other pilots could do these stunts, too, skillfully, one at a time. But Rahm used the plane inexhaustibly, like a brush marking thin air.

His was pure energy and naked spirit. I have thought about it for years. Rahm’s line unrolled in time. Like music, it split the bulging rim of the future along its seam. It pried out the present. We watchers waited for the split-second curve of beauty in the present to reveal itself. The human pilot, Dave Rahm, worked in the cockpit right at the plane’s nose; his very body tore into the future for us and reeled it down upon us like a curling peel.

Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out.

The oddest, most exhilarating and exhausting thing was this: he never quit. The music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease. Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?

Dave Rahm

Rahm applied this same wabi-sabi disposition of embracing impermanence not only to his art, but also to his life, straddling both sides of the mortality paradox. Dillard recalls a conversation with a young crop-duster pilot, an occupation so dangerous — “They fly too low. They hit buildings and power lines. They have no space to fly out of trouble, and no space to recover from a stall.” — that the average life expectancy of a pilot is five years, then reflects on Rahm’s bittersweet choice:

Over breakfast I asked him how long he had been dusting crops. “Four years,” he said, and the figure stalled in the air between us for a moment. “You know you’re going to die at it someday,” he added. “We all know it. We accept that; it’s part of it.” I think now that, since the crop duster was in his twenties, he accepted only that he had to say such stuff; privately he counted on skewing the curve. I suppose Rahm knew the fact, too. I do not know how he felt about it. “It’s worth it,” said the early French aviator Mermoz. He was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s friend. “It’s worth the final smashup.” Rahm smashed up in front of King Hussein, in Jordan, during a performance. The plane spun down and never came out of it; it nosedived into the ground and exploded.

Amidst a cultural sensibility where we use tangible art to anchor ourselves to the present, to ourselves, to life, Dillard — in her signature habit of gently, pointedly pulling at the loose threads of which the meaning of life is woven — pulls some of our core assumptions into question, at once uncomfortable and beautifully liberating:

“Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. It is hard to imagine a deeper penetration into the universe than Rahm’s last dive in his plane, or than his inexpressible wordless selfless line’s inscribing the air and dissolving. Any other art may be permanent. I cannot recall one Rahm sequence. He improvised. If Christo wraps a building or dyes a harbor, we join his poignant and fierce awareness that the work will be gone in days. Rahm’s plane shed a ribbon in space, a ribbon whose end unraveled in memory while its beginning unfurled as surprise. He may have acknowledged that what he did could be called art, but it would have been, I think, only in the common misusage, which holds art to be the last extreme of skill. Rahm rode the point of the line to the possible; he discovered it and wound it down to show. He made his dazzling probe on the run. “The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute,” Teilhard de Chardin wrote. “To see this is to be made free.”

No words can be written to articulate just how fantastic — how necessaryThe Writing Life is in its entirety.

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