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Thinking About The Writing Life and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

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For my graduate level composition class we have required reading and must journal twice a week about whatever is on our minds. This started out as a journal entry and then became whatever this is, less a typical book review as much as an analysis of my reaction to Annie Dillard's work.

You know the awful phrase used in so many difficult relationship break-ups: “It’s not you. It’s me”?

That’s what I feel like saying to Annie Dillard about my reaction to two of her books I just read, The Writing Life and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Clearly, Dillard is an amazing writer. I’ll be among the first to say that her writing is elegant and she can make sentences do amazing things. There’s good reason she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

No, the problem here is not with the writer but the reader, namely me. Apparently, judging by my reaction to these books, I need more structure. But I hesitate as I type that sentence because how can I demand structure when also organizing and participating in the Writing Down the Bones fiction exercise that requires one to write for 10 minutes without stopping to edit or add structure?

The bigger problem for me, I think, is the topic choices. I much preferred reading The Writing Life because at least there she is talking about thoughts and actions one does while writing or considering writing. That book I could relate to, most of the time. Sometimes, though, when she would start writing about her fascination with something she sees, such as a bug, I’ll be thinking, “Ok, enough with the bug already. Let’s move on.”

On reflection, especially after reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek , I realize there is irony in my reaction. This book is all about seeing – I mean noticing every possible little detail – of nature and contemplating it and writing about it. This drove me crazy as a reader because, frankly, if I want to check out nature I’ll go do it myself.

Reading someone writing about seeing nature… well, some obviously find that fascinating. To me it reminds me of the classic line about music criticism: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And yet I’ve dabbled in music criticism, and then journalled about the difficulty of this, so I can be accused of some hypocrisy here.

So what, you ask, is the irony? The irony is that the unspoken theme of the book is that we should all slow down and notice the beauty that is nature all around us. Thus when I am saying, “Ok, yeah, you see a bird. Great. What’s next?” I’m doing a good impersonation – unintentionally, mind you – of the typical American demanding instant gratification.

So I read this with mixed emotions, aware that I am reading a master yet wishing the topic of this book had been something else. Her meandering style reminds me a bit of Tom Robbins, with whom I also have a love-hate relationship, in that I love his wordplay, his writing is billions of times better than anything I can aspire to, yet when he seems to take the reader here and there and everywhere I sometimes wanted to scream: “Can’t you just get back to the plot and move on with it?”

For that’s it, you see. I love books. I read at least 100 books a year. But I like my books to either have a good plot, if fiction, or be on a topic that interests me, if non-fiction. When neither occur my mind wanders. And that is not a problem of Robbins or Dillard’s but me.

While the book rubbed me the wrong way it did result in this essay and my realization that I need to have more of an open mind, as well as opening my eyes more to appreciate some more of the beautiful things in life, be it nature, authors like these or whatever.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.