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Home / What Authors Annie Dillard And Peter Elbow Can Teach You About Writing – Part 1
"The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house" - Annie Dillard

What Authors Annie Dillard And Peter Elbow Can Teach You About Writing – Part 1

This is the first of a two-part article with the first part focusing on Annie Dillard, the second on Peter Elbow.

While I have shared my own opinions about how writers can best get started, it has been interesting in recent weeks to compare and contrast my thoughts on the composing and writing process with those of two famous writers, Annie Dillard and Peter Elbow. I was exposed to both as part of a graduate level class on composing I am currently taking.

What I decided to do was combine three things: Write a requested sequel to my earlier advice column, sort out my thoughts on the advice of Dillard and Elbow and use their words or advice to, hopefully, help others.

I wrote a grumpy piece in recent days about how, while I liked Dillard’s book The Writing Life, I was underwhelmed by the book for which she won the Pulitzer, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. But I was writing that piece from the perspective of a reader. Today I’m approaching her as a writer. It may seem a subtle difference but it’s not. Let me explain it another way: In my earlier piece about writing I said that it is more important to start writing than it is to first stop and read all of the books about writing.

But, I went on to say, if you insist on reading a book on writing then read Stephen King’s book On Writing. I’ll now amend that to say “Read Stephen King’s book or The Writing Life.”

Does Dillard's writing sometimes frustrate this reader? Yes. Is she an amazing writer? Yes. Does she write some of the best metaphors and descriptions of the writing process? Oh, yes. Let me give one example, which is also the first paragraph of The Writing Life:

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 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…

Just as Dillard struggled with how to organize the two books of hers I’ve read, I have struggled with how to organize this article. I started typing all of the quotes of hers I wanted to include and the next thing I knew I had nine pages. And that was before I even decided to also include Peter Elbow. Oy. I’ll try this in a list format.

Writing Advice From Annie Dillard, With Some Assistance From Me

1. Writing is like building a house. There will be problems, there will be changes needed. You can agonize over these changes or, as she seems to suggest, you can and should just do it. Here is how Dillard put it in The Writing Life:

The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck

Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality; this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of your sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now.

2. Writing, when it is going well, can be one of the most stimulating, exciting things one can do. As Dillard writes, "Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all of your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer," Dillard goes on, "is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip … The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever.”

I confess that when I read that I fretted that I may be guilty, because I write so much, of “wild blurting,” and so I read “you may not let rip” as giving me more reason to slow down and focus on quality, not quantity, of my writing.

3. If you try to write in bits and spurts instead of having your own writing habit and routine the writing can turn on you. Here is how Dillard puts it:

I do not so much write a book as sit with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.

This tender process can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the doors to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, 'Simba!'

4. To be a good writer you need to enjoy not just writing, but also rewriting and playing with words.You may find yourself spending more time rewriting than actually writing, though not if you do some of the exercises we’ll talk about in the next part. I love this anecdote Dillard shares: 

 A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, 'Do you think I could be a writer?'

'Well,' the writer said, 'I don’t know…. Do you like sentences?'

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he knew he came to be a painter. He said, 'I liked the smell of the paint.'

5. Do not — and on this I agree with her 100 percent — save ideas for later. New ideas will come. Procrastinate at your peril. “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," Dillard says. "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."

As the writer continutes, "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 away freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes."

6. Many have tried to describe the writing process. I think it is different for everyone. But Dillard’s description of the process is one of the best I have ever read:

Here is a fairly sober version of what happens in the small room between the writer and the work itself. It is similar to what happens between a painter and the canvas.

First you shape the vision of what the projected work of art will be. The vision, I stress, is no marvelous thing: it is the work’s intellectual structure and aesthetic surface. It is a chip of mind, a pleasing intellectual object. It is a vision of the work, not of the world. It is a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty….

Many aspects of the work are still uncertain, of course; you know that. You know that if you proceed you will change things and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that change will not alter the vision or its deep structures; it will only enrich it. You know that, and you are right.

But you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing, or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work … You begin the work proper. Now you have gone and done it. Now the thing is no longer a vision: it is paper.

Words lead to other words and down the garden path. You adjust the paints’ values and hues not to the world, not to the vision, but to the rest of the paint.

The materials are stubborn and rigid; push is always coming to shove. You can fly — you can fly higher than you thought possible — but you can never get off the page. After every passage another passage follows, more sentences, more everything on drearily down. Time and materials hound the work; the vision recedes ever farther into the dim realms.

And so you continue the work, and finish it. Probably by now you have been forced to toss the most essential part of the vision. But this is a concern for mere nostalgia now; for before your eyes, and stealing your heart, is this frightening and frail finished product, entirely opaque. You can see nothing through it. It is only itself, a series of well-known passages, some colored paint. Its relationship to the vision that impelled it is the relationship between any energy and any work, anything unchanging to anything temporal.

The work is not the vision itself, certainly. It is not the vision filled in, as if it had been a coloring book. It is not the vision reproduced in time; that were impossible… You try — you try every time — to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.

 For the next part I will continue the list using advice and quotes from Peter Elbow.

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.

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