The Writing Life by Annie Dillard


I discovered this book at a used bookstore. There’s something magical about walking into a time capsule that is a used bookstore with a specific type of book on your mind, and walking out with one that satisfies.

Dillard’s sporadic reflections on the life of a creative were refreshing. I enjoy reading fiction authors write about writing because of the life they bring to the page. They craft a story about a non-fiction subject and I aspire to do that. There’s no better way to practice than to read someone who does so, for as Dillard writes in this book, “A writer is careful what he reads, because what he reads, he writes.”


We love that which we pursue.

Every year a young photographer gives his photos to an older photographer. The older photographer separates the images into two piles: good and bad.

Every year, the same image gets put in the “bad” pile, yet the young photographer keeps bringing it to the old photographer.

”You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?”

The young photographer responds: “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”

When you are stuck someplace when writing a book, when you have worked and worked and worked and it just won’t go anywhere, either the narrative has messed up somewhere, or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. “If you pursue the present course, the book will explode or collapse…”

“Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality.”

Your routine allows for flexibility. Discipline creates freedom.

Thomas Mann wrote a page a day for 365 days. That is a good-sized book once a year. “My guess is that full-time writers average a book every five years: seventy-three useable pages a day….On plenty of days, the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of days he concludes he must throw them away.”

“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.”

“A pile of decent work behind him, no matter how small, fuels the writer’s hope.”

Write, then edit

”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 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.”

“I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.”

“You read in the space of a coffin and you can write in the space of a toolshed meant for mowers and spades.”

How you spend your day is how you spend your life

”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…A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order–willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?”

Physical energy leads to mental energy

”When my creative energy flowed most freely, my muscular activity was always greatest.” – Emerson (I think)

Jack London, before he undertook to write, got a list of books and the syllabi from the University of California. He spent a year reading the textbooks on philosophy and literature. He also maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.

Aim for the chopping block

When you split wood, if you aim to hit the wood you’re trying to split, you won’t be very successful. Instead, you should aim for the chopping block and cut through the wood; past it.

This, too, is how you should write. “The page, the page, that eternal blankness,” Dillard writes. “The page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write. There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing.”

“Many writers do little else but sit in a small room recalling the real world.”

A writer must prepare themselves, every morning, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary day.

Don’t skip days

”If you skip a visit or two, the work in progress will turn on you. A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barley 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 door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain.”

“The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.” – Anne Truitt

Thoreau said something similar: “Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.”

“The writer is careful what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.”

A well-known writer got asked by a college student, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

”Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know…do you like sentences?”

If the student liked sentences, then of course he could be! A well-known painter said something similar when asked how he got to be a painter. “I like the smell of paint,” he said.

Ignore the hat, keep doing the work. Note: Similar to success paradox from Greg McKeown

Great writers “worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their task.”

“Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: can it be done? and, can I do it?”

If you have something good, write it then. Don’t wait.

”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.”

“Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw, and do not waste time.” - This was a note found in Michelangelo’s studio after he died. Antonio was his apprentice.


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