The Writing Life – Homage to Annie Dillard


I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win. You abandon your masterpiece and sink into the real masterpiece  (Leonard Cohen)


In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard talks about an American writer who has written a dozen major books over six decades. A book, she says, can take years to write. But this writer wrote one of his books, ‘a perfect novel, in three months. He still speaks of it, with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books’? (Dillard, The Writing Life, 13).

She describes the heroism it takes to write a book. The impossibility of the task and the humility required to meet it. ‘Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff that 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’ (Dillard, The Writing Life, 4).

The book, finally completed, conceived in your mind and constructed through your efforts doesn’t belong you. It never has. It came to you through an act of grace, unmerited. That it came to you at all is still a mystery. All you remember is the struggle, the awful daily struggle to find the words, the unease which remained with you from beginning to end: Can I do it? Can it be done? It was horrible. It almost killed you. It did, in fact, kill you and what was left in the wake of that devastation was the work, for which you are grateful.


Barbara McClintock, the cytogeneticist, says that insight arises only when the scientist can forget themselves. ‘The main thing is to forget yourself’ (A Feeling for the Organism, 117). Only then can you ‘get a feeling for the organism’ and ‘hear what the material has to say to you’ (A Feeling for the Organism, 198). Attentive to what the material has to say, you may proceed, tentatively at first or with confidence. We are all different beings, after all. But the work will only come to you if you remain attentive, for the work comes from the material itself. Only a fool believes otherwise.


The heroic effort required to write a book, or any work, can fool you into thinking that you are its master and that it owes its life to you. It is true that, in the end, it could have been written by no-one else. That was the burden you bore throughout its conception. But you are not its master. It owes nothing to you, nor cares if it was brought into being at all. It had a life and has a life still in the material that gave it shape. If you managed to write it, it is because you submitted yourself to its service.


‘You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paintbox. Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox, he said, is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents’ (Dillard, The Writing Life, 69).


Can you proceed to write with an attitude of mastery? Perhaps. At first the material may appear to yield. It will let itself be shaped by your will and it will give you something, some small gain that will make you think  – aha! There it is. Yes. I am on the right track. But soon enough the weakness of your foundations will become apparent, the shabbiness of your words will show the work for what it is – a vision imposed onto the material, conceived from outside it, before it could enter into your body and shape you; before it could call you into its service.

What kind of work will an attitude of mastery produce? A masterful one, perhaps. A work that tells you everything about the master’s skill, and very little about the material itself.


The writer has no place in their work.


The writing life is a life of service. Do sociologists swear similar oaths to gods that are felt, but not seen? For who is the sociologist if they are not the person called to listen, to bare witness to the material that has been laid out here before us. If truly this is a life of service, then I am ready.


4 thoughts on “The Writing Life – Homage to Annie Dillard

  1. Thank you Demelza. I love this form for what you are talking about, and maybe it could encourage others to make contributions, add to the list. It works very well for a blog. Here’s a quibble: ‘heroism’ doesn’t seem quite right for a state of humility and courage!

    1. Yes I think you are right about heroism in that paragraph. It felt awkward in the writing, though I couldn’t think what to replace it with because I do mean something like bravery. Heroic doesn’t feel like a modest term though, does it?
      I wonder how Merton would describe his decision to enter the monastery at Gesthemene? Brave, courageous or something else, just necessary.
      One thing I do like about the way Dillard uses terms like that is the sense of her mocking herself, whilst also being very serious about the process too. She reminds of Leonard Cohen in that way, in the songs were he is very serious but also laughing at himself, at us.

  2. Thank you. Yes, I didn’t quite believe it when my supervisor said that the thesis will write itself. I nodded obediently but thought it was meant to be a form of inspiration. Yield to the work and it will write itself. And it did! What a feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration when the service was rendered. Relieved.

    1. Thanks for your comment Rosalind. You had an inspired supervisor:)
      I wonder also what that feeling was when your thesis ‘began to write itself’? You mention exhaustion and exhilaration and that is what interests me. Dillard uses the term unmerited grace (I love that phrase and all that it implies). In the past I’ve always honed in to the sense of flow and ease that I expected to come with that. But what surprises, in her book and in my own experience, is the labour that remains. It continues to be a hard press, doesn’t it. Each word seems to require effort, thought, decision. More and more I am interested in that labour – and the different practices that people have to support (or impeded) it. I suppose that is because I am teaching writing at the moment and I want to assure students that the difficulties they face are just part of it. Unavoidable and necessary. So the sense of of work not belonging to you is also strange (though true) because you really did work so hard to produce it.

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