Annie Dillard, from The Writing Life

“A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.  Strange seizures beset us.  Frank Convoy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Seizer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottm of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree.

…your fascination with something no one else understands…it is up to you. …There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin.  You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.  ‘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, the sculptor, said this.  Thoreau said it another way: know your bone.  ‘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.’

Write as if you were dying.

Describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris.  Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, Connecticut.  Recently, scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room.

The writer studies literature, not the world.  He lives in the world; he cannot miss it… He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.  He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know… Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature.

Why are we reading if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?  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, se we may feel again their majesty and power?  …we still and always want waking.

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.  Similarily, 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 writer returns to these materials, these passionate subjects, as to unfinished business, for they are his life’s work.

How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord?  You write it all, discovering it at the end of the line of words.

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… 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 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 end.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life


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