annie dillard writes thoughts

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarvers gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself in new territory. Is it a dead end or have you located the real subject? You will know tommorrow, or this time next year.  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.

The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; i hope you will toss it all and not look back.

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 might 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 without impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, its often the 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 the 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 (are you a woman or are you a mouse?)

The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly,  that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang and from which you drew the courage to begin. Henry James knew it well and said it best in his The Spoils of Poynton, he pities the writer, in a comical pair of sentences that rises to howl: ‘Which is the work in which he hasn’t surrendered, under dire difficulty, the best thing he meant to have kept? In which indeed, before the dreadful done, doesn’t he ask himself what has become of the thing all for the sweet sake of which it was to proceed to to that extremity?”

A painting covers its tracks. Painters work from the ground up. The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions , and obliterates them. Writers on the other hand, work from left to right. The discardable chapters are on the left. the latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the works middle, and hardens toward the end. The earlier version remains lumpishishly on the left; the works beginning greets the reader with the wrong hand. In those early pages and chapters anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings and labouriously learn a setting now false.

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