From Three by Annie Dillard

This quo­ta­tion from The Writ­ing Life, pg.575

Much has been writ­ten about the life of the mind.  I find the phrase itself markedly dreamy.  The mind of the writer does indeed do some­thing before it dies, and so does its owner, but I would be hard put to call it living.

It should sur­prise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is col­or­less to the point of sen­sory depri­va­tion.  Many writ­ers do lit­tle else but sit in small rooms recall­ing the real world.  This explains why so many books describe the author’s child­hood.  A writer’s child­hood may well have been the occa­sion of his only first­hand expe­ri­ence.  Writ­ers read lit­er­ary biog­ra­phy and sur­round them­selves with other writ­ers, delib­er­ately to enforce in them­selves the ludi­crous notion that a rea­son­able option for occu­py­ing your­self on the planet until your span plays itself out is sit­ting in a small room for the dura­tion, in the com­pany of pieces of paper.”



Writ­ing as Craft and Art

Peo­ple write.  Mon­keys write too.  Well, chimps do at any rate.  Some chick­ens have been taught to peck out words as well.  So where does that leave us?  It’s a good set of facts to remem­ber when you’re feel­ing des­per­ately arro­gant about your pre­ferred life sta­tus as a writer.  It’s also a good series of sen­tences to repeat when you are just feel­ing desperate.

It is fash­ion­able to pro­nounce the dic­tum that you can’t teach any­one to write.  Char­ac­ters in plays even say that.  Suc­cess­ful writ­ers who couldn’t be both­ered say that; failed writ­ers who couldn’t be both­ered say that.  Saul Bel­low is reported to have said it, but I don’t think he believed it.  He prob­a­bly didn’t want to be rel­e­gated to depart­ments of Cre­ative Writing.

You can, of course, teach peo­ple to write.  You can teach peo­ple to drive, you can teach peo­ple to read, you can teach peo­ple to read music.  What is the case is that you can­not guar­an­tee that what they will write will be any­thing of merit.  But you can teach peo­ple to put words together in sen­tences, which sound as if some­one other than a sim­per­ing moron wrote them.  You can teach proper syn­tax, usage, and vocab­u­lary –when to write me or I, when to write who or whom, when to write lie and lain, which or that, and so forth.  But that’s not what they mean when they say you can’t teach peo­ple to write.  They mean you can’t know how it will turn out.  There are bad dri­vers and good dri­vers, and good writ­ers and bad writ­ers.  But being a good writer has almost noth­ing to do with being a suc­cess­ful one.

We teach writ­ing pri­mar­ily by teach­ing read­ing.  Read­ing every­thing — eso­teric lit­er­ary nov­els, com­mer­cial nov­els, the clas­sics, poetry, and all the rest of it.  There is end­less ground to be cov­ered in what might be called “the teach­ing of writ­ing.”  Car­los William Williams illus­trates vocab­u­lary as an over-the-top art form, but his abun­dant lan­guage nonethe­less teaches.  Hem­ing­way teaches another les­son, that of naked, spare lan­guage.  Vir­ginia Woolf rede­fined the notion of time in fiction.

But there is no escap­ing the hard fact that you can’t teach some­one to have “the gift.”  If some­one has the gift there is men­tor­ing to be done, and coach­ing, but if it is there, it is there because some­body put it there… your genes, the Muses, God, or some ran­dom slap of good luck.  A gifted writer does not mean a pub­lished one or a par­tic­u­larly happy per­son.  You have the gift or you don’t.  It can lead to immor­tal­ity, insan­ity, or sui­cide … or to absolutely noth­ing at all.

In their arro­gance, the writ­ing elite sug­gests you can­not by exam­ple, by crit­i­cism, by dis­cus­sion, by edit­ing, teach any­thing about the craft of writ­ing.  Teach­ing writ­ing is not a chic thing to do, unless you hap­pen to be a play­wright or find your­self housed at one of the uni­ver­si­ties that have famous writ­ers teach­ing writ­ing.  Beware the totally com­mer­cial writ­ing work­shops, sem­i­nars and writ­ing marathon week­ends, for which you will pay a for­tune and learn lit­tle.  It is unlikely the really good teach­ers are at those places.

You might sur­prise your­self when you find a good teacher at a local col­lege.  Not a failed writer or a famous ego­ma­niac, but just a damn good teacher.

Most of the very famous writ­ers who are at the week­end sem­i­nars are there because they are hav­ing an affair with some­one or tem­porar­ily broke.  They will either be com­pletely unin­ter­ested in you if the rea­son is the first, or cranky as hell if the sec­ond applies.  The last thing a com­mer­cial writer who is presently feel­ing down and worth­less is inter­ested in run­ning into is an unknown but tal­ented writer.  That’s called Com­pe­ti­tion.  Writ­ing has become a Blood Sport.  I don’t play that sport, don’t believe in it and might be why I’m nei­ther famous nor all that suc­cess­ful finan­cially.  I am how­ever, always excited to find oth­ers will­ing to play in the Word­paint box, and make an utter mess and try again, and again.

What I’m say­ing is this:  you’re bet­ter off to stay home and write.  And read!  Read and then read more.  When you think your eyes have fallen out of your head, keep read­ing.  Other authors are your true teach­ers.  Then, find a small group of peo­ple you trust and show them your work, when you are ready to show it to them.  They do not have to be writ­ers, famous, or in the pub­lish­ing busi­ness.  They must how­ever be peo­ple who will offer con­struc­tive crit­i­cism.  Finally, know when it is time to shred some­thing, shelve some­thing, move for­ward with some­thing, or have the guts to trans­form some­thing you’ve writ­ten into some­thing dif­fer­ent.  Trust your instincts.

When read­ing, sep­a­rate the author from the work.  Idol­a­trous wor­ship of pub­lished writ­ers turns quickly into idle­ness for you.  If you are a writer, or hop­ing to be one, meet­ing more famous authors does lit­tle for your work.  If you’re a reader, but not a writer, meet­ing a writer is either plea­sur­able or dis­ap­point­ing, but it doesn’t wrench your guts out and par­a­lyze you.

The only “help” I ever got from an author was May Sar­ton, a minor writer, who wrote con­stantly.  Many have judged her work triv­ial, but it was the act of writ­ing and exist­ing that made her a hero among many young fem­i­nists, myself included.  I read her many pub­lished jour­nals writ­ten against mad­ness, against lone­li­ness and ill­ness.  Her work was a coda for a time before women were com­fort­able with them­selves or their choices.  I met her only once when I was quite ill.  She said “write it all down.  It doesn’t mat­ter what becomes of it.  Just write it down.”  It was great advice because she put the notion of writ­ing into the notion of liv­ing, and indeed, of stay­ing alive.

I saw Anaïs Nin once at a large pub­lic gath­er­ing.  It was Women’s His­tory month and she was the invited speaker at a large uni­ver­sity.  Women escorted her down the aisle, as if she were the High Priest­ess.  Every­one was read­ing her jour­nals; I was read­ing them too.  But I didn’t like them.  I felt she was writ­ing them for an audi­ence and there­fore they seemed dis­hon­est to me.  Why not call them mem­oir then, I thought at the time.  This was more pre­scient of me than is usu­ally the case, because it was far before the time the fic­tion of her jour­nals was revealed.  Yet, when read­ing Dei­dre Bair’s extra­or­di­nary biog­ra­phy about her, I felt sor­row and com­pas­sion.  Anaïs Nin kept her­self alive and fed by writ­ing, in how­ever a dis­torted for­mat.  It kept her going.  Per­haps the most mov­ing por­tion of the biog­ra­phy is when Bair describes Nin, by then severely ill with can­cer, trav­el­ing from West to East Coast to be with and care for one of her two “husbands.”

In my mind there’s one play that most clearly artic­u­lates the life of the writer, you’ll find it in Don­ald Mar­guiles play, “Col­lected Sto­ries.”  It is a more valu­able teach­ing tool than any expen­sive week­end sem­i­nar on process, craft or the art of writ­ing.  It speaks to what it means to be a writer, to age as a writer, and to be too trust­ing with your sto­ries.  Your sto­ries are always your sto­ries but if you speak them before you write them, they belong to any­one who has heard them. If you really want to write, do it, and don’t talk about doing it.  And, also read this play if you’re stuck, blocked or feel­ing hope­less.   Clue:  the best line in the play is “Only when I’m expect­ing  burglars.”

© Alida Brill 2011