Book Review: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

editing_logoA friend loaned me this book last year, but in my sleep-deprived state, the metaphors in the first chapter were lost on me as impractical, and I put it off to the side in hopes of something more blunt. Fast-forward some months later, and I was able to read the entire book (It’s just over 100 pages) on a nice late summer Labor Day. Yes, even with two kids involved!

I always enjoy reading other writers’ “how to” books, or books in which they tackle the subject of writing. Most of them agree that there is no definite right way, or single way, to accomplish a novel. In fact, most writers agree that each novel is unique for each writer, and each writer’s process is different from the rest.

Dillard uses many metaphors in this book, following her preference for literary writing. They resonate and make her points for her. In a quote that I pulled to read to my AP Literature students when we talk about reading to appreciate and analyze literature, she writes, “The reader’s ear must adjust down from the loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word.” In this section, she writes of the differences between movies and novels, and how those who like movies are not generally readers, questioning why so many authors try to write books that would appeal to non-readers in the first place. In other words, make use of the written word as its own medium. She certainly did this in the way she wrote the novel–without chronological organization and with generous use of metaphor.

She certainly follows her own advice, revealing details about her writing life at planned moments to make points stronger. One of the main takeaways was that she really detests the writing life. It’s a calling, for sure, but she seems to do what she can do put off writing, at least in her anecdotes. This is interesting to me. I suppose, working full time and parenting, when I make time for writing, I truly appreciate it. But I have heard from so many people that when something becomes your full-time job, you end up detesting it. Dillard’s book surprised me in that she focused on so many of the physical details of her writing life, such as heating up water for coffee or looking out the window of her writing retreat. (For me, I write whenever and whereever I can, and I couldn’t honestly tell you all those details. It’s interesting to read about the struggles of a full-time writer).

The other takeaway that stood out to me is the idea that a writer will never be able to fully capture the concept that started the need to write the novel. She did not explicitly mention the poem, but the advice reminds me of “Kubla Khan,” in which Coleridge expresses frustration at not being able to capture the entirely of his vision. As Dillard notes, the medium–paper and words–will necessarily fail us, and the medium itself starts to impose its own meaning, changing the work as we try to capture something ephemeral and transcendent.

I did not leave the book with the secrets of writing. I did come away feeling that some of my writing struggles are common to other writers. I was reminded about the fact that rough drafts can be really bad, and that some days are spent simply taking out sentences that were put in the day before. Writing is a process and a slow one for most.

The book is a fast read with some interesting metaphors. If you’re a writer, it’s worth a quick read–if nothing else, it will help you procrastinate for another two hours or so 😉

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