The Writing Life: Annie Dillard on Maintaining Objectivity & Having the Courage to Cut

“I hate writing; I love having written,” critic and satirist Dorothy Parker once confessed with herthe writing life defining cheeky wit.  Writing vs. having written: the only difference is a slight shift in tense.  The -ing form of “writing” is uncompromisingly confined to the present, to the act of writing itself: the endless hours spent trying to wrangle an idea to the page, the long stretches of silence and solitude, the nearly unendurable periods of self-loathing and self-doubt.  “Having written,” on the other hand, suggests a blissful future where the torment of writing is finally over.  A wellspring of wisdom, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is the sublime memoir of a woman who knows personally the pains and perils of a being a writer.

Andre Gide, winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature, once argued the artist resembled an explorer venturing into uncharted territory.  “One does not discover new lands,” he held, “without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”  Much like those dauntless Spanish explorers who first sailed across the Atlantic in search of the new world, the writer voyages on the stormy seas of the blank page in hopes of stumbling upon lands previously undiscovered.  In a passage that echoes both Andre Gide’s and Joan Didion’s beautiful reassurance that writing is a process of discovery, Annie Dillard asserts all creative work is essentially an adventure into the unknown:

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

It was Kurt Vonnegut who so wisely advised that words be the slaves to our ideas.  “Be merciless,” he pleaded in his timeless treatise on writing with style, “If a sentence does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”  Stephen King put it more bluntly: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  Much like King and Vonnegut, Dillard warns us not to worship our words.  Being a writer depends on a healthy level of detachment.  When we begin glorifying our words as the pious praise God, we lose objectivity- an ability essential to assessing the quality of our work: we keep three sentences where one would suffice, though they contribute nothing to our meaning; we refuse to scrap sentences for the sheer reason that we can’t stand parting with such lovely words.  Much of writing, Dillard suggests, is not talent or brilliance but simply recognizing when a piece isn’t working and having the courage to start over:

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 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 with impunity; you can hear the difference.  Unfortunately, it is often a 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 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 over it now.  (Are you a woman, or a mouse?)”  

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Later, Dillard contemplates the manifold reasons writers resist throwing away work:

“If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.  He will retain them.  He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, though they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust.  Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared- relief that he was writing anything at all.  That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork.  But no.”  

As artists and writers, we often feel an intense attachment to what we create.  When a passage was particularly laborious to bring into being, therefore, we hesitate to delete, even if it no longer suits our purposes or fits the structure of the piece.  But the finest writers understand the importance of separating the creative process from the critical and refuse to let an irrational, groundless penchant for a passage interfere with a dispassionate assessment of its shortcomings and strengths.  John Trimble, author of the lively, indispensable Writing With Style, believes writing is a matter of courtesy: the writer has an obligation to respect his reader.  Dillard would agree.  Writing is neither a narcissistic display of our own talent nor an excuse for pointless, trifling self-indulgence- it’s an authentic yearning to communicate something of consequence to another human being.  Having worked tirelessly on a passage just isn’t enough reason to refrain from hitting delete.  Though we tend to cherish the art we’ve labored hardest for, our feelings are in no way reliable measures of the quality of a piece.  In a humorous moment, Dillard recounts the story of an aspiring photographer who insists his landscape has merit despite his more experienced mentor’s critiques:

“Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment.  Every year the old man studied his prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good.  Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack.  At length he turned to the young man: ‘You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack.  Why do you like it so much?’  The young photographer said, ‘Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.'”

The Stoics on Reason, Desire & Self-Control

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According to Maria Popova, erudite lover of letters and founder of the insanely popular Brainpickings blog, few words have been more corrupted by appropriation and misuse than the modern derivative of Stoicism.  Today, she maintains, stoic is a word “rendered vacant of the original quest for enlivenment that animated Stoic philosophy” and has rather been “warped to connote the very opposite — a kind of unfeeling forbearance that borders on pursed-lipped resignation.”  However, at the cornerstone of Stoic philosophy is not the insistence that we ruthlessly suppress our emotions but merely the conviction that we use judgement and common sense.  If man is to ever achieve lasting contentment, the Stoics believe, he has to master his baser, more ungovernable emotions- lust, fear, terror, rage- and instead commit to a life of the mind-cultivating a steady inner calm and prioritizing rationality and reason.  

In the days of ancient Rome, Stoicism bestowed the gift of the good life to its many loyal adherents, instructing them in such practical matters as how to live with integrity, how to distinguish what you can control from what you can’t, and how to step off the hedonic treadmill and liberate yourself from desire’s perpetual prison.  Today everyone from brilliant heads of state to millionaire CEOs attributes their success to the bygone wisdom of Stoic philosophy. 

Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s lovely The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, the daily stoicPerseverance, and the Art of Living resurrects this ancient school of thought from the dusty shelves of obscurity and distills its timeless wisdom so lucidly that it can now reach an even larger audience.  A daily devotional overflowing with inspiration and insight, The Daily Stoic features a quote from one of the foundational Stoic philosophers for each day of the year.  Organized into three parts, the Discipline of Perception, the Discipline of Action, and the Discipline of Will, and twelve themes, one for each month, Holiday and Hanselman’s illuminating volume makes accessible the central tenets of Stoic philosophy like never before.

Beginning the year is founding philosopher Epictetus who shares the bedrock of Stoic thought:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.  Where then do I look for good and evil?  Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”  

Later, we learn that for Epictetus the root of all suffering can be traced to the futile (but pathetically human) desire to control the uncontrollable:

“Some things are in our control, while others are not.  We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing.  We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing.  Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own

For if a person shifts their caution to their own reasoned choices and the acts of those choices, they will at the same time gain the will to avoid, but if they shift their caution away from their own reasoned choices to things not under their control, seeking to avoid what is controlled by others, they will then be agitated, fearful, and unstable.”  

In prose characterized by unsurpassed elegance, Epictetus goes on to define the one path to happiness:

“Keep this thought at the ready at daybreak, and through the day and night-there is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice, regarding nothing else as your possession, surrendering all else to God and Fortune.”

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For the Stoics, bemoaning our fate and protesting circumstances over which we have no control is not only pointless- it’s a squandering of precious time.  The only thing man has control over, indeed, the only thing he will ever have control over, is his own psyche.  It is for this reason that the Stoics argue we spend our finite lives civilizing the most savage frontier: ourselves.  Philosopher, dramatist and statesman Seneca believes the most difficult thing to defeat is not exterior conditions but the interiors of the self:

“Our soul is sometimes a king, and sometimes a tyrant.  A king, by attending to what is honorable, protects the good health of the body in its care, and gives it no base or sordid command.  But an uncontrolled, desire-ruled, over-indulged soul is turned from a king into that most feared and detested thing- a tyrant.”

Much like the Buddhists, the Stoics contend desire afflicts the greatest suffering.  In fact, it is this very aching for more, this perpetually unsatisfied sense of lack that eliminates happiness’s possibility:

“It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have.  Happiness has all that it wants, and resembling the well-fed, there shouldn’t be hunger or thirst

Remember that it’s not only the desire for wealth and position that debases and subjugates us, but also the desire for peace, leisure, travel, and learning.  It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another…where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.”

Whenever I feel myself overcome by a desperate, impatient yearning, a brattish ingratitude that what I want isn’t here yet, I finally recall the sagacious words of Epictetus:

“Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet.  As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping.  Does it pass you by?  Don’t stop it.  It hasn’t yet come?  Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you.  Act this way with children, a spouse, toward a position, with wealth- one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods.”

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