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?)”  

annie dillard

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.'”