Saturday, March 28, 2009

Annie Dillard – ‘The Writing Life’

Well blow me down – another book about an island. At least in part:

That island on Haro Strait haunts me. The few people there, unconnected to the mainland – lacking ferryboat, electrical cables, and telephone cables – lived lonesome and half mad out in the wind and current like petrels. (p. 83)
True to this sub-genre I have stumbled upon (The Awakening, The Summer Book and The Story of San Michele so far), Dillard spends her summers on the island, her winters on the mainland. But although the island is useful for the isolation it provides, she can find isolation in town too: give her a desk and a blank wall, and she’ll sit at it and write. It seems an age ago that the Bookworld blog was so taken with The Writing Life, quoting from it again and again, though it is a short book. Parts of it were familiar to me from this, but it isn’t at all what I was expecting, particularly towards the end when it unexpectedly veers into Wind, Sand and Stars territory with some brutal accounts of Dave Rahn’s stunt flying (it even quotes Mermoz: ‘It’s worth it […] It’s worth the final smashup’ (p. 106)). The tone has some of the violent awe of that book:

The g’s slammed me into my seat like thugs and pinned me while my heart pounded and the plane turned over slowly and compacted each organ in turn. (p. 104)
Also much of its lyrical quality:
Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out. (p. 96)
But although these scenes make a good climax for the book, Dillard is equally good (unlike Saint-Exupéry) at drawing inspiration from more ordinary circumstances. Early on she describes a caterpillar climbing blades of grass, which bend as it reaches the top and it doesn’t know what to do, it ‘flings its upper body out into the void, and panics’ (p. 8). There is a section in which Dillard learns, at length, how to split wood to burn in the hut she has for a study (the trick is to aim for the chopping block). Another time her work room is in an academic library, where she goes at night, and plays chess, one move a day, with an unknown opponent. On the island, a man ties a cedar log to his rowing boat trying to salvage it, but is caught by the tide, and though he continues to row, he is pulled in the opposite direction until the tide turns. Mostly the stories end up being metaphors for writing, but they are varied enough not to become stale. One thing they do have in common is that they all involve losing control – not wildly, just enough that something unexpected can happen, something you can’t trace. In this passage she just comes out and says it:
The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes. (pp. 78-9)

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