Two images remain after reading Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life” (published by Harper since 1989).
The first is of a man in a skiff, tethered to a log which he is bringing ashore against the tide. The place was somewhere in the northwest Pacific coast of America. He spotted the log drifting offshore, parallel to the shore, and rowed out to get it. He underestimated the gamble of bringing it in while the tide was still slack. By the time he secured the log, the tide was running south to the shore. He rowed and rowed and rowed just to stay in place. As the tide grew stronger, he rowed to remain parallel to the shore. Sometime in the night, the sea calmed, and he took the opportunity to turn and row north again. Soon the tide turned, and it was all he could do to keep himself afloat, to keep the precious log bobbing along with him. It had taken him a night and most of a day just to get back to the place where he set out from.
The second is of a skilled stunt pilot turning tricks in his airplane; you might call Dave Rahm an artist in air and metal. He would usually be the last flier at the airshows, the star, performing dips and rolls, stalling and spinning in mid air before pulling up and flying away to rising applause, which he certainly could not hear. Rahm drew lines in the air like graceful calligraphy. You would think that he enjoyed the acrobatics, like a gymnast or a bird might do. Until Dillard went up with Rahm, she could believe that the effortless grace of the airplane echoed something in the pilot. So she took off with Rahm in his single engine plane, to feel his art. His aircraft flew through cloud and banked close to the mountain slopes of steep valleys. Inside the plane rattled, the whine of the engine was terrifying and uncertain. “We felt flung,” Dillard wrote, “… parts of our faces and internal organs trailed pressingly behind on the curves.” The vertigo and the force of many g’s deadening the brain, the face flattened back on the skull, was the tremendous effort it took to make art with an airplane, to follow a line of graceful arcs, lovely vining curlicues, suspended in the sky. Rahm practiced daily. Later, he was living in Jordan and performing for King Hussein when he dove straight into the ground.
Dillard describes her own writing life. It is the life of the artist in a windowless room; in a cabin in the woods. You have to love words, she says, to read everything, to read the best of everything. But of course, she says much more; and better than a review might do.
It’s worth reading, Annie Dillard’s slim book, “The Writing Life” whether you are a writer or any other kind of artist. It does not glorify the process, the many starts, the best words and phrases and paragraphs that you throw away in order to find what you are looking for, and which you don’t actually know that you are seeking.
Of course, not every writer has the same technique or goes through the process. But if you are a writer or want to write, Dillard knows what you're up against.
“When you write,” she writes, “ 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 you 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.”