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Annie Dillard's Writing Life vs. Mine
It’s as romantic to read now as it was years ago. But now I have decades of experience behind me as a writer, and all I can think about are the things that don’t seem to be a part of Dillard’s writing life: any mention of children, money, a bill-paying job, rejection, book promotion, readings, events, writing articles to provide “content” to get your book noticed, social media, working with agents and editors, asking for blurbs, writing blurbs, maintaining a website, responding to interviews, getting grants, going to conferences, applying to be writer in residence, and oh what about reviews and book sales and, and, and…
I just googled and learned that Dillard did have a child in 1984, a few years before The Writing Life was published. Was that not part of her writing life, taking care of her child, arranging for childcare? It’s a big part of the writing life of every writer-parent I know. It dominated my writing life until my daughter was on her own.
In response to my Instagram post about the book, someone mentioned that Dillard had been a writer-in-residence in Bellingham, Washington. Dillard writes in the book about living there, but she doesn’t mention working there. Her university library carrel in Virginia suggests she was perhaps employed there as well. Is that not part of her writing life? Teaching to pay the bills?
I say this in part to interrogate Dillard’s version of the writing life and in part to interrogate mine. It’s important to acknowledge all that goes into making a writing life possible (money, childcare). It’s also important to rethink and resist the constant demands to do more, to split ourselves into parts for all those aspects of the writing life that have little to do with writing (did you know there is something called “A+ Content” for Amazon book listings? like, WHAT?).
Dillard is so wise about the writing process, describing sentences as walls that need to be tapped and tested and often knocked out, even the load bearing ones: “You must demolish the work and start over…. The part you must jettison is not only the best written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point.”
It’s Labor Day, so I’m thinking about writing and labor. And how my parents called me this weekend and asked what I was doing with my long holiday weekend. I was in the middle of writing a short essay to promote my latest book. And my “plans” included answering questions for an interview I agreed to do for the book. And grade papers. And answer emails. And prep for a book talk I’m giving.
“How we spend our days,” says Dillard, “is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” This is one of her most quoted quotes. One that can haunt me when I think about it.
I worked on those things most of Saturday and Sunday, but it’s Labor Day so I shouldn’t labor today, right? I gave myself most of the day off. I went to my neighbor’s auction (she’s an actual auctioneer!), then we bought some kayaks! And now it’s after 11pm on Labor Day and I’m writing this because I’m a writer and my writing life happens in stolen moments—after work, on weekends and holidays—and tomorrow I have to teach, and if I don’t write something today, I’ll burst.