Annie Dillard writing advice

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Dillard and Chee: Writing Teacher and Student

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I just finished Alexander Chee’s essay collection How To Write an Autobiographical Novel. The thing about essays written in the first person is the effect. As is true with first-person POV novels, you begin to feel as though you know the author. Of course you do not, but the conceit is there, and at times and in certain ways, readers like to be conceited.

Of great interest to me is the third essay, “The Writing Life,” not because I profess to live one (though I do live a reasonable semblance of one), but because its focuses on Chee’s instructor at Wesleyan (circa 1989), Annie Dillard, an icon of some stature among the writing crowd and, as you might have guessed, me.

Though it cannot possibly be the same, reading the essay gives you a feel for what it would be like to sit in Annie’s class. Chee graciously shares nuggets of wisdom passed along by Dillard to his class. For your viewing pleasure, here are but a few of them:

  • “Don’t ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible.”
  • “Never quote dialogue you can summarize.”
  • “Avoid describing crowd scenes, especially party scenes.”
  • “Latinates [are] polysyllabic, and Anglo-Saxon words [are] short, with perhaps two syllables at best. A good writer [makes] use of both to vary sentence rhythms.”
  • “You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs. The passive voice needs gerunds to make anything happen. But too many gerunds together on the page makes for tinnitus: running, sitting, speaking, laughing, inginginginging. No. Don’t do it. The verbs tell the reader whether something happened once or continually, what is in motion, what is at rest. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time, pell-mell, chaos. Don’t do that. Also, bad verb choices mean adverbs. More often that not, you don’t need them. Did he run quickly or did he sprint? Did he walk slowly or did he stroll or saunter?”
  • “Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader.”
  • “If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.”
  • “…avoid emotional language. The line goes gray when you do that…. Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad. When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. She isn’t angry… She throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.”
  • “…the first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat…the place your draft begins is around page four. …if the beginning isn’t there, sometimes it’s at the end…you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning…if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.”
  • Chee: “After the lecture on verbs, we counted the verbs on the page, circled them, tallied the count for each page to the side, and averaged them. Can you increase the average number of verbs per page? she asked. I got this exercise from Samuel Johnson, she told us, who believed in a lively page and used to count his verbs.”
  • “You can invent the details that don’t matter…. You cannot invent the details that matter.”
  • “Talent isn’t enough… Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science; it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me…and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between me and them is that I’m writing.”
  • “Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go…. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.”
  • “In the long run, we only ever hit what we aim at.”

Is it any wonder Chee wound up wanting to be Dillard? And now, no doubt, some of his writing students want to be him.

Sic semper, as they say in the not-dead-yet language…