Annie Dillard

2 posts

Dillard and Chee: Writing Teacher and Student

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…

Brian Doyle: Pro at Prose Poetry


Note: It is with sadness that I report that a few short months after I wrote this post, Brian Doyle passed away from a brain tumor. To lose a writer of his talent is a loss for all of us.

I first discovered Brian Doyle when I read his imaginative novel of the sea, The Plover, a few years back. The good ship Plover makes a cameo in Doyle’s earlier book, Mink River, which I just finished reading yesterday,

Doyle is a prose writer with poetic blood coursing through his veins. You need only look at his inspirations to learn why. In the back of Mink River, Doyle includes among his “lodestars, compass points, emotional touchstones” while writing the book these stalwarts: The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake and The King James Bible. He also tips his hat to that poetic essayist Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being.

Blake and the KJV especially are quoted early and often in this book. The crow is partial to the Psalms. The doctor likes Ecclesiastes. And Blake words just jump willy-nilly, followed by the one-word nod, “Blake.”

Among the poet’s bag of tricks, anaphora and polysyndeton and alliteration are three favorites. Doyle’s disciplined rambling brings a small Oregon town to life slowly but surely. In episodic chunks, we meet a cast of characters, Winesburg, Ohio-like, including a speaking (and thinking) crow named Moses. The book walks the line between real and surreal at times, but a gentle approach to surrealism always seems to carry it across the suspension bridge of disbelief. And before you know it, gentle reader, you have favorite quirky characters. Or quixotic ones, maybe. All cued up.

So what does this poetic prose look like? Let me copy a bit from the text as an example of Doyle’s delights. If you like it, perhaps a whitewater raft trip down the Mink is in your future. Or a trip at sea on the Plover, if you prefer.

And even if not, it’s fun to watch a writer having fun, luxuriating in words, turning in them and breathing them like oxygen for the creative lungs. Here, then, is a dash of Doyle:

“New trout, having never seen rain on the river, rise eagerly to ripples on the Mink. Some windows close against the moist and some open for the music. Rain slips and slides along hawsers and chains and ropes and cables and gladdens the cells of mosses and weighs down the wings of moths. It maketh the willow shiver its fingers and thrums on doors of dens in the fens. It falls on hats and cats and trucks and ducks and cars and bars and clover and plover. It grayeth the sand on the beach and fills thousands of flowers to the brim. It thrills worms and depresses damselflies. Slides down every window rilling and murmuring. Wakes the ancient mud and mutter of the swamp, which has been cracked and hard for months. Falls gently on leeks and creeks and bills and rills and the last shriveled blackberries like tiny dried purple brains on the bristles of bushes. On the young bear trundling through a copse of oaks in the woods snorffling up acorns. On ferns and fawns, cubs and kits, sheds and redds. On salmon as long as your arm thrashing and roiling in the river. On roof and hoof, doe and hoe, fox and fence, duck and muck. On a slight man in a yellow slicker crouched by the river with his recording equipment all covered against the rain with plastic wrap from the grocery store and after he figures out how to get the plastic from making crinkling sounds when he turns the machine on he settles himself in a little bed of ferns and says to the crow huddled patiently in rain, okay, now, here we go, Oral History Project, what the rain says to the river as the wet season opens, project number …something or other … where’s the fecking start button? …I can’t see anything … can you see a green light? yes? is it on? damn my eyes … okay! there it is! it’s working! rain and the river! here we go!”

I’ll miss the book and the next one will suffer a bit by comparison. Is there any higher compliment you can pay an author?