You know it’s all her fault. Annie Dillard makes me want to be a writer and not just any writer, but one that is filled with poetry, and reverence and beauty. I want to write like her and there are times when I think I’m close to succeeding. Is this a good thing? I don’t know.
Before I read her, I couldn’t understand why so many other writers quoted her. After reading Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, Holy The Firm, The Writing Life, Teaching A Stone To Talk, The Maytrees, and now, For The Time Being, I can see why. She, in my mind is a writer’s writer, which means she is amazingly talented. Dillard does things most writers only dream about—and some others, I suppose, dread.
What I like in Dillard could fill a doctoral dissertation. In For The Time Being, she does what I like best: Dillard takes seemingly unrelated subjects and connects them; she makes the ordinary extraordinary (an obstetrics ward is “a hole in the universe through which holiness issues in blasts,”). Her book explores a natural history of sand, catalogues clouds, tours obstetrics wards, explores Mongolian history, chronicles the work of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, discusses Hasidic thought, explains birth defects, mulls over time and expounds on world population. All this is to answer the question, “How shall one individual live?”
Interestingly, I would hesitate to label this work, to say it is one thing and not the other, simply because of its scope, its language and its form. This gives me courage to do the same with my own work. I should simply write and let others decided what it is, and what it is not. However, Dillard does label it. She calls this book, “non-fiction first-person narrative.” By that, I think Dillard is taking facts and chronicling her personal relationship with them. One other way to describe it perhaps is in Michael Ondaatje’s book Coming Through Slaughter. The author describes this similar book of poetic language and diverse subjects as using facts, “expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction.”(Italics mine.) I really like that; I think that is what Dillard does here too.
Most chapters follows a similar structure with subheads; first there is “Birth,” then, “Sand,” “China,” “Clouds,” “Numbers,” and “Now.” This structure, this order, I think, would allow me to catalogue seemingly unrelated things that I may want to speak of one theme (“How shall one individual live?”). It would also help in driving the content in such a way that readers clearly come to understand what connections are being made. Dillard does this: The progression of subject heads give readers firstly a look at children (“our human array,”), then to apply their significance (metaphorically) in terms of number into grains of sand (“newly formed, fragile film,”). From there, she speaks of the very real population explosion in China, and its history (“There are 1,198,500,000 people alive in China,”). “Clouds,” allows Dillard to speak of time, or history as something that is fleeting (“Why seek dated clouds? Why save a letter, take a snapshot, write a memoir, carve a tombstone?”). “Numbers,” addresses the raw numbers of our immensity (“a hundred million of us are children who live on the streets,”) and “Now,” is where Dillard speaks most directly, (“Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our generations the crucial ones?”).
What Dillard’s mode allows as a writer is manifold, but in particular two things. She tells me it is OK to be obsessive about taking notes, keeping a journal, being a packrat of seemingly unrelated information. She allows me my unconscious. If someone were to tell Dillard, say, 10 years ago that she would write a book about how one shall live in the dizzying immensity of life the write may or may not be thwarted. However, if a writer were to observe the world around them, and keep good notes, the connections would over time be made. When Dillard was in China 20 years ago, on a writers’ exchange, she came upon the buried remains of 7,000 life-size clay soldiers placed there by Emperor Qin. The practice at the time of Qin’s reign was when the emperor died; some of his soldiers would be buried with him to protect him in the afterlife. Qin came up with the novel idea of making clay replicas of his army to accompany him. And, they were buried. My point is, in 1985 Dillard came out with a book call, “Encounter With Chinese Writers,” to which she reported on her visit to the country and its literary community. Surely she could have used the Qin imagery there, but she did not. But she did experience the buried field of clay soldiers then, but rather than use it then, saved it for such a time when it would make more sense.
Her patience and her ability to store away parts of the barrage of information that assails us inspires me, and like I said, gives me two particular tools as a writer. If patience and note keeping were one, the other is that like an archaeologist we can mine our own experiences, our own litany of the seemingly ordinary, for telling our stories. This first person, non-fiction narrative not only address how we can be of significance, it speaks on how writers can be significant themselves. Take notes, be alert, be patient, the connections, the story you need to tell, will come.
Our lives come free; they’re on the house to all comers, like the shopkeeper’s wine. God decants the universe of time in a stream, and our best hope is, by our own awareness, to step into the stream and serve, empty as flumes, to keep it moving
Here’s her personal Web site: http://www.anniedillard.com
The site is maintained by Dillard herself, provides contact information as well as complete bibliographic information and a curriculum vitae.