The Writing Life : Books: “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” brought Annie Dillard a Pulitzer and cult status. Now at 47, the author reflects on her life’s work.
You may search the novels of Virginia Woolf in vain for so much as a single horse . . . .
--Annie Dillard in “Living by Fiction”
Annie Dillard sits beside a trash can under a huge fig tree, encircled by a hundred or more writers, accomplished and aspiring.
One by one, her acolytes step forward with “we’re not worthy” demeanors, clutching her work--from dog-eared editions of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which won a Pulitzer in 1975, to spanking new copies of a just-released first novel that her publisher trumpets as “the literary event of the year.”
Dillard casually admires one fan’s dress. The woman rushes off from the Santa Monica hotel, hastily changes, returns and hands it to Dillard.
A man presents the author with a small bouquet of yellow flowers. Then weeps openly.
Such is the reverence Annie Dillard evokes in people to whom reading and writing still matter.
But on the night before her reading, The Conscience of Serious Writing behaved poorly.
Shouldn’t this high priestess of literary commitment affect a detached hauteur as she strolls among Santa Monica’s hoi polloi?
Shouldn’t this avatar of artistic integrity move with the delicacy of a dandelion caught in a brutish wind?
You’d certainly think so.
But darned if she doesn’t bop along in the currents of jazz sweeping out of the Third Street Promenade’s cafes. Darned if she doesn’t gawk with undignified enthusiasm at the wild colors spilling from all those trendy shops.
It’s five days BR--Before Riot--and Los Angeles beckons the hungry author with all its vaunted multiethnic charm.
“Let’s try something exotic!” Dillard says--something she can’t readily find back in Middletown, Conn.: Indian or Japanese or Korean or Mexican would be wonderful!
Blocks later, over a dinner of mediocre Thai, Dillard focuses for a bit on her novel, and literature again rises in exultation.
But as the author talks books and writing, her image as an ethereal artiste evaporates--the word and the world integrally intertwine.
So it really shouldn’t surprise when, back at her hotel, the woman best known for the year she spent meditating on the banks of Tinker Creek hears a mariachi band, does a little two-step and sings along to “Cielito Lindo.”
“The Day on Fire,” James Ramsey Ullman’s novel about the life of 19th-Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, inflamed Dillard’s lust for words at age 16.
More than a decade later, Dillard reread the book in a camp tent and included her thoughts in a brief nonfiction narrative, “Holy the Firm.”
She read an excerpt to the writers at Pacifica Graduate Institutes’ conference at the Miramar Hotel Santa Monica. In the piece, “A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan,” flaps into the flame of Dillard’s candle, sticks in the wax, and ignites.
. . . At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a splattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire.
. . . The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours without changing, only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet .
When she wrote about the burning moth, Dillard was 30, living alone in a cabin on Washington’s Puget Sound, writing, and teaching poetry. In that essay, she returns from camping to lecture, moving from the moth to the matter at hand.
The Santa Monica audience--a mixed bag of folks hoping to crank out romance novels or how-to books (“How to be a real writer” is a favorite topic), accomplished authors, hack journalists, poets and a large contingent of “art-as-therapy” types--listened quietly.
How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives to be writers? I was trembling from coffee, or cigarettes, or the closeness of faces all around me. (Is this what we live for? I thought; is this the only final beauty: the color of any skin in any light, and living, human eyes?) All hands rose to the question. (You, Nick? Will you? Margaret? Randy? Why do I want them to mean it?) And then I tried to tell them what the choice must mean: You can’t be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax . . .
Dillard’s photocopy of the essay is from an anthology--the kind that nudges students with a trail of questions: “How does Dillard’s main analogy convey her own sense of awe and wonder at the sacredness of the writer’s calling? . . . What is the effect of Dillard’s calling the moth ‘she’ instead of it? Of Dillard’s wondering whether the moth has finished her earthly work?”
In 1974, at age 28, Dillard published “Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,” and “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” a book-length rumination on, among many other things, microbes, water bugs, God and geese that became a bestseller and earned her uncomfortable cult status.
“Teaching a Stone to Talk” and “Encounters With Chinese Writers” followed, along with books that looked straight-on at either side of Dillard’s favorite coin: “Living by Fiction” in 1982 and, in 1989, “The Writing Life.”
In “The Writing Life,” Dillard rhapsodizes about a flight with a stunt pilot, comparing his gut-wrenching loop-de-loops to writing. That inspired John Updike to wonder in the New Yorker: “Does writing, that most sheltered and stationary of occupations, whose principal hazards are alcoholism and eyestrain, deserve such flights of melodramatic mystique?”
Another critic wondered and then dismissed, the possibility “that Dillard has been navel-gazing for so long that her chin has become permanently attached to her chest.”
Dillard no longer believes in writing as a daredevil stunt, or in going at life with a broadax, sentiments that cooled in her fiery youth. Truth be told--as it usually is with her--she doesn’t like much she’s written.
“ ‘Pilgrim’s OK,” she says. “About one-fifth of it seems kind of puerile. I read parts and say, ‘What?’ But it’s OK. I like it.
“ ‘American Childhood’ is a nice book. Nothing in there embarrasses me per se.
“The one I really like is ‘Holy the Firm.’ ”
“Living by Fiction,” in which Dillard waxes academic on modern and post-modernist fiction, is a particular annoyance. It was, she now thinks, “smart-alecky.” She imagines readers wondering, “Where does she get off talking like that?”
And she can’t stand “The Writing Life.”
“I was working things out for myself. I was just writing whatever came along. Like an Aztec maiden, I was working myself up to throw myself into the volcano. I’m really sorry I did it in public.”
Dillard discovered books about the time she discovered her “own humming awareness,” and throughout her quiet, privileged Pittsburgh childhood, life swirled between the written, the experienced and the imagined.
“Reading was private, and constant, like the interior life itself,” she writes in “An American Childhood,” the story of her girlhood and adolescence.
In 1966, Dillard began writing down every book she read, along with comments. “I read, like, intravenously, taking endless notes on everything,” she says.
Even before that, she had rebelled against smarmy librarian cliches about reading as a journey into “the land of enchantment,” turning from required reading to books reflecting the drama of the day. The world flooded into her mind vividly from the pages of Anne Frank’s “Diary,” “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” or “Tales of the South Pacific,” “in which American sailors saw native victims of elephantiasis pushing their own enlarged testicles before them in wheelbarrows.”
From early on, Dillard, born Meta Ann Doak, took the notion of literary life seriously--and rather literally.
In 1965, she married R. H. W. Dillard, her creative writing professor at Hollins College in Virginia, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. When that marriage ended, she and her second husband, an anthropologist and writer, moved to Middletown, Conn., where Dillard still teaches writing at Wesleyan University.
Before it failed, too, Dillard’s second marriage produced her only child, Rosie, now 8.
Dillard stayed on at Wesleyan, teaching, playing softball on a faculty team and, with almost ritualistic regularity, joining colleagues in the faculty club for lunch. One day in 1986 a chemistry professor approached her there and asked if she had read the new Thoreau biography.
Dillard found “Thoreau, a Life of the Mind” at the library. It made such an impression that when a newspaper interviewed her that year, she couldn’t resist mentioning the book. Good biography, she said, made her feel like she was living another life. And the new Thoreau book was extraordinary: “It’s all interior. It’s like being married to somebody,” she said. “It’s so intimate.”
“I thought, ‘My God, this is the best book I ever read,’ ” Dillard says now, her face illuminating. “Out of sheer duty, I thought, ‘I’ll write a thank-you letter.’ ”
The Thoreau biographer, Robert D. Richardson Jr., was teaching a 19th-Century American literature class at the University of Denver when Dillard’s missive arrived. Emerson, Thoreau and Melville formed the central core of his course, but he also included relevant 20th-Century authors. Dillard had been part of the course since Richardson fell in love with her “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” “The students were blown away by it,” he says.
When he saw the envelope bearing Dillard’s name, “it was like receiving a letter from Olympus.”
Richardson, tall and handsome with salt-and-pepper hair, now sits in the second row at the Santa Monica writing conference, nodding enthusiastically or laughing as his wife reads from her autobiographical “An American Childhood.”
“Mother let me play with one of her hands,” Dillard reads, her voice melodic, her expression deadpan. “She laid it flat on a living room end-table beside her chair. I picked up a transverse pinch of skin over the knuckle of her index finger and let it drop. The pinch didn’t snap back. . . .”
The audience laughs. A natural comic, Dillard mugs and continues.
“Moving quickly, I made parallel ridges on her other fingers--a real mountain chain, the Alleghenies; Indians crept along just below the ridge tops, eyeing the frozen lakes below them through the trees.”
Dillard may not like “Living by Fiction,” but its analysis of modern literature offers conspicuous signposts that point the direction her writing would take.
“Fiction keeps its audience by retaining the world as its subject matter. People like the world. Many people actually prefer it to art and spend their days by choice in the thick of it . . . " she wrote, distancing herself from the detached approaches of such writers as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett or even Virginia Woolf.
“When the arts abandon the world as their subject matter,” she added, “people abandon the arts.”
That said, Dillard’s new book almost seems as inevitable as the familiar ring of its title: “The Living.”
In spite of, or perhaps because of, her experience as writer and reader, Dillard had been intimidated by the idea of writing a novel.
“A friend asked me, at one point, if I was going to hire a researcher. It struck me as odd. I said, ‘I don’t need researchers, what I need are novelists, whole banks of novelists to write this,’ ” she chuckles, then sighs.
“I was so far over my head.”
Yet, Dillard plowed into the history of the Pacific Northwest, reading everything she could find, from dissertations to newspaper clippings. “I let it close over my head. I immersed myself in these people.”
After 16 months, she turned to the word processor, writing in an insulated 8-by-10 toolshed in the yard of her home, with books and maps of Pacific Northwest mountains lining the walls and a totem pole looming outside.
And so from the mountains of her mother’s knuckles, the trail of her imagination led past the Skagit and Thompson tribes of Washington’s Cascade range and down to the ragged shores of northern Washington’s Bellingham Bay, where Dillard recreated a complex society of 19th-Century pioneer families, Chinese immigrants and Nooksack Indians--the settlement of Whatcom. Events wash over Whatcom like the bay’s tides: Boom . . . and bust. Boom . . . and bust. That era, even more than this one, Dillard implies, held exhilarating and excruciating change: the best of times in the worst of times. And she loved living in them.
“I’d go into that little room with these folks every day,” she says. And when she finished the book, “I was real sorry to see them go.” She talks about her characters like a doting mother: “Little Hugh’s a sweetheart. . . . Ada is great.”
Dillard won’t appear on television--"I’m famous enough"--and plugs her new book in a very limited way. She claims not to care about sales; she has no interest in selling film rights.
Which is not to say she doesn’t care if her book is read.
On her way to Santa Monica, Dillard called from the Chicago’s O’Hare airport to say her flight had been delayed. When she heard that the reporter who’d be interviewing her hadn’t finished the book, she gently but insistently urged him to get going.
“And,” she pleaded, “ please don’t skim.”
Dillard readily admits that she cares what critics say: “These people have life-and-death power over me.”
But many reviewers read Dillard’s exquisitely crafted sentences and lapse into a sort of reverse Tourette’s syndrome, blurting out flowery phrases that normally would make them suck on a bar of Ivory in shame.
“There is a kind of genius in Annie Dillard’s language and imagery,” Victoria Jenkins, author of “Relative Distances,” wrote in the Chicago Tribune. Novelist Thomas Keneally called “The Living” an “invigorating, intricate first novel” and spoke of “Dillard’s tremendous gift for writing in a genuinely epic mode.”
Molly Gloss, author of the acclaimed “The Jump-Off Creek,” calls Dillard “a deft, sure storyteller. . . . She uses language gracefully, releasing at times a vivid, startling imagery. . . . She has, indeed, given us a novel teeming with life, a sprawling work; but more than that, a thoughtful one, inwardly felt, piercingly resonant.”
Not all reviewers raved. The Atlantic Monthly didn’t much like the book, and the Wall Street Journal flailed Dillard for her “shapeless, depressing, endless-seeming novel,” in which “nothing, in fact, comes to life.”
The reviewer growled: “To call this unanimated, thanatotic chronicle ‘The Living’ would seem, at very least, an exercise in mislabeling.”
No doubt about it, death is as omnipresent in “The Living” as the drizzly Pacific Northwest sky. People die all over the place in all sorts of ways.
One tribe impales a young man from another tribe, driving a stake from his neck through to his anus, a sight that sticks throughout life with John Ireland, another young character.
As a child, Beal Obenchain (that’s suspiciously close to Bale, or ‘evil’), a Caliban-like force of nature with a darkly Teutonic, philosophical free will, strangles a calf. Later, he ties a Chinese man to a pier piling, to drown in the rising tide as Dungeness crabs gnaw his flesh.
The novel’s key plot device is triggered when Beal threatens to kill a man, just to see how he reacts and to feel the power, from then on, of “possessing” that man’s life.
Dillard once wondered, in a book she no longer likes, “What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”
In “The Living,” Clare Fishburn hears Beal’s threat and blossoms into renewed life. Clare’s wife and he draw closer, and the world is vivified. After his mother’s death, he watches children playing. One ties another to a tree.
Here is a solid planet, he thought, stocked with mountains and cliffs, where stone banks jut and deeply rooted trees hang on. Among these fixed and enduring features wander the flimsy people. The earth rolls down and the people die; their survivors derive solace from clinging, not to the rocks, not to the cliffs, not to the trees, but to each other. It w as singular. Loose people clung in families, holding on for dear life. Grasping at straws! One would think people would beg to be tied to trees.
Dillard, a Catholic, is a spiritual person, so her joie de vivre has religious underpinnings.
“The Living,” she says, is “the least specifically Christian of my books. . . . It takes a Christian view, in that it says there is meaning to human experience. But that’s also a respectable view outside of Christianity.
“What I really wanted was to create a coherent work of art, a Thomas Hardy novel; I longed to tell the great American story once again--one more time with feeling.”
Toward the end of “The Living,” Ada Fishburn, the matriarch of one of Whatcom’s pioneering clans, lies on her death bed, reflecting on her long life. It is the last passage Dillard reads to the writers in Santa Monica.
As she opens the book, two people in the audience try to slip away.
“It’s only seven minutes, folks,” Dillard says, not really for comic effect. “You’ll like it. Don’t leave.”
The two continue out. But most people listen as Dillard reads the words she has put into Ada Fishburn’s dying brain: “It was not everybody got so deep into the battering and jabbing of it all, got in the path of the great God’s might. She moved across the burning plains, crossed two mountain ranges. . . . She felt her freedom. Reared two boys to manhood, busted open his wilderness by the sea, buried the men on their lands.”
In the front row, a red-haired woman, maybe 35 years old, watches Dillard. The woman’s facial musculature goes taut and then slack around the mouth and eyes as if Ada Fishburn’s feelings are her own; as if the horse that appeared is her own youthful memory.
Dillard continues: “She saw a white horse roll in wild strawberries, and stand up red. She took part in the great drama. It had been her privilege to peer into the deepest well-hole of life’s surprise. She felt the fire of God’s wild breath on her face.”
When Dillard finishes, her husband’s hands are first to applaud. The audience joins enthusiastically. Dillard goes outside and sits beside a trash can under a huge fig tree, chain-smoking, signing books and talking.
“I have to ask,” one woman says, leaning over timidly. “Did you ever sleep with. . . ? " She names a UCLA professor.
When Dillard smiles and says no, the woman yelps, “I knew he was lying!”
Annie Dillard once wrote that “the written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going and it smells good.”
But Dillard would also say that the written word, like nothing else, enhances living.
Or at least offers a way to sing appreciation, Dillard’s chosen earthly work. Remember the words from Psalm 26, the words Dillard chose as an epigraph to “An American Childhood,” the story of her life to a point:
I have loved, O Lord, the beauty
of thy house and the place
where dwelleth thy glory.