MAY 22, 2016
OF THE THOUSAND images stored in my mind’s archives, there is only one of me holding a book. The result of what they call a flashbulb memory, where a shock imprints every detail of a scene on the mind forever, it permits me to view a single moment in my dorm at high school: were it not for the book, I would have forgotten everything — the peculiar darkness that used to fall across only half the room, its twin closets, the honey color of their wood, the fact that my hair reached the bottom of my shoulder blades in 1974. The book I hold, frozen in mid-turn, is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Pilgrim blew apart what I knew about writing at age 16: up until I read it, my notions were based on the usual pack of novels, poetry, philosophy, and exposition, all of which stayed neatly in their categories. This book, though, bled across lines (sometimes quite literally; it included plenty of death and injury): it refused to be held to one purpose. It coursed like a river swollen with snowmelt in spring from thing to thing, from inner life to outer. Or, rather, it found the edge where mind meets world. Annie Dillard sang this line, loud and imperative.
I’d thought the stuff I had spent my youth doing was something I’d come up with all on my own, and (to the mind of a self-doubting girl) must therefore be unimportant; but now I’d found someone who made a literature of wandering alone in the woods, watching, listening, poking at flora and fauna, describing views and pieces of nature, and trying to make a whole of her experience. (Like me, she wrote poems, too — in her case good ones — her first collection, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, was published the same year, when she was 28.) To me, the possibility of being a writer was cracked wide in the moment I opened Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I had valorized fiction and poetry over nonfiction, but here came Annie Dillard saying: Look, it’s all the same.
This was a revelation of literary feasibility. And rereading her 40 years later, Dillard still stuns — her work remains as immediate as at the moment of first encounter. Her diction emphatic, her observations keen and novel and at times comic: she wrote with such self-assurance it had a preservative effect on her prose. Going back to it now effectively returns me to an impressionable point in my education, and this moment too feels fresh. Revisiting her opens again the possibility of staking a claim to one’s very own acre of the literary landscape.
Interesting to find I had misremembered Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a manual, a treatise about writing itself.
It both is and is not.
The Abundance, just published, is a tasting menu of Dillard, selections from her nonfiction (none from the novels or poetry) that are somewhat diminished by abridgement. This editing takes a bit of the urgency from the deluge (the abundance) that is Annie Dillard’s prose. In one way the trimming is beneficial; Dillard’s work rushes fast and furious. Though her words are always well considered — there is no more precise a stylist than she (prose poet that she is) — the flow at times feels like a surfeit. But this is her aim, of course, to mirror the extravagance of the world’s mysteries in the writing itself. Eudora Welty, reviewing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, famously wrote, “I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times.”
In another way, though, abridgement makes Dillard’s prose too much like lace — lighter than she intends and full of space. Dillard never meant to let the reader breathe; she wants us to hold it for 270 and a half pages. Cut her characteristic verbal soaring and the writing becomes more about things — “subjects” — than about our experience of the literary equivalent of the Wall of Sound.
Another of her goals, in book after book, is to return us to our prelapsarian state, i.e. childhood, when we saw unmediated miracles and recognized them as such. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she recalls looking through the microscope as a girl at a drop of pondwater on a slide and “with mingled sadism and sympathy, setting up a limitless series of apocalypses.” She is god to herself, observing creation and finding herself there: “I was created from a clot and set in proud, free motion.” And the reader, the observer of this observer, here finds an analogy for the writer’s work, the proud, free motion of words that have been pulled from the originary “clot” of single-celled life into great being.
Essentially, Dillard made a career from sitting on tree trunks. From Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I sit on a fallen trunk in the shade and watch the squirrels in the sun.” From Teaching a Stone to Talk: “Hollins Pond, a remarkable piece of shallowness, where I like to go at sunset and sit on a tree trunk.” From these perches she observes, which is her form of prayer. Looking closely and recording your findings is the job: the way to understand creation, to get close to the holy. “Then,” she writes, “we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” Her pen is the translator of a language we don’t yet know; her mighty powers of description are her theology, one rendered in sometimes dizzyingly heightened diction. I sense now — but did not then, smitten as I was — that she is consciously wielding language in the way a Renaissance painter wielded a brush: to exalt a deity and at the same time beat out the worldly competition. This time around I’m getting a waft of cynicism that I missed way back when, in her emphatic insistence on her singular ability to show us The Way.
If anyone could, maybe it is she. I am of two minds. (As is Dillard; ever alert to the aesthetic pleasures of paradox: an empty hayfield is of course a lonely place, “in the abstract — but not, I thought, inside the light of God’s presence, inside his sanction, and signed by his name,” she wrote in Teaching a Stone to Talk.) Now I see just how lofty were her aspirations. Dillard meant to provoke in her readers a conversion experience, like Saul’s on the road to Damascus, hit on the head, rendered blind, and waking to new sight. Her intention is to do nothing less than write scripture — to bear witness to manifestations of the heavenly in the natural world, and then bring us the Word.
Dillard started her career from a peak, writing for publications way above the literary tree line: Harper’s, Esquire, Antaeus. The Abundance is a bid to remind us why. Yet it does her scant favor in that regard by offering only snippets of her journalism, rare and sometimes frankly odd (a hallucinatory visit to Disneyland with Chinese writers and Allen Ginsberg; a two-page wail of grief at the 1991 tsunami that hit India that feels strangely alloyed — because of her distance then? Because of our distancing now by way of a dozen intervening mass tragedies?), as well as truncations of other more sustained work. More egregious still is the absence of her poetry from the new collection: I know, the subtitle is “Narrative Essays Old and New,” but as Dillard was bent on erasing the lines between genres, such selectivity is nonsensical. How to fully celebrate her work while omitting one of its most vital sectors? I see this is the case when I embark on a more thorough survey of her work than I’d made after first making her acquaintance, reading for the first time the found poems of Mornings Like This. Now, these are something for rediscovery: killer, possibly Dillard’s best work. Taut rearrangements of lines from assorted old books, they are profound, almost scary.
Their complex effect is hard to convey in a fragment, but imagine a many-stanza-ed poem (“The Handy Boy”) carved from The American Boy’s Handy Book of 1882 using as tools enjambment and punctuation almost alone:
Every Boy His Own Ice-Boat;
Every Boy His Own Bubble Pipe;
Every boy a decorative artist.
How to Make a Blowgun.
How to Bind a Prisoner Without a Cord.
How to Rig and Sail Small Boats.
Practical Taxidermy for Boys:
Let us suppose an owl
Has been lowering around, and that you
Have shot the rascal. Do not
Throw him away. What a splendid
Ornament he will make for the library!
He must be skinned and stuffed!
Frightening in a different way is what appears to be Dillard’s almost-delight in death and suffering. Taking instruction from the playbook of the universe itself, “a monster that does not care if we live or die,” as she wrote in The Atlantic in 1973’s “The Force That Drives the Flower,” Dillard looks on its beauties and its terrors with the same placid eye. She watches final moments with rapturous detachment, her descriptions almost erotic: a frog whose life is sucked out entire by a water bug; a moth who burns in her candle. Her goldfish swims endlessly around a glassy prison. She eats her ham sandwich.
She explicitly observes her own observation of misery in Teaching a Stone to Talk’s powerfully disturbing essay “The Deer at Providencia,” excerpted in The Abundance, where in the end she dismisses human concern for animal suffering as insufficiently appreciative of God’s ways — a flaw she is proud not to possess. “I have traveled widely in Roanoke, Virginia. I eat meat. These things are not issues. They are mysteries.”
I had followed Dillard’s path, through the woods and into church, swooning in both, until maybe age 14. Atheism came to me slowly but inexorably, perhaps through the same process as Dillard’s faith came to her — looking on nature and wanting to know: Where did all this come from? Why was it here? No matter which way I turned the questions, the only answers I could come up with were the opposite of hers. God began to taste like something that had gone bad; and the practice of compassion, as opposed to bemused observation, seemed the only meaningful response to this world of chance.
Dillard implied that compassion is for suckers. My secret was I thought the same about God. How could someone with an intellect like Annie Dillard’s, I wondered privately — not something you can say out loud — actually believe? In order to worship the author of “God in the Doorway” and the magisterial but also proselytistic “An Expedition to the Pole,” I had to carefully skirt, or maybe exercise on it the kind of wild interpretation that makes evidence disappear, her religiosity — difficult but doable, a testimony to the power of her literary talent.
In The Abundance the reverent Dillard is on display as in a vitrine. The selection from Holy the Firm titled “Paganism” actually describes pantheism (if I’m not mistaken) — the belief that God is in everything. Dillard writes:
Every day is a god, each day is a god […] I wake in a god. […] Today’s god rises, his long legs flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly
Perhaps I am a contrarian, but I find less evidence of holiness in such striving artfulness than in An American Childhood’s tangible evocations of memory.
“You are living,” the icebox motor said [to her in 1950, at age five]. “It is morning, morning, here in the kitchen, and you are in it,” the icebox motor said, or the dripping faucet said, or any of the hundred other noisy things that only children can’t stop hearing.
Ain’t that the god’s truth.
Sometimes aesthetic beauty is a window, sometimes it is a curtain. (The latter is made expressly for you to stare at and imagine: if the impenetrable fabric is this gorgeous, what is beyond must be blindingly grand.) Dillard makes beautiful work either way. Sometimes she pulls the drapes, sometimes sweeps them open. She can Windex the glass so thoroughly that the pane between you and the marvels of the planet all but disappears. And she can draw a curtain so dense you can only guess there’s something on the other side. This kind of well-wrought obfuscation is particularly alluring to the young. It’s what they think creativity is about; the more gold thread in the production, the better. Thus they are drawn to things like philosophy and theory, the most elaborate curtains of all. Or maybe that was just me. I sat rapt in the classroom, reading Heidegger and levitating from the experience. Only thing was, I was not reading Heidegger; I was reading into him. I think now, in part, I was reading into Dillard too: wishing with all my darkly ambitious heart to become her.
Naturally, I couldn’t — I can’t. Sui generis, by definition she will not be followed. But she would be an inspiration; reading her a would-be writer’s prayer for dispensation. Then, shutting the book, closing the eyes, and waiting for heaven, or something, to respond.
Dillard did, in fact, write two books specifically about writing: Living by Fiction and The Writing Life. Both came after Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the book I had mistakenly — or not — taken as a prescription for what to do and how to do it. The most quoted passage in The Writing Life is, naturally, about great work’s animating motive — which is death. “Write as if you were dying,” Dillard instructs. She continues,
At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. 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?
Perhaps that is why she has written so little of late: All that is left is trivia, the endless round of days. All that is left is bits and pieces which maybe lead us back to where we began. Because books about writing are not usually the books that spark our desire. That’s something else we share, Annie Dillard and I. We each returned to the books, that, at age 16, first made us want to write. As Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had done for me, it was James Ramsey Ullman’s novel about Rimbaud, The Day on Fire, that did it for her. Years later, as she writes in Holy the Firm, she returned to that book. It was then, reading it a second time, that the moth burned itself in her candle. Death lighted her way.
When I return to the book and the author who first inspired me, I am absent a moth, a candle even. I read by the light from Dillard’s pages alone. They shine brightly enough to illuminate almost everything.