Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989, Harper Perennial 1990)
When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a miner’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow.
When I picked it up again – because it’s short and I was reading a big and sometimes tedious book I didn’t want to carry around with me, because it was by a woman and the VIDA figures are always at the back of my mind, because I’d started a little project to which the idea of the line of words as a tool couldn’t have been more apposite – I had trouble remembering why those lines that so threw me.
It’s a wonderful book, perfect for reading in small doses, not because it’s difficult but because so much of it cries out to be meditated on. I read it on the walk to the swimming pool (four minutes) and to the local shops (three minutes).
Annie Dillard writes about her life as a writer – the materiality of it, and a stunning range of metaphors for the process of writing: inchworms climbing blades of grass, aeroplane acrobats, a typewriter erupting like a volcano (this one had a whole short chapter to itself), a man rowing against a powerful current but getting to his destination eventually because the tide changes. There’s a pungent exposition of the role of scheduling, and a lot of whingeing raised to the level of the sublime. It’s not a how-to book, but it is deeply encouraging, even for people like me who are unlikely ever write a book.