26 July 2012

dinner alone with annie dillard {part 1}

In my summer writing class, I get to write a book report. This is, in fact, the third time I've taken this class, so for the past three summers, I've been able to delve back into that particularly primary school-sounding "book report."

Two years ago, I wrote about the book Nothing Remains the Same.

And last year, it was Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask.

Don't get the wrong idea here: these are not five paragraph essays about character, setting, and dialogue. We're supposed to choose books in genres that we write in, so I choose personal essay books, and then use the book report to work out my aggression toward the author.

About how they're funnier than me.

Or sharper than me.

Or had a book published by the time they were 30.

Or say things that I have most definitely thought before—but they have said it better.

My book reports are really more about catharsis and working through my issues, so when it came time to do this year's report, I thought—why change that approach? It's working so well!

My target this year: Annie Dillard. Darn her and her Pulitzer Prize.

I've written about Annie before—I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while vacationing out West with my parents a few years ago, and it's hard to be surrounded by so much expansive nature, be reading Annie Dillard, and not write these reflective, searching for meaning essays.

Hiking in Zion National Park and reading Annie is basically the perfect set-up for a nature essay about seeing beauty everywhere {you can see me attempting this here}.

Earlier this summer, I picked up another Annie Dillard book at a Friends of the Library sale: a quarter for Annie? Oh, yes.

And look what I got from my quarter: a book report and a chance to work out my envy of Annie Dillard. Money well spent, I tell you, money well spent.

What I Read This Summer: Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

I was in an Argentinean restaurant near the Galleria in Houston, but that’s not where my mind and heart were.  I had come in from the heat, the oppressive, pushing heat, into this cool, dark place with red accents to catch the eye.  Come in to the hostess asking, “Just you tonight?

A table for one, please, and I held my held my head high and my Annie Dillard book tightly as the hostess—a tall girl made taller by her black heels; she should be dancing a tango in the streets of Buenos Aires—took me to a tucked away table in the back.

I chose to sit not facing the wall as the hostess had offered, the chair pulled out for me so I could easily sit down and then avoid eye contact with anyone who might look with pity on the girl eating alone.

Instead, I told her I’d rather sit facing out, facing everyone, facing the eyes.  I am not bothered to be eating alone, I wanted to convey.  This is what happens when you go on business trips alone, but I’m not lonely.

The waiter made a show of removing the other setting at the table, and I made a show out of opening Holy the Firm after asking the waiter to recommend a good glass of Malbec.

And then.

With that first crack of Holy the Firm, my mind and heart were elsewhere.  I was no longer worrying about projecting the careless, independent air of the nonchalant solo diner—I was on Puget Sound with Annie Dillard, rejoicing in how the act of stringing together words can bring meaning, beauty, reflection, and the ability, for just a short space of time, to be elsewhere.

Annie Dillard’s writing is transcendent; that’s the best way I can describe it.  When I read her, time slows, my breathing deepens, and that thin veil between us and the eternal is pulled up just enough to make me aware that this side of the veil is the temporary one, a mere blip in time, a shadow of the other side.

How does Annie Dillard do it?  I’ve been wondering this since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while in Zion National Park and wanted to award her, if I could, a million more Pulitzer Prizes for it.  Holy the Firm is shorter—but not less dense yet ethereal in true Annie Dillard style—so it gave me a chance to study her craft (over a glass of a good Malbec in Houston).

I’ve come up with three lessons on writing from Annie Dillard that I hope to apply to my more reflective pieces.  When I write about nature and really taking notice of it, I’m invariably thinking of Annie Dillard.

Notice Small Things
This lesson reminds me of that gift/self-help/encouragement book you often find in the checkout line at Barnes & Noble:  Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff.

This is:  Notice Small Things…and it’s all small things that make up big things.  By paying attention to the little things in her day, Annie Dillard is really saying something about the bigger things, about that thin veil, about how every tiny created creature is just that:  a creation.

For example, she writes about a moth.  An ugly, drawn-to-the-flames moth.  More specifically, she writes about the death of a moth she once witnessed while camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held.  I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all.  A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. 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 then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick.  She kept burning. […]

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—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 […]. (pp 16-17)

Reading this, I am watching the moth’s death with Annie Dillard.  I am drawn in like (forgive me) a moth to the flame, and in two short pages, she conveys the fragility of life and the beauty and dignity possible in death without saying:  Now, here, I will talk about death.

She’s just writing about a moth.  She’s just opening her eyes to the small things that make up the big things, and she’s writing.


There are two more lessons from Annie Dillard that I learned by reading this very thin book.

If you're eager to learn from Annie, too, you can jump ahead to the lessons here.

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