And who wouldn't want to learn about writing from Annie Dillard?
In other words: what I gleaned about writing from the book Holy the Firm—and then put into a book report for my summer writing class.
Read the beginning here.
Write in the Voice that Works for You (Syntax Can Go by the Wayside)
I get the sense reading Holy the Firm that I’m reading Annie Dillard’s journal. She’s writing in spurts; she’s writing in half-sentences and quarter-sentences, and she’s writing, at times, like she’s praying.
Holy the Firm has the feel of Virginia Woolf’s or James Joyce’s best stream of consciousness: there is the feeling that these thoughts are tumbling out of Annie Dillard’s brain, and this propels you to keep reading, to keep going, to tumble with her until she ends up making a beautifully profound point. And you feel that the only way you could’ve gotten there is through her breaking-all-the-rules syntax.
Now, normally, I’m all for rules, but in a book as personal, reflective, and spiritual as Holy the Firm, breaking the “rules of good writing” is perfectly appropriate. It gives it a raw quality that is part of what drew me in so deeply in that Argentinean restaurant in Houston: who cares about steak when there are words like this to read?
For outside it is bright. The surface of things outside the drops has fused. Christ himself and the others, and the brown warm wind, and hair, sky, the beach, the shattered water—all this has fused. It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable. There is no speech nor language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion, nor time. There is only this everything. There is only this, and its bright and multiple noise. (pp 67-68)
Or what about this?
Hoopla! All that I see arches, and light arches around it. The air churns out forces and lashes the marveling land. A hundred times through the fields and along the deep roads I’ve cried Holy. I see a hundred insects moving across the air, rising and falling. Chipped notes of birdsong descend from the trees, tuneful and broken; the notes pile about me like leaves. Why do these molded clouds make themselves overhead innocently changing, trailing their flat blue shadows up and down everything, and passing, and gone? Ladies and gentlemen! You are given insects, and birdsong, and a replenishing series of clouds. The air is buoyant and wholly transparent, scoured by grasses. (pp 72-73)
Following these phrases can be dizzying, but by letting the thoughts twirl, Annie Dillard invites us in.
I have so much underlined in Holy the Firm—words and phrases that stuck out to me—but as I went back to find examples of her free-flowing, unstructured voice, I discovered that often to get to the root of why I underlined a word or phrase, I had to read back a few paragraphs. I had to start the journey again to remember why the ending place was so significant, and I like feeling that I’m along for a wordy adventure with a writer.
The Routine of Writing
I don’t have specific excerpts from Holy the Firm for this lesson; it’s more a lesson from Annie Dillard’s life. I have yet to read her book The Writing Life, but from her works that I have read, I know that she is a routine writer: she writes whether she feels like it or not.
Getting across your message—those nebulous thoughts in your head—is not always an easy task. In fact, it rarely is, and the writing advice that seems the most useful and most mundane is: write every day. Be in the practice of writing—even when you despise every word coming out of you. You sometimes have to write ugliness to get to the prettiness underneath; you sometimes need to start down one path to realize that the story you need to tell is actually a path taking off from that first one.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard talks about taking the same walk every day—to the point that she is so in tune with nature and the changing world around her that it almost seems like an extension of her.
This is how, in part, we should see writing: as something we do every day so that we can feel more connected to the world around us. Annie Dillard teaches me this, just in the way she writes. It’s as if she’s saying: pay attention to the world, and you will have things to say.
In Short, I Wish I Were Friends with Annie Dillard
I felt like, in a way, I had dinner with Annie Dillard in Houston. Reading Holy the Firm while sitting at my table for one—fending off the waiter who asked if I’d like to stay after close and open up a bottle of Malbec with him—I forgot that I was in a strange city. I forgot that I’d been gone from home for five days. I forgot that my head was spinning from all the meetings I’d gone to.
I was in Annie Dillard’s world—seeing the moth, smelling the air on Puget Sound, looking for God in the small things. And that, for me, is good writing: when it takes you away from where you are, and when you close the book, you start to see the world around you in a new light.