on standards and self-care: Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life”

“It is easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.” – Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tears apart writing, the writing process, the romance of writing, bitterly shows up all the questions of worth and idealism and purpose of writing at all. It is a masterful narrative – seven essays that follow one upon another, circling around these questions. It is unforgiving, uncompromising, ferocious. She holds writers, and writing, to a standard of integrity and ethics that really resonates with me.

Listen, I’m pretty good at self-care. I’m good at being good to myself, forgiving myself when I make mistakes, not saying or thinking things about myself that I wouldn’t say or think about a good friend. A few days ago, I accomplished something I’ve been putting off for a while, and I was going to treat myself, and I realized that I’d treated myself so much recently (just for existing, I guess?) that I had run out of treats.

Last month a friend sent me an article about self-care that noted that it’s not just about treating yourself, or being kind to yourself, but also about pushing yourself to be better, do more (I can’t find this article anymore!). That meeting deadlines and doing your duty is also a form of self-care. I think that’s really important – that being good to yourself is also about holding yourself accountable, pushing yourself to be responsible and faithful and ethical, to achieve more because you believe you can. In The Writing Life, Dillard insists on this, a push made even more crucial and urgent by the fact that no one else is holding you to these standards. No one is waiting for you to finish the next great Bruneian novel. The play that will change the history of playwriting in Brunei. You have to be faithful to yourself, to the work, ambitious for the work, hold it and yourself to that invisible, contemptuous, indifferent, demanding standard.


I actually came across this book in the UBD library yesterday – I was there to pick up a book on postcolonial critique, had a quick browse through the shelves, and came across a whole section of Annie Dillard’s stuff. As always, I’m impressed by how well-stocked the library actually is.

Some excerpts

On writing’s worth: “Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free […] The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever […] If the shoe salesman fails to appear one morning, someone will notice and miss him. Your manuscript, on which you lavish such care, has no needs or wishes; it knows you not. Nor does anyone need your manuscript; everyone needs shoes more. There are many manuscripts already–worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones.”

On the real world and writing: “Much has been written about the life of the mind. I find the phrase itself markedly dreamy. The mind of the writer does indeed do something before it dies, and so does its owner, but I would be hard put to call it living. It should surprise no one that the life of the writer–such as it is — is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.”

On the constant desire to not care about writing: “If only I could concentrate. I must quit. I was too young to be living at a desk. Many fine people were out there living, people whose consciences permitted them to sleep at night despite their not having written a decent sentence that day, or ever.”

On learning to write: “Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledge that you ruin everything you touch, but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.”

On how to write: “‘The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.’ Anne Truitt, the sculptor, said this. Thoreau said it another way: know your own bone. ‘Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.’

Write as if you were dying. 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?”

On reading as a writer: “Hemingway studied, as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenec. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Thoreau loved Homer; Eudora Weltry loved Chekhov […] By contrast, if you ask a twenty-one-year-old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, “Nobody’s.” In his youth, he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat.”

On every time: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Dillard on Dillard

On her own site, Dillard calls The Writing Life an “embarassing nonfiction narrative“. As I noted on my IG – this is only, I think, because it writes so close, so doggedly, along that nerve of Truitt’s.

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2 Responses to on standards and self-care: Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life”

  1. I like the idea about giving it all away now, not hoarding. hmmm…

    • katdakoo says:

      yes, I also liked that. It seems to insist on trusting yourself, in trusting that you have more, that the well from which you draw is plentiful and generous, and not a meagre, stingy thing.

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