Sun and Swirl and Siamese Cats: Moving Through Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

30 April 2018:

This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.

Now, ain’t that the truth, Annie, and, at the same time, hard to swallow? Of course, my inner world of Bob Dylan records and certain river bends is hard to put down in print—with all its sun and swirl and Siamese cats. How could I pass this along, how could you feel it? It is a kind of music that moves through my writing process—though what it decides to become out in the world is never fully up to me. Still, I try, am trying now, and I know you are right, Annie: no one can be quite as excited as I am when a first line drops from the sky and sets a poem going. No one can hear what I hear.


At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.

Yes, Annie, I’d liken that sensation to driving or maybe a float trip down a river. I think we enjoy it best when a journey begins and ends in a different territory entirely. Take, for example, the Missouri River. Here, just thirty miles west, born as mountain rain and melting snow, the Missouri River starts. Soon it will be talking its senseless talk to the ocean—after all of North Dakota, after South Dakota, after Kansas City. After joining the Mississippi in St. Louis, whatever is left of Montana slowly disappears into the south. Isn’t that the whole idea, Annie? Isn’t that a poem? To float along like Huck and Jim, steering clear of snags, letting whatever is going to happen suddenly, just, happen?


He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

Well, Annie, with this we have a delicate realization, something tough to mull—a notion of which I am acutely aware. The voices I find in the books I read are infectious. Too much Bukowski, and I am suddenly writing from a seedy hotel in downtown L.A. with three empty jugs of wine beside my desk. Too much Mary Oliver, and I am outside of Provincetown, jotting in a notebook a brief musing on geese, inventing my own word for prayer. I do try to be careful of what I read, because what I read today informs tomorrow. What I read today sticks to the rafters, living up there as some residual proclamation I misread or will misremember months or years later and scribble out into a sentence I’ll call my own. I mean, I become a sum of my reading (right?) and, as a writer, I can’t be so willy-nilly about the books I let in. With what I do read (say, Adam Clay, say Abigail Thomas), the idea, I think, is to push the limits of what I’ve taken in, let it settle into the dust of my day-to-day, and grow from that dirt as something fresh.

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