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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8.1 (2006) 155-157
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As a female writer with a husband, a full-time job in publishing, a newly acquired mortgage, two cats, and two raucous birds, I find that two books—The Writing Life and The Writer on Her Work—offer solace and companionship when I'm afraid to write and when I feel guilty about shutting my office door to write. And they offer what I'll always need: a word, a phrase, sentences that I reach for when I need a "muse" in my writing room. These books contain courageous, daring words. Words that startle me to attention, rapt. Writing is about moving toward joy, but of course, with great weariness and fear, writes Susan Griffin in one of the essays in The Writer on Her Work. But I hanker after the joy. Then I get to writing, even when mind and the body ache, for the way it invigorates and affirms my lived experience. [End Page 155]
The Writing Life, Annie Dillard's slim, yet forceful, guide to writing sparks with wisdom that allows readers to pull out what resonates with them. Dillard's prose reads effortlessly, her book about writing itself a work of art. Through anecdotes and metaphor she shares how she writes, what works (and doesn't work) for her. Reading the short chapters is like having a conversation with Dillard, as if she's asked you to pull up a chair, have a glass of chilled white wine or a mug of café latté—and then she tells you what it's like to be Annie Dillard writing. No mincing words. Dillard talks about her writer's block; she talks about her work not coalescing. But when it does coalesce, as in The Writing Life, you gain courage through example.
The last time I read this book, I was despairing because I hadn't figured out how to commit to writing without feeling that I should be doing something more "useful"—like pulling weeds or painting the downstairs bathroom. Dillard's book helped me set up the architecture of a writing life by answering my questions with tips like these:
Where do I write? Avoid "appealing workplaces," she says. "One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark."
Do I need a writing schedule? It definitely helps, she says. "A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days."
Do I have to visit my work daily? "You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room," Dillard says.
Who, or what, will teach me to write better? Dillard's answer is the writing: "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 of your life's strength: that page will teach you to write."
I keep her words close by, on my bookshelf or side table.
In her introduction to The Writer on Her Work, Janet Sternburg states simply that this anthology came to be because "I've wanted to know how they (women) see their lives and their work. And so this book began because I needed it." Sixteen women writers—novelists, poets, and writers of nonfiction [End Page 156] —contributed to this anthology, answering questions such as: What are your influences—place, background, family, friends, other writers? What is the texture of your daily life, the necessary choices you've made and continue to make as an artist and a woman?
What you learn from these women writing—Honor Moore, Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Erica Jong, and others—is that "writing something down was...