Tuesday, February 5, 2008

NOTES - "The Writing Life" by Annie Dillard

“No one expects the days to be the gods.” Emerson

“Do not hurry; do not rest.” Goethe

P. 1 “When you write, you lay out a line of words.”

Of course, but the idea is one of construction. This is building. It is work. And it is good work.

P. 3 “The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool.”

I like this notion of writing as excavation, rather than simply journaling. The notion that something hidden deep inside me can be revealed, not by the great action of my mind or powers of insightful deduction, but by the act of writing. The locks can be opened, the information gotten at. And that the ART does this. It is self exploration, the simple act of writing. The writing is not just ABOUT the self examination, it IS the self examination.

P. 5 “Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds are ate the crumbs. I hope you will toss it all and not look back.”

Great information on editing, and on not being precious about the material. If the above is true (about the act of writing being central) then the text is not necessarily sacred. it is changeable, it can flow and develop , and be improved… you don’t have to clutch tightly at it trying to bend it to your will… (although she does describe it later as “alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence” so how do the two mesh?)

P. 11 How do you start? (p. 12) how do you catch the first fish? With flesh from your own thigh.

Great illustration of the Aleutian mother and son, after the whole tribe has starved, finding a fishing hook. She has no bait, so she cuts a strip of her own flesh and catches the first fish. She feeds it to her child, keeping the entrails as bait, and so she feeds them both through the winter and into the spring, when she is found and rescued. The point… cut in. If you are to save yourself, you’ll have to feel it. The solution, the answer is in you.

P. 15 “Another Luxury for an idle imagination is the writer’s feeling about the work. There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.”

Good stuff for the overly-critical songwriter. Just write it.

P. 15 & 16 – why to (or not to) edit as you go.

P. 25 “appealing workplaces are to be avoided.”

P. 32 “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for capturing days.”

PP 56 & 57 – “But you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing, or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong to think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced, by this challenging, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.”

So, if this work of writing is so dim, so elusive, if the excavation is so mysterious, how can one ever write memoir? If my songwriting were ever to happen this way, how could I be sure of saying anything?

P. 68 “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment. ‘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.’ Ann Truitt, the sculptor, said this. Thoreau said it in 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 at 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?
Write about winter in the summer. Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris. Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, Connecticut. Recently scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room.”

P. 68 “The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience. He is careful what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.”

P. 69 “In working-class France, when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, ‘It is the trade entering his body.' The art must enter the body, too.”

P. 74 “If you can dissect out the very intolerable, tart, hard, terribly sharp Pith or Kernel, and begin writing the book compressed therein, the sensation changes. Now it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence.”

In reference to the earlier idea, I think the difference is that this is wrestling with the CONCEPT, once it’s already out there… wrestling with the idea. Not necessarily with the syntax or the punctuation, or the minutiae. The goal is to WRITE, but in the writing, you wrestle with the angel (demon) – the idea – to get that kernel across, to understand what it means to you and why it might mean anything to someone else… But to get caught up in the letters… the words… is paralysis. The editing can be ( and should be) cruel, but the writing, should be free and flowing…

P. 75 “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. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.
One line of a poem, the poet said – only one line, but thank God for that one line – drops from the ceiling… and you tap in the others around it with a jeweler’s hammer. Nobody whispers it in your ear. It is like something you memorized once and forgot. Now it comes back and rips away your breath. You find and finger a phrase at a time; you lay it down cautiously, as if with tongs, and wait suspended until the next one finds you: Ah yes, then this; and yes, praise be, then this.”

PP 78, 79 "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.

After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: 'Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.’”

Good advice in general.

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