The Writing of Life, by Annie Dillard, New York: Harper & Row, 111 pages, $15.95
Annie Dillard's writing has often met Virginia Woolf's challenging definition of what art should do for the individual. "Nature, in her most irrational mood," Woolf wrote in "A Room of One's Own," "has traced in invisible ink on the walls of the mind a premonition which these great artists confirm, a sketch which only needs to be held to the fire of genius to become visible. When one so exposes it and sees it come to life one exclaims in rapture. But this is what I have always felt and known and desired! And one boils over with excitement…shutting the book even with a kind of reverence as if it were something precious, a stand-by to return to as long as one lives."
Dillard has written several precious passages of this kind; they have brought her many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She has given her reading audience a new perspective through her extraordinary gift of observation. Parts of her most recent book, The Writing of Life, meet Woolf's standard. And that is quite an accomplishment given that she has chosen one of the most banal topics—writing.
She set out, in her own words, to "recount what the actual writing feels like—feels like inside the mind at work"—a daunting challenge. Dillard imparts practical information, tales of the writing life, and one metaphor after another in her effort not only to capture the mind at work, but to gracefully illustrate the word at work as well.
As dazzling as these passages are, the book never gets beyond them—the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The book is little more than a well-written string of anecdotes, lacking any larger theme. The writing is at times so rich that the reader overlooks the book's shortcomings. But those familiar with Dillard's other works will feel a little frustrated. As skillful as Dillard is at musing on a subject, her observations and descriptions set her apart from other writers. But in this book, she seems confined to her office, and her writing sometimes seems cloistered as well.
The last piece in the book transcends these problems. Dillard gets out into the world and casts her gaze at a stunt pilot who uses the "plane inexhaustibly, like a brush marking thin air." The chapter works as a whole, with its own momentum and metaphor. Through those brush strokes, Dillard shows how art works: "He controlled the tension of the audience's longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so that you gasped and cried out." This is quintessential Dillard—she observes ingenuously; she reports imaginatively; and she writes expansively.
The Writing Life may not be Dillard's best work, but it still showcases some of her talent. And even though a reader may close the book and feel slightly cheated, he will not leave empty-handed. He will take with him long passages like this one, in which she describes what it's like to be in an airplane that barrel rolls: "The g's slammed me into my seat like thugs and pinned me while my heart pounded and the plane turned over slowly and compacted each organ in turn. My eyeballs were newly spherical and full of heartbeats. I seemed to hear a crescendo; the wind rolled shuddering down the last ninety degrees and settled on the flat. There were the islands, admirably below us, and the clouds, admirably above. When I could breathe, I asked if we could do it again, and we did. He rolled the other way. The brilliant line of the sea slid up the side window bearing its heavy islands. Through the shriek of my blood and the plane's shakes I glimpsed the line of the sea over the windshield, thin as a spear." Undoubtedly this is what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she described the stand-bys that a reader will return to as long as he lives.