From The Front Line

How do I describe "The Writing Life" by Annie Dillard? It´s a book about writing, but it does not tell you where to put your commas. Nor does it tell you how to organize your papers, what software to use or how to beat procrastination. It´s a report from the front line of the writer´s life.
Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window. Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder-block cell over a parking lot. It overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. This pine shed under trees is not quite so good as the cinder-block study was, but it will do.
Bastard photograph of The Baltic Bees in Luleå, 2011.
Here are stories about effort - like rowing and towing a log all day and all night against a current threatening to drag you out into the vast Pacific Ocean, because you want to salvage a fine piece of wood. There are stories about courage and endurance - like the one about the artistic pilot who risked his life doing impossible spins in the air for his audience. There are stories about faith, love and sheer bloody-mindedness, all the qualities an artist must possess, struggling for years with the exploration and realization of ideas that may never come to anything - and not going crazy. 

Dillard´s prose is challenging for someone like me, who is not a native English speaker. Actually, I think it´s probably challenging for those who are (and hurrah! for Kindle´s built-in dictionary) native, too. It is beautiful prose, though, and I feel that I´m on a learning curve on so many levels when I read her. Dillard has recieved a Pulizer prize for one of her books and I´m not surprised - I would guess that anything she writes is valuable, as well as beautiful. She writes mainly nonfiction, and when she wrote this book (it was published in 1989) she had yet to write a novel. Not surprisingly, she started as a poet.

Not all writers are terribly interested in language. I confess that being taught my basic language skills at a time (the 70´s) when punctuation and spelling was out of fashion (my teacher did not think we needed semicolon at all, and was adamant that the comma would be extinct within a few years), I have leaned pretty heavily on my reading experience and a "feel" for what is right. My interest has also been very much focused on story, on plot. Lately, however, it has become harder and harder to find something inspiring to read. It seems I have become tired of plot; there are only so many variations, after all. Surprisingly, sentences are beginning to intrigue me. Who knows, maybe I´ll be reading poetry next...

I like this book a lot, and I´m sure I will return to it often. Dillard is refreshingly honest about the whole writing experience:
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 if you 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 changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work. 
That´s bleak, and still, this book is so encouraging. Reading it is like sitting in a bar with an experienced and jaded older friend, or with a fellow postman after having worked through a snow storm, getting all those letters out there no matter what it cost you - with a well deserved pint in front of you, knowing that tomorrow it´s likely to be thirty below and hope to god the car holds up. You know. War stories. I have already bought my next Dillard book.

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