Recommended Reading for Writers: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

by Jody T. Morse, SRP Editorial Consultant/Office Manager/Blog Contributor

One of the questions often asked in writing circles, guilds and forums by emerging writers is “what books about writing should I read?” Although there are many craft-focused books I admire, my immediate, gut-instinct answer always is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.


the-writing-life-indoor-bourbon-picI picked up a copy of this tiny but mighty book back in 2015 and have returned to it well over a dozen times. Being only 111 pages long and with a voice that goes down like a smooth bourbon, any average reader could conceivably consume the text in an evening by the fireside or sunny afternoon spent in a hammock. However, upon my initial read, I found that I kept having to stop to wipe the juiciness of her words from dripping off my chin—after chewing on them in excess. It took me almost a week to reach the final page that first go ‘round; a blissful week, spent lost in thought and escalating excitement about being a writer.


While Dillard doesn’t hold back with her open and honest opinions—controversial views that many writers today might balk about—she also allows that she isn’t omniscient. She declares early on that “the printed word cannot compete with the movies on their ground…novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor.” However, she then does turn around and confess that she cannot pinpoint what makes novels written with mixed motives seem off-putting; she just knows that, while reading them, she “smelled a rat.”


In addition to her heartfelt sentiments and strong ideals about the craft of writing, Dillard is above all a storyteller—even in this work of nonfiction. This book is filled with anecdotes, myths, and expansions upon her theories told through mini-stories and literary ruminations. One of my favorites being the tale of the last note Michelangelo wrote to his apprentice, discovered after the master painter’s death. It read “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.” Dillard uses this account to give further grit to her observance that a writer should “spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away…do not hoard what seems good for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” Orgasmic, erotic advice on the craft of writing from the one and only, Annie Dillard.


Another delightful feature in The Writing Life is Dillard’s incorporation of quotes to kick off each chapter. Musings from the likes of Plato, Cezanne, and Beckett; all of them nuggets of gold about writing and life, beauty and death. One that sticks in my craw most vividly is her quote that opens the final chapter, from Julian Barnes: “It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.” Amen to that, I say as a writer.


While this article is predominantly meant to be a review of The Writing Life, I can’t help but also mention Dillard’s exquisite collection of found poetry called Mornings Like This. Found poetry has been a passion of mine that hatched and sprang to life in early 2016. I can’t seem to get enough. I crave the mystery of engaging in the power of observance conjoined with the craft of writing. Dillard’s poems encompass that magic and infuse our world with the acknowledgement of words overlooked.


annie-dillardI can’t close without sharing a few more tidbits about Annie Dillard, like that she’s an American, multi-genre writer that’s been publishing her works since 1974. She won a Pulitzer for her nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and garnered a National Medal for the Arts and Humanities in 2015, awarded to her by President Obama. Her works have also been included in lists like the top 100 spiritual books (by Phillip Zaleski), the LA Times’ Century’s Best Western Novels and Joyce Carol Oates’ 100 best essays.  Dillard is nothing short of a writer helping to put women on the prize-winning, literary map.


Being dedicated to charitable causes ourselves (here at SRP), I’m thrilled to say that Dillard is involved in charity work as well and sells her paintings on her website to benefit Partners in Health—an organization focused on ridding the world of infectious diseases. She’s also engaged in politics over the years, even serving on the US Cultural Delegation to China. One of her desires is for truth in media and the homepage of her website suggests that you avoid the unreliable Wikipedia, choosing instead to head right to the official source for information about her life and her published works, You can also find her books for purchase on her Amazon author page.


Here at Spider Road Press, we’re excited about the craft of writing and want to share books, authors and experiences that encourage writers to keep honing their skills and steeping their creative juices. If you’d like to learn more about our charitable contributions, books we’ve published or writers we promote and support, please peruse our website.


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