Seeing Writing Through Metaphors: A Review of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere…Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out.

Personally, I have not come across a book that used so many metaphors within a concise space of pages to explain an idea or an act, like Dillard’s “The writing life”. She made tremendous use of metaphors with a particular focus on buildings and insects. Likewise, she used anecdotes to show the fragility of writing and the defensiveness of writers in defending their crafts. For instance, in a shaking building, the builder refused to accept the danger alert from an observer across the road. And the eventual calamity that befell not only the person alerted by the observer about the shaking building but some of the builder’s co-construction workers. Furthermore, like an entomologist, there was her analogy of how a caterpillar metamorphosis leads into a butterfly to describe the writing process.

Is it pertinent, is it courteous, for us to learn what it costs the writer personally?

Her notions reflect the dangers that are inherent in a writer not accepting that putting much effort into a writing piece does not mean that the writing is good enough. Hence, a writer should be humble enough to put aside their ego and let go; without causing any calamity to the reader. On the contrary, this calamity could be losing valuable time or money to the reader or, worse still, emotional trauma.

Appealing work places are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.

Dillard looked into different professions and objects for inspiration in describing her writing experience. She was very fond of using buildings as points of reference in the writing process. Her use of loneliness and boredom in describing the writing process and being a writer was complemented by her love for the outside world and seeking inspiration from nature and other writers’ stories. To her, writing was akin to life and death, and this she succinctly puts across when she said:

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?

At a point, she questioned the impact of a writer’s work beyond the writer’s imagination:

Writing is mere writing, literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses – the imagination’s vision, the imagination’s hearing – and the moral sense, and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.

She wondered about her not having children and the joys she might be missing from such an experience. Then, to culminate that self-questioning, she talked about the story of two boys who came into her apartment and played in the house. And how one of them innocently interpreted one of her writings that most people struggle to understand except a literary critic. Briskly, she moved on from her encounter with the two boys – 6 and 7 years old.

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

She ended the book with two anecdotes of experiences with two creatives – an artist (painter) and a geologist cum stunt pilot. And how their practices had endured loneliness, continuous strive towards perfection and their enjoying moments and their respective journeys more than the inn. And she culminated it with the belief that not every work of art could be tangibly felt. Still, some are best appreciated from fond memories of experiencing them in the moments that they happened. Yet, at the same time, she questioned if art can indeed be seen as the peak of human’s creative endeavours.

*All quotes are from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.

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