Serendipity sneaks in sideways when we least expect it. I came to writing—after undergraduate, stumbling into a graduate program, in my early 20s I started to consider writing. I didn’t start reading books seriously until high school, then following the more traditional academic route of writing, and finally, in graduate school, by happenstance a teacher introduced me to a seminal essay I return to regularly to dust off the cobwebs of my brain and pay attention, Annie Dillard’s “Write Till You Drop.”
For me, the Essay tradition typically employs three literary devices: idea, image, and anecdote. Here, years later, I cannot tell where Dillard’s essay falls. Layers of anecdotes about Giacommeti, Melville, and tribesmen; practices of Hemingway, Singer, and Thoreau; stories about the smell of paint, young poets, and Frank Conroy. All of this in 1,851 words.
Too, the reader receives various directives throughout the essay:
“We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show,” “Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris,” and “It makes more sense to write one big book – a novel or nonfiction narrative – than to write many stories or essays. Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’ inventions and richnesses. Much of those years’ reading will feed the work.”
Like a peach in August, Dillard’s essay is filled with juice, sweetness, and beauty. While describing a young poet’s reaction to the question of whose poetry he likes best (“nobody’s”), Dillard highlights many young writers’ problem: they have yet to learn that poets love poetry; essayists love essays. She then presses the issue deeper, highlighting
“Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Bohr and Gauguin, possessed powerful hearts, not powerful wills…The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure.”
Perhaps I continue to scratch my head years later because Dillard’s tight, compact, cascading essay is rife with so much material. You need not agree with her, but chances are, like a buffet, she has something you will enjoy. Perhaps it is her urge for attentiveness, her extensive list of artistic approaches, her encouragement to not waste time, or her reflections, that draw me in. “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.”
And so it might be that you need encouragement, need your brain cracked open to a new way of thinking, or a gentle urge to find a model and probe it deeply. Read this essay, shake a gourd, and—somehow—you will find your hand scrawling across the page, your essay beginning.