American nonfiction writer and novelist Annie Dillard was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (April 30, 1945). In 1970, she began keeping journals of her daily walks around Tinker Creek, by her home outside the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. She’d write about everything she saw, like animals and birds, and even her reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she wrote so much she filled 20 volumes of journals. She decided she had enough for a book and at the very end, she was writing for 15 to 16 hours a day. That book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), won the Pulitzer Prize, when Annie Dillard was just 29 years old.
Dillard was the daughter of an oil company executive and read voraciously as a child. She says, “I opened books like jars.” One of her very favorites was The Field Book of Ponds and Streams (1930) by Ann Haven Morgan. She wrote about growing up in Pittsburgh in her autobiography, An American Childhood(1987). It was so popular that it helped usher in the memoir craze.
Dillard went to college, and ended up marrying her writing professor. She says: “In college I learned how to learn from other people. As far as I was concerned, writing in college didn’t consist of what little Annie had to say, but what Wallace Stevens had to say. I didn’t come to college to think my own thoughts; I came to learn what had been thought.” Annie Dillard’s books include Holy the Firm (1977), which is only 66 pages long, but took 14 months to write; Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982); and The Maytrees (2007).
Her advice: “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. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek begins: “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”
-Excerpt from THE WRITER”S ALMANAC
FROM THE ATLANTIC, MARCH 2016
Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?
Why the author has become so much less prolific over the past 17 years
The Abundance, a selection from the work of one of the great, original voices in recent American letters, might just as easily be called The Absence. It speaks of absence—for nature’s profusion, in Annie Dillard, is everywhere the signage of the hidden god she seeks—and it also marks an absence: hers. Dillard’s first book appeared in 1974. Over the following 25 years, she published 10 more original volumes, including two that have achieved the status of modern classics, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a latter-day Walden, and The Writing Life, a “spiritual Strunk & White” (as one reviewer put it), and two more that deserve to, Holy the Firm, which might have been written in letters of flame, and Teaching a Stone to Talk, a jewel box of narrative meditations. (Some might add An American Childhood, her celebrated memoir.) In the 17 years since, she’s published one, and none since 2007.
The Abundance only serves to underscore the dearth. The subtitle, Narrative Essays Old and New, is false advertising; there are no new pieces here. The most recent essay in the book, which is also the only one not included in a previous volume, is 11 years old. There are many reasons a writer might slow down or even stop, most of them mysterious to strangers. But Dillard’s turn to silence, if that is what it is, could in retrospect be seen as having been inevitable all along—given her choice of materials, her idiosyncratic sensibility, the very nature of her project.
But in Pilgrim there is no economy and no society. We don’t know how Dillard lives, or how she makes a living, or much of anything about her circumstances. Notwithstanding the occasional, distant presence of neighbors in the book, it comes as a surprise to find her describing the creek’s vicinity, in a subsequent volume, as suburban—and a shock to learn, from biographical sources, that she was married the whole time. In a curious way, she is absent from her own book, at least as more than an Emersonian eyeball (albeit one that’s cabled to a buzzing brain), and others are absent altogether. The cabin near Concord had plenty of visitors—in fact, there’s a whole chapter in Walden called “Visitors”—among whom was Thoreau’s dear friend Ellery Channing. Dillard has a companion named Ellery Channing too, but he’s a goldfish. Thoreau, whose commandment is “simplify,” wants to reconstruct society from the ground up. Dillard, whose law is “look,” only wants to renovate your soul.
She looks at crayfish, looks at copperheads, looks at a little green frog, half out of the water, that as she watches “crumpled and began to sag… shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football,” its innards liquefied and emptied by a giant biting bug. But looking at these marvels, she is always looking for God. She is not a naturalist, not an environmentalist; she’s a theologian—a pilgrim. Her field notes on the physical world are recorded as researches toward the fundamental metaphysical conundra: Why is there something rather than nothing, and what on Earth are we doing here? What, in other words—with crayfish and copperheads and giant biting bugs, with creeks and stars and human beings with their sense of beauty—does God have in mind?
Dillard, needless to say, does not answer these questions. But the striking thing about her search for God is that she sometimes finds him. Pilgrim’s second chapter, after a kind of introduction, is titled “Seeing.” (Both sections are included in The Abundance.) There are two kinds, she explains. The common variety is active, where you strain, against the running babble of internal monologue, to pay attention to what’s actually in front of you. That’s the sort of seeing that produces perceptions, and phrases, like twiggy haze. But, she tells us, “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer; it is grace. The visions come to you, and they come from out of the blue.
Then one day, walking along Tinker Creek, thinking of nothing at all, I saw it—the tree with the lights in it. It was the same backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost, only charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame … It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance … I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
The encounter is erotic (“knocked breathless by a powerful glance”), like the ecstasies of Saint Teresa. God has seen and seized her, claimed her. This, again, is something very different from Thoreau’s experience. To use a pair of terms that Dillard introduces in a later book, she is not a pantheist (as he was) but a panentheist. God, panentheism says, is not coextensive with, identical to, the physical world, the world of nature. He is a being that transcends it even as he dwells within it. Get rid of nature, for the pantheist, and you get rid of God. Get rid of nature, for the panentheist, and you see him all the clearer. That, I think, is why it has to be a creek for Dillard, not a pond. Walden, in its depth and stillness (the attributes Thoreau insists upon most keenly), symbolizes nature’s stability and serenity. The world abides and always will. But the creek, for Dillard, is energy, divine spirit, “the stream of light pouring down.” The world does not abide. Creation is continuous, and the heavens will be rolled up as a scroll. She watches the water, but waits for the flame.
Thoreau runs his narrative year from spring to spring—nature filling up, emptying, and starting to fill up again. Dillard runs her own from winter to winter; the emphasis is on the emptiness. In an afterword written for the 25th-anniversary edition, she reveals a deeper, two-part structure. “Neoplatonic Christianity described two routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers on the via positiva assert that God… possesses all positive attributes.” Those along the other pathway “stressed God’s unknowability.” They “jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Pilgrim, Dillard says, walks both routes in succession. The first half, culminating with the summer solstice, is the plenitude; the second the reduction. A final chapter recapitulates the movement. Its epigraph—employed again in The Abundance—comes from the Koran. “They will question thee concerning what they should expend. Say: ‘The Abundance.’ ” Accumulate, then spend. Accumulate to spend. Gather nature to get rid of it—but you can’t get rid of it until you’ve done the formic labor that such gathering entails.
Get rid of nature, to see the God who dwells in nature. It sounds paradoxical, and it is. (Dillard quotes Augustine in a later book: “If you do understand, then it is not God.”) But Dillard has been chasing that paradox ever since. The via negativa, with its purity and stringency, clearly proved to be the more congenial path. Virginia, where she’d come for college, did not turn out to be her landscape. From Tinker Creek, beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains in the lushness of the Roanoke Valley, she decamped, the year after publishing Pilgrim, for a place considerably more austere: Lummi Island, in the northern reaches of Puget Sound. The region, with its wall of mountains to the east and endless salted ocean to the west, was for her, as she was soon to call it, “the edge of the known and comprehended world… the western rim of the real… the fringey edge… where time and eternity spatter each other with foam”—a place, in other words, where nature stops and the darkness of divinity begins.
The description comes from Holy the Firm(1977), the work she proceeded to write there, a book that is to Pilgrim what Lummi Island is to Tinker Creek. It throws out the crayfish and copperheads, the frogs, the bugs, the twigs, the scientific lore, all meanderings of thought and ambulation. The text runs 65 pages, short ones, and the prose seems pressed out drop by drop. Dillard later said the book took 14 months to write, full-time, which works out to something like 25 words a day. The sentences are bitten rock, bitter water, biting wind: “Nothing is going to happen in this book. There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time.”
The final phrase articulates the volume’s central theme. For eternity, read “God.” For time, read “the world” (i.e., us). For clips, read “kills”—or maims, burns, starves, causes anguish or grief—that “little violence here and there.” Dillard later explained, in An American Childhood (1987), that she had quit her church, at age 16, over the problem of suffering, the evident impossibility of reconciling the idea of a loving God with the circumstances that prevail in his creation, the law of universal pain. This is the problem of Job, and like whoever wrote his story, Dillard doesn’t try to offer a solution. She knows that all you can really do is frame the question, which she does by telling us about a child named Julie Norwich. Julie is a local girl, 7 years old. Holy the Firm presents itself as the record of three days on the island. On the second, Julie goes down in a plane crash—her father, flying the craft, is unharmed—and has her face burnt off.
I doubt that Julie Norwich ever existed. Her name is an echo of Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchoress and mystic, whom Dillard had alluded to in Pilgrim. Julie’s parents are Jesse and Ann, the father of King David (a figure for Christ in Christian typology) and the mother of the Virgin Mary. Dillard also gives us dates for the book’s events (for example, Friday, November 20) that seem deliberately to misalign with the two years during which the narrative might have taken place. But it doesn’t matter whether Julie is real. Her story is a parable, like Job’s. Her story is a riddle, like his. Why do such things happen? For they happen all the time and everywhere around us. In “The Deer at Providencia,” an essay published just around the time she moved to Puget Sound (also reproduced in The Abundance), Dillard writes about a trip to South America. One day she sees a deer tied up in a village. It’s going to be dinner that night. In language flayed to rawness she describes its suffering:
Trying to get itself free of the rope, the deer had cut its own neck with its hooves … Now three of its feet were hooked in the rope under its jaw. It could not stand … so it could not move to slacken the rope and ease the pull on its throat … Its hip jerked; its spine shook. Its eyes rolled; its tongue, thick with spit, pushed in and out.
She might be a god on Olympus, looking down impassively on human suffering. (She’s also testing us to see how we react.) Afterward she eats a lavish lunch, including a venison stew. Her companions, older men, are surprised at her detachment. “Gentlemen of the city,” she apostrophizes them in the essay, “what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?” She has thought about the fact that she (and we, and many, many other animals) eat meat. “These things are not issues,” she tells us. “They are mysteries.”
Such is the vocation Dillard expands on in The Writing Life(1989). The book is not a manual of tips. It is a portrait of the artist as a soul, its moral qualities and moral situation, offered in the second person. “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” And: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.” The book proceeds, like all her finest work, as a series of extended metaphors. The writer is a miner with a pick; the writer is a pilot with a plane; the writer is a rower in a skiff, towing a log against the current, heading stoutly always in the same direction. The volume’s dominant motif is the single room: a shed on Cape Cod, a cabin on a Puget beach, an office, a study, a carrel (a cockpit, a skiff)—the hermit’s cell, the mind alone with itself. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”
Make no mistake about her spiritual extremity. This is a woman who has seen angels (as she tells us in another essay), who has seen visions, who has seen the tree with the lights in it, which another witness called the burning bush. But miracles like that, she later came to feel, are things that happen only to the young. Her mission since may be conceived of as a quest to recapture those glimpses by other, more deliberate means. No longer could she count on cracks appearing of a sudden in the midst of things through which the holy might pour. So she went to the edges. After Virginia, the scenes of her writing are almost uniformly places of, or next to, emptiness: Puget Sound, Cape Cod, the Alaskan Arctic, the Galápagos, the deserts of China and Israel—the wilderness, eternal haunt of seekers. Virginia itself, which she left around the time she turned 30, may be seen, in its spiritual fecundity, as a kind of figure for youth, her empty spaces as a metaphor for middle age.
The only thing that gives our life a point. Dillard, like Thoreau, is never shy about pronouncing wholesale condemnation on the way her fellows live. To her the mass of men lead lives not of quiet desperation but of superficiality, insensibility, and rank illusion. We live as if we think we’re never going to die. We live as if our petty business counted. We live as if we weren’t as numerous as sand, and each of us ephemeral as clouds. We live as if there hadn’t been a hundred thousand generations here before us, and another hundred thousand were not still to come. Yet all around us holiness and grace, freely given every moment for the taking.
One of the most remarkable things about her work, in fact, is just how much is absent from it. No economy, no society: no current events, no public affairs, no social engagement. With few exceptions, her writing seems to take place entirely outside the history of its own time. (A contrast may be drawn with Marilynne Robinson, Dillard’s nearest kin among contemporary authors, whose religious convictions are inseparable from strong political and social commitments.) “I had a head for religious ideas,” Dillard reports in An American Childhood, her chronicle of growing up in postwar, upper-class Pittsburgh, a book that is largely concerned with the development, in solitude, of the writer’s own consciousness. “They made other ideas seem mean.”
Dillard is not content to affirm her own way. She needs to denigrate all other ways (unlike Thoreau, who wrote, “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for… I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible”). The social novel isn’t simply not her thing; it’s not worth doing at all. The life in nature is good; the life of civilization, the life of cities, as she repeatedly insists (it is a major theme in The Maytrees), is obsessed with stuff and status, the cultivation and display of good taste. The judgment seems, to put it mildly, overbroad. It sounds not like all life in all cities (and Dillard, as far as I can tell, hasn’t lived in any cities since abandoning her native Pittsburgh after high school), but like the white-gloved milieu that she tells us about in An American Childhood. Not to mention that the life of reading and writing to which she has devoted herself is inconceivable without civilization, and the cities where it’s principally created. Crayfish don’t write books, and copperheads don’t buy them.
But the problems go beyond hypocrisy and spiritual snobbery. Ordinarily, the thought that none of us matters in the larger scheme of things is followed by the corrective that, of course, we matter a great deal to one another, and need to take care of one another, and isn’t that what life is after all about? The word for this is morality, also known as love. But neither has much place in Dillard’s thought. For the Time Being, her last work of nonfiction, the book of seven parts and 10 rubrics, represents, among other things, a long meditation over her decades of reading in the literature of spirit. Its hero is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic priest, paleontologist, and theologian. Second place goes to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. But Teilhard and the Baal Shem, mystics though they were, had codes of conduct, codes of service, too, which came to them from their religions. Dillard seems, at least in this late work, to sense what she is missing. Every once in a while, she pulls a kind of quarterback sneak, smuggling morality (“aiding and serving the afflicted and poor,” “a holy and compassionate intention”) into the discussion. The effect is of a man who finishes rebuilding the engine of his car and, finding a bolt on the driveway, balances it carefully on the hood. The bolt, in Dillard’s case, is the entire universe of human attachment.
And that, I think, may be the explanation for her movement into silence. Her works are each unique in formal terms, but there are only so many times, and so many ways, that you can make the same points. Already in her last two books, the only ones that she has written in more than 20 years, it feels as if, thematically at least, she is merely giving the old prayer wheel another spin. The Abundance, a collage of existing material, is, by definition, nothing new. One hopes it heralds a return. One fears it is a valedictory.