A Wilderness In The Neighborhood: Annie Dillard and the Art of Nature Writing

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Recently I stumbled across an interesting piece by Diane Saverin in The Atlantic about Annie Dillard and the writing of her Pulitzer Prize winning work Pilgrim at Tinker CreekDillard’s book, like many works on nature, has been shrouded in a sort of holy aura by readers. There’s this sense that all such writers disappear into the wilderness to sit on a log for several months in order to get in touch with the sublime spirit of the rocks and trees. The Thoreau mythos prevails. And yet, as Saverin’s article reveals, Dillard was an ordinary Virginia housewife living in the suburbs at the time she constructed her book:

She wasn’t a man living alone in the wild. In fact, she wasn’t even living alone. She was residing in an ordinary house with her husband—her former college poetry professor, Richard Dillard. Before she published her book, she scribbled in her journal, wondering who would take her book seriously if its author was a “Virginia housewife named Annie.”

Saverin’s essay is a fascinating look at the process behind one of the 20th century’s most enduring works of non-fiction, and touches on many other issues along the way. Here are a few excerpts.

On Dillard’s self-conscious interaction with other wilderness writing:

In many ways, Pilgrim reads like an updated version of Walden, and that’s exactly the kind of book Dillard was trying to write. At one point, while thinking through the order of her chapters, she jotted down in her notes, “Remember HDT’s [Henry David Thoreau’s] alternation of chapters with solitude + society, light and dark, indoors and outdoors, etc. How to do this?” As Dillard considered potential titles for the book, she thought of Tinker Creek (echoing Thoreau’s Walden), Creekside Solitaire (adapting Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire), Infinite Storm (borrowing a line from John Muir), and Tinker Creek Almanac (evoking Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac).

On Dillard’s writing process:

By the time Dillard decided to write Pilgrim, she had filled dozens of journals with passages from what she had been reading, anecdotes from her walks, facts about natural history, and dreams about luna moths mating. She had started writing in journals to help her quit smoking, but by the time she was writing in her second spiral notebook, she’d realized writing down her thoughts gave her physical access to the contents of her mind, as if everything she had ever read were fresh in her mind.

On the challenges of being a female writer:

With a name like “Annie Dillard” on the cover, there was no hiding her gender. “All of the books I took as models had been written by men,” she told me. “And my father, most importantly, never read a book by a woman in his whole life.” She continued to think about publishing the book under a pseudonym. “I thought it would have a better chance. You know — if you write something you want someone to see it.” But after she published a chapter in Harper’s and another in The Atlantic under her real name, “the jig was up.”

On the sometimes fictional nature of non-fiction:

When Pilgrim was published, Dillard didn’t try to hide the fact that the book was, at times, a work of imagination. Even at the height of her fame, in 1978, Dillard told interviewer Mike Major how she’d written Pilgrim from hundreds of notecards, calling it hard and terribly frustrating work and acknowledging that she sometimes distorted the literal truth to achieve an artistic one. But readers, she said, “think it happens in a dream, that you just sit on a tree stump and take dictation from some little chipmunk.” She resisted the idea that the public was making her into a cult figure, retorting, “All that stuff about lifestyle is completely irrelevant!”

I commend to you this thoughtful read on one of this community’s favorite books.

Click here for the full article “The Thoreau of the Suburbs”

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Chris teaches writing and literature to college and high school students. He is the author of several books of poetry, and has released several albums of original music. He is also an amateur photographer, part-time stick-swordfighter, and chai enthusiast. He and his wife Jen enjoy reading, writing, and exploring the cities, coasts, and forests of New England.


2 Comments

  1. EmmaJ

    Yes! That article was so surprising to me. I admit that it is kind of a relief to find out that a person doesn’t necessarily have to sit on a mouldering tree stump in the forest for months at a time to write powerfully about nature (or other things). Because, you know, I like to be comfy. I find that it’s kind of difficult to concentrate with cold feet or other distracting bodily sensations. Such is the lot of us corporeal beings, eh?

  2. Glenn

    Chris,
    Thanks for this. As one who’s taught Dillard for years to high school seniors, the de-mystifying of the process of what they call “nature writing” is incredibly enlightening. “Readers … think it happens in a dream, that you just sit on a tree stump and take dictation from some little chipmunk.” Yup. That pretty much nails my students’ perception of Dillard. Which leads them to a “I’m not as brilliant as Annie, so I can’t write like her.” As with many things about writing, the combination of openness, a spirit of contemplation, and a commitment to good, hard work, counts more than “brilliance.” Even the Romantics, Wordsworth and Colerirdge, emphasized “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

    I especially love what it says in the Atlantic piece about needing to be away from a place to write about it well. Dillard calls it “critical distance, or something.” That rings true. Sit, notate, absorb the essence of a place, then go somewhere else to discover the meaning. I heard a similar thing about Fitzgerald with Gatsby. The bulk of the writing about the Eggs came when he had moved out of Long Island and was living in Paris. He soaked it up, moved, and then was able to pour it back out.

    Again, much appreciated!

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