In Praise of Annie
Why these posts come under the title: The Abundance
I have stolen from Annie Dillard. I fully admit it. Guilty. And I have no regrets of any kind.
Her books rest on a basement bookshelf, beside my bed, and inside the writing shed, on my desk, close by, like a Bible on a nightstand.
The writer Annie Dillard is a force of nature, a spirit that has been quietly lingering over my writer shoulder since I read her book, An American Childhood many years ago. She grew up in my hometown, Pittsburgh. She writes of memories, love, death, the examined life, and the natural world. She is a modern-day Thoreau, some have said, but that is too simplistic a description. Thoreau is a hero. Although I hate the world hero (heroine), I can think of no other for Dillard. Contemplative. Intelligent. Inviting. Just read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek if you are unsure. No one writes like her. No one. Many writers have touched my words in some varied way—Kerouac, Hemingway, Didion, Jim Harrison, Patti Smith, and on—but no other writer has hovered over me like a ghost, like a guardian angel floating just above my keyboard like Annie Dillard. She has always been there, her wings fluttering by my ear, silently watching and waiting.
And what have I stolen? Creatively and artistically probably more than I will ever know. But for certain, I have stolen the name of one of her books for the name of this site—“The Abundance.”
Dillard’s book, The Abundance is a collection of some of her greatest essays. It rests in a small stack on my desk near a frequently-lit candle. Published in 2016, it is a highly concentrated dose of Dillard, released after she had famously said that she had quit writing, claiming to have shifted to painting. Still, despite her declaration, it remains curious why there’s been nothing new for so long. Part of me believes she revels in the idea of mystery.
To remind us of her brilliance, Ecco published The Abundance. There is so much good all over her creative life that it cannot be captured in a solitary book. So, the volume acknowledges that the book is an intense concentrate, like perfectly reduced wine. What is in The Abundance is in her other books, yet, this collection reminds us of why Dillard needs to be read over and over. Her thoughts are so deep, so layered, that to fully take her in one must read and digest again, and again. And as time passes, the meanings and themes shift as the reader does. It is remarkable.
Dillard is also a teacher.
The way to a reader’s emotions is, oddly, through the senses.
Don’t leave your best ideas for later.
In writing, action is everything.
Publication is subjective.
Remember to live a life. (She had been an avid softball player in her younger years.)
Write till you drop.
Editing her wisdom to a few words is inappropriate. Dillard’s teachings are too vivid, too dense to be trimmed to such neat lessons. Yet, she would be the first to remind the writer, “Don’t use any extra words. A sentence is a machine; it has a job to do. An extra word in a sentence is like a sock in a machine.”
Dillard once ran away to a cabin in the woods, a small space on an island in the Puget Sound. She had won the Pulitzer Prize, her marriage had fallen apart (she insisted it was not because of the award), and she had wanted to be as far away from fame as she could. So, she worked in a one-room home, in a “wooden room,” as she called it with “one enormous window, one cat, one spider, and one person.” I, too, ran away a few years ago, you might say, to my own cabin, my shed, a wooden room on my property with “one small window, one small desk, one beat-up acoustic guitar, one reading lamp, many books, and one person.” Very little in my writing life is remotely like Dillard’s. She is beyond all of us. But she and I do share a hometown and we both occupy a little space where we write. She no longer lives in Pittsburgh. She no longer lives on that island or works in that cabin. But, in the odd continuum of time, I know that I share at least two elements of my life with Annie Dillard.
On these pages I have written about many writers who have influenced my creative world, but I have not mentioned Dillard in a direct way until now. Of all the great artists, musicians, and writers, she is the one I am most humbled by. To link her to my life is grossly pretentious, as if I have a right to do such a thing. I don’t. But, I can be a thief; I can steal from Annie, and I can do so with respect and grace, at least I hope so.
When I chose the name of this site—“The Abundance”—the decision was conscious and direct. I knew exactly what I was doing. Think of the name as a kind of dedication page. Maybe that helps the reader understand what I try to accomplish here each week. Next to Dillard, I fail miserably. Yet, I know her spirit is right next to me, along with that 300-word book of essays. She is unaware of this, of course. Knows nothing of me. Yet, I am entangled every time I read her words and each time I write at this desk and in this space.