writing is not rocket science
it's habits of mind and habits of work
Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I'm still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.
- Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”
I remember explaining to a writer friend of mine that if my writing was a drum beat with a solid 4/4 groove, this passage is like one of those intricate, cacophonous, 5 minute drum solos where you are on the edge of your seat barely keeping up with where the down beat is.
How, how could someone write like this?
“…tree with the lights in it…”
“…each cell buzzing with flame…”
“…knocked breathless by a powerful glance…”
And then the line that forever stayed with me: “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
I remember reading this passage again and again grateful I came across such beautiful language.
I’ve been spending the second half of this week in the Catskills as a solo birthday trip, and I brought "How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” by Alexander Chee to reread. In one of the essays called “The Writing Life,” he recounts his time as a student in Annie Dillard’s literary nonfiction class while he was attending Wesleyan. He was one of 13 students in the class, of which 130 people applied for a seat.
The essay talks about how he started his path as a writer, and it also includes some nuggets of wisdom from Dillard’s lectures:
You are the only one of you, she said. Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original, she said dismissively. Yes, everything’s been written, but also, the thing you want to write, before you wrote it, was impossible to write. Otherwise it would already exist. Your writing it makes it possible.
That passage up there is an example of this. All Annie did was write about a tree near by when she was staying at Tinker Creek.
The photos of the tree and scene above were at Kissena Park, a park that was a block away from the house I grew up in. I remembered Dillard’s writing as I took the photos deciding for myself that she must have walked by that tree during golden hour (that magical, photogenic hour right before the sun sets for the day).
I’ve lived through thousands of golden hours and seen trees lit from behind, but I never could have expressed it the way Dillard did. Not only because of her mastery at writing but because it’s her eyes, her moment, and her truth that she did the work to distill.
The part I’m learning to accept, and love, and nurture is the fact that my perspective matters, and the way I write it is one of a kind. There’s no need to compare, there’s no need to worry, and there’s no need to be ashamed—only inspired.
Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science; it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and their dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between me and them is that I’m writing.
Talent might give you nothing. Without work, talent is only talent—promise, not product.
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