I stumbled upon this book seven or eight years ago in a used book store just down the street from the Stanley exit of Peel metro station in Montreal. I was writing my dissertation, and walking helped me sort out my ideas. Sometimes I wandered for hours.
That day the window display caught my eye, and I took a break to browse the bookstore’s shelves. When I saw this slim but enticingly named volume, I was curious what it was, picked it up and started to flip through it. Right away I saw Dillard compare a sentence to a worm inching forward in the darkness. Not long after I learned a manuscript left overnight was like a circus lion gone wild again. This was inventive wonderful stuff, and obviously I bought the book. Back home I read it through, felt recognized by it, and for the next few months kept it close at hand as I struggled to cobble together, for the first time, a book-length argument.
Last week while rearranging books in my library when I should have been working, I found myself standing and flipping through Dillard’s book again, and again I found myself amazed by what I read there. Seduced by passages that echoed in memory, I sat down and read it through for the first time in years, remembering those months spent writing as I did.
However my experience of the book this time around was more complicated than simple nostalgia. I was struck anew by how good Dillard is on writing and how good her writing itself is. But I was also surprised by how bad she seems to be on life and living. We’re all mysteries to each other, and I won’t pretend to know the terms of Dillard’s happiness. She certainly doesn’t need me to suggest how she should live. But I’m certain that how she lives would make me very unhappy if I imitated her.
There is a deeply religious sensibility in Dillard’s work that sits on its surface. But in this book, it seems cruelly monastic in ways that poison her conception of literary sensibility and literary pleasure. Beneath Dillard’s beautifully compact sentences are a hair shirt and tightly cinched belts of thorns, and her endurance of these pains feel competitive. The effect as a whole is ecstatic, apocalyptic and, somehow, inhumane.
Years ago, I needed desperately Dillard’s words about writing. I’m grateful she wrote them and grateful I found them. But the parts of the book I hadn’t gone back to over and over as I wrote and that, as a result, I hadn’t remembered, these parts have likely put me off this book for a long while.