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Personal Essays

Annie Dillard and the Writing Life

Writers aren’t born, they’re made—from practice, reading, and a lot of caffeine. And sometimes tutelage.

1937 WPA Federal Art Project poster

Dear Annie Dillard,

My name is Alexander Chee, and I’m a senior English major. I’ve taken Fiction 1 with Phyllis Rose and Advanced Fiction with Kit Reed, and last summer, I studied with Mary Robison and Toby Olson at the Bennington Writers Workshop. The stories here are from a creative writing thesis I’m currently writing with Professor Bill Stowe as my adviser. But the real reason I’m applying to this class is that whenever I tell people I go to Wesleyan, they ask me if I’ve studied with you, and I’d like to have something better to say than no.

Thanks for your time and consideration,
Alexander Chee

 

In 1989, this was the letter I sent with my application to Annie Dillard’s Literary Nonfiction class at Wesleyan University. I was a last-semester senior, an English major who had failed at being a studio art major and thus became an English major by default.

As I waited for what I was sure was going to be rejection, I went to the mall to shop for Christmas presents and walked through bookstores full of copies of the Annie Dillard boxed edition—Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, American Childhood, Holy The Firm—and the Best American Essays of 1988, edited, yes, by Annie Dillard. I walked around them as if they were her somehow and not her books, and left empty-handed.

I didn’t buy them because if she rejected me, they would be unbearable to own.

When I got into the class, in the first class meeting, she told us not to read her work while we were her students.

I’m going to have a big enough influence on you as it is, she said. You’re going to want to please me just for being your teacher. So I don’t want you trying to imitate me. I don’t want you to write like me. And she paused here. I want you to write like you.

Some people looked guilty when she said this. I felt guilty, too. I didn’t know her work. I just knew it had made her famous. I wished I’d had the sense to want to disobey her. I felt shallow, but I was there because my father had always said, Whatever it is you want to do, find the person who does it best, and then see if they will teach you.

I’d already gone through everyone else at Wesleyan. She was next on my list.

 

I can still hear her say it: Put all your deaths, accidents and diseases up front, at the beginning. Where possible. “Where possible” was often her rejoinder.

The accident is that in the spring of my sophomore year, I fell asleep in the drawing class of the chair of the art department and woke to her firm grip on my shoulder.

Jacqueline Gourevitch, the painter, mother to Phillip, the writer. She was at the time an elegant, imperious woman with dark short curly hair and a formal but warm manner. I remember she was known for her paintings of clouds.

Mr. Chee, she said, tugging me up. I think you should do this at home.

I felt a wet spot on my cheek and the paper beneath it. I quickly packed my materials and left.

I had made something with some pieces of my life, rearranged into something else.

Before that, she had loved my work and often praised it to the class. Afterward, I could do nothing right. She even began marking assignments as missing that she’d already passed back to me, as if she were erasing even the memory of having admired my work. I left them in her mailbox with her clearly written comments, to prove my case, but it didn’t matter—a grade of B- from her put me below the average needed for the major. I was shut out.

I spent the summer before my junior year wondering what to do, which in this case meant becoming a vegan, cycling 20 miles a day, working for my mother as the night manager of a seafood restaurant we owned, and getting my weight down to 145 lbs from 165. I turned into a brown line drawing, eating strawberry fruit popsicles while I rang up lobsters and fries for tourists. And then in the last days of August, a school friend who lived in the next town over called me at home.

Do you have a typewriter, he asked.

Yes, I said.

Can I borrow it, he asked. I need to type up this story for Phyllis Rose’s class, to apply. Can I come by and get it this afternoon?

Sure, I said.

 

After I hung up the phone, I wrote a story on that typewriter in the four hours before he arrived that I can still remember, partly for how it came out as I now know very few stories do: quickly and with confidence. I was an amnesiac about my accomplishments. In high school, I won a prize from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Foundation, and a play of mine was honored by Maine’s gifted and talented program with a reading by actors from the Portland Stage Company. But those felt like accidents, in a life next door to mine. For some reason this first short story satisfied in me the idea that I could write in a way that these other things did not.

I had made something with some pieces of my life, rearranged into something else, like an exercise from that drawing class that combined three life studies into a single fictional tableau. The story was about a boy who spends the summer riding a bicycle (me), who gets hit by a car and goes into a coma, where he dreams constantly of his accident until he wakes (this happened to my dad, but also, the fateful art class). When he wakes, he is visited by a priest who wants to make sure he doesn’t lose his faith (me with my pastor, after my father’s death).

Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day “the consolations of the mask,” where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory. But I didn’t know this then.

All I could tell in that moment was that I had finally made an impression on myself. And whatever it was that I did when I writing a story, I wanted to do it again.

My friend arrived. I closed the typewriter case and handed it over. I didn’t tell him what I’d done. Somehow I couldn’t tell anyone I was doing this. Instead, I went to the post office after he left, a little guilty, like I was doing something illicit, and submitted the story.

 

I saw your name on the list, my friend said, weeks later, back at school, with something like hurt in his voice. Congratulations.

When I looked, I saw he wasn’t on the list. I felt like I’d taken something out of the typewriter before I gave it to him, and wanted to apologize.

I didn’t think I’d gotten in because of what I’d written.

I went on to get an A in that class, which I didn’t understand, not even when a classmate announced he’d gotten a B. I didn’t understand because I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. I did, though, apply and get into Kit Reed’s advanced fiction class for the next semester—20 pages of fiction every other week—and won from her another of these mysterious As. I applied to and was accepted at the Bennington Writer’s Conference, studied with Mary Robison and Toby Olson and met Jane Smiley’s editor at Knopf, who offered to read a story of mine and then returned it with a note that said if I could turn it into a novella, she’d buy it.

I had no idea what a novella was or how to write one, and the excitement I felt as I read her note turned to confusion and then sadness.

Great and enviable things were happening for me. Another student in this situation would have gotten Mary Robison or Kit Reed to help him understand what a novella was so he could write it, and would have been published at age 21, but that wasn’t me. I thought I could choose a destiny. I wanted Jane Smiley’s editor to tell me, Go be a visual artist and forget about this writing thing, kid. I was someone who didn’t know how to find the path he was on, the one under his feet.

This, it seems to me, is why we have teachers.

II.

In my clearest memory of her, it’s spring, and she is walking towards me, smiling, her lipstick looking neatly cut around her smile. I never ask her why she’s smiling—for all I know, she’s laughing at me as I stand smoking in front of the building where we’ll have class. She’s Annie Dillard, and I am her writing student, a 21-year-old cliché—black clothes, deliberately mussed hair, cigarettes, dark but poppy music on my Walkman. I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m funny. She walks to class because she lives a few blocks from our classroom building in a beautiful house with her husband and her daughter, and each time I pass it on campus, I feel, like a pulse through the air, the idea of her there. Years later, when she no longer lives there, and I am teaching there, I feel the lack of it.

The dark green trees behind her on the Wesleyan campus sharpen her outline. She is dressed in pale colors, pearls at her neck and ears. She’s tall, athletic, vigorous. Her skin glows. She holds out her hand.

The class had a rhythm to it dictated by how she had quit smoking to please her new husband.

Chee, she says. Give me a drag off that.

She calls us all by our last names.

She lets the smoke curl out a little and then exhales brusquely. Thanks, she says, and hands it back, and then she smiles again and walks inside.

Lipstick crowns the yellow Marlboro Red filter.

I soon know this means there’s five minutes until class starts. As I stub the cigarette out, I think of the people who’d save the filters. At least one of them. I feel virtuous as I kick it into the gutter.

 

In that first class, she wore the pearls and a tab collar peeped over her sweater, but she looked as if she would punch you if you didn’t behave. She walked with a cowgirl’s stride into the classroom, and from her bag withdrew her legal pad covered in notes, a thermos of coffee and a bag of Brach’s singly wrapped caramels, and then sat down. She undid the top of the thermos with a swift twist, poured a cup of coffee into the cup that was also the thermos top, and sipped at it as she gave us a big smile and looked around the room.

Hi, she said, sort of through the smile.

130 of you applied, and I took 13 of you, Annie announced. A shadowy crowd of the faceless rejected formed around us briefly. A feeling of terror at the near miss came and then passed.

No visitors, she said. Under no conditions. I don’t care who it is.

 

The class had a rhythm to it dictated by how she had quit smoking to please her new husband. We were long-distance, she told me, at one of our longer smoke breaks. We met at a conference. He didn’t know what a smoker I was until we shacked up. She laughed at this, as at a prank.

At the beginning of class she would unpack the long thin thermos of coffee and the bag of Brach’s singly-wrapped caramels—the ones with the white centers. She would set her legal pad down, covered in notes, and pour the coffee, which she would drink as she unwrapped the caramels and ate them. A small pile of plastic wrappers grew by her left hand on the desk. The wrappers would flutter a little as she whipped the pages of her legal pad back and forth, and spoke in epigrams about writing that often led to short lectures but were sometimes lists: Don’t ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible. Never quote dialogue you can summarize. Avoid describing crowd scenes but especially party scenes.

She began almost drowsily, but soon went at a pell-mell pace. Not frantic, but operatic. Then she might pause, check her notes in a brief silence, and launch in another direction, as we finished making our notes and the sound of our writing died down.

Each week we had to turn in a seven-page triple-spaced draft in response to that week’s assignment.

Triple-spaced, we asked in the first class, unsure, as this had never been asked of us.

I need the room to scribble notes in between your sentences, she said.

The silence in the room was the sound of our minds turning this over. Surely there wouldn’t be that much to say?

But she was already on her feet at the chalkboard, writing out a directory of copyediting marks: Stet is Latin and means let it stand… When I draw a line through something and it comes up with this little pig tail on it that means get rid of it.

There was that much to say. Each week we turned in our assignments on a Tuesday, and by Thursday we had them back again, the space between the triple-spaced lines and also the margins filled with her penciled notes. Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence. This had arrows drawn pointing off towards the amazing sentence and the disappointing one. Getting your pages back from her was like getting to the dance floor and seeing your favorite black shirt under the nightclub’s blacklight, all the hair and dust that was always there but invisible to you, now visible.

In her class, I learned that while I had spoken English all of my life, there was actually very little I knew about it. English was born from low German, a language that was good for categorization, and had filled itself in with words from Latin and Anglo Saxon words, and was now in the process of eating things from Asian languages. Latinates were polysyllabic, and Anglo Saxon words were short, with perhaps two syllables at best. A good writer made use of both to vary sentence rhythms.

If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.

Very quickly, she identified what she called ‘bizarre grammatical structures’ inside my writing. From the things Annie circled in my drafts, it was clear one answer to my problem really was, in a sense, Maine. From my mom’s family, I’d gotten the gift for the telling detail—Your Uncle Charles is so cheap he wouldn’t buy himself two hamburgers if he was hungry—but also a voice cluttered by the passive voice in common use in that of that part of the world—I was writing to ask if you were interested—a way of speaking that blunted all aggression, all direct inquiry, and certainly, all description. The degraded syntax of the Scottish settlers forced to Maine by their British lords, using indirect speech as they went and then after they stayed. And then there was the museum of clichés in my unconscious.

I felt like a child from a lost colony of Scotland who’d taught himself English by watching Gene Kelly films.

The passive voice in particular was a crisis. “Was” only told you that something existed—this was not enough. And on this topic, I remember one of her fugues almost exactly:

You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs. The passive voice needs gerunds to make anything happen. But too many gerunds together on the page makes for tinnitus: Running, sitting, speaking, laughing, inginginginging. No. Don’t do it. The verbs tell a reader whether something happened once or continually, what is in motion, what is at rest. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time, pell-mell, chaos. Don’t do that. Also, bad verb choices mean adverbs. More often than not, you don’t need them. Did he run quickly or did he sprint? Did he walk slowly or did he stroll or saunter?

The chaos by now was with her notebook and the wrappers, the storm on the desk, a crescendo fueled by the sugar and caffeine. I remember in this case a pause, her looking off into the middle distance, and then back at her notebook as she said, I mean, just what exactly is going on inside your piece?

If fiction provided the consolations of the mask, nonfiction provided, per Annie’s idea of it, the sensibility underneath the mask, irreplaceable and potentially of great value. The literary essay, as she saw it, was a moral exercise that involved direct engagement with the unknown, whether it was a foreign civilization or your mind, and what mattered in this was you.

You are the only one of you, she said of it. 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. You writing it makes it possible.

III.

Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader, she announced. This seemed obvious but also radical—no one had ever said it so plainly to us. She spoke often of “the job.” If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.

We were to avoid emotional language. The line goes grey when you do that, she said. Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad. When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. She isn’t angry, Annie said. She throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.

In the cutting and cutting and the move this here, put this at the beginning, this belongs on page six, I learned that the first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four. That if the beginning isn’t there sometimes it’s at the end, that you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning, and that if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.

One afternoon, at her direction, we brought in our pages, scissors and tape, and told to bring several drafts of an essay, one that we struggled with over many versions.

Now cut out only the best sentences, she said. And tape them on a blank page. And then when you have that, write in around them, she said. Fill in what’s missing and make it reach for the best of what you’ve written thus far.

By the time I was done studying with Annie, I wanted to be her.

I watched as the sentences that didn’t matter fell away.

You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.

After the lecture on verbs, we counted the verbs on the page, circled them, tallied the count for each page to the side and averaged them. Can you increase the average number of verbs per page, she asked. I got this exercise from Samuel Johnson, she told us, who believed in a lively page, and used to count his verbs. Now look at them. Have you used the right verbs? Is that the precise verb for that precise thing? Remember that adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Think carefully—when did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?

I stared, comprehendingly, at the circles on my page, and the bad choices surrounding them and inside them.

You can invent the details that don’t matter, she said. At the edges. You cannot invent the details that matter.

I remember clearly, in the details that matter to this, going to the campus center on the morning before one class in the middle of the spring, to pick up my manuscript for that week. We turned them in on a Tuesday, and she returned them to us on Wednesday, by campus mail, so we could have them in time for Thursday’s class. This particular essay I’d written with more intensity and passion than anything I’d tried to do for the class thus far. I felt I finally understood what I was doing—how I could make choices that made the work better or worse, line by line. After over a year of feeling lost, this feeling was like when your foot finds the ground in the dark water. Here, you think. Here I can push.

I opened the envelope. Inside was the manuscript, tattooed by many, many sentences in the space between, many more than usual. I read them all carefully, turning the pages around to follow the writing to the back page, where I found, at the end, this postscript: I was up all night thinking about this.

The thought that I’d kept her up all night with something I wrote, that it mattered enough, held my attention. Okay, I remember telling myself. If you can keep her up all night with something you wrote, you might actually be able to do this.

I resented the idea of being talented. I couldn’t respect it—in my experience, no one else did. Being called talented at school had only made me a target for resentment. I wanted to work. Work, I could honor.

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 they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.

Talent could give you nothing. Without work, talent is only talent, promise, not product. I wanted to learn how to go from being the accident at the beginning to a writer, and I learned that from her.

IV.

By the time I was done studying with Annie, I wanted to be her.

I wanted a boxed set of my books from Harper Collins, a handsome professor husband, a daughter, a house the college would provide, teaching just one class a year and writing during the rest of the year. I even wanted the beat-up Saab and the houses on Cape Cod. From where I stood, which was in her house on campus during a barbecue at the end of the semester, it looked like the best possible life a writer could have. I was a senior, aware that graduation meant the annihilation of my entire sense of life and reality. Here, as I balanced a paper plate stained by the burger I’d just eaten, here was a clear goal.

I had given up on vegetarianism, it should be said.

If I’ve done my job, she said in the last class, you won’t be happy with anything you write for the next 10 years. It’s not because you won’t be writing well, but because I’ve raised your standards for yourself. Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.

She paused here. This was another of her fugue states. And then she smiled. We all knew she was right.

Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.

In class, the idea seemed ridiculous. But at some point after the class ended, I did it. I walked up to the shelf. Chabon, Cheever. I put my finger between them and made a space. Soon, I did it every time I went to a bookstore.

Years later, I tell my own students to do it. As Thoreau, someone she admires very much, once wrote, “In the long run, we only ever hit what we aim at.” She was pointing us there.

biopic

Alexander Chee is the author of Edinburgh (Picador, 2002) and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, an NEA in Fiction, and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and has written for Out, Granta.com, n+1, Paris Review Daily, and NPR. He lives in New York City and blogs at Koreanish. More by Alexander Chee