An analysis of The Writing Life might best begin with the author’s description of it: “This book recounts what the actual process of writing feels like—feels like inside the mind at work. It tells a complex story. It offers bits of technical information. It shows the writer teetering at the tip of the line of words. This is not a meditation but a dispatch from the desk.”
Unlike books such as John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1983) and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write (1938), which are intended primarily for aspiring literary artists, The Writing Life seems directed to a general audience—and did in fact become a national best- seller—though Dillard certainly had would-be writers in mind. The purpose of the book is to convey the essence of a vocation that Dillard has experienced sometimes as mundane, frustrating, actually ridiculous, at other times as mystical and ecstatic. The book has strong religious overtones, or at least shares the method of much religious writing: Artistic creation at its deepest level being ineffable, Dillard tells her story through metaphor and parable. It consists of numerous sections, ranging from a few lines to a few pages in length, often without obvious connections; the structure is not logical but free- associative. The Writing Life is a tour through the author’s mind and memory. How well does it work? Though certain threads run through it—courage, isolation, risk, reward—the book has no central thesis which the author has either proved or failed to prove. Thus a more cogent question might be, How is the view along the way? It varies greatly. For general readers, there is much here to fascinate, mystify, and perhaps to mislead; Dillard’s fellow writers may find parts of it idiosyncratic or obvious.
“Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year.” Normally, Dillard goes on to say, it takes between two and ten. This is her most forthright expression of a point she makes throughout metaphorically: The writer’s task is overwhelmingly difficult. Yet what never quite becomes explicit, though it is implied, is that the books she is talking about make up a small minority of what is actually written and published. A work of journalistic nonfiction, reporting on some aspect of contemporary life, typically takes nothing like two years to write; if it did, it would be out of date by the time it appeared. And a great many people can turn out a popular novel in a year or less. This kind of writing, however, makes different, less strenuous demands: on the journalist, a clear style and attention to facts; on the novelist, a flow of invention to develop and maintain excitement. Neither is engaged in mining for mystery and beauty, in Dillard’s view what the real writing life consists of; neither is writing what she might call, though she never uses the phrase, “real books.” Thus The Writing Life might be seen as elitist, a map of a rarefied country uninhabited except by the eccentric few. More accurately, however, it is serious; in a literary marketplace whose values are overwhelmingly commercial, here is a voice insisting that what the committed artist does is different, real, and valuable.
What then is literary art good for? Nothing, it sometimes seems: “your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. The written word is weak,” she goes on to say. “Many people prefer life to it.” And “films and television stimulate the body’s senses in big ways”; in the presentation of spectacle, “the printed word cannot compete.” Why then does anyone read? “Because a book can be literature,” and “the more literary the book—the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep—the more likely people are to read it.” (Or perhaps, given what makes the best-seller lists, the more likely people are at least to remember and be affected by that kind of book.) People read, Dillard goes on to say much later, “in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed.”
Some of Dillard’s statements—that writing is worthless, that it is uniquely valuable—are contradictory on the surface; it might be fairer to say that they express the contradictory moods that writers are routinely subject to. Similarly, she often excoriates the life that she herself has chosen. The writer is like a “dimwit” inchworm, a “blind and frantic numbskull” which “makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours.” Further, “the life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation.” Writers “deliberately ... enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.” Yet this disingenuously begs the question of the imaginative work writers actually do in their small rooms; it overgeneralizes, moreover,...