Annie Dillard

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Annie Dillard Biography

Annie Dillard describes herself as “promiscuous”—spiritually promiscuous, that is. Dillard grew up Presbyterian, but she rebelled against the church in her teens. The writings of C. S. Lewis brought her back into the fold, but after college she dabbled in several religions until she settled on Roman Catholicism, which she converted to in the 1990s. In her first novel, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard blends themes of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Sufism. That book won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1974, when she was just 29 years old. Dillard has since written several other spiritual books (Holy the Firm and For the Time Being) as well as a memoir and two other novels.

Facts and Trivia

  • Dillard said that her college writing professor—and first husband—R. H. Dillard “taught her everything she knows.”
  • Dillard began working on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek after recovering from a terrible case of pneumonia during which she nearly died.
  • She spent almost a year transcribing her notes for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and completely isolated herself from the rest of society, often writing for over fifteen hours a day.
  • Dillard’s work has often been compared to that of Henry David Thoreau, on whom she wrote her forty-page master’s thesis in graduate school.
  • Dillard recounted her younger years in the book An American Childhood. Her parents were freethinkers who brought her up to appreciate an eclectic array of pursuits—dancing, theater, music, even plumbing!

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Annie Dillard, born Meta Ann Doak to Frank and Pam (Lambert) Doak on April 30, 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, grew up as a member of the comfortable upper class. At the private schools she attended, she was rebellious and dissatisfied, a bright, precocious young woman who felt that she did not fit in with her surroundings. Frequently in trouble at school—she went joyriding and was suspended once for smoking—Dillard wanted to escape the lifestyle that in her family, school, and class was most young women’s destiny: marriage and the Junior League.

After graduating from high school, Dillard entered Hollins College, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, earning her B.A. (1967) and M.A. (1968), both in English. In 1965, when she was a sophomore at Hollins, she married her creative writing professor, R. H. W. Dillard, a poet and novelist. When she finished her graduate degree, Annie Dillard began painting, concentrating on developing a talent she believed that God had given her. At this time she also began reading voraciously in natural history, literature and criticism, classics, and poetry. She also began keeping track of her reading and experiences in extensive journals, a practice she would continue to follow.

In 1971, after a serious case of pneumonia, Dillard turned her energies outward to exploring the natural world. Her experiences inspired and informed her first book of prose, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which was published in 1974, the same year as her book of poetry Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. Both works deal with finding meaning in a universe that, on the surface at least, appears meaningless and devoid of God. In her twenties, Dillard embraced Christianity, a practice she still adheres to; she claims Catholicism as her denomination, preferring it, she says, to Protestantism. However, as has been observed by many of Dillard’s readers, her work is infused with threads drawn from many other belief systems as well.

After the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard became a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and traveled to the Galápagos Islands. The resulting essay, “Innocence in the Galápagos,” received the New York Presswomen’s Award for Excellence in 1975. Dillard’s fame brought problems for a woman who valued her privacy; she was besieged with offers of public appearances, readings, and film scripts. Her popularity troubled her because she felt it took her away too often from her writing. Dillard, a writer who values her privacy and guards her energies, left Virginia in 1975 to take a position as a scholar-in-residence at Western Washington State University in Bellingham, Washington. In that same year, she also divorced R. H. W. Dillard.

During the following years, Dillard contributed columns to Living Wilderness, the journal of the Wilderness Society, and began work on Holy the Firm, which was published in 1977. In 1976, while teaching at Western Washington State University, Dillard met anthropology professor Gary Clevidence, who taught at Fairhaven College. They moved to Middletown, Connecticut, where Dillard began teaching as a distinguished visiting professor at Wesleyan University in 1979; she is now professor emerita from there. Dillard and Clevidence married in 1980, and their daughter, Cody Rose, was born in 1984. They separated in 1987 and later divorced. In 1988, Dillard married writer Robert D. Richardson, Jr., whom she met after writing him what she describes as a fan letter about his book Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986).

Although reviewers and critics persist in describing Dillard’s books as collections of essays, she insists that Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (1982) is the...

(This entire section contains 838 words.)

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only volume that truly fits that description. Dillard has also publishedEncounters with Chinese Writers (1984), an account of her 1982 trip to China as a member of a United States cultural delegation; Living by Fiction (1982), a book about modern writers; An American Childhood (1987), her memoir; The Writing Life (1989); and For the Time Being (1999), which chronicles her travels in China and Israel. She has also edited Best American Essays, 1988.

Dillard is a member of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and has been a jury member for the Bollingen Prize, the nonfiction Pulitzer Prize, and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. Besides being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard has been named a New York Public Library Literary Lion and has received the Washington State Governor’s Award for Literature (1978), the Appalachian Gold Medallion from the University of Charleston (1989), and Boston’s St. Botolph’s Club Foundation Award (1989). An American Childhood was nominated for the 1987 National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Dillard received the Campion Award in 1994, was elected to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1997, and served as a Fellow at Yale’s Calhoun College from 1997 to 1999. In 1998, Dillard received the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1999, she was named a fellow to the Academy of Arts and Letters. For the Time Being received the PEN Diamond-Vogelstein Award for a book of essays in 1999, despite Dillard’s assertion that it is not a collection of essays.


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