Annie Dillard Biography

At a Glance

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 has 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 free thinkers who brought her up to appreciate an eclectic array of pursuits—dancing, theater, music, even plumbing!


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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,...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dillard stalks the infinite by tracking the finite in the world of nature. A mystic who looks for a divine force behind the natural world, she is a deeply spiritual person who sometimes can only console her readers with the assurance that they are all participants in the great dance of the universe. That contradictions exist, that danger, tenor, and destruction are part of the world she observes are all facts of life. Her interests revolve almost exclusively around making sense of the events that she observes in the natural world in order to gain entrée to the world of the divine. Dillard’s prose is powerful, evocative and lyrical, and the subjects she examines are of universal interest.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Annie Dillard, born Annie Doak in 1945, is the oldest of three daughters and was raised in a wealthy Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, family. Her mother, Pam Lambert Doak, and father, Frank Doak, raised her in the Presbyterian faith, encouraged her to pursue a wide range of interests, and pushed her especially to explore the natural world. Her unique childhood is described at length in her 1987 memoir An American Childhood. During high school the future author rebelled against her parents’ wealth and had a turbulent time as a student. At this point, she developed an interest in poetry and took particular interest in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

After studying English, theology, and creative writing, Dillard received a B.A. in 1967 and an M.A. in 1968 from Hollins College near Roanoke, Virginia. Her master’s thesis, which focused on Thoreau’s Walden (1845), directly influenced her work on the hugely popular Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. After graduation, Dillard began writing in earnest and published several poems. In 1971, after an exceptionally bad bout of pneumonia that almost took her life, she moved to live near Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, the setting for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She spent a year living alone, closely observing both the beauty and the violence of the changing seasons. Classified in some realms as a theology book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek incorporates aspects of Buddhism, Sufism, and Christianity, among other philosophies and religions.

Dillard then moved to a cabin on an island in Puget Sound in Washington State, the setting for her 1992 Western novel The Living. An opportunity to teach at Wesleyan University brought her to Connecticut, and she began serving as professor emeritus at Wesleyan in 1999. In 1964, Dillard had married her writing professor, Richard Dillard. After divorcing Richard, she married writer Gary Clevidence in 1980. This marriage also ended in divorce. In 1988, she married award-winning historical biographer Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

Dillard gained fame as a voracious reader—typically reading more than one hundred books a year on an enormous variety of subjects. After years of searching among various religions, she settled on Roman Catholicism. Whether by writing essays or fiction, Dillard captures the essence of what it is to be human.