Reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek last year was one of those infrequent, world-altering reading experiences for me. Exciting, then, to realize what a back catalog of nonfiction Dillard has.
I read Teaching a Stone to Talk, an essay collection, last year as well. I find her writing worlds apart from any other author I can name. Truly.
But it can be confusing. She might just be too smart for me; there are moments where I’m not sure I “get” her in these essays. She frequently weaves in the metaphysical, and sometimes the spiritual or quasi-religious — I say “quasi” because I still can’t put my finger on where she stands with religion, especially in relation to biology and natural science. For as much as she reveals in these, and for the astute observations she’s so adept at making, a lot about her remains enigmatic, but more compelling for the mystery.
And at times they feel too brief, or meander into magical realism, which feels out of place in nonfiction. Although the essay that got the most magical-realistical, “An Expedition to the Pole,” was one of my favorites. It’s unexpectedly and brilliantly hilarious, as anything that involves a ragtag band hootenanny at Catholic mass is bound to be (“I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny” – I died!). “Total Eclipse”, “On a Hill Far Away”, and “Acres and Eights” are other standouts.
She has her own brand of humor that colors her observations and musings, often on natural events or phenomena, as far as topics go — it’s harder for me to get more specific than that, as these are often abstract and meandering. This irreverent humor tends to give way quickly to breathtaking, speechless-rendering emotional observation. Can anyone else write like her? I mean:
A ripple of wind comes down from the woods and across the clearing toward us. We see a wave of shadow and gloss where the short grass bends and the cottage eaves tremble. It hits us in the back. It is a single gust, a sport, a rogue breeze out of the north, as if some reckless, impatient wind has bumped the north door open on its hinges and let out this acre of scent familiar and forgotten, this cool scent of tundra, and of November […] It is an entirely misplaced air—fall, that I have utterly forgotten, that could be here again, another fall, and here it is only July. I thought I was younger, and would have more time. The gust crosses the river and blackens the water where it passes, like a finger closing slats.
I’ve read those lines so much in the last year I’ve inadvertently memorized them.
Some other favorites:
from “Total Eclipse”: “We never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed—a sight rare enough, and one which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see. But enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”
“After you’ve blown the ocean sky-high, what’s there to say? What if we the people had the sense or grace to live as cooled islands in an archipelago live, with dignity, passion, and no comment?”
“A Field of Silence”: “ I was not ready for a life of sorrow, sorrow deriving from knowledge I could just as well stop at the gate.”
“Acres and Eights”: “For a series of connected notions presented themselves: if all these passions of mine be overturned, then what will become of me? Then what am I now?
“She seemed real enough to herself, willful and conscious, but she had to consider the possibility—the likelihood, even—that she was a short-lived phenomenon, a fierce, vanishing thing like a hard shower, or a transitional form like a tadpole or winter bud—not the thing in itself but a running start on the thing—and that she was being borne helplessly and against all her wishes to suicide, to the certain loss of self and all she held dear.”
“Morning drains inexpressibly into lunchtime, or Christmastime. Overhead the geese are migrating, just as they were the last time you looked. You wash the dishes, turn around, and it is summer again, or some other time, or time to go.”
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, published 1982 (Bookshop.org)
An American Childhood, Dillard’s 1987 memoir, opens like this:
When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.
I will see the city poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag, and see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills’ curves, rows of bonfires winding. At sunset a red light like housefires shines from the narrow hillside windows; the houses’ bricks burn like glowing coals.
I felt here again the power her writing has — that rare ability to either change or awaken something in you. She goes on to describe the confluence of rivers in her hometown region, which connect New York and Pennsylvania and run to West Virginia and Ohio.
This book covers her childhood and teens growing up in Pittsburgh, a slice-of-life of this area in the 1950s. She focuses intently on specific scenes that made impressions, and begins to notice her interests and passions forming. It was exhilarating, to witness her embracing her quirks and the interests that would eventually bloom so brilliantly in her writing.
Deeper the blue shadows grew on the sidewalk snow, and longer; the blue shadows joined and spread upward from the streets like rising water.
Several thematic elements stand out. One is her obsession with noticing, recording, drawing, remembering. Anything to lock in details and stave off forgetting, yet simultaneously wondering if we spend too much time parsing meaning and considering what’s important to remember and not just living the moments.
The growing size of that blank and ever-darkening past frightened me; it loomed beside me like a hole in the air and battened on scraps of my life I failed to claim.
She writes of visiting a friend’s family vacation home, and how she felt a kind of regret at passing moments even as they happened. I remember that feeling, that dawning of awareness, that begins in childhood, that sense of “This is so meaningful and I can’t believe it’s slipping by just like everything else.”
I had hopes for my rough edges. I wanted to use them as a can opener, to cut myself a hole in the world’s surface, and exit through it.
Another is her acknowledgment of her anger and her parents’ frustration over her wild streak and “bad” behavior. (She’s not that bad, not worse than I was, or most teenagers I knew were.) But the way she writes about this time and how she felt, what emotions were raging in her and fighting against her academic, milder side, felt familiar in a way I think we all might recognize from adolescence, regardless of your behavior or the expectations imposed on you. We all felt anger we didn’t know what to do with, and were overwhelmed by the intensity. She puts it into words palpably.
I loved her coming to terms with her own weirdness, and recognizing it as all that made her. She writes about her burgeoning obsession with French poets, and maybe it resonated because I remembered my increasing obsession with Russia and Russian poets that started in high school, and obviously you don’t just let on that this is what you’re finding most interesting about the world at that point. I felt such a kinship with her, remembering those esoteric interests sparking, then looking around and thinking, what am I doing here, and with these people?
Which was another interesting point, how she interacted with those around her. She went to a tiny all-girls high school, but writes both movingly and hilariously about first noticing and falling for “oddball” boys, and wondering about their interior worlds. One passage stood out as she recalled meeting some of them later, and reconciling assumption with reality, realizing the extent of what she hadn’t known:
I assumed that like me the boys dreamed of running away to sea, of curing cancer, of playing for the Pirates, of painting in Paris, of tramping through the Himalayas, for we were all children together. And they may well have dreamed these things, and more, then and later. I don’t know.
I highlight these ideas because they’re what resonated for me personally, and much of this didn’t — whether because of the era, or the significance of moments or scenes to Dillard that didn’t carry, or just the vast differences I felt in our families and fundamentally in our lives, although I grew up in a similar region not far geographically from hers. (Quite close to that friend’s treasured vacation house, even. Which struck me as odd because it’s not a location I’d associate with vacations, but maybe this was different in the 1960s.)
This book wrapped me up in recollections of my own childhood and high school, which isn’t always a place in memory I like to spend time in, and yet Dillard makes it so. She gave me a way of reframing experience, of considering things I felt shame or pained over in an entirely different way. That was unexpected here, that gift of a different way of looking, and something that to me marks the best literature, regardless of some spots where it lost me or didn’t connect.
Some favorites of many, because her writing frequently hits the highest highs:
“The interior life is often stupid. Its egoism blinds it and deafens it; its imagination spins out ignorant tales, fascinated. It fancies that the western wind blows on the Self, and leaves fall at the feet of the Self for a reason, and people are watching. ”
“Or, conversely, you step aside from the dreaming fast loud routine and feel time as a stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.
O Augenblick verweile.”
“What else can you risk with all your might but your life?”
“A dream consists of little more than its setting, as anyone knows who tells a dream or hears a dream told:
We were squeezing up the stone street of an Old World village.
We were climbing down the gangway of an oceangoing ship, carrying a baby.
We broke through the woods on the crest of a ridge and saw water; we grounded our blunt raft on a charred point of land.
We were lying on boughs of a tree in an alley.
We were dancing in a darkened ballroom, and the curtains were blowing.”
“You take it on faith, for the connections are down now, the trail grown over, the highway moved; you can’t remember despite all your vowing and memorization, and the way back is lost.”
I feel like I could divide my life into pre- and post-Annie Dillard. Does her nonfiction speak to you similarly? Any recommendations for others among her titles?