january: notes on annie dillard

studying annie dillard

So I’ve finished the first month in My Year of Excellent Essayists, and what a glorious month it’s been! I’ve enjoyed reading Annie Dillard so much that I’m reluctant to let her go, and move on to the next essayist in the queue. 

If you’re interested in essays, a fantastic resource is The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, by Phillip Lopate. It’s impressively complete, just loaded with wonderful works. And Lopate’s introduction to each essayist gives helpful historical context and insight into the writing.

In his introduction to Dillard, Lopate writes, “Dillard is a self-described seeker, a pilgrim on a mission to retrieve a sense of ecstatic wonder before the natural world.” Now you know that someone who lives on a wonderfarm is bound to find that intriguing! And indeed, for a while I’ve had in mind an idea for an essay of my own: an essay on looking at my own world, my world with kids, through eyes like Annie Dillard’s. So this month has been particularly exciting–I’ve been reading Dillard on a deeper level, not merely to appreciate her words, but also to interact with them.

random notes:

I mostly stuck with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The fact that Dillard wrote this while still in her twenties was enough to make me wish I had an eject button beside my writing chair. I read this for the first time in my twenties, and I’m sure there were parts I didn’t even understand back then. 

The essay “Seeing” refers to pennies, how eyes function, Van Gogh, Perseid meteor showers, cataract surgery patients and Thoreau, among others. Dillard manages to leap from the Andromeda galaxy to planarians in the space of three lines. She’s a master weaver of sorts; calling her curious would be an understatement.

Lopate writes that Dillard, “came to essays through poetry, and her prose has the unmistakable imprint of a trained poet.” You can see that in the lines I share below. I’m sure this little project of mine will reveal my utter weakness for lyricism.

Then, of course, there is her power of observation. Dillard can spend hours watching muskrats and her description assures that her reader sees those muskrats too.  Pilgrim is an extended solo nature walk; Tinker Creek is her own Walden Pond. For a mother who spends her day in a flurry of clutter and chaos, walking along Tinker Creek is calming. Then again, Dillard writes, “I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood.” She’s taught me to pay closer attention to my own neighborhood–whether it’s the streets outside my door or my kitchen filled with kids. It isn’t so much what you observe as how you observe it.

She often leaves little treats at the end of paragraphs. A surprising, incongruous line that might get explained in the next paragraph, or might get explained several paragraphs later. Interesting.

I like reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in small doses. It’s heady reading for me. And sometimes it’s a little lonely–it makes me miss people.

a few lines to love:

(mostly taken from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

“But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.”

I like the thought. And the image of a world planted in pennies.

“Night was knitting over my face an eyeless mask, and I still sat transfixed.”

Ah, such a metaphor. And the repeated “s” sounds.

“But I couldn’t sustain the illusion of flatness. I’ve been around too long. Form is condemned to an external danse macabre with meaning: I couldn’t unpeach the peaches.”

This one might be hard to grasp out of context, but I love the seriousness of the danse macabre paired with the whimsicality of unpeaching the peaches. Making nouns into verbs–fun, fun, fun!

“Some days when a mist covers the mountains, when the muskrats won’t show and the microscope’s mirror shatters, I want to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and with a steel knife claw a rent in the top, peep, and if I must, fall.”

Oh, the alliteration at the beginning–all those m’s–and then the crazy, imaginative image at the end.

“I like slants of light; I’m a collector. That’s a good one, I say, that bit of bank there, the snakeskin and the aquarium, that patch of light from the creek on bark.”

I find light imagery creeping into my own writing constantly; Dillard’s work is full of it. The idea of collecting slants of light charms me.

“Fish! They manage to be so water-colored.”

Makes me laugh.

“I looked up into the channel for a muskrat, and there it came, swimming toward me. Knock; seek; ask.”

She’s such a master word-manipulator!

“If I freeze, locking my muscles, I will tire and break. Instead of going rigid, I go calm. I center down wherever I am; I find a balance and repose. I retreat–not inside myself, but outside myself, so that I am a tissue of senses. Whatever I see is plenty, abundance. I am the skin of water the wind plays over; I am petal, feather, stone.


“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

I found this one as the footer quote on good + happy day  and then stumbled upon it myself in The Writing Life. Isn’t it a lovely reminder for living an intentional life?

the plan for february:

So I’m going to flat-out cheat with the plan, and stick with Annie Dillard for a few more weeks. In the last few weeks I’ll read some Michele de Montaigne, who is widely considered the godfather of the essay. I’ve been meaning to read Montaigne, but somehow I think a couple of weeks with a 16th century essayist will be plenty.

12 comments… add one
  • Lori Feb 6, 2009 @ 19:05

    i *love* annie dillard. :^)

  • susan Feb 17, 2009 @ 7:36

    I really love “Fish, they manage to be so water-colored!” It has a child-like quality. I need to read The Writing Life. I don’t feel I am living it now. Not even enough time to comment on really interesting blog posts in a timely fashion!

  • Mom Feb 17, 2009 @ 20:37

    I just caught up with the last 2 months of T and LuLu and some of H. What a great way for a grandma to keep up!!! However, did you have to reveal my ignorance of thinking T’s hero was my hero Bono!!!

    Still like Bono cuz he does lots of good things.

  • Lisa Mar 20, 2013 @ 9:03

    I wonder if you’ll read a comment on a post from 4 years ago??? 🙂 Just in case- Annie Dillard has inspired me so much. My blog is named PilgrimsAtTinkerCreek.com because my family and I actually live by Tinker Creek, the same one that inspired Annie Dillard. I like your words about her writing!

    • patricia Mar 25, 2013 @ 9:59

      Yep, I get email notifications on comments to even the old posts. It’s always fun to see people commenting on my old stuff–my essayists posts in particular, as they’re some of my personal favorites.

      How amazing to live near Tinker Creek! You can use Dillard’s essays as a nature guide–fantastic!

      Thank you for saying hello, Lisa!

  • Judith Angelo Sep 16, 2014 @ 11:19

    Stumbled here looking to verify that the quote I wanted to use ending in ‘petal, feather, stone’ was indeed from Annie Dillard – collected during my own years of reading her.
    I’m not familiar with you or the rest of your work, but based on this brief exposure want to suggest the book “Woman and Nature” by Susan Griffin (1978). ( later better known & widely praised for other books: notably A Chorus of Stones, and The Eros of Everyday Life)

    If Annie overwhelms you at times, and that is a sensation you’ve learned to recognize as a marker of a valuable discomfort, then maybe Woman and Nature is for you, too, tho the intensity is of a greater and denser magnitude.

    Thanks for listening – and for posting that lovely quote.


    • patricia Sep 16, 2014 @ 11:51

      I always enjoy these little stumblings, Judith, when someone finds my blog on their search for something else, and takes the time to say hello.

      Thank you for the recommendation of Susan Griffin’s book. It sounds intriguing. I’ll look it up!

      I love “Living Like Weasels” too. An old favorite.

  • Judith Angelo Sep 16, 2014 @ 11:23

    Ps! My own favorite essay of Dillard’s is ‘Living Like Weasels,’ from “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” Have lettered parts of it many times, read it onto tape, passed out copies to classes, etc etc 😉

  • Mary Walker Jul 24, 2018 @ 18:06

    Patricia, I loved that you started with Annie Dillard! It was reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that started me on the hunt for more essays, and to really consider how I might use the form myself. She was completely new to me. I live in New Zealand and so she was never on my radar at school (I understand some of her essays were required reading for quite a few in the US?).

    So I’m happily reading her essays, feeling blown over by her language and insight and trying to work out why it feels like she’s casting some kind of spell over me, and decide to check out when it was written. 1974?? Whaaat? It feels as fresh as if it were written last week. How is that possible? Wait – she was HOW OLD when she wrote it? Eject button, indeed. There’s not many things I read that make me feel like it is not necessary to add one more essay to the world, but this is one of them (The Bone People by Keri Hulme is another in case you are a reader of novels).

    My first intro to Annie Dillard was her book ‘The Writing Life’, last year. I just reread it (after also reading the books of essays ‘Holy the Firm’ and ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’) and one of the things I love are the references to her experiences writing essays that I’ve since read. She talks about a piece she wrote in Holy the Firm, which I then reread. It’s like have a uber-Masterclass.

    I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment of your reflections on essayists. I’m currently reading ‘Essays by E.B. White’, Mary Oliver’s ‘Upstream’ and ‘The Wave in the Mind’. How fabulous to find another essay fan 🙂

    • patricia Aug 14, 2018 @ 16:51

      Hello Mary! Please excuse the late response–I’m only now getting back into the swing of things after returning from our trip.

      Ah, it’s so good to talk essays with someone else who appreciates them!

      I’ve never read Holy the Firm, but you’re making me want to. I love that experience of reading about a writer’s process, and even better if they reference a work I can then go on to read! I’ve been reading Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and there’s an essay in there (which I’d read previously) about him being a student of Dillard’s as an undergrad, and what a lasting effect she had on him. I’m sure you’d love it. It’s available online here: https://themorningnews.org/article/annie-dillard-and-the-writing-life The part at the end about what to do in a bookstore never fails to give me goose bumps.

      I also recently purchased the audio version of The Writing Life. I love hearing my favorite essays read aloud. I listen to them in small doses before I write, hoping some of the author’s magic will seep into my brain.

      I wish I’d continued to write about favorite essayists here–I’ve read so many, many more in the years since and it would have been nice to take notes and formally study what those writers are doing on the page. But those posts were time-consuming to write and, well, I guess I’ve been writing my own essays instead. 🙂

      After I finish the Chee collection I’ll be reading Uplake by Ana Maria Spagna. I became acquainted with her work after seeing her present at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference in Ohio. I don’t know how easily you could get one of her books in New Zealand, but you might enjoy them. They have a kinship with Dillard, I think. Oh, and you might enjoy seeing videos from the nonfiction craft presentations at past River Teeth conferences. Many are excellent and watching them convinced me to attend the conference, twice. http://www.riverteethjournal.com/conference/conference-archives

      Happy essay-reading and I hope you’ll keep coming back and sharing!

      • Mary Walker Sep 26, 2018 @ 19:35

        Hi Patricia,
        Thank you so much for your reply – I LOVED reading the Alexander Chee essay about his experience learning from Annie Dillard. After I started reading her work, I searched far and wide online for other snippets of her, but I never came across this one. I’ve shared it with other Dillard fans I know 🙂
        I hadn’t heard of River Teeth but their website looks amazing. And I’ll look up Ana Maria Spagna, thank you.
        I’m just reading a book of essays called “A Brush with Nature” by Richard Mabey. It is collected essays that he wrote in the Guardian and other papers in the UK. He laments the loss of nature writing in the UK, and includes Annie Dillard as one of the few writers who he feels captures things in the vein of the great writers of the past. I’m really enjoying the book. Probably because I have a half-dozen essays of my own underway, related to life in our rural valley, so its highly relatable, and I so enjoy seeing how other people communicate similar experiences.

        • patricia Oct 19, 2018 @ 10:42

          Mary, I’m so glad that you enjoyed the Chee essay. Ever since I read it a few years ago, I’ve taken on Dillard’s practice of finding the place where my book would be on the shelf of memoirs, and placing my finger there. There is power in that action!

          I’ve never heard of Richard Maybe–I will have to look him up. Keep going with those essays–sometimes it’s good to have a lot of work simmering. 🙂

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