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.
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.