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Words of Others: Annie Dillard–“Write as if you were dying…”

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Writing a book, full time, takes between two and ten years… Thomas Mann was a prodigy of production. Working full time, he wrote a page a day. That is 365 pages a year, for he did write every day—a good-sized book a year. At a page a day, he was one of the most prolific writers who ever lived.

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p.14

In moving through Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, I came across a peculiar section. I thought it interesting, and enlivening, and frustrating, and motivating all at the same time.

As an aspiring writer I am always looking for ways to improve my craft, or so I say.

As it turns out, however, being a writer is harder than it might seem. Mood, circumstance, surroundings—these things, to name a few, all play a great role in the production of writing. In earnest, I would love to write twenty pages of beautiful prose a day. Shoot, I would love to write forty pages. 

Maybe I wouldn’t, though. Maybe I would only be writing junk at that point.

Dillard talks about how out of 365 pages a writer might accept a meager 72.

Seventy-two. This, of course, is an estimate, but it is probably realistic. That is approximately one fifth of one’s writing that goes on to the next stage. It is like a painter who covers her canvass with green, then brown, then red, and only then does she begin working on the specifics of her painting; only then does she begin the fine-tuning, her backgrounding, her very supply of paints, falling quite literally into the background despite the amount of paint and strokes that it took.

The final product for an artist is not, however, the conglomeration of all strokes, paints, and hours spent upon the canvass. It is, of course, the final product: what the rest of us all get to see. Many actions are made to paint a picture, and truly, many (if not most) actions go unnoticed and unrepresented.

Writing is the same. As Dillard notes, it may take 365 pages to show seventy-two in the final project. In this sense, 365 equals seventy-two; the time, effort, thought, editing, and focus are five times heavier than what anyone may ever understand. 

But nothing comes easy. If our crafts did, I suspect we wouldn’t be very good at them, and even more, we would very soon tire of them.

One last quotation:

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon?” 

The Writing Life, p. 68

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