Skip to main content

Last week, a co-editor and I sent in a book manuscript to our publisher. (I plan on doing a post about this book, but the end of term with its giant mountain of bluebooks and final papers to be graded keep getting in the way.)

As we were finalizing the manuscript, I was also listening to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life on audiobook. Dillard is one of my favorite authors. I reread Pilgrim at Tinker Creek every few years. But I’ve also read The Writing Life a number of times. Usually I read it when I’m in the early stages of a book project. But this time I read it–well, listened to it–as we approached and crossed the finish line. One of my favorite passages in the book is where Dillard talks about the role that coffee plays in her writing process:

To crank myself up I stood on a jack and ran myself up. I tightened myself like a bolt. I inserted myself in a vise-clamp and would the handle till the pressure built. I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, sort of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.

Other than large amounts of coffee, Dillard’s own writing process and mine are very different. I suspect, in large part, because the kind of writing we do is so different. But I always learn something coming back to this old friend. And this time through, I was struck by the way she describes how no book can fully capture the vision that motivates it:

First you shape the vision of what the projected work of art will be…. Many aspects of the work are still uncertain, of course; you know that. You know that if you proceed you will change things and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that change will not alter the vision or its deep structure; it will only enrich it…. But you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing … you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it on the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins.

As with Dillard’s description, our book doesn’t fully capture the vision. But it wasn’t suppose to. It was, from its inception, suppose to be part of a larger thrust to see that vision brought, even if imperfectly, into light. I’ll say more about that guiding vision in the next post.

But first, some more coffee.

Leave a Reply