‘When you write, you lay out a line in words. the line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. It is a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.’
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
In moments of writing doubt – and there are many moments that would qualify – then there are several books on my shelf I reach for. I have slowly amassed and continue to collect books by other writers on writing. Some are practical books of writing exercises, others intellectual reflections on the structure and nature of the novel or short story and then there are books on what it is to write, essays of hope and encouragement such as Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Of these three The Writing Life is the one I return to most and it is more likely, seeing as we’re on the subject, to be in my bag amongst papers, pens, exercise books and my laptop, than to be left on the shelf.
It is a short book – 100 pages or so – given to me by a friend when the moments of doubt had rolled over into a longer period of writing anxiety, when technical difficulties seemed as insurmountable as an annual tax return. I was quite stuck and I just couldn’t budge. This was the right book to give me. It pulled me out of the rut.
Annie Dillard is a thoughtful, reflective writer. Her book is at once a comfort, a commiseration and a call to arms, at least if a pen or a keyboard are your weapons of choice. It’s a book to be read and reread. My copy is tatty. There is a coffee stain on page 36. I’ve underlined passages in pen on pages 3, 5, 27, 58. Page 13, amongst others, is dog-eared because it contains a particularly important passage about how long you might expect to spend writing a novel. I read that part over and over. I tell everyone to read this book. I don’t lend my copy to anyone.
Dog-ear. I decide to look it up in the dictionary. I do this when I use a word or phrase that I haven’t often used before, or that I’m suddenly and unexpectedly experiencing some kind of doubt over. A kind of word-blindness. It’s a hangover from my sub-editing shifts at magazines, a sudden doubting of the provenance and suitability of a word whose use I have, until that point, taken for granted. I look these words up in the large two volume version of the OED that sits on my bookcase. I trust it more than the online version. I find the dictionary reassuring. I flick through the pages of the dictionary, easily distracted. I land prematurely a page or two away from my word and browse through the entries: divertimento, divertive, divest…
For any writer words are currency. This is not wasted time. I am sifting words, a lexical speculator. Twenty five words later and I flick to the correct page but I am waylaid by other words now: dog-cart, a small cart drawn by dogs, dog-cheap, meaning very inexpensive and dog-legged, which apparently refers to a set of stairs without a well-hole.
The OED states that dog-ear is a variation of dog’s-ear (v) to disfigure a book by turning down the corners of the leafs.
According to the OED the word’s first documented use is 1659. I imagine learned gentlemen in 17th century coffee houses sipping the devil’s brew, taking a pipe and dog’s-earing important passages in their books before going off to witness a public hanging, disembowelling or other pleasing 17th century diversion such as burning witches at the stake (see below).
The Writing Life is a personal and at times profound reflection on what it is to write. Annie Dillard explores her writing practice. She shares small epiphanies, defeats, set-backs and victories. I seek out the same passages again and again. Writing is a solitary business. On these pages I find empathy and reassurance and an acknowledgement that what I am doing is at once a privilege and an obscure pursuit. People would miss you putting a shift in at the shoe store more than they would miss any notional novel manuscript you might be writing, she reminds me. Quite true. She also reminds me it takes between two and ten years to write a book.
It’s taken me five years so far, but I’m closing in on the final chapters, if I can put the dictionary down for long enough, that is.