Annie Dillard on Time, Importance of Coffee & Learning A Trade

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes on the turbulent mind of a writer and the merit in serving an apprenticeship

Craftsman making coffee on an old stove for article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes on the turbulent mind of a writer and the merit in serving an apprenticeship

I first heard of Annie Dillard several years ago when I came across the perhaps over-played, but always relevant quote;

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”

This quote encapsulates a lifetime and an entire philosophy in a single sentence. After a considerable time chasing ghosts, I had eventually come up to speed with this idea and caught it. It had a profound meaning for me, and I have held on to it since.

The quote aligns with the idea that there is no future and no past. Tomorrow never gets here and yesterday is gone, never to return. So to spend our days mulling over past regrets or anticipating future rewards is to ignore what we need to be doing now. Now is all we get and it is the only place we can be effective.

Because, as Dillard suggests, how we spend our minutes, hours and days, whatever it is that we find ourselves doing, is our life. On reflection, that’s all we have.

At 80 or 90 years of age, if I am fortunate to be still here and reflecting on a life lived, what emotion will come to mind? Will I smile or will I cry?

It’s likely to be a combination, but I guess that’s up to me. What I decide to do with my time now is all that what matters.

In this particular passage from The Writing Life, Dillard goes on to say;

“What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order — willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern”.

Many creative people like to rail against the organisation and structure of society, and I’m no different. But rather than the principles of order and structure being problematic, I believe it is other people’s order imposed that is the problem. Order and structure are essential to the creative process.

What you will create is unknown until it’s known and to bring it into the known, we’ve got to form it. Forming gives structure, and then something can happen. Whether we realise it or not, imposing a structure on ourselves is what’s required for creative work that matters.

“Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing” — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

In promoting the benefit of a daily schedule, Dillard offers the analogy of a scaffold upon which we can stand. Or perhaps upon which the work can stand. Without that scaffolding, nothing gets done.

Working ad hoc without a structure can impose a lack of psychological direction. A life spent in this way, as artist and psychologist Erik Erikson suggested, leads to despair. He writes of later life integrity in Identity and The Life Cycle in 1950;

“Despair expresses the feeling that the time is short, too short for the attempt to start another life and to try out alternate roads to integrity. Such a despair is often hidden behind a show of disgust, a misanthropy, or a chronic contemptuous displeasure with particular institutions and particular people, a disgust and a displeasure which…only signify the individual’s contempt of himself. Ego integrity, therefore, implies an emotional integration which permits participation by followership as well as acceptance of the responsibility of leadership: both must be learned and practiced in religion and in politics, in the economic order and in technology, aristocratic living, and in the arts and sciences.”

During her time writing a favourite but challenging book, Annie Dillard tells of her time holdup in a one-room log cabin on a beech. She struggled to turn what she called “intellectual passion” into the necessary physical energy to write.

To crank herself up, as she explained, she attempted to consume the most precise amount of coffee necessary to coax from herself the words.

“I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgement of a skilled anesthesiologist. there was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal…Only the coffee counted, and I knew it. It was boiled Columbian coffee: raw grounds brought just to boiling in cold water and stirred. Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday. What I wrote yesterday needed to be slowed down. I inserted words in one sentence and hazarded a new sentence. At once I noticed that I was writing — which as novelist Frederick Buechner noted, called for a break if not a full-scale celebration.”

Like so many writers, she seemed to struggle with the work. Despite the apparent cause for celebration, it may have been short-lived. She writes that, as with many mornings, this day she lacked the fuel for lift-off. She was starving but refrained from eating. Nausea might temper the energy, she thought, but eating would kill it.

“If only I could concentrate. I must quit. I was too young to be living at a desk…I returned to the papers and enclosed a paragraph in parentheses; it meant that tomorrow I would delete the few sentences I wrote today. Too many days of this I thought, too many days of this.”

How to find a way and emerge from the funk of creative block — I don’t know. I think it’s a patience thing. Trying to force the creative energies, coerce it, fool it into being is wasted energy I feel. It comes when it comes. Our only job then is to be there, waiting for it, pen-in-hand so to speak.

Write something, anything.

Dillard spent days writing and deleting, fighting with the beast. She says that the tender relationship with a work in progress can change in a twinkling, and if we miss a visit or two, it will turn on us. “You must revisit it every day to reassert your mastery over it”, she says.

The work shapes the artist. The work becomes the artist, and the artist becomes the work. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, we become integrated, assimilated into that which we give our time and attention. This is why daily return to the work is so important. It’s what serving an apprenticeship has taught me.

Dillard refers to the importance of serving such an apprenticeship;

“In working-class France, when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said “it is the trade entering his body.” The art must enter the body too. the tubes of paint are like fingers; they work only if inside the painter, the neural pathways are wide and clear to the brain…the self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”

There is something within us that wills to express itself. Society and all its rules bounds that will. Society says this is how to behave, this is how to work, and this is how to be. These rules, in large part, sculpt our surface-level personality. So it is for many people that the deeper creative self is hidden.

The time spent in an apprenticeship is where we learn the rules of the game that later we must break. The artist is perhaps connected to this deeper self more so than anyone else — hence the more pronounced the struggle.

“Once you find it”, Dillard says, “and you can accept the finding, of course, it will mean starting again. This is why many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade”.

“After Michelangelo died”, Dillard writes, “someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”

With work, all there is that matters is the work. Georgia O’Keeffe said, “the days you work are the best days”.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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