Annie Dillard on Time, Structure, Coffee, & Learning A Trade
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes on the turbulent mind of a writer, the right dosing of coffee for creative work, and the merit in serving an apprenticeship.
Annie Dillard first came to my attention several years ago when I came across the perhaps now over-played, yet accurate quote;
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”
The quote brings together a lifetime of experience and a philosophy for life in a single sentence. After a considerable time chasing ghosts, I eventually come up to speed with this idea. It had a profound meaning for me, and I have held on to it since.
It reflects the idea that there is no future and no past. Tomorrow never gets here and yesterday is merely an echo, like that song that keeps playing over in our mind. So, to spend our days ruminating over past mistakes or imagining future events in which we'd rather not find ourselves is a waste of life.
Because, as Dillard suggests, how we spend our minutes, hours and days, whatever it is that we find ourselves doing, is our life. The memory of the accumulation of that and its associated emotional state is our record of what we made of ourselves.
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 matters.
Annie Dillard on Structure
In this particular passage from The Writing Life1, Dillard goes on to suggest that in the infinite range of choices that life presents, structure is the key to purposeful activity.
“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 of us 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 on us that is the heart of our problem. We can't achieve freedom unless we order ourselves from the inside out rather than the outside in. Order and structure in themselves are essential to the creative process regardless of how we wish to express it.
As Dillard suggests, structure is like a scaffold from which we can build something unique, and then something can happen. Whether we realise it or not, imposing a structure on ourselves is what we require for valuable creative work to happen.
“Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing”
In promoting the benefit of a daily schedule, Dillard offers the analogy of a scaffold upon which our work can stand. Without that scaffolding, little we do has any great effect.
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, can lead to despair. He writes of later life integrity in Identity and The Life Cycle2;
“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.”
Annie Dillard on Coffee
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 put it, she attempted to consume the most precise amount of coffee necessary to coax from herself the necessary 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, that 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. Ok, we can try this or that trick but most important I think is patience. Trying to force the creative energies, to coerce it, to try to fool it into being is wasted energy and counterproductive. It comes when it comes, and our job is to be there waiting for it, "pen-in-hand," so to speak.
Write something, anything.
Dillard on Work
Dillard spent days writing and deleting, fighting the beast inside her. 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 repetition of the work is so important. It’s what serving an apprenticeship taught me and what is so vital in any endeavour worth beginning.
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 place boundaries on 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 kept 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 for them.
“Once you find it”, Annie 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 that matters is the work. Our job is to find that work.
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Dillard, A. (2006). The Writing Life. Tikkun, 21(6), 21-21.
Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity and the life cycle. WW Norton & Company.