Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize winning author and acclaimed writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, was born on April 30th 1945. In 1974 alone–at 29 years old–she published Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, a book of poetry, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. She has published several nonfiction books, including works of journalism, essay and travelogue, her popular memoir An American Childhood (1987), and Living by Fiction, a work on literary theory, among others. I recently read the essay “Total Eclipse” which was originally published in her collection Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), and was impressed by the way the narrator evolves in so few pages. She is a master of pacing and word choice. Thematically her work has great depth and isn’t exactly fit for beach reading, but I highly recommend sitting down with one of her essays when you have the time to really taste and digest it.
From The Writing Life (1989):
One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
I can’t decide whether I agree with this… It sounds wonderful and wise but then, how are supposed to build a plot like that… Imagine all the whodunnits starting “Mrs. Smith killed Mr. Smith with the candelabra because he had been intimate with the maid.”… unless the author is hiding something else from the reader this isn’t much of a whodunnit. Am I being too literal?
When I read this quote, I wasn’t specifically thinking about plot, but I can absolutely see where you’re coming from. I was thinking about my own writing, when I come up with a really great word or metaphor or characterization or setting detail, whatever it may be, I let it hang out in my head for a while before I actually get it down, and sometimes it doesn’t make it to the page. Maybe if I were a little more generous with my ideas, and took my brain a little more seriously, I could come up with things that exceed my own expectations, you know?