I have just become aware of Annie Dillard’s funny and smart little book, The Writing Life. She perfectly captures the ebb and flow–the exhilaration and desperation–that awaits any writer who is serious about putting life to paper.
I’ve only read one chapter so far, but look how it begins:
When you write, you lay out a line of 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. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.
If it is this way for Annie Dillard, I have hope as a writer, too.
Dillard knows the paradoxes of writing, and will help the writer to not feel insane, if only by acknowledging the (hopefully temporary) insanity of all who try to write a book:
Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays, and poems have this problem, too–the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
If this piques your interest, Brain Pickings did a lengthier post about this miraculously true book here.