Tag Archives: Annie Dillard

Healing In the Simplicity of Your Story

“Writing is prayer.”

– Franz Kafka

In today’s world with ever-more distracting, inane and attention-grabbing information, it can be particularly challenging for new storytellers to overcome the fear that their story is too simple and uninteresting.

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We’re the worst judges of our own stories. Despite that and the fact that sharing your story honestly and with vulnerability is all that’s needed to reach and teach readers, many new writers think they need to include more, share moral lessons and help readers learn something specific through reading their story.

And it may be true when writing a blog post or a nonfiction article, but with narrative, it just needs to be as truthful as possible.

I thought my story was too boring when I started writing my autobiographical novel. But now having worked with so many writers for over 15 years, I realize people read books not to be shocked or overwhelmed by information, but mostly to escape.

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Trouble was, until I worked out my pain, fear and resentment, I was too blocked to see what my real task as a writer was. I had to accept that I wasn’t there to teach anyone anything. My job was simply to reveal my heart.

But for many years, I wasn’t ready to share my honest truth. I didn’t want to accept my real emotions, the dark embarrassing truth about myself and how I really felt about my life. I figured I could bluff my way through it, just tell the basic story and make up the rest. I figured no one wanted the full truth anyway.

But I was just telling myself that. I’d always told myself that. I told myself a lot of things. Things were fine. I was fine. But things were only fine when life was going well, and as soon as life got challenging, I’d clamp down and stop seeing, stop feeling, stop talking. Stop writing.

We have to realize that as the writer, we have to know the path of healing first to share what readers really need. We can’t accurately assess the situation while we’re denying the truth about our emotions. Because what’s most damning, until we let go of our control, we’ll make decisions about life and writing that only (and often exclusively) benefit ourselves.

Every new author says they didn’t realize how much counseling was involved in writing a book. But once they know, they find out it’s only when you’ve gone through it yourself that you can tell the full truth and not so interested in your own welfare.

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This is why learning to write your story means facing the truth of yourself and your weaknesses, allowing healing bit by bit, and sharing the vulnerable truth of all of that, until the universality of your journey is irreducible.

As Annie Dillard said, “the secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind… [to] hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” We can’t cause inspiration or make readers learn, we can only take the wisdom into ourselves and try to let it out as clearly and simply as possible.

Writing involves not so much teaching or learning to write well as it does opening your heart to wisdom and letting go of all that stands in its way.

The goal of higher purpose writing is not to change readers but to be changed yourself. For only then will readers be changed.

It isn’t what writing your story will do for others; it’s what writing your story will do for you. And that perspective won’t merely change your writing, it can change everything: the way you live, the way you think of yourself and all your relationships. If you’re called to write your story, is there any goal more worth your investment?

You can find healing in the simplicity of that: you have a story and you can write it because it’s meant the world to you.

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Maybe it’s okay we don’t start out writing to unmask ourselves. Maybe no one automatically wants to do that. But maybe once we realize the higher purpose, at some point it’s no longer an option. To write anything with the profound truth and simplicity we know it must have, maybe the dedication required is nothing less than to fully embrace our very human lives.

I know this is true now because it’s what was revealed to me in the process of trying to write. And I’m not finished with the novel yet, but I share it with you as something I found within my story, not as a lesson to teach, but as the simple truth which has given the work real life and meaning.

And I pray you can find it as well.

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours…”

– Frederick Buechner

Only by Patient Devotion

“I’ll go and I’ll finish this book. I have to. My whole damned life is tied up. Most people would like it tied up. And maybe I do. My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.”

– John Steinbeck (from a journal entry during the writing of The Grapes of Wrath, winner of the Pulitzer Prize)

When I think back on how I, a short, self-obsessed, headstrong kid, started playing football in high school, it’s undeniable I owe my first coach a debt of gratitude.

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I didn’t know the first thing about what I was doing. And even after all the practice, I’m not sure I ever saw what it was truly about.

This learning to write sort of feels like that. I stumble around and often have no idea what I’m doing.

My football coach, Ron Kellner, took 15 unruly boys and made us a scraggly team.

I was a scared, frustrated kid but his influence on me was profound. He had to watch and learn what each of us needed, and then focus his training on that. Of course, to start and the whole way through our training, we needed to commit, so he inspired us and got us to see how discipline built our strength and skills.

And to play well, we had to learn to see what really mattered, who the real opposition was. Though I’d learned to do hard things before, I didn’t have much patience. I’d practiced piano daily for years, and memorized tons of scripture. But those weren’t by my choice; they were forced by parents (thank God). I had faced some fears and learned some things, conquered long books, but those weren’t hard; I’d wanted to do them. And I wanted playing football to be easier like that.

I couldn’t see the opposition was only me and that any benefit I might gain would only come if I was patient enough to learn.

And had I gained that knowledge, I might have matured, learned something useful for life. As it was, I endured practice so I could play, but it would take many years to realize that to succeed at anything requires patient devotion.

Maybe writing well is like learning to ride a bike?
Maybe writing well is like learning to ride a bike?

No less with the writing skill.

Annie Dillard writes, “The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise… I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

The secret, Dillard says, is to wait for it and “hone and spread your spirit.” To realize that we can only put ourselves in the path of the light, the knowledge we seek. We don’t make it happen.

But like frustrated kids, we won’t do it. We say we understand that this involves making choices and putting in the effort. We say we know we have to be intentional to gain and apply specific skills. But we’re stubborn and impatient and demanding and we just want to play football.

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What do we need to gain the patient devotion to practice?

On the field, Coach Kellner would have us consider real-life situations and determine what to do. Slowly, we learned to anticipate what might happen in a given scenario and we started seeing what we needed to do.

And practice with applying the right response was the only thing that made that happen.

Most days, I don’t want to practice writing because it’s hard. I want it to be good right now. Just like then, I’m starting out weak and I’m my own worst opponent. I write fine when it’s easy and life is good, but when it gets challenging, I clamp down and stop. Slow work has helped me improve. But I still listen too often to my feelings (“I don’t feel like it,” “I’m busy,” “I’m tired”).

Will I forever let my success be forfeit to my feelings?

My devotion to this isn’t even primarily about me. Sure, the healing writing has brought has helped me stop fighting myself. But learning to write well is also worth the cost for what it produces for the world.

On the football field, I first faced this truth that when I was impatient, it cost the team. But I’m only realizing its significance now. I see my same old weaknesses, but I also see how important that training was for learning what Annie talks about, for making all the necessary changes to become a sail and catch the solar wind.

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Patient devotion to making the tiny changes is how to improve the way I write. It’s how to improve the way I live, the way I think of my work and all my relationships… What’s more worth my investment than this?

Recently, Sheri accompanied a high-school choir on piano for a performance. Everyone did great and afterwards, she said she had had to practice daily in order to find all the possible places she could mess up and get them right.

That made me think of Ray Bradbury’s “million crappy words” and how he says nobody starts out wanting to commit to that kind of work. But eventually, with maturity, we realize it’s not an option. To progress and achieve what our gifts require of us, we must dedicate to it as if our lives were meant solely for this.

And if we’re to be real writers someday, maybe that’s all we need to know.

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

– George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman