My experience with NaNoWriMo this year reminded me of high school and, oddly enough, reading The Writing Life reminded me of NaNoWriMo. It's not mutual, however; this book only reminded me of high school in the sense that I could imagine being required to read and analyze it on a high school level. Maybe it's because Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood are both reading list titles here (though I was never required to read them), but I still found myself picking out phrases here and there that in my brain sounded like the clanking and clinking of doing dishes. Those were the sort of wincing noises I hear now while reading phrases and excerpts that "discussion" questions would have been based on. (They were never really discussion questions, were they? You could answer them quite simply in 2-3 sentences and being that they had right or wrong answers, there wasn't much to discuss once someone got them right.)NaNoWriMo reminded me of high school primarily because of this excerpt on pages 70-71:Hemingway studied, as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hansun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Thoreau loved Homer; Eudora Welty loved Chekhov. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; E. M. Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust. By contrast, if you ask a twenty-one-year-old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, "Nobody's." In his youth, he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat. Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gauguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work's possibilities excited them; the field's complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks.It's not that I don't think anyone at NaNoWriMo is a real writer; it's more that the majority of the people I conversed with during my time at the forums weren't. This was their first foray into writing and they believed themselves to be absolutely brilliant. Had they read anything in the past year? No, just magazine articles on pop celebrities. It's the idea that people only write to wear "the hat," to take the role, to call themselves "an author" after they've spit out a load of filler material to make a certain word count. It's that people think writing a novel within a month is enough, that they'll get published immediately even sometimes without editing. Falling in love with the first draft never gets anyone anywhere. Most final drafts only slightly resemble first drafts. That's how it should be, but the "twenty-one-year-old poet" who likes "Nobody's" poetry ruined the whole experience for me. That's not to say that I discourage people from writing for the first time, nor do I discourage anyone from striving to make a great work of writing even if it's their first time. This is why I've fallen in love with NaNoWriMo: because even if you have no experience with it, the community strives to encourage you to reach your goal. Some people might get high-hatted believing only in their brilliance and their certain success, but the world outside of NaNoWriMo is full of people who think they're more important than they are. It's one of those "double-edged swords" that people talk about, like the argument that Oprah's book club is awful in the mind of a reader of literature, because no one would have read One Hundred Years of Solitude were it not for her choice. However, at the same time, it's so wonderful that the book is getting exposure, that it's being read, because (supposedly) it's a wonderful book! It's the people who have that Tshirt that says "I listen to bands that don't exist yet." People who, for some reason, feel that these things are personally theirs and belong to their group; they are threatened when "outsiders"* take interest in their things. *"Outsiders" being housewives, new writers, younger generations, whatever. It's not something that is easily explained away. I don't know why people do this. I don't know why "I knew about them before you did" is such an important statement to make. I don't know why it bothers me that people who complete a NaNoWriMo novel then feel like they can walk around calling themselves authors, saying that their brilliant work is going to get published immediately because it embodies perfection. And I can't say whether it bugs me more that they haven't read a book for pleasure in their life, or that they are trying to take something that I've worked very hard for.USA Today's review on the back of this book says that "You want to copy out what it says, tape it to your typewriter, fix it with a heavy magnet to your fridge. Her words give courage." It is that courage that makes this book remind me of NaNoWriMo. The positives. I've moved away from the loop of wondering why something I seek to encourage bothers me. Pages 78-79:One of the few 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.After Michelangelo died, 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."This should be the slogan over at Nanowrimo.org. Everyone should have this in mind when they write. NaNoWriMo is about getting the words out, letting the ideas hit the paper (or screen, as it were), about pushing yourself to write that masterpiece you've been putting off because of "lack of time" or "slim motivation." Annie Dillard encourages the same thing. Make a schedule and get it all out. You'll have to breathe, you'll have to eat and sleep and maybe take walks, but when you're not doing those things, let the words go.It's uninspiring to me to read books detailing a "writer's life." Usually they involve agents, publishers, problems with copyeditors and book cover designers. I find it uninteresting because it doesn't apply to my life. Annie Dillard's Writing Life, however, doesn't include much if any of that. It's about what keeps her going, what things have inspired her, what are the frustrations and distractions that all writers face. It's inspiring to me because there is a whole chapter dedicated to watching an airplane pilot spin circles in the air and finding the beauty in the lines that he creates; there is nothing about the life of an already published author. It's universal.I would like to acquire two copies of this book so I can snip passages from the pages and stick them around my apartment. I might end up with the whole book on my walls.
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Annie Dillard does not glamorise the writing life. She tells it as it is - mostly hard work, occasional high flying. Many of the metaphors and little stories she tells to describe the life of a writer are amusing, but hit hard at any romantic notions about writing. The cameo story she tells of an inchworm climbing one blade of grass after another, searching frantically for the next step at the top of each blade, resonated with me. Hammering together lines of words, probing ideas, keeping the whole thing together never gets easier. We just keep blindly on, climbing the blade, searching for the next, leaping into the void in faith. So often we write into the dark. Even long-published, feted writers like Annie Dillard, fear that no one reads them, except maybe nerds, academics, or other writers in the same field. Once, after publishing a long and complex essay partly concerning a moth and a candle, she thought that no one but an academic critic had understood it, or even read it. Some little boys came to the door as she was despairing about her wasted life. One of the children noticed a picture of a candle and asked if that was the one that the moth had flown into. Annie was bowled over. A child had heard the story and understood it well enough to tell it back. Such incidents lighten the solitude of writing and make the grind worthwhile. I highly recommend this small book to any writer or aspiring writer. It is full of pearls of wisdom and Annie Dillard parables. It encourages even as it sweeps the rose-coloured glasses onto the floor.
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