Monday, March 16, 2009

Thought for the Day

The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

The writer knows his field––what has been done, what could be done––the limits––the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that expert, he, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. He hits up the line. In writing, he can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now, courageously and carefully, can he enlarge it, can he nudge the bounds? And enclose what wild power?

The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature 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. A painter cannot use paint like glue or screws to fasten down the world. The tubes of paint are like fingers; they work only if, inside the painter, the neural pathways are wide and clear to the brain. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, part of the brain changes physical shape to accommodate and fit the paint.

You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paint box. Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents. Klee called this insight, quite rightly, "an altogether revolutionary new discovery."

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (Harper Perennial, 1989), pp. 69-70.


Constant Reader, I am tired. I didn't write a word on Sunday, and I was very busy at my day job today, addressing many pressing problems. I have also been busy helping to judge a local literary contest for high school students.

Must do better.


Blogger Raft said...

Take good care of yourself, Greg, and better will come. Thank you for inspiration.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Radish King said...

The writer studies literature, not the world.

Wow. I love Annie Dillard but that line strikes me as a pile of crap. What about Pilgrim? What was that if not an intense study of her world?



10:29 PM  
Blogger Leslie said...

The Baroness absolves you. The Baroness recommends staring at the woodlot for hours, pot of tea near to hand, stack of books on table.

I kind-of agree with Radish King about that line. Yes, we must know our paintbox, what has been painted before, but what has been painted before is the world.

I would say the writer studies literature to attempt to understand the world.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Cindy Hunter Morgan said...

Pilgrim was written long before this, though. (I think. I didn't actually double check that and I could be full of cotton candy.) In any case, we need room for contradictions in our lives. I have not read this since, well, 1989. It is time to pull it off my shelf. I loved it 20 years ago. I think I still would. I heard Dillard speak at Calvin College when we lived in GR. She was intense!

9:08 AM  

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