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The Writing Life

4.05  ·  Rating Details ·  8,341 Ratings  ·  697 Reviews
Annie Dillard has written eleven books, including the memoir of her parents, An American Childhood; the Northwest pioneer epic The Living; and the nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. A gregarious recluse, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Paperback, 113 pages
Published 1998 by Harper Perennial (HarperCollins) (first published 1989)
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Jon Stephens It's a combination of small excerpts from her life with some random prose thrown in. If you've read "On Writing" by Steven King, it's the same sort of…moreIt's a combination of small excerpts from her life with some random prose thrown in. If you've read "On Writing" by Steven King, it's the same sort of thing... But with fewer direct tips and a bit more metaphor.(less)
On Writing by Stephen KingThe Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.Bird by Bird by Anne LamottWriting Down the Bones by Natalie GoldbergEats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Best Books on Writing
37th out of 597 books — 1,072 voters
On Writing by Stephen KingLetters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria RilkeBird by Bird by Anne LamottBeing and Time by Martin HeideggerThe Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
Best Books on Creative Life
21st out of 308 books — 486 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Feb 26, 2008 Malbadeen rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: chicken man
I do not, nor do I aspire to live "The Writing Life" but I have recently found myself in a writing class by virtue of necessity for my degree and I have been horrified by the enormity of the task of writing something/anything without feeling like a complete fool!
I came across this book at a used store and picked it up as my brother has been trying to get me to read Dillard for awhile.
I immediately loved it for her brutal words of reality. After sitting in the class were I have to listen to a ci
Chance Maree
Jul 26, 2013 Chance Maree rated it it was amazing

Annie Dillard wrote a brutally honest description of her relationship and struggles with the process of writing. Instead of the usual advice about showing, not telling, etc that I see etched inside my eyelids, as I read The Writing Life, I was compelled to copy its poetic quotes on note cards that I'll use as bookmarks.

I expect gems from this work will inspire and educate me as I stumble across them in days to come—quotes, such as the content of a note from Michelangelo to his apprentice, "Draw
Aug 03, 2007 Elise rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-nonfiction
Every paragraph is stunning, and I especially like the previous owner's occasional marginalia in my hardback copy.

On page 14, Dillard writes: "Flaubert wrote steadily, with only the usual, appalling, strains. For twenty-five years he finished a big book every five to seven years. My guess is that full-time writers average a book every five years; seventy-three usable pages a year, or a usable fifth of a page a day. The years that biographers and other nonfiction writers spend amassing and master
Aug 20, 2013 Melanie rated it it was amazing
Some books don't have an ending.
What they have to say will linger on and surround you like a mental landscape. Annie Dillard's impassioned plea for the writing life is as hypnotic as it is tangible. She will take you to writing desks in remote cabins and isolated studies (keep the world out, as much as you can) to evoke the various stages of writing (elation, excitement, despair, immobility, doubt). Time will slow down and expand in electrified sentences that you will want to highlight and writ
Larry Bassett
This book is short - just over one hundred pages in hardcover - and easy to read. If you read my five status updates, you will see quotes from the book. The book is full of quotable quotes that are often entertaining and enlightening. I think Annie Dillard is a great writer. My one fault with The Writing Life is that it is despairingly certain that being a good writer is neigh unto impossible. This seems to me to be simply untrue. Now you may not write an award winning novel but if you read revi ...more
Jan 08, 2012 Mark rated it it was ok
As a writer with only one published novel I am always looking to learn more about the writing life, looking to hone my skills, to improve. I had hoped to glean some rare look into how to write skilfully from Dillard's writing. This 111 page book took me three days to read (normally I would have finished in 30 minutes) however I wanted to absorb each gem of knowledge, and so kept reading intently, taking breaks hoping it would get better the next time I picked it up. Most writers seem to spend an ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I think if I had read this book out of curiosity, and not in the middle of a class where I am writing and having to revise that writing (the hardest part for me), I may not have rated it so highly. But every word Annie Dillard includes in here is important. Some stories are not immediately apparent. Why am I reading about chopping wood, skipping fireworks, and alligators? She always brings it back around to the discipline of writing, a discipline that I don't really have... yet (?).

I think anyo
Jeff Jackson
Nov 12, 2008 Jeff Jackson rated it liked it
I have a love/hate thing with this book. On the one hand, it's a brilliant poetic evocation of the creative process. On the other, the process is so romanticized and the examples exalt such a rarified form of extreme self-sacrifice that I half-suspect Dillard is trying to discourage and/or sabotage future generations. It's a five star meal with a dash of arsenic. Approach with caution.
Tiffany Reisz
“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 ...more
Feb 02, 2015 Ken rated it really liked it
Short, quick 70-pager (at least in the version I read) that really reads like an extension of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with its tone and ample use of quotes and anecdotes. The only difference, really, is that this work focuses more (and at times less) on writing.

A few things of interest: Dillard has little use for using brand names in your writing, so I guess she's of the belief that it spoils your chances for classic status when you embed stuff that is sure to become dated. She also espouses a v
Appreciated this little treasure every bit as much the second time around. Dillard is a miner of meaningful truths from the ordinary world—her prose is fierce, invigorating, and unrelentingly beautiful.


Original review (2013)

A short, wonderful, straight-to-the-point book. Read it for sympathy in your struggles as a writer:
I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hol
Jun 01, 2016 Ju$tin rated it did not like it
annie dillard? more like annie dullard.

two big thumbs down.
Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside)
This might be the only book about writing anybody needs.

It's not a book that tells you how to write. But I've never found those books to be useful anyway. This is a book about what it is like to be a writer. Not "be a writer" as in "being able to tell strangers that you're a writer and then enjoying the instinctive looks of awe on their faces," nor "be a writer" as in "manage a career writing books." It is a book about what it's like to obsess over a single sentence for days or weeks, what it's
Richard Gilbert
Feb 15, 2012 Richard Gilbert rated it it was amazing
Sometime after the excitement of beginning her book a serious writer will discover her work’s own “intrinsic impossibility,” says Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. Eventually she’ll probably throw out the main point, her grand vision, and settle for the more modest discovery she made in writing.

If a writer had any sense, she’d devote herself to a career selling catheters. The Writing Life is about persistent inquiry and love. A sort of commiseration, it contains rules of thumb: throw out the be
Mimi Marten
Jan 19, 2016 Mimi Marten rated it liked it
If you're looking for a book about insights and struggles of a writing life, this is NOT it.

I got this book as a present from my partner. He knows I love books about writing craft, always looking for ways to hone and improve my skills.
I read this book on a flight. It's only 111 pages long and I was certain I will still be able to watch a movie on my 5 hour flight. I had to put it down several times and it took another 6 hour flight to finish it. It was like a love and hate relationship, hoping i
Mar 20, 2012 Michael rated it it was ok
I had to read this for a course and my professor said that some people will love Annie Dillard, while others will hate her. I am of the latter camp.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from reading this book. Maybe some kind of interesting wisdom about writing? What I got, though, was a highly pretentious piece of work that read like a self-help book. It spoke about a bunch of things but the sum of the message was basically empty.
Dillard seems to assume that all writers can live her lifestyle of se
Jan 30, 2008 Greg rated it liked it
Eh, it was ok. Dillard describes the difficulties of writing, the long wrestling match that goes into a writer fighting with his or her subject and the way that original subjects are sometimes lost along the way in the process of writing. I could feel the amount of struggle that goes into her writing, almost in every line, and personally I feel like it saps some of the power from her work when you can almost feel that each every sentence has been crafted over and pounded into 'perfection'. There ...more
Claire McAlpine
Jun 27, 2015 Claire McAlpine rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
A kind of stream of consciousness on the writing process and memories of various writing haunts Annie Dillard has prowled around in procrastination, waiting for sentences to arrive unbidden.

One of the most compelling part of the book were its latter pages when she talks about art and the aviator Dave Rahm, something that for most artists exists outside themselves and canbe viewed by the artist and for him, it was something he was part of, inside of, pure creation in a moment.

"When Rahm flew, he
Apr 27, 2013 Jaime rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Many quotable sections in this piece, and I am forcing myself to select only one: "Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you."

Like Stephen King in On Writing, Dillard has useful observations on revisions and on input/output issues (what you read becomes what you write). I am thinking about Elizabeth Gilbert's essay on her website, on the same topic, where she says something along the lines of "Write, write like your hair is on fire" in response to the question these work
Sarah Zaharia
Jul 14, 2013 Sarah Zaharia rated it it was amazing
I surprised myself by how moved I was by this book. Annie Dillard lays herself out with amazing vulnerability talking about her process, struggle and relationship with writing. I read it in two sittings and not just because the book is a tight 111 pages but because it absolutely demands your full attention. She had me laughing out loud again and again and when I closed the book I had tears in my eyes. I would recommend this book to anyone who has considered writing or even has an appreciation fo ...more
Susan Oleksiw
Sep 06, 2013 Susan Oleksiw rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of those quirky books that take you inside a particular world, in this case, Annie Dillard's life as a writer. The book is not stuffed with advice on how to develop character or plot. Instead, it offers a series of days and experiences, a memoir circling around writing. One of the most amusing chapters, barely two pages, is about the day when her typewriter erupted. Even when she talks about other writers, she introduces them in a unique way, by the strange things they loved--Frank C ...more
I’ve read dozens of books about writing over the years, maybe hundreds. Textbooks, how-tos, memoirs, and more. And I like nearly all of them. This is the first I can remember that I couldn’t appreciate. The short book consists mainly of meditative, extended metaphors about writing and rambling stories with not much justification other than a “writing is like this, too” conclusion. It seemed to me pretentious and a little self-serving, and I didn’t find much substance or anything to take away.

Robb Todd
Aug 30, 2009 Robb Todd added it
Shelves: 2009, craft
Anyone who writes should read this -- more than once. After you finish it, keep it on your desk and just flip it open to random page, read a few paragraphs, then proceed with your work.
DNF on page 46.

I'm just going to give a really short review to a really short book. I don't want to finish this. Annie Dillard's writing isn't bad, but this book isn't very useful. At least, not for today's writers.

The only saving grace of this book is that the personal stories Dillard gives are pretty entertaining (I especially liked that one story about playing chess with a ghost in the library). However, I borrowed this book because I thought it would be a nicely grounded account about writin
Aug 23, 2015 Brightness rated it really liked it
I took a pink highlighter to this book. I rarely, if ever, mark up any of my books in such a way, but it seemed as though, on every other page, Annie Dillard imparted some sort of wisdom or insight that I didn't want to forget. I marked them so I could find them easily later. The trouble is, I may have marked up more than half of the book so, in the end, I'm not sure what kind of good it did me.

The Writing Life is different from all those other books that promise to show you how to write a best-
Dec 31, 2011 Shayda rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing-practice
This is not a practical book, like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life; it's more of a writer's confession, with descriptions of enclosed workspaces and the tyranny of the "line of words." The final chapter leaves writing behind (ostensibly) to talk about a stunt flyer's work.

I re-read this for purely selfish reasons: to see how it felt to read about writing, having finished my dissertation. Because of this frame of reference, I was most attentive to Dillard's desc
I'm not a writer, so I couldn't really identify with anything in here. I also did not have the desire to become a writer after reading this book! Dillard makes it sound completely non-glamorous - spending time in places that offer the best sensory deprivation (i.e. a blah room with no view) and continuously poisoning the body with loads of caffeine and cigarettes. I have never read any of her other work, but I guess she writes a lot about nature? I was surprised to find, then, that she does not ...more
Jun 02, 2015 Carol rated it really liked it
Excellent book! It is anything but dull. So informative, entertaining and candid as well as inspiring.

Quotes: "Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at it's most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, i
Apr 29, 2013 Krista rated it really liked it
There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading -- that is a good life.

As I understand it, Jack Benny had always dreamed of being a virtuoso violinist and could play reasonably well, but
Jayne Bowers
Apr 01, 2013 Jayne Bowers rated it liked it
Although The Writing Life was not what I expected, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I thought it was going to be full of advice, a how-to book about how to craft the perfect sentence, write believable dialogue, or "show, not tell," but instead the small volume was about Annie Dillard's daily life and her writing struggles.

A student of life in all forms (including moths and cats), Dillard illustrates that everything can be a subject worthy of writing about. How does she do it? Is there a secret?
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Wolverine Farm Pu...: The Writing Life 3 20 Nov 28, 2012 07:02AM  
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Annie Dillard (born April 30, 1945) is an American author, best known for her narrative prose in both fiction and non-fiction. She has published works of poetry, essays, prose, and literary criticism, as well as two novels and one memoir. Her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Dillard taught for 21 years in the English department of Wesleyan Unive ...more
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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” 472 likes
“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.” 129 likes
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