12 keys to stronger writing from Annie Dillard via Alexander Chee

DSC00099On Friday, I read the essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life,” by novelist Alexander Chee who took a class from Annie Dillard in 1989. He writes, “By the time I was done studying with Annie, I wanted to be her.”

Over the weekend I kept thinking about that essay. Then on Sunday I saw that Moonrat had written a post to let her readers know about the essay. I wanted to let you know about it too.

With detail after detail, Chee conjures Dillard during class as she drinks coffee from the thermos cup and eats caramel after caramel, letting the plastic wrappers pile up on the desk. But the heart of the essay comes from Chee’s description of Dillard’s rigorous take-no-prisoners approach to the craft of writing. “Very quickly, she identified what she called ‘bizarre grammatical structures’ inside my writing.” She also identified his overuse of the passive voice and his “museum of cliches.”

Chee shares some of the key points he learned from Dillard:

  1. Put all your deaths, accidents and diseases up front, at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible.
  3. Never quote dialogue you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes but especially party scenes.
  5. You want vivid writing, and vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices mean adverbs.
  6. All of the action on the page happens in the verbs.  Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
  7. Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.DSC00096
  8. Avoid emotional language.
  9. The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
  12. Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there.

My favorite line in the essay is in Chee’s voice and about voice:

“You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.”

Read the words from the guy who was there: “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.” And let me know what you think.

This essay will appear in the anthology, Mentors, Muses, & Monsters, forthcoming October 27 from Free Press.

31 thoughts on “12 keys to stronger writing from Annie Dillard via Alexander Chee

  1. Alexander, it was when I read “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard, that I decided to become a writer a few years back. You have taken the best of her and lined your pages with her greatness.
    Your essay stimulates me, once again, to go after that dream.
    Thank you,
    Cynthia

  2. I’ve never read that essay, and will definitely have to check it out. Thank you for listing those 12 key points, and that quote at the end about voice. This post was both helpful and inspiring! :)

  3. Thanks for reminding me of Dillard, Cindy. I took a class on her writing in grad school, and there was a lot of heavy, intense reading that you really had to chew on slowly… very different from a lot of the stuff I read today. Most of Dillard’s writing should not be entered into lightly, but I still have very vivid images in my mind that I pulled from The Writing Life and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood. Thanks for reminding me that you can learn a lot from writers of different styles, and thanks for passing on the tips.

  4. There is so much here and in the full article to think about. On a couple points I found myself protesting … and then, thinking who am I to say no? Try it.

    It’s good that I read this today because I’m starting a new read-through of my novel.

    Thanks for this post, Cynthia.

  5. This is an amazing list! & Lord knows I was once the Queen of freaking Adverbs. I’d like to think I’m getting better…

    What I really want to do is print this out. So much wisdom!

  6. Back in the Spring of 1980, Annie Dillard was teaching us how to write poetry. Back in February, I posted a piece on Facebook about my recollections.

    She was a fabulous teacher. She is a better teacher than she is a writer, and she is a tremendous writer. This is what I wrote,, and I post it here to addend to the 12 keys, above:

    Me and Annie Dillard

    I was very lucky to find myself in Annie Dillard’s Poetry Writing class in January, 1980.

    I had taken off the fall semester to work for a settlement house in St. Louis, and when I found myself back on campus, I discovered that Annie Dillard was now a member of the English Department Faculty. I had never read any of Annie’s work — honestly, I had never heard of her — but several friends told me that she had the hottest, best, and most difficult class to get into. Just a few years earlier, Annie had won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. This was her first year teaching at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. Several of my friends tried to get in to her class that fall and were rejected. So, without expectations, I showed up for her first class, with writing samples in hand.

    She told us a little bit about her class, gathered up our samples, and went into another room to look at them, as we sat nervously. A few of my classmates I recognized from a verse writing course we had taken the prior year with another professor, from which my samples had been largely generated. A few minutes later, she came back in and handed us back our papers. A lot of us were sent packing. As she handed me back my work, she said “You’re in.”

    The first assignment she gave us was to read the poem “Trees in the Garden” by D.H. Lawrence, and to write a poem with that structure. I had a cold at the time. I wrote what I knew.

    The first lines of Lawrence’s poem were:

    Ah in the thunder air
    how still the trees are!

    I wrote:

    Ah, in the thunder air
    How shrill the coughs are!

    Lawrence:

    And the ghostly, creamy coloured little tree of leaves
    white, ivory white among the rambling greens

    Me:

    And the ghostly, creamy coloured flowing phlegm of sinuses
    Full, overflow-full behind the watery eyes.

    And so it went. I added, somewhere in the middle, “Oh that this too, too solid phlegm would melt away!”

    I handed it in, and Annie read it to the class. She would do that when she wanted to highlight something to teach us. To my delight, the class laughed. Her note on that poem was “You missed a chance to write a serious poem, but this is a scream!”

    To Annie, art was repetition and variation. Poetry was first and foremost communication. She liked short words, like “nub” and “jut.” I liked T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and had memorized much of it. Annie didn’t care for Eliot. She gave us a metaphor to understand why: suppose you were on a plane, flying above the clouds, and every now and then the peak of a mountain would jut up through the clouds. We can imagine what lies under the cloud cover. We can picture in our mind’s eye what we cannot see. She told us that she used to think that this was good writing: to tease us with just enough that we had to figure out the rest. She came to realize, instead, that writing is first and foremost _communication_, and it is the responsibility of the writer to elucidate the valley beneath the clouds, to explain it clearly so that the reader can understand.

    It was hard to argue that point. I put Eliot away for the semester.

    I was far from her best student, but I learned so much from her about what was a poem, and what was not. As one who was attempting to write poems with political meaning, she would insist that the poem as art came first, and that any overtly political meaning had to come indirectly, if at all. On the rare occasion that I would attempt to slip in a poem with a political slant, she would write “avoid heavy-handed irony” next to one line, and point out the places where I was “pious” and/or “didactic.” I was young and idealistic, but I found myself forced to decide whether to be stubborn or instead to take advantage of her expertise. This was Annie Dillard. I could write anything I wanted whenever I wanted to, but if I was going to benefit from her teaching, I would have to write something that she could critique and from which I could benefit. I grew a lot that semester.

    The best part of her critiques were that they were specific, and pointed out exactly what worked and what didn’t: what was overwritten, and when I showed a “good ear.” Looking back at the relatively few poems I had saved from that class, almost 30 years earlier, her comments were spot on: yes, that _was_ a “weak word for a line end” (we want to end a line of poetry with a strong, masculine ending if possible, and usually not a preposition). Yes, that was a “cliché.” Better to say “jut” than “jutting.” Keep it simple. Yes, that had a “nice sound,” but that other line was “awk passive.” And, often, “puns good.”

    In one poem I used the word “pulmonary” and she wrote, “The word _lung_ is terrific – try to use it.” She would point out where what I wrote was “overwritten” and which was a “dead line,” a line that just sat there and did nothing. She told us never use a word like “pain.” “Pain” was a “dead word.” “_Describe_ the pain” she would say. After taking her course, I have a very hard time reading bad writing. The “dead lines” and “dead words” still jump out at me.

    I could see where a 30 line poem could have 5 good ones, and 25 that belong on the cutting room floor. But those 5 lines could be the basis for art, and then we re-write, cut, re-write, cut, and when we work it long enough and well enough we may end up with something worth saving.

    As I started to get it, she prodded me to get serious. Of one poem, the basis of which was a pun, she wrote: “David — Okay, mighty good sounds for such a slender joke, mighty sonorous & authoritative sentences for such a wee structure — you’re getting the good sounds now — might as well do something with them — simple visual description (like parts of this) is plenty good enough.” And she always signed her notes, “Annie.”

    I took this course in the spring of 1980, and remember this much and more. I went into the class wanting to learn poetry. I came out learning how to write. I may not be a brilliant writer, but I learned how to recognize great writing. I learned what worked, and what doesn’t. The lessons stuck. And that is the mark of a great teacher.

    • David, thank you so much for taking the time to post your recollections here. Much of what you wrote echos Chee’s essay. Annie Dillard made quite an impression on her students.

      I appreciate her sense of humor, her insistence that the poem as art comes first, and most of all her insistence on cutting all but the best lines and writing toward those.

      My favorite memory from your essay is And she always signed her notes, “Annie.”

      My favorite lines from your essay are I went into the class wanting to learn poetry. I came out learning how to write.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  7. The writing advice was good, but even better was the way Chee tells the story, warts and all. It brought back memories of my college/graduate school years. It is such a joy connecting with a mentor.

    This flawed sentence says it all: “she is walking towards me, smiling, her lipstick looking neatly cut around her smile.” Chee is not following his own advice – she should have WALKED! “Smiling” is redundant and a gerund. Aaagh! Still, the final image is perfect.

    I enjoyed Dillard’s harsh turn of phrase: “Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence.”

    It was fun seeing the Maine connection too. Thanks so much for sharing the link. Dillard’s book goes on my list.

    • Sarah-The reason I did this post was because I wanted to shout how great Chee’s essay was–fun to read and full of great advice. I enjoyed that turn of phrase too about amazing sentences and amazing you can write a sentence. I did want to clarify that as much as I love Dillard’s The Writing Life, it is more, as the title suggests, about her life rather than about technique.

  8. 12 EXCELLENT tips. I feel like I went through a writing class without having to go anywhere or pay admission.

    Funny–the only discordant note in this post was the image of Annie Dillard eating “caramel after caramel, letting the plastic wrappers pile up on the desk.” If I visualized her eating anything, it would have been something like unsalted organic free-range sunflower seeds.

    • Chuck-I feel the same way, that I’ve been through a class without having to go anywhere. And I’m happy to know I’m not the only one piling up the candy wrappers!

  9. It would be so much easier if I could hire a diagnostician (or better yet win one) to examine my writing’s health and write the prescription for its remedy! For now, I rely on people like you who post tips for writers. Thanks!

    • Kelly-You are so right. That part where Dillard diagnoses Chee’s own personal writing issues made me so jealous. I would love to have a teacher do that for my writing. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I hope you’ll be back!

  10. MsSmartePants-I’m so glad this list was helpful to you. I was making it for myself and then thought of adding it to the post.

    Cynthia-I loved The Writing Life, even naming this blog from a passage in that book. But I was never able to see Annie Dillard until I read Chee’s essay. Thanks for sharing how important Dillard was to your writing life.

    OwlandSparrow-I loved what Chee wrote about voice. I hope you enjoyed his essay.

    Barb-How lucky you were to be able to study her writing and to still have those vivid images with you. Thanks for your comment.

    Linda-I often get over that “protesting hump” by telling myself to try something once or to just do it for five minutes. Sometimes I surprise myself with the result. And I agree; right before I do a read-thru, I like to go over a list like this to remind myself of all the things I’m trying to do.

    Julie-I’m so glad this post came at a good time for you. Thanks for leaving a comment. I hope you’ll be back.

    Islesam-Nice to hear from you. And yes, I am partial to adverbs myself. I think #11 will be a [particularly] good exercise for me.

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  12. I loved Alexander’s essay and this post and the comments. Dave’s contribution about his experience with Annie Dillard in 1980 in particular has enriched it for me that much more. I love this!

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  15. From looking at these 12 points I feel like I can really use them within my writing to better my work. When looking at these 12 points and then back at works and readings I have read by famous authors I can see where many of them have used these points to form great readings.

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