Neurotic, Twitching, Irrational, Crazy People {Or What It Really Looks Like to Be a Writer}

by - February 27, 2014

I don't think the training wheels were attached properly. Yes. I'm going with that. But whatever the reason, I kept falling off my bike with those stupid training wheels. So that muggy, mosquito-filled evening after supper, I promised Dad I would be riding on my own before dark, and begged him to take the wretched training wheels off. He grabbed a wrench and we headed out.

Back and forth he ran with me. I pedaled wildly and wobbled on two wheels; he ran awkwardly, white knuckling the back of my bike seat.

And then, of course—you know the story.

When dad felt that I was ready and while I was busy remembering to pedal and look forward at the same time as trying to stay balanced, he let go.

I was riding alone. Until I realized I was riding alone.

Then I was a 5-year-old heap of scraped knees, palms, and pride in the middle of Bannister Road.

In chapter three Annie Dillard likens the writing process to chopping wood. She learned to do that one winter to both stay warm in her writing cottage and to put off writing. We writers tend to do that—put off writing as long as possible. More on that in a minute. For Dillard, chopping wood was an exercise in frustration with little success until she found a strategy that worked.

"You aim at the chopping block, not at the wood; then you split the wood, instead of chipping it. You cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it" (Dillard, p. 43).

When you're learning to ride a bike, you can ride only as long as you are looking past the bike to where you are headed.

When you look the writing process in the eye, or watch the wood instead of the chopping block or the bike instead of the horizon, you wind up with wood chips and skinned elbows and nothing on the page.

Then, true to form, Dillard spends the bulk of the chapter describing how wrong the writing process can go when you stare it down, which of course every writer will eventually do.

You become a neurotic, twitching, irrational, crazy person.

One who complicates things:
"How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall" (Dillard, p. 46).

One who procrastinates:
"At once I noticed that I was writing—which, as the novelist Frederick Buechner noted, called for a break, if not a full-scale celebration. ... I wrote four or five sentences on a gamble, smoked more to stimulate the brain or stop the heart, whichever came first, and reheated a fourth mug of coffee. ... Why not adopt a baby, design a curriculum, go sailing?" (Dillard, p.50, 51).

One who much prefers distraction to actual writing:
"If only I could concentrate. I must quit. I was too young to be living at a desk. many fine people were out there living, people whose consciences permitted them to sleep at night despite their not having written a decent sentence that day, or ever" (Dillard, p. 51).

So if you think the writing life is all Hemingway and Paris, think again. Only neurotic, irrational, crazy people become writers. It's no easy task. And it surely is not romantic and glamorous. Every writing book I've read so far speaks to this issue. And boy, can we have issues.

I've come to the conclusion that writing, with practice, becomes harder.

"You are wrong if you think you can in any way take a vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins" (Dillard, p. 57).

I think the only reason I keep at it is because I did eventually learn to ride that bike.

I'm exploring The Writing Life by Annie Dillard and my own writing life on Fridays.

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  1. I love this. We had two different takes on the same assignment. I didn't write so much about the book as about "life as revision." And that bike with the ice looks very cold!


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