The Long and Arduous Search for the Honey Tree

by - February 13, 2014

I had to read chapter one twice to be able to write about it. Dillard writes with respect for her readers' intellect, allowing them to do much of the hard work of understanding.

She speaks plainly by using metaphor to convey her ideas, which should be easy enough for the reader. But she leaves the dots unconnected and the reader to draw the conclusions.

Some of her metaphors include comparing the writing process to
  • an inchworm groping his way through grass one blade at a time, 
  • climbing a ladder to a view yet unseen, 
  • a starfish which will literally pull off its own limb if need be for its own good,
  • searching for a honey tree by following pollen-laden bees, and 
  • cutting one's own flesh to use as bait.

After the second reading, I saw her main thrust to be this: for writing to be good writing, it takes hard work over a long time. Then I noticed her epigraph at the beginning of the chapter and knew I was on the right track.

Do not hurry; do not rest.  —Goethe

Note to self: pay attention to the epigraphs for subsequent chapters. It may or may not keep you from rereading the chapter.

In chapter one Dillard tells of an Algonquin woman who saved herself and her baby from starvation by cutting flesh from her own thigh to use as bait to catch fish. We talked at length in the group about cutting into ourselves and digging deep to become the meat of our own stories.

But I made much of the actual use of flesh as bait, rather than the self-inflicted wounding. While self-wounding is sometimes necessary, showing our humanity in our writing is always necessary. The writer's humanity reaches the reader's humanity when the reader responds to the writing by thinking yes, that's exactly how I would say it if I could put it into words myself.

I want to write like that. I want flesh to be on my writer's hook.

Dillard writes on page 12, "To find a honey tree, first catch a bee. Catch a bee when its legs are heavy with pollen; then it is ready for home. ... Bee after bee will lead toward the honey tree."

Dillard is telling writers to follow a thought or idea as far as it will take you. Then wait for the next thought or idea and follow it. 

All this talk of honey trees and bees made me think of A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh. (See why I think Dillard is hard reading?)

Milne is a master at following a bear to a honey tree to find valuable humanity in a treetop.
A few examples:

  • “Sometimes,' said Pooh, 'the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”  
  • “How do you spell 'love'?" - Piglet. "You don't spell feel it." - Pooh”
  • “Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.”

This is why we love Pooh. These flesh-gems that Milne discovered when he followed his writing to where it would lead him.

Dillard could even quote Pooh to further describe the writing life.

“When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

Dillard would say, "Delete it—ruthlessly"

“But it isn't easy,' said Pooh. 'Because Poetry and Hums aren't things which you get, they're things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

As a writer, I want to go where the words will find me. I want to gather those words and then dangle the live bait for the reader to nibble. In fact, I want more than bait. I want my words to provide a feast of truth and insight into oneself that satisfies to the quick of the human soul.

Dillard writes on page 17, "The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses—the imagination's vision, and the imagination's hearing—and the moral sense, and the intellect."

Writing is difficult to do well, and therefore equally as satisfying to find done well, or even possibly to do well myself. Though it be long and arduous, the pursuit of the honey tree is, for the writer, a lifelong expedition.

**This is a post about Chapter 1 of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, a book I am reading in community with some wonderful ladies through (in)courage. Many have asked about joining the group. It is currently closed. Watch the (in) community groups page for new offerings in the fall if you are interested in joining a group when registration will be open again. Until then, I invite you to come along on my journey through The Writing Life right here on Fridays.

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  1. Dawn, I struggled with grasping a full understanding of chapter 1 with only 1 reading. Mainly because I tried to read it while my husband had the TV on in the background. I, too, desire to write the words that touch humanity.

  2. Chapter one is a tough one, for sure, Dawn. It's interesting to read all the different interpretations that we have as we read, and the different things that stand out to us.

  3. I read Chapter 1 twice as well, and I loved your summary of it. I think it helped me grasp it much better. This piece is lovely. I loved the honey bee analogy and bringing in pooh. Thank you!


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