I saw online that Annie Dillard had a birthday at the end of April and that prompted me to look again at her books on my shelf.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945), she began writing poetry in high school, studied English in college and wrote her master’s thesis on Thoreau’s Walden.
Then she too moved into a cabin in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She wrote poetry. She kept a journal of observations of nature, God and religion.
She said that she used old notebooks and 4×6 index cards. Finally, she thought she had enough to put it all together and the result was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
It was published in 1974 and I read it the following year. It won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction which might have called my attention to it. It had a profound impact on me.
It was non-fiction but its titled chapters it read like either essays or a novel depending on where I was in the book or in my life.
It changed how I taught my students writing. I used passages as examples: a water bug dissolving a frog, untying a snake skin, looking at pond water under a microscope.
It made me rethink my relationship with the small woods near my home that I went to so often alone and then later with my young sons. I felt like if I could learn this small piece of the world, I could understand myself and the world better.
At Tinker Creek, she studied the muskrats in summer and monarch butterfly migration in the fall.
I read other books by her – essays, poetry, autobiography and a novel. I read what I could find about how she works. For writing, she advises that “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is about a year in the Roanoke Valley spent looking very carefully and writing down what she saw in nature and the seasons.
The book led me to explore other things. I had never heard the word theodicy. Theodicy (from Greek theos “god” + dike “justice”) was new word, but something I knew. Overly simplified, it is the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.
There is an inherent cruelty in the natural world. In 1976, I would have described Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a “nature book” but Dillard said it was a “book of theology.”
Another word that enter my vocabulary with the book was “anchorite.” An anchorite is another word that comes from Greek and means “one who has retired from the world.” This is to retire or withdraw from the world.
The original meaning of the word was with those who did so for religious reasons. You would withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented and ascetic life.
“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”
Anchorites are usually considered a kind of religious hermit, though they were still “anchored” by their living in cells attached to churches. It was one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living.
I like books about writing by writers. I don’t expect to learn how to write by reading them. I like knowing about process. Dillard wrote one titled, The Writing Life. You could read it in a day, but I wouldn’t recommend that you do so. I would read it with many pauses to consider what you have read. I read it like a book of poems, which I never read cover to cover or in order.
“When you write,” she says, “you lay out a line of words…. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.”
It takes time to process.
The anchoritic life is something of the Middle Ages, but I can easily imagine someone finding or building a simple anchorhold built “against” a woods or river or rock wall. No religious reasons for doing so required, but there might be such reasons. Or, such concerns might emerge from nature.
If you want a starting place with her writing, I suggest Three by Annie Dillard: The Writing Life, An American Childhood, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
The reclusive Dillard has a reclusive website at www.AnnieDillard.com