Stalking Annie Dillard

“…if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.  It is that simple.  What you see is what you get”.

Most readings generate two shy girls.  I have learned to look for them in the back row, to enjoy the spotlight of their full attention. Later, they will skulk at the back of the bookstore, pretending to browse as I sign books for the hangers-on who have stayed to pick me over. Mostly, these are polite, café latte types who thank me for coming and spell their names out carefully. There’s usually a time thief, however – on this occasion an immoderate woman hung about with purple swirls and Native American jewelry. She demands to know my birth sign and is mightily amused when I tell her because it confirms the theory she picked up at the latest workshop at Omega. She backs me up against the podium and informs me that we are soul mates. Seizing my arm, she tells me about the traumas in her life. A little scared, I feign interest in the memoir she plans to write when she retires from social work. Satisfied, she clanks out of the store, promising to send me a copy of the manuscript when it is done. 

Judging that the coast is clear, the skulking girls glide up to me silently, side by side. They are around nineteen years old and upright as nuns. I smile, hoping to appear kind and inviting. 

“I liked your work,” tries the first, “a lot.” The second one nods. Words pile up behind her eyes pleading for relief.

“Well, thank you!”  I cry heartily. I seize the cold startled fish of their hands in turn and pump them vigorously, as if I can administer CPR this way and jump-start their timid hearts. “Do you both write?” I enquire. It is what I say on these occasions, to avoid the deathly silence that will ensue if I don’t rescue us somehow. The young women flush and giggle, as if I have accused them of something illicit. 

The one who speaks admits that she writes poetry. Routinely, she fires off the shot in the foot. “I don’t think it’s any good,” she says. There is an awkward pause. “It’s not much good yet,” she amends, and I understand that she has taken a writing class or two.

I took a class myself a month or two ago, down in Key West. To be honest, it was a somewhat grisly affair. Pencils in hand, we stalked through each other’s manuscripts like a bunch of trigger-happy colonists, alert for anything we could butcher. We lopped off modifiers that dangled in our path as desperate little adverbs fluttered from beneath our booted feet. We stomped them to bits, along with two out of every three adjectives we encountered. Someone spotted a cliché limping its way though a paragraph and we rushed to encircle it. The cliché hung its head apologetically. It was old and weary. It staggered under the burden of imprecise meaning that lesser writers had forced it to carry all these years, but we pulled out our machetes and dispatched it anyway. Our leader, who is well known, helped us create a fresh new image that we erected in its place. Off to the left, someone searched through a tangled sentence and found a frightened little passive verb, which she held up for our inspection. As this weak, passive verb squirmed hopelessly in the hands of its captor, its strong active counterparts sniggered from the safe harbor of their well-constructed syntax. The teacher dashed it to the ground in loathing, and I struggled with my protective instincts as I watched it die. Others in the group had no such qualms. Having thus exterminated unwanted wildlife from the story, they set fire to the first two pages. “Lose it!” they chanted, as they watched them burn. “Lose the whole thing!  Show! Don’t tell!” As the author watched her words go up in smoke, the teacher stroked her arm and suggested that she plant some clever dialogue in the ashes. “Perhaps it will grow tall enough to provide some foreshadowing,” she said.  By the time we hacked our way to the end of the story, its true purpose was revealed, as unambiguous as a brand-new branch of McDonald’s.

Until recently, I worked in isolation, holed up in my attic, which I consider to be a perfect place to write, since it is a dusty, gloomy place with no view and a tricky set of stairs. I sweated and swore and suffered, cursing the cruel muse and my inability to break things off with her. Well-meaning friends bought me inspirational books like Writing Down the Bones, but I stacked them untouched in the downstairs bathroom. One restless night, I pulled Pilgrim at Tinker Creek from the stack of books on the cistern. I thought it might be a decent page-turner, something that would lull me to sleep. Three hours later, it had switched on all kinds of lights in my attic.

“I’ve been thinking about seeing,” Dillard writes in that book. “I walk out: I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost.”

When writers have a crush on other writers, we don’t have much to go by as far as appearance is concerned. We love their souls, but their bodies are a mystery, apart from what we glean from the grainy, outdated photographs on the covers of their books. Thus unchecked, I stitched together an Annie Dillard doll from stray impressions and carried her like a totem, dressed her in hiking boots, thorn-proof trousers, a jacket with many pockets. I didn’t think she’d mind being my captive, since I imagined her to be a shy and bookish soul, one who shunned attention. I took her out for walks in the woods near my house, and she pointed to things I’d never noticed before. Later, up in my attic, she sat on a chair beside me and sweated and swore too. We bled in friendly silence, side by side. 

After the Key West workshop, the well-known teacher flew home, and I stayed on with my friend, KK, to lick my wounded fictions into shape and take in a reading or two. We were ambling down the street to the community center when who should we pass but… 

“Annie WHO?” I said to KK. “That was Annie WHO? What do you MEAN, of COURSE you know her?” I stopped dead, barely resisting the urge to run back down the street and hurl myself on the dusty sidewalk at Annie Dillard’s feet, to seize her arm, perhaps, and drag her down an alley so that I could stare at her – her clothes, her shoes, her face.  

Some minutes later, there was Annie Dillard again, at the reading. She plumped down right next to KK as we waited for the poets to take the stage. Plunged into a bizarre altered state, I took a sidelong glance at her shoes, which were sandals – quite unexceptional. She and KK chatted, and I wondered if it would be OK to listen. If this were NOT Annie Dillard, but some run of the mill person like myself, I would definitely be listening now. It would only be polite. What if Annie Dillard was thinking that I was standoffish? Come to think of it, Annie Dillard probably thought I was a crazy person because here I was, staring fixedly at a totally empty stage. I forced myself to turn and look. “She is just a person,” I told myself. 

As I turned towards Annie Dillard, she took a pack of cigarettes from her purse and examined it closely, as if she had never seen it before. It was a strangely telling moment – as if there were two of her – the Annie Dillard who chatted and a secret Annie Dillard, who just wanted to step outside and smoke. All three of us watched Annie Dillard’s hands slip the cigarettes back into her purse.

“This is my friend Claire,” KK said suddenly, to my horror. We all smiled brightly. Unfortunately, I was compelled to speech.

“I’m so excited to actually ­meet you,” I said, “I love your work.” Deep inside me a voice screamed, “COUNTRY HICK!  COUNTRY HICK!” 

“I use your writing all the time in my teaching,” I continued. “It’s an inspiration.”  Annie’s smile stretched a mite wider, but she looked tired. She probably wanted a cigarette. She murmured something deprecating, but I was unable to stop. “I brought Living by Fiction down with me for the weekend,” I said proudly, while my secret self shouted, “Shut up!  Shut up!  Shut up!” Annie was horrified. “Living by Fiction?” she said, “Oh God!”

I managed to close my mouth and sank back into my chair, exhausted. Annie Dillard sank back into her chair too, and the reading began.

Afterwards, we strolled down the street. Actually, Annie and KK strolled, while I pretended to stroll, trying to inject a measure of insouciance into my knees in the hope that it would work its way upwards. “She is just a person,” I told myself, and turned to her, striving for jauntiness. 

“So, what did you think?” I asked her.

She turned and looked at me rather blankly. “The reading,” I said. “What did you think?”

She considered my casual question at uncomfortable length, and then said, “I tried not to think about it. There’s too much going on for me to think about it all.”

Two days later, I went to a party. Annie Dillard flopped into an empty chair beside me and lit a cigarette. She looked fantastic in a white sheath dress. No hiking boots. No thorn-proof trousers. My God. Dillard was a party girl.

“Why is no one dancing?” she demanded, and gave me a big, cheeky, charismatic grin. 

I cut the small talk. “Did you know that the player piano in the living room can play twelve notes at once?”

She cocked her head and looked at me. “How do you know?” she said.

“I saw it.”

She considered this a while. ““How did you have time to count them all?” she asked suspiciously. “You must see very quickly.”

Aha! I felt like saying, And who taught me? Instead I said, “Actually, I do see very quickly, almost instantaneously. Besides which I checked. I asked our host. He said that player pianos can play at least fifteen notes at a time. He wasn’t sure exactly how many.”

Annie Dillard looked at me, waiting for more.

“He says that they write special music for player pianos,” I told her. “This special music cannot be played by human beings.”

Annie Dillard was still looking at me. I finally met her eyes, which were just like I’d imagined, very blue and shrewd, excellent for seeing with.

“Wouldn’t that piss you off,” I asked her, “if you were a concert pianist?”

Annie Dillard chuckled.

Thus was I saved from total ignominy by my writer’s eye.

What you see is what you get.

Photo by John Vid on Unsplash

Claire Robson

Dr. Claire Robson is a writer, researcher, and arts activist. A well-known activist and a widely published writer of fiction, memoir, and poetry, her awards include Xtra West Writer of the Year, the Joseph Katz Memorial Scholarship (for her contributions to social justice), and the Lynch History Prize (for her contributions to better understanding of gender and sexual minorities).

Claire’s published books are Love in Good Time: a memoir (2003), Writing for Change (2012), and Writing Beyond Recognition: Queer Restorying for Social Change (2020). Most recently, Claire has worked in partnership with QMUNITY (BC’s queer and trans resource centre) on The Indigo Survivors’ Project in order to share stories about and by LGBTQ2SA+ survivors of elder abuse.