The Feral Work in the Next Room

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  I should have read it back in February, when I first began approaching my current project.   Funny thing is, the image she describes in the following paragraph is one I have kept in the back of my mind for years.

A work in progress quickly becomes feral.  It reverts to a wild state overnight.  It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch.   It is a lion you cage in your study.   As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength.  You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it.  If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.   You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Chapter Three, the chapter for my morning, is all about how you rev up to get the work going for the day.   It fits nicely with Pressfield’s idea (The War of Art) of warring to get the work done.   Dillard’s more visceral metaphors–tea kettle’s whistling, heavy-bodied moths panting furiously toward lift-off, dreams delivering pragmatic advice about splitting wood–strike me as truth, as in true to my experience.  She recounts telling a neighbor that she hates writing, and mostly fools around all day and calls it work.  (Oh, man…how I get that.)  And in answer to someone who asks her “Who will teach me to write?”, Dillard’s answer strikes me as pure and true as any I’ve ever read.  It’s why I sit in front of the blank page, or screen, as the case may be.

If you are a creative, here’s your encouragement to take on the lion in the next room.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nonetheless, because acting is better that being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I can hear the roaring, but I’m going in, chair in hand…


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