The Morning News recently published “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life,” an essay written by novelist Alexander Chee ’89 on the nonfiction writing class he took his senior spring at Wesleyan with with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard. Thanks to Professor Anne Greene for the tip!
A few excerpts:
Dear Annie Dillard,
My name is Alexander Chee, and I’m a senior English major. I’ve taken Fiction 1 with Phyllis Rose and Advanced Fiction with Kit Reed, and last summer, I studied with Mary Robison and Toby Olson at the Bennington Writers Workshop. The stories here are from a creative writing thesis I’m currently writing with Professor Bill Stowe as my adviser. But the real reason I’m applying to this class is that whenever I tell people I go to Wesleyan, they ask me if I’ve studied with you, and I’d like to have something better to say than no.
Thanks for your time and consideration,
Apparently Wesleyan students weren’t all that different in the 80s. Just substitute the Walkman for an ipod:
In my clearest memory of her, it’s spring, and she is walking towards me, smiling, her lipstick looking neatly cut around her smile. I never ask her why she’s smiling—for all I know, she’s laughing at me as I stand smoking in front of the building where we’ll have class. She’s Annie Dillard, and I am her writing student, a 21-year-old cliché—black clothes, deliberately mussed hair, cigarettes, dark but poppy music on my Walkman.
In the classroom:
At the beginning of class she would unpack the long thin thermos of coffee and the bag of Brach’s singly-wrapped caramels—the ones with the white centers. She would set her legal pad down, covered in notes, and pour the coffee, which she would drink as she unwrapped the caramels and ate them. A small pile of plastic wrappers grew by her left hand on the desk. The wrappers would flutter a little as she whipped the pages of her legal pad back and forth, and spoke in epigrams about writing that often led to short lectures but were sometimes lists: Don’t ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible. Never quote dialogue you can summarize. Avoid describing crowd scenes but especially party scenes.
She began almost drowsily, but soon went at a pell-mell pace. Not frantic, but operatic. Then she might pause, check her notes in a brief silence, and launch in another direction, as we finished making our notes and the sound of our writing died down.
An “ah-ha” moment and peripheral reference to Davenport Campus Center (also known as the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life ):
I remember clearly, in the details that matter to this, going to the campus center on the morning before one class in the middle of the spring, to pick up my manuscript for that week. We turned them in on a Tuesday, and she returned them to us on Wednesday, by campus mail, so we could have them in time for Thursday’s class. This particular essay I’d written with more intensity and passion than anything I’d tried to do for the class thus far. I felt I finally understood what I was doing—how I could make choices that made the work better or worse, line by line. After over a year of feeling lost, this feeling was like when your foot finds the ground in the dark water. Here, you think. Here I can push.
I opened the envelope. Inside was the manuscript, tattooed by many, many sentences in the space between, many more than usual. I read them all carefully, turning the pages around to follow the writing to the back page, where I found, at the end, this postscript: I was up all night thinking about this.
The thought that I’d kept her up all night with something I wrote, that it mattered enough, held my attention. Okay, I remember telling myself. If you can keep her up all night with something you wrote, you might actually be able to do this.
“Annie Dillard and the Writing Life” will appear in Mentors, Muses & Monsters, a collection of essays slated to come out in exactly a week.