that’ll leave a mark


    On the same Saturday morning, while I was out running errands, I learned of two endings: the Weekly World News is ceasing publication and Annie Dillard is not going to write anymore.

    For those of you who may not frequent supermarkets, the Weekly World News is the tabloid of tabloids, leaving behind celebrity gossip for tales of the apocalypse, Elvis sightings, and miracle cures. Where else could you learn that Moses wandered in the wilderness for forty years because he lost the map? Once it’s gone, who will tell us beavers have OCD? Or give us pictures like this?

    As I’ve stood in checkout lines over the years, I’ve wondered who bought the paper. (OK, I bought a couple of them for youth group gags.) I don’t think I ever saw someone put one in his or her cart, but the paper was there week after week, billing itself as “the world’s only reliable newspaper.”

    Who will we rely on now?

    Scott Simon played his interview with Annie Dillard
    (which she notes was recorded some time ago) since she has a new novel, The Maytrees. Dillard’s writings have spoken to me over and over again through the years, her thoughtful and often audacious take on the world challenging both my faith and intellect. These passages from Holy the Firm are good examples.

    If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness . . . The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.

    The creation is not a study, roughed-in sketch; it is supremely, meticulously created, created abundantly, extravagantly, and in fine… Even on the perfectly ordinary and clearly visible level, creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for. The lone ping into being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical, that surely it ought to have been enough, more than enough. But look what happens. You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose.

    I’d never heard her voice before. She sounded harsh and crusty, like the rocky New England shoreline on which she lives. The last section of the interview caught me by surprise:

    “So, do you write everyday?” Simon asked.

    “I do when I’m working.”

    “So you’ll take some time off?”

    “I’m tempted now to take the rest of my life off.”

    “You don’t have another book working at the moment? You don’t want to?” He spoke with tenderness. She did not.

    “This one just about killed me. It took ten years. And you write and you write and you write and you throw it away and you throw it away and you throw it away,” she said laughing. “And in those ten years I probably could have done something more useful, although I’ve always wanted nothing more than to add to the literature.”

    “I just wondered – not to turn myself into a career counselor . . .” They both laughed.

    “I’m not being totally truthful with you. I can’t write anymore. My fingers can no longer type, they can no longer write by hand; I don’t know how I’d be as a chisel. But the fact is that was the great story – The Maytrees was the great story — and I’ll never get another story that good. People want people to keep doing what they want. People want to change and grow.”

    “You want to do something different?”

    “I want to change and grow.”

    Ginger preached on the Lord’s Prayer (Luke’s version) this morning, informing us she was going to look at the spirit of the prayer in its totality rather than going phrase by phrase. At one point, she quoted the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet,” and then read the prayer again:

    Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.

    In a world where thousands upon thousands die of hunger everyday, how do we pray, “Give us our daily bread?” Who is “us”? Who am I praying to be fed? How are our feet moving to feed “us”? In a world in which violence is the primary currency, how do we pray, “Your kingdom come?” How willing are we to wage peace?

    “We’re all going to leave a mark,” she said.

    What came to my mind first was someone crashing into something and the other person saying, “Ouch! That’s going to leave a mark.” What kind of mark will we leave?
    It could be a wound, or a scar; we could be doing damage. It could be a mark like a child writing with a Sharpie on the living room wall, an unappreciated creative expression. It could be marks of growth moving up the doorjamb of existence. It could be a handprint on the hearts of those we have loved.

    Two of Dillard’s statements have haunted me since yesterday:

    “And in those ten years I probably could have done something more useful, although I’ve always wanted nothing more than to add to the literature.”

    “I want to change and grow.”

    I felt sad when I heard her say she could no longer write. What she wanted out of life was to add to the literature, which she can no longer do. Her words have fed me and now I know there will not be any more of them. Yet she is resolved rather than resigned. She wrote “the great story” and now is ready to see what the days ahead can hold, even if she can no longer write or even travel.

    I struggle with her stance because, I think, I have yet to find my great story. It’s taken me half a century to figure out my best creative medium; I’m just now starting to draw on the wall. I, too, want to change and grow. And I trust, as one created in the image of the Creator who marked up the universe with uncalled for extravagances and intimacies, that there are great stories still to tell.



    1. I love Annie Dillard’s stuff, and I like the idea of wanting to change and to grow. And I laud your commitment to these things too. But I don’t get this about not being able to talk to people she doesn’t know, or to travel, or whatnot. I guess I should feel generous towards her, but this seems so princess-y and self-consciously eccentric. Retiring is a fine and honorable thing to do, but to make it out like you are an inexplicably broken artist–I just don’t get what her motivation is for this.

    2. I identify some with the feeling of not having found your great story, although writing is not my great gift. Having said that, I would like to, at the risk of seeming gushy or over the top…you are the best I know in writing in this medium and having thoughtful, powerful, personal, researched, narrative gifts of your soul. This may not seem to be your great story, but it is pretty damn good to me…


    3. Annie Dillard is my writing inspiration. She above all others. I fell in love with her mind when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

      I’m trying not to get irritated with the “princess-y” comment. Absolutely she gets the benefit of the doubt. But if you’ve read her work, I think there is no doubt just how much of herself she puts into this. The book took 10 years. How many more ten-year chunks of life does she have left? She has children, perhaps grandchildren.

      She has always been a remarkably honest writer. I think she’s tellinig it the way it is.

      thanks for the link to the interview. I heard her voice on an antarctic cruise she took. (recordings, of course) I think the smoking did a number on her voice.

    4. Gordon,

      One of the things I noticed at her website is the way she looked back on her books without taking herself too seriously. I don’t think someone determined to change and grow is princess-y.


    5. Oh, this was so beautifully written. And I love Annie Dillard as you do.

      Writing is a funny thing. I’m willing to give my life to it, pretty much, but I also know that the things of the flesh are better in their own way. There is something withdrawn and lonely and sad about writing. And about those who do it.

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