Aim for the Chopping Block

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Book Report

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The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.”
—Annie Dillard

I have been reading Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, again this week. It was published way back in the dark ages of 1989. That was right around when I re-opened the writing Pandora’s box in my own life and put pen back to paper, fingers to QWERTY keyboard again. Not long after, I headed to graduate school part-time, feeling for the first time in forever that I’d been reunited with my creative tribe. Sing hosannas—wait, not so fast.

In the years since, hairs have grayed, waists have thickened, and more words than I may have time left on earth to count have accumulated in assorted notebooks and MS Word files, in and out, under and through, above and below my living of daily life.  On lesser days, I ask myself, what do I have to show for it? A c.v. that lists a number of awards, a gaggle of publications, and, too many days, a nagging ache in my lower back. With prescience and hindsight, Dillard wonders if that’s even a useful question to ask oneself:

“The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere…This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.”


The Writing Life is a dense, smart, hard-to-summarize reckoning of what a life of writing has meant for one Annie Dillard. It’s not a cheery, gung-ho tract. In fact, it’s often the opposite with its talk about the years spent writing a single work, the pointlessness of so much of what we write, the absence of anyone much caring we even do this work except the writing us. Blah blah blah. Even Dillard-as-misanthrope wonders if it might have been better to learn a more useful trade!

And yet, The Writing Life offers a welcome if, at times, depressing reality check. Dillard isn’t afraid to be blunt as she dissects sacred cows of the profession, telling it as it more often really is. It’s funny, too, especially when she asks questions: Is it reasonable to sit in a small room with the company of pieces of paper? Why do we do this writing if we hate it? Why these days would anyone read a book if they could see a movie instead?

Writing as a miner’s pick, or a hammer. Writing as scaffolding, a ladder. As fiber optic, a cranking flywheel, a lifeboat, a calculus of page creation. What you read is what you write. What you learn is what you know. The art must enter the body. Every book is an intrinsic impossibility.

Dillard even writes about the sneaky way time passes as you fumble to make sense of the writing life you believe you are fashioning for yourself.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days…it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later still living.”

A lot of turf gets covered in The Writing Life. The troubles you can encounter when you are thick into a book and discover it has hairline fractures maybe even fatal mistakes that require you toss it aside and begin again from scratch. The myth that any of this work we attempt to do is, in the end, easy. Plus it’s brilliant, thoughtful, and poetically written; this time, I ended up marking passages on page after page, ones I want to further reflect on as I “spend” my own writing days.

I think maybe this one, below, spoke to me the most. It’s Dillard’s response to one of her readers asking, who will teach me to write?

“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 nevertheless, because acting is better than 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.” 

But wait, there’s more:

“There’s another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”

Really, what more is there to say?

Nancy Flynn
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