Happy Birthday, Annie Dillard!
Though I’ve taught courses in creative nonfiction for 23 years, I’ve never been a student in such a class. When I was in graduate school, most of us had never even heard of this genre, and it was a rare college or university that offered courses devoted to the study and practice of literary nonfiction. But I was passionate about becoming an essayist. To learn the craft, I imitated authors that I loved, and there was no essayist that I adored more than Annie Dillard. I read and reread everything she wrote. I imitated her sentences, paragraphs, the structure and approach of entire essays, and embraced her philosophy.
During this “mentorship,” I submitted an essay called “Stalking” to a good literary journal. The editor trashed me. He said that a student in a doctoral program should know better than to write something so derivative without giving full credit to Anne Dillard. (Full credit? I was writing about my cat, Cletis, not her cat, Small!) But that’s how deeply her diction, syntax, imagery, and ideas had mingled with my own. Clearly, it was time for me to break free and write from my own unique position and approach.
Today, on Annie Dillard’s 73rd birthday, I offer the final paragraph of her essay, “Living Like Weasels.” Some day, I’m going to write an essay called “Living Like Lichen” that presents an entirely different, far less risky approach to life written in my most derivative, Dillard-esque prose, with no apologies.
“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”
Happy Annie Dillard! My deepest gratitude for your guidance and inspiration! I hope that you're still living like a weasel!