Seven Profound Things Annie Dillard Taught Alexander Chee About Writing

Before Chee was a famous writer, he learned the craft from Dillard

We all start somewhere, even Alexander Chee. 

Chee is a famous writer and poet, the author of Edinburgh and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays. But in 1989, he was a senior at Wesleyan University who hoped and wondered if he could make it as a writer.

That’s when he took Annie Dillard’s Literary Nonfiction class. Dillard’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and 300 students applied to take her course. She only accepted 13, one of which was Chee. 

Chee covers what Dillard taught him about writing in her class in this essay. Below are seven of the most profound lessons Dillard imparted to Chee. 

Show, Don’t Tell Emotions.

Which of these sentences do you enjoy reading the most?

A) The puppy was giddy.

B) The puppy galloped along the lane, its open snout exposing a lolling, pink tongue as brown ears flapped about the sides of its head.

Dillard taught Chee that good writing shows characters’ emotions. It doesn’t say it.

“Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad. When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. She isn’t angry, Annie said. She throws his clothes out the window.”

Your Story’s Start May Be Buried

Dillard suggests your story may begin later than you realize. 

Months ago, I finished the manuscript for a novel. But the story wasn’t right, and I couldn’t figure out why. 

Dillard’s advice in hand, I revisited the manuscript and realized I’d buried the story’s beginning. A scene that sets up everything for what comes later in the novel was many pages deep, so now I’m bringing it to the surface. 

“The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four…If the beginning isn’t there sometimes it’s at the end, that you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning, and that if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.”

Verbs Make Your Story Go

Everyone hates boring writing. Writers don’t want to create it, and readers don’t want to read it.

The trick, according to Dillard, is in the verbs we use. Picking the proper verbs drives our writing and brings it to life. 

“You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs.”

Forget About Being Original

We hear it all the time, and still, it bears repeating. We’re the only ones who can write from our experience with our perspective.

Dillard pointed out to her students that no one expects a writer to create something that never before existed. Doing so is nearly impossible. So instead, write in your voice, from your view.

“You are the only one of you…Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original.”

Compare Yourself to the Best Writers

This piece of advice surprised me. Writers often talk on social media about how unhealthy it is to compare yourself to others.

Why, I wondered, did Dillard tell her students to compare themselves to some of the greatest writers who ever lived?

Then I realized Dillard wasn’t talking about comparing book sales, page views, or accolades with the greats. She was talking about comparing our writing with theirs. 

Joan Didion taught herself to write by copying Hemingway’s novels, word for word. Likewise, Hunter S. Thompson copied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

We should set our sights high. Let’s compare ourselves to those who write the best versions of what we aim to write, be it novels, online articles, or poems. 

“Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.”

You Need More Than Talent

In college, I spent a summer working on a political campaign. Some of the folks I worked with weren’t too much older than me, yet they ran the show, and some soon took influential roles on a U.S. Presidential campaign.

These people didn’t get the jobs and responsibilities they did because they were the smartest. They simply outlasted everyone else, so they were the only ones remotely qualified for the positions. 

Working in politics is brutal, and most, as I did, do it for a short while before burning out. But, if you stick with it, before long you’ll be more experienced than most. Then you’ll get the more prominent gigs.

It’s the same in writing, according to Dillard. The longer you work at it, the more likely you are to succeed.

“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”

Seven Writing Truths From Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard is a champion writer. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize, published novels and essay and poem collections.

And, according to a former student, the writer Alexander Chee, Dillard is also a skilled teacher. Here’s some of the best writing advice she gave Chee:

  • Show, don’t tell your character’s emotions.
  • You may bury your story’s beginning.
  • Verbs give your story life.
  • Don’t worry about originality.
  • Compare your work against the best writers.
  • Writing requires longevity.

Keeping Dillard’s thoughts in mind can help us become better writers who stick with our art for the long haul. 

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