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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The Company Writers Keep

“You are the company you keep,” parents, often mothers, say, usually when they heard bad things about the family of someone you’re hanging out with at school or they don’t like your college roommate.

Your folks aren’t crazy about the people you spend time with because they don’t want you to become like them. And there might be something to this idea. For example, a review of research found “that peer-related stimuli may sensitize the reward system to respond to the reward value of risky behavior.” 

Set the stage for the writing you want to do.

What if a similar idea applies to writers? Maybe what we read influences our writing.

It’s a widely accepted concept for new writers.

Stephen Pressfield and Joan Didion learned started by writing sentences Ernest Hemingway wrote. Poet Billy Collins began his career copying Wallace Stevens. 

And J.K. Rowling says on her website, “Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”

But there might be a connection between what we read and what we write, even when we’re no longer writing rookies.

Sometimes, when I need to write something with a specific tone, I’ll read something similar. Doing so gets my mind in the right place.

For example, if I want to write a humorous piece, I’ll read something funny. The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs items are excellent for this. 

I still write in my voice, and I’m certainly not copying anything from these influencing reading sessions. Yet, they make it easier for me to tap into the right tone of creativity I need to deliver in my writing.

It’s difficult for me to write something funny right after reading a serious news article. I need something to transition my brain from being sad, stressed, etc., to positive and lighthearted, making room for jokes and funny analogies.

Singers do vocal exercises before performing. Athletes stretch before taking the field. Why shouldn’t writers also benefit from a warmup?

And when doing your warmup, consider picking something that sets the stage for the writing you want to do. We are, after all, the company we keep.


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Following Joan Didion’s Footsteps

Maybe it’s that when I read this Nathan Heller essay about Joan Didion, I was entering my annual winter yearn for sunshine and palm trees. Still, I found the piece an enlightening exposition on a writer whose career could serve as a template for people like me.

Didion is synonymous with California, Southern California in particular. You can’t read a Didion essay or book without feeling the California sun on your skin or the Pacific Ocean’s waves in your ears. And so, as my desires shifted from snowy cabins to beach cabanas, I was an eager audience for Heller’s article, which let me mentally escape our gray East Coast winter.

Yet easing my mild case of seasonal affective disorder isn’t the biggest bonus to Nathan Heller’s essay. What makes the article stand out is his focus on Didion’s career.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

“For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments,” Heller writes.

Heller explains that throughout the 1960s and 70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took writing assignments to pay their bills. Didion published a few novels, her first, Run River, in 1963, but to make ends meet, she wrote what businesses, mostly magazines, were willing to pay her.

Didion chose interesting subjects, from San Francisco’s hippies to Sharon Tate’s murder. And Didion wrote illuminatively, brilliantly, in ways that set her apart from others and catapulted her to the iconic status she holds today.

Didion already rested at the forefront of America’s literary mantle by the time I discovered her. Her essay collections are phenomenal, some of the best nonfiction stuff I’ve ever read. Reading them, I assumed Didion pitched publishers on the books, they agreed, then she went and wrote the stuff that went into the books I later read.

Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece proves otherwise. Most of the essays in Didion’s early nonfiction books, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, come from columns and articles media companies paid her to write.

Many writers have a loose idea for how we’ll publish books. We get a book deal, then write the book. Next, the publisher releases the book we’ve written. We’ll write a book once someone pays us to write a book.

That may be some writers’ experiences, but it’s not how it went for Joan Didion. She and her husband had to eat, pay bills, and care for their daughter. That took money, so Didion and Dunne took writing assignments that paid.

It’s after Didion produced many articles and columns that a publisher was willing to release her book. Years later, Didion published her first nonfiction book that wasn’t a collection of work someone had already paid her to produce.

Most of us writers have to work for a living. We can feel frustrated and ashamed that we take writing assignments or work nonwriting jobs because we need electricity, food, health insurance. We want to write books, produce art, and yet we’re doing stuff we’d prefer to not in exchange for money.

But that’s OK. It might even be good. The work we do now can lead to the material we publish later. Perhaps it’s writing we repackage into a book, a la Didion style, or maybe it’s experiences and people we meet informing our future writing. 

There isn’t one path to getting published. Joan Didion forged one way, and now we get to walk through it.


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How Can You Improve Your Writing? Look At What You Read

If you’re a writer, you get a lot of advice about how to improve your writing. One piece of guidance writers receive is to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader, the thinking goes. 

And I agree. How can you be a word peddler if you’re not a word consumer? But what’s often not talked about is what a writer reads. 

The words writers take in mean as much as the words a writer puts down. That’s because to be our best writing self requires seeing the world outside of ourselves. A common thread among the best writers is they know something other than their own lives. 

Exposure and understanding help shape great writers. That’s why we need to be intentional with our reading. Below is a lesson I learned, and how it can help you, too.

Mix up the books

A few years ago, I listed all the books I read that year. Seventy-five percent of what I read was about World War II and written by white men. I was shocked. 

Do you know the writers whose work I had never read? The list included names such as Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. These are writers who excelled at their craft, and I was not consuming their words. Not to mention, I wanted to write fiction. And yet, the only books I read were nonfiction. 

Nicholas E. Barron quote: "Branching out beyond your comfort zone can help you discover new voices and improve your writing."

We all make choices, either consciously or unconsciously, in what we read. Maybe your bias is in the genre. You like mysteries, and so all you read are mystery novels. 

Or, your bias could be in authors. I didn’t intend to read only books by white guys. It just happens that a lot of books about World War II are by white men. Look at a list of the past dozen or so authors you’ve read. Are they all one gender, race, ethnicity, and so forth? 

We can also be partial in where our books’ settings. Shortly after discovering my predilection for World War II books, I realized I rarely read something set in Africa. Now I rotate into my reading pile books taking place in Africa.

There are many ways we pick the books we read. And we may have the best of intentions in our choices. But branching out beyond your comfort zone can help you discover new voices and improve your writing.

improve your writing by reading diversely

Reading Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room shook me. Discovering Willa Cather changed my understanding of what stories a writer can tell. Consuming Toni Morrison’s work is like crawling into the lap of a master.

Becoming more intentional in my reading has enhanced my writing. I’m a better writer now than when I was reading World War II books. And I understand and appreciate more who a writer can be and what stories they can tell. 

You can have the same experience. Look at the books you’ve recently read. Are there commonalities among them? The authors may be similar, or the books are in the same genre. See if there are ways you can expand what you read.

And, once you do, reevaluate after some time. Two years after I broadened what I read, I realized something. I hadn’t read a book published within that time. Everything I read was older than two years. So, I adjusted. Now I work new books into my reading.

Writers should read, yes, but the words we consume matter. Being intentional about your reading will improve your writing. So, reach beyond your typical reads to discover new authors and worlds. And watch yourself grow as a writer.


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This article originally appeared on Medium.