Doerr & Dillard: All the Light We Cannot See and The Writing Life

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I was lucky enough to finish reading two books this week.  The first was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  I don’t remember why I picked it up, but when I found out it was set in Europe during World War II, I was a little reluctant to go through with reading it.  As the author himself pointed out in a podcast interview with Aspen Public Radio’s First Draft, there are already plenty of stories—particularly memoirs about this era.  And many of them are difficult to read for those of us with strong empathetic streaks.  Yet, in telling the almost independent stories of two children, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, Doerr skillfully brings the horrors of the time alive, without making me want to throw up every five seconds.  I found the boy, Werner’s desire to be seen and make use of his innate brilliance, even at the cost of lying to himself about the cause into which he is being initiated, to be particularly compelling and moving.  I like the way Doerr uses various aspects of the natural world (the sea, snails, birds, physics) to propel the story forward in a meaningful way.  I found the language and style to be lovely, and I enjoyed the book’s optimism, which, far from being cockeyed, is founded in reality.

The other book I read was a slim volume probably familiar to many writers: The Writing Life by Pulitzer Prize winner, Annie Dillard (described by Amazon as a gregarious recluse!).  I love her rich, poignant prose that is also somehow matter of fact and no-nonsense.  I am not sure I have the bravery to write like that—or perhaps I am just working up to it.  She imparts advice that isn’t really advice, just what she knows to be true and you can take it or leave it.  Here is a small part of it as I received it:

1) Mostly, writers write slowly; deal with it.  It’s only rare outliers who write super fast.

2) No one really needs a writer’s work.  There are plenty of great manuscripts out there already—enough for everyone to savor for lifetimes.

3) A person’s job as a writer is way less important than that of a shoe salesman—no one will miss the writer if she doesn’t show up to work, but people will definitely be upset if they can’t buy shoes.

4) Writers (and all artists) have a tendency to hold onto the parts of their work into which they have poured the most blood—even if those parts are lousy or (even more painfully) are quite good, but don’t serve the work as a whole and should be discarded.

I feel as though much of this truth should be disheartening, but I found her words somehow cleansing and relief-giving.  I am not completely sure why.  Maybe it has something to do with the idea that it’s okay not to get it right, because nobody gets it right—or at least not all the time.  And, I like the fact that Dillard’s writing makes me chuckle and tell myself, “Jeez, don’t take yourself so seriously, man.  Really.”

Thank you for reading. :)

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