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A Pilgrim's Progress Part 1

My image of Annie Dillard forever changed in 1977 when I met her for the first time. Acquainted with her only through her writing, I expected to find either a fey, neurotic poet like Emily Dickinson or a gaunt mystic like Simone Weil. We had arranged to meet in her office, which I envisioned as a one-room cabin tucked in a grove of Douglas firs.

The office turned out to be a garish institutional cell in a low-rise classroom building, with not a single decoration adorning the walls-one of which was painted orange and one blue-and nary a book on the shelves. Dillard herself, barely 30 years old, wore blue jeans and an embroidered shirt. She loved Ping-Pong and softball and dancing. She reveled in a good joke. Neither Dickinsonian nor professorial, she was rather the kind of person you'd put first on your guest list to liven up a dinner party.

Dillard too, it seems, had expectations. "I'm so glad it's you," she said when I entered her room. "I didn't know what to expect from a magazine called Christianity Today. When I saw a 60-year-old, bald man walking across campus, I thought, 'Uh oh, what have I agreed to?' " At the time I was half the bald man's age, and my abundant hair stuck out like a Brillo pad; what she had agreed to was a lengthy interview for that magazine.

Although Annie and I have met only one time since, we have kept up an occasional correspondence, and I have followed her work closely. No, make that fanatically. She is a guiding light for writers who still care about words, sentences, and paragraphs, and a singular beacon for writers of faith who labor in an alien, secular culture.

An American Childhood, published in 1987, sketches some of the details of Annie Dillard's life. She grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Pittsburgh, where loving parents indulged her in the comfortable rituals of private girls' schools and the country club. They talked ideas at the dinner table, took Annie to an upper-crust Presbyterian church, and gave her intellectual curiosity free reign. Annie squirmed through adolescence in the early sixties: she was kicked out of school for smoking and landed in a hospital as a result of drag racing. She showed a fondness for nature, yes, but also for baseball and the French and Indian Wars. "Works only on what interests her," scolded one of her high-school teachers.

To this day, Dillard can recite the first poem she attempted, a product of that sultry adolescence when she had fallen under the spell of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud:

Once, if I remember well,

My flesh did lay confined in Hell.

A cell of darkness prison damp,

A cell in need of fire and lamp.

My hand did drop, my body fell

And in my filth did I lie still.

Nothing in that poem or in Annie Dillard's early life gave a clue that she would win a Pulitzer Prize before turning 30 and emerge as one of the premier nature writers of the century. But Annie does credit her adolescence for awakening her spirituality and whetting her appetite for the metaphysical themes that would haunt all her later works. Indeed, An American Childhood begins with this inscription from Psalm 26: "I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house and the place where dwelleth thy glory."

The church her family attended mainly provided a place for tidily dressed Pittsburghers to "accumulate dignity by being seen at church every Sunday." Summers, however, Annie trotted off with her sister to a church camp in the pines. "If our parents had known how pious and low church this camp was, they would have yanked us," she recalls. "We memorized Bible chapters, sang rollicking hymns around the clock, held nightly devotions including extemporaneous prayer, and filed out of the woods to chapel twice on Sundays dressed in white shorts. The faith-filled theology there was only half a step out of a tent; you could still smell the sawdust."

In the course of my interview in 1977, Annie told me about her one short fling of rebellion against God. After four consecutive summers at the church camp, she got fed up with the hypocrisy of people coming to church mainly to show off their clothes. Wanting to make a major statement, she decided to confront the authority of the church head-on. The senior minister ("He looked exactly like James Mason in A Star Is Born, and his idea of a sermon was a book review") terrified her, so she marched into the assistant minister's office and delivered her spiel about hypocrisy.

"He was an experienced, calm man in a three-piece suit; he had a mustache and wore glasses. He heard me out and then said, 'You're right, honey, there is a lot of hypocrisy.'" Annie felt her arguments dissolve. Then the minister proceeded to load her down with books by C. S. Lewis, which, he suggested, she might find useful for a senior class paper. "This is rather early of you, to be quitting the church," he remarked as they shook hands in parting. "I suppose you'll be back soon."

To Annie's consternation, he was right. After plowing through four of the Lewis volumes she fell right back in the arms of the church. Her rebellion had lasted one month.

I met Annie Dillard for the second time in 1994, at a conference in Wichita, Kansas, where she received the $10,000 Milton Center Prize for distinction in Christian literature. Much had happened to her in the intervening years.

Dillard had burst on the scene in 1974 with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book that hit the reading public with the impact of an asteroid: a new genre, fused somewhere in outer space, scattering fragments of itself throughout the atmosphere. In quick succession, it got featured by the Book-of-the-Month Club, won the Pulitzer, and went on to become a surprise bestseller (nearly half a million copies). Dillard was the new darling of the literary establishment, with reviewers comparing her work to that of Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, John Donne, and Henry David Thoreau. A slim young woman with wispy blond hair, blue eyes, and a penchant for felt hats, she fit the role photogenically.

Now, though, at the age of 50, Dillard has become part of that literary establishment, with a maturing body of work to her credit. In some ways, she has lived up to her promise; in other ways, the critics assess, she has not. Surely the years in the spotlight have taken a personal toll. She has had three marriages. Her voice betrays the decades of chain-smoking. On our second meeting, she struck me as strangely fragile, and her thin eyebrows, thin hair, and pale skin all contribute to that sense of fragility.

Throughout her career, Dillard has made her personal struggles-with fame, with the harsh demands of the writing life, with doubt and faith-transparent. In the face of America's relentless celebrity machine, a serious writer has few options. He or she can give in, like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal; or simply disappear, like J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Dillard has chosen something of a middle road. The word pilgrim in the title of Dillard's first major book gives a clue to how she sees herself. In the tradition of John Bunyan, a modern pilgrim confronts such issues as pride, fear, and guilt.

Pride. "Would Christ have gone on television?" Dillard once asked, at a time when she was swept up in a whirlwind of attention. Offers came in for her to endorse books and products, to write Hollywood scripts, to write ballets and songs. Invitations for her to speak and to teach filled her mailbox. For a time she fled, moving across the continent from Virginia to live in a one-room house on an island in Puget Sound. She made a vow she still honors: to give no more than two public readings a year. She turned down an appearance on the Today show, but decided to grant selective interviews to print journalists.

Interviews distress her, especially when they bore in on her personal life-her finances, the failed marriages. When a New York Times reporter spent a weekend with Dillard in Connecticut, where she now lives, Dillard stayed up half the night crying uncontrollably, troubled by questions the interviewer had asked about her faith. Still, she cooperates, a pilgrim submitting to emotional martyrdom.

Fear. When a struggling writer found unexpected success and wrote Dillard for advice, she got this reply: "I have an urgent message for you. Everyone feels like a fraud. . . . I'll get found out. I can't live up to this praise. I'm scared to write, I suddenly need help, don't know who I am anymore, don't trust my judgment, can't make decisions. Fear-I'm not this person they're praising. [Correct. It's the work they're praising.] They'll find me out. I can't live up to it."

For Dillard, winning the Pulitzer Prize changed everything. "I was in my twenties and I'd won a Pulitzer-I didn't mean to, it was an accident, these things just fall down on your head. I was horribly embarrassed and hid myself as far as I could." She moved to Washington knowing no one in the state. When she invited people over for dinner, they would talk to each other and not her. Why? The Pulitzer Prize, again. "They didn't know the first thing about me, they only knew the last. You can just die of loneliness with the Pulitzer Prize."

The letter to the struggling writer offers this advice: "Separate yourself from your work. A book you made isn't you any more than is a chair you made, or a soup. It's just something you made once. If you ever want to make another one, it, too, will be just another hat in the ring, another widow's mite, another broken offering which God has long understood is the best we humans can do-we're forgiven in advance."

Guilt. Readers of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek wrote Dillard by the thousands. The book, after all, came out years before authors like Thomas Moore and Scott Peck edged onto the bestseller list. Spirituality in those days had no place on the New York literary landscape, and in that desert, Pilgrim shimmered like an oasis for the soul. It did for some readers what fantasy literature does for others: it pointed convincingly to a world beyond. Most involuntarily, Annie Dillard became a modern saint, an icon.

A college student wrote to ask, What is transcendence, and how can I get more of it in my writing? A priest sent her an envelope in which she could see, holding it up to the light, a cross in silhouette. When she opened the envelope, "instead of a cross, a little agonized Christ fell out in my palm. I jumped. He must have fallen off his cross in the mail." Nuns sent religious medals and shreds of fabric from Veronica's veil. A woman wrote from her dying grandson's bedside asking for Dillard to settle one question: Was the United States right or wrong to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? A well-known artist inquired, "I don't mean to bother you, but would you tell me if God is here watching his creation and deciding who lives and who dies, or is he gone?" The artist's son had drowned sailing a Sunfish.

Is it any wonder she moved three thousand miles away? She felt more than a twinge of guilt about the kind of writing she did, which, she admits, is "appallingly isolated from political, social, and economic affairs." Was there any room for a healthy, sane, American woman writer? Was there room for a pilgrim-just that, a pilgrim and not a saint?

In Holy the Firm, the book that followed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard even inserted a disclaimer: "I do not live well, I merely point to the vision." She once explained to me, "Holy people ask me to speak at their monasteries and I write back and say no, keep your vision. In The Wizard of Oz there's a giant machine that announces 'Dorothy!'; behind the curtain a little man is cranking it and pushing buttons. When the dog pulls back the curtain to expose the little man, the machine says, 'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! Look at the light show.' So I ask the monks to keep their vision of power, holiness, and purity. We all have glimpses of the vision, but the truth is that no one has ever lived the vision."

Dillard began Holy the Firm while living on the island in Puget Sound, working in a room furnished with "one enormous window, one cat, one spider and one person." The trials of pride and fear and guilt that had followed in the wake of Pilgrim's astounding success all bore in on that solitary room. "I was hideously self-conscious," she recalls. "I worked 16 months full time, eight hours a day. Whenever I had the sheer nerve to even approach the stack of papers, I'd read what I'd written on the last couple of pages, and even I didn't understand it. I'd read it about 800 times until I understood enough to squeeze out a few more words. At the end of that time, I had 43 pages. I was getting like Beckett: fewer and fewer words, more and more silence."

The form of Pilgrim seems almost artless: a journal-keeper wanders in the woods recording her observations. The form of Holy the Firm is highly structured: a professional writer chooses to comment on the next three November days. This self-referential quality would surface again in The Writing Life, a book that reflects back on her time of self-imposed exile. In that later work, Dillard tells of a skywriter named Rahm. As he made soaring loops and barrel rolls and formed fleecy words of artificial clouds, from the perspective of the ground he seemed the freest, most joy-filled man in the world. But when Dillard herself rode with him, she saw that in the air Rahm was all business: strapped in, he spent his time clicking switches, wrestling with the joystick, grimacing against the g-forces. Writing is like that; most of the joy occurs on the outside, looking in.

"Write about winter in the summer," she would advise, pointing out the immateriality of the act of writing. "Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris. Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, Connecticut. Recently, scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room."

In a borrowed cabin heated by the alder wood she had chopped that morning, Annie Dillard wrote about theodicy, the incarnation of Christ, the sacramental nature of existence, the ultimate mysteries of the universe. Holy the Firm records Dillard's daily routine-teaching, musing, walking to the store to buy Communion wine-the narrative interlaced with her metaphysical speculation. She had decided to write about whatever happened in her life during the next three days, primarily to make the point that days are lived in the mind and in the spirit.

On the second day, though, a plane went down, and she found herself unavoidably drawn into the depths of the problem of pain. How can we, how dare we, love the God who allows a child to burn grotesquely in a plane wreck? "Did Christ descend once and for all to no purpose, in a kind of divine and kenotic suicide, or ascend once and for all, pulling his cross up after him like a rope ladder home?"

(continued in next article)


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