Lunch with Annie Dillard

April 30, 1982

By Malcolm Lawrence


Annie Dillard is not surrounded by her own award-winning writing; she is surrounded by everyone else’s.

A lunch time conversation with the 37-year-old visiting poet/English teacher (today is her birthday) revealed several of her thoughts about writing and Western Washington University.

"Writers don’t surround themselves with their own writings. I mean, you’ve already read them so you might as well surround yourself with the things you haven’t read. To save endless time wading through the contemporary novels to see which ones are any good, I just read dead writers," Dillard said. Although she doesn’t follow the contemporary novel market very closely, she said she does watch for writers such as Robert Coover, Lee Smith and Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges.

A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1974 for her book "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," Dillard originally came to WWU in 1974 for four years, then moved east for two years before returning to Bellingham. Her most recent book, "Living by Fiction," is available now. "Teaching A Stone To Talk," a personal narrative about nature set in the San Juan Islands, will be published in October.

"When I was in high school, one of my teachers said that I already had my own prose style. It’s not something I think about or worry about at all. Sometimes young writers are worried they have to develop their own prose style, but that’s not true. Whatever you write will turn into you."

Dillard advised a young writer to imitate, citing personal examples of the French symbolist poets, Old Testament poetry (Song of Solomon, Isaiah) and Wallace Stevens as original models for her poetry. In prose, she said, she always seemed to write material on her own.

Dillard’s first marriage was to Richard Dillard, ten years her senior, while she was a sophomore at Hollins College in Virginia, who gave her "enormous help" with her writing. "You learn like crazy when you’re married to someone," she said. "I keep telling my students ‘Marry brains! Marry brains!’"

Dillard’s expression sparkles when she speaks about the graduate-level class she teaches: ‘Seminar in the Writing of Non-Fiction Prose.’ "My graduate students want to write magazine articles that someone will publish, and my undergraduates tend to write literature. I find the older my students are, the better they are. That’s because of experience. Not experience of the world, but experience of reading. They’ve just read a lot more. Especially when you’re trying to get them to write non-fiction for magazines. Older people have read magazines, and students in college don’t have time. I didn’t have time to read magazines at college.

"I wish I were teaching poetry, because I love that too," she said. "And I love to teach poets because I like them as people. They’re sort of fringy and irresponsible: half-nuts. I’ve lost close touch with poetry. It’s just that there’s so much in a world of things that something has to give."

Dillard raved about The Western Front campus newspaper and Klipsun campus magazine, calling them superior to other college publications. She also emphasized the necessity of journalism skills for creative writing majors.

"Journalism teaches you to think of the reader. The trouble with people who major in creative writing is they often think the point of writing is to impress people, instead of to appeal to people. (For creative writing majors) the ideal courses to take are journalism and literature. I don’t think creative writing is such a great think to take, period, because you learn better how to take a text apart and put it back together from a literature course. And from a journalism course you learn how to appeal to the reader and organize your material. I’m hard put to say what you learn from a creative writing course. The people who major in English seem to have a really good understanding of how texts work. I wish I had more journalism majors in my classes, because I teach them just what they want to know."

Dillard began her college career at Hollins College, Va., where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. "In college I learned how to learn from other people. As far as I was concerned, writing in college didn’t consist of what little Annie had to say, but what Wallace Stevens had to say. I didn’t come to college to think my own thoughts, I came to learn what had been thought."

Commenting on whether or not her standards as a writer increased following her Pulitzer Prize, Dillard replied: "I didn’t have any standards; I was just writing a book. It was my second book: I had first done a book of poetry and then a book of prose. Then the success of the book of prose, for which the Pulitzer was a mere symbol, made me have to examine ‘what kind of writer was I? What do I want to do next?’"

Dillard said she was tempted to write travel pieces, because many people were willing to pay her to go to "wonderful places" and write about them. But she turned them down because she was busy teaching poetry at WWU. "And I was convinced by my own rhetoric that a life dedicated to high holy art was the great thing. I try to get my students to understand that we’re all in this wretched business together."

Speaking with Dillard, a genuine love for her work as well as Western’s campus is evident. "I loved college. The minute I got there I thought, ‘This is for me." I decided I was going to stay at college for the rest of my life, and I have."