Recently I was digging around on the Internet in search of the source of the Annie Dillard quotation I’ve been reflecting on for months. Turns out it’s from her book, Living By Fiction. Here’s the immediate context:
The most extreme, cheerful, and fantastic view of art to which I ever subscribe is one in which the art object requires no viewer or listener – no audience whatever – in order to do what it does, which is nothing less than to hold up the universe… Thoughts count. A completed novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order. It remakes its share of undoing. It counteracts the decaying of systems, the breakdown of stars and cultures and molecules, the fraying of forms.
Dillard is more radical than I supposed—radical, that is, in the original sense of “forming the root.” She understands creativity to work at a metaphysical level, transforming the basic stuff of the universe.
I found this source through a 1982 New York Times article by Anatole Broyard called, “Reading and Writing; the Perfect Audience.” (I don’t think I’ve seen a semicolon in a headline in decades.) Broyard uses Dillard’s quote to introduce an anonymous friend’s soliloquy on writing for no audience. Despite its grim view of humanity, its skepticism about the power of literature to affect change in readers, and its antiquated machismo, I love it so much I’ll quote it here in full.
“I used to write for people,” he said, “and my reward was a confetti of rejection slips or an occasional acceptance from a magazine with a name like a rock group. But even if I had been published in The New Yorker or The Atlantic, what difference would it have made, except for a few bucks? What can you hope for from people? Think of how parochial, how limited, how small people are. Writing for them is like shouting into the wrong end of a megaphone.
“Now I go to the source. I hurdle right over their heads and address myself to the world. As Hamlet said, I ‘conjure the wand’ring stars and make them stand like wonder-wounded hearers.’ I’ve got a real audience at last: generous, warm, receptive, immense. Every line I write is a ripple that travels to infinity. I’ve replaced an indifferent public with a passionate universe. What’s a best seller next to that?
“Think of the challenge, the dilapidations all around us, a havoc of exploding, colliding planets – and only a man [sic] with a pen in his hand can put it all back together, can rewind the great clock of the cosmos. Think of acid rain, yellow rain, the pollution of our oceans and rivers, the depletion of our fuel sources. Think of the frescoes flaking in Italian churches. Think of Venice sinking, great ocean liners rusting, blocks of abandoned tenements in the Bronx. It’s a [woman]-sized job.
“When I open the paper in the morning, I see nothing but cries for help—floods, cyclones, earthquakes, forest fires—and I take these as assignments. I sit down at my table to do battle with this mischievous perpetual motion machine. When I start writing I can sense, as Fuller says, ‘the intellect taking the measure of energy … the physical tending to be disorderly and the metaphysical apprehending, comprehending, and putting together.’ Just listen to that: ‘apprehending, comprehending, and putting together.’ There’s a definition of art for you. Show me a literary critic who can touch it.
“On a really bad day, when there’s a kind of cosmic vandalism in the air, I try to write strict stuff, a maximum of order. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, heroic couplets: I see these as emergency measures, stitches in the great gashes of time and space. Other days, when the demolition is comparatively mild, I can hang loose with blank or free verse, dithyrambs, odes, aubades. I might even try for a belles lettres essay, a short story, a few pages of a novel…
“There are times when I think that entropy is winning, days when I can actually feel the universe coming down on me, pressing, as if the ceiling of my studio were falling in. Like those bombing victims in the war who were buried in rubble, I have to dig myself out. But I can’t quit, I’ve got to keep going, because it’s not like writing for people. With them, if you miss a few weeks they’ll muddle through, but, man, you turn your back on the universe and the whole damned shebang’ll come down around your ears.
“When it starts getting to me, I think about my novel in a trunk in the attic. I don’t have an attic, so I keep it in the house of some friends in the country. It’s not a big trunk – in fact, it’s an old footlocker I found in an Army-Navy store – but it’s big enough. I can feel my book pulsing in there, beating like a heart against the turbulence, and I say to myself that I’ve done what I can, I’ve taken the heat. Though nobody has actually read my novel, I’ve shouted it to the heavens, and I know I was heard…
“It’s a tough life,” he said, in so soft a voice that he might have been talking to himself, “but once you take it on, you can never be satisfied with less.”
I’m a great fan of audiences, especially you, my faithful reader! And I believe in literature as a powerful force for social change. But I also think Dillard and this writer are onto something. Creative work in and of itself matters. And this belief radically transforms how and why we write.
There’s one last opportunity to write together in 2018! Join me at Wisdom Ways on Friday, December 14 from 1:30-3:30 to re-imagine revision. We’ll explore revision as a form of play, as a means of listening, and as our central work as human beings.
In this season of generosity, consider giving the writer in your life (or perhaps yourself?) a companion for the journey: