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Amber Paulen

A Rocking Boat

8 May 2010


I am on a rocking boat. Being on a rocking boat means that you don’t know when you’ll make it to shore, or where that shore is. All you can do is rock and toss about on the waves that first throw you in one direction then far off in another.

I have begun reading War and Peace which is a silly thing to start when you don’t know if everything is a short transition or a longer temporality. War and Peace is the original tome that works my forearms and stomach muscles every time I pick it up. War and Peace doesn’t give any satisfaction of having “made it in” the text until you are 200 pages through.

One shore is an apartment near the Colosseum, an office job for Simon and Rome for about seven months. Here the summer will be full of dinners and drinks and Rome in late twilight, fountains, dinners and the Colosseum. The second shore is foggy, there are shapes moving around below the opaque veil but I don’t know what they are or what they are doing there. Here lies travelling, and more freedom. But where do we live in the meantime? Stay here, where I can’t hear myself think? If we go off again, we must leave ASAP.

I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Annie Dillard reminds me of a strict headmaster who sits up on an untouchable podium holding a switch. She observes your writing then hits you with the twig. The novice can’t argue because Annie Dillard is Annie Dillard; she rattles your nerves and pushes you to believe that Her Way is The Right Way. I admire Annie Dillard, but I don’t believe that in writing there is One Way.

Writing is a road with many paths and if you create the line of words that is a hammer it will lead you in your own direction, which will be refreshingly unique. To listen too closely to anyone is to shut off what makes your writing your own, it is to urge it in a direction pre-travelled. Perhaps, with The Writing Life Annie Dillard wishes to instruct young writers, not how to succeed, but how to fail and in doing so created for herself the title, The Last Best Writer Alive. I’m not saying that failure is bad but that one must have the strength to pull one’s self up and fail again.

No matter, Annie Dillard has written some greatly thought-provoking words about writing and I enjoy reading it while I’m stoned trying to figure out which shore to urge the rocking boat towards. War and Peace is an anchor and maybe I need to toss it overboard so that I can rock without ballast. The Writing Life is an anchor and so is the Colosseum. Whatever there is in this life that does not exist solely to clamp you down, is a fiction; everything has only I to give thanks to when it stares back at me heavy from too much meaning. I am the anchor just like I am the rocking boat. There will always be the single word: Jump!

There are many manuscripts already—worthy ones, most edifying and moving ones, intelligent and powerful ones. If you believed Paradise Lost to be excellent, would you buy it? Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world? —Annie Dillard, The Writing Life



Commentary for A Rocking Boat


1 On Sunday 31 July 2011 Vincent wrote:

I’m very interested to read your thoughts on Annie Dillard’s book, as I read it not long ago and had somewhat similar thoughts.

I took another book of hers to finish on my Kindle on a recent visit to Lisbon: For the Time Being. Like The Writing Life, it’s a rag-bag, written by a hyperactive author who must always have a writing project to work on. Have you read it? The overall theme is the same as Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek: there is a God (of the Hasidic persuasion) but he is inhumanly cruel by our standards, so we ought to stop being sentimental Christians of the Sunday-school kind, and bravely face the unsolved paradoxes.

But for a rag-bag, it has a tight structure of interwoven threads or themes. More a patchwork quilt than a ragbag, then.

2 On Monday 08 August 2011 Amber wrote:

Hi Vincent, Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees is one of my favorite fiction novels ever. Perhaps all those strong thoughts in her non-fiction are somewhat tamped down to poetry in her fiction? I don’t know. The book is strong and moving.


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