Line, Run, Breath: On Annie Dillard and the Circuitous Work of Writing

May 29, 2018 | 3 books mentioned 8 min read

1. Lifting the Heavens
coverOnly after drafting my bus book Riding the Wheel did I recall Annie Dillard’s advice in The Writing Life: “It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.” Instead, I had followed her first chapter’s first sentence: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.” I had begun my first throwaway chapter by laying out a line of words about starting my runs: “It’s an irony to take a car to work when you drive a bus for CyRide, but drivers are the folks that the city of Ames depends on to get people to work.”

I continued my overview about my work until page 42 of the manuscript. I explained where I had worked odd jobs around the city to make ends meet, when I had taken the CDL test, what it had taken to drive a bus, who the other drivers had been, and why I hadn’t become a full-time benefited driver. I kidnapped potential readers into backstory instead of chauffeuring them.

During my drafting, I gave myself a breather by taking an evening tai chi class where I learned an eight-sequence energy transformation exercise. I would drive my car downtown and park near where the Red and the Green and the Yellow bus routes connected. I ducked inside city hall’s gym trying to avoid old co-workers spotting me and asking what I was doing now.

2. Bending the Bow, Shooting the Arrow
cover For an essay collection that talks a lot about not needing to reveal to readers the cost of writing books, Dillard spends a lot of time in The Writing Life on how she secluded herself to toil on them. In her second chapter, she inverts Virginia Woolf by saying, “One wants a room with no view so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” Dillard shares that she finished her notorious, Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek holed up on summer nights in a study carrel at Hollins Library. Dillard covered up the carrel’s windows so she couldn’t see outside and then wrote. She realizes, “It was a nature book full of sunsets.”

I wrote Riding the Wheel during winter days in an extra bedroom of my wife’s and my rented duplex. My cat’s litter box filled one corner with clay debris, and my desk, topped with run sheets, an operations manual, and my bus journal, filled another. On my runs, I had scribbled scraps of eavesdroppings and notes between stops and connections and driving breaks, and then at home I had transferred and expanded those notes into a journal of who drove during my shifts, what buses I steered, where my routes took me, when I began and ended my runs, and how I felt clocking in another day of driving.

My metallic flexible lamp shone on the keys of my laptop. On its base, I had taped an index card with the epigraph to The Writing Life’s first chapter: “Do not hurry; do not rest. —Goethe.” I sat on a red balance ball and hunched over my work. Weak winter light filtered through the plasticked-up west window, making everything look smudged and gray and sad. I came to realize my bus book was a working man’s memoir about loneliness.

In my tai chi class, I only knew my scientist-philosophy buddy Dave. He worked on his master’s researching small grains at Iowa State. His friends had known my wife’s friends and he had asked me to take the class with him. Our class met above the full-size basketball court where I used to play pickup. We sometimes had to move stationary bicycles to the side so we could practice the circular motions of tai chi.

Dave and I were the youngest guys in a class of old men. Their hair had whitened. They tucked faded volunteer T-shirts into the elastic of sweatpants. They wore sneaker brands I didn’t recognize.

Bones creaked. Knuckles popped. Tendons burned. By the end of each class, everyone breathed together: deep breaths, breaths that filled, breaths that energized.

3. Separating Heaven and Earth
Dillard’s metaphor for laying out the line comes from her splitting wood in chapter three of The Writing Life. Before working on some writing in an unheated cabin, she attempts to split wood to size for a stove. She mocks herself, and Thoreau, by admitting that she was warmed twice by cutting logs down to thornlike tips and then burning those splinterings up inside.

Anyone who has cut wood already knows Dillard’s advice, the last sentence in the chapter: “Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.” Dillard doesn’t take her own advice to throw away the beginning of the chapter to get to the ending. (Paradox: Or maybe she did throw something out before writing her beginning?) Exception proves the rule. She cuts through an external hardship to illustrate the internal work a writer must do—hacking—to smoothly lay out lines.

Shoveling was as misleading as cutting. To make 20 dollars for gas in the tank, a bag of groceries, or the heating bill, I shoveled snow at an old lady’s house where I had gardened after quitting bus driving. While I felt like I dug down, actually I lifted up. Dillard split; I scooped. I was glad when it snowed because it gave me a reason to work besides writing; it gave me a reason to take a shower, thus warming me twice—once while scooping, and then again under the hot water; it showed my accumulated work of inches and then feet, which was something more than digital sentences and paragraphs invisibly piling up.

Several evenings during the week, after my days of piling words or scooping, Dave would come over to my duplex to save me from spending the gas. We would practice tai chi in the basement. The blue-painted cement floor cooled our feet if we stood still, and the treated beams of the rim joist holding up the floor above us creaked with my cat running around to warm up. We practiced below the frost line where the foundation had been laid and the furnace huffed on when my wife came home.

4. Gazing Backward
At the top of The Writing Life’s two-page Chapter 4, Dillard writes in all caps, “SORRY TO TELL YOU A DREAM!” But her dream is a valuable metaphor for dealing with throwing away beginnings. In it, she first thinks that a tremor has shaken her house after she’s just left her study. She moves back into the doorway, but instead of finding safety from an earthquake, she finds her portable green Smith-Corona exploding like a volcano.

Dillard tears down the study’s curtains to smother the eruption from her typewriter. She rushes to the kitchen and fills a bucket with water, but by the time she returns to the study, it doesn’t seem needed. The fire goes out. An ash-like film remains for her to clean from the typewriter before she can write again.

My nightmare was losing my draft of Riding the Wheel, most likely via my aluminum PowerBook’s memory somehow erasing it. I took appropriate measures. I removed my laptop’s battery and plugged in a surge-protected charger. After every day at my desk, I emailed myself the newest version of the draft. Also, I saved a copy of the draft onto a USB flash drive attached to a carabiner that I kept clipped to my belt loop during the day and placed on top of my nightstand when I slept. I hadn’t dreamed that the writing itself wasn’t worth saving; losing it all might have made me consider what parts of it were worth remembering.

coverAn agent friend offered to read any manuscript for me, and so I sent him my draft—so proud, so sure. But he couldn’t get into it. He told the truth I needed to hear: “I don’t care about you and your work shift and your daily routine, kid. I care about the bus and all the weirdoes on it!”

Our tai chi instructor sent an email with a two-page attachment of “The Ten Essentials of Taijiquan Theory” by Yang Chengfu from Fu Zhongwen‘s Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan. The fourth essential read:

Distinguish insubstantial and substantial. The art of Taijiquan takes the distinction between insubstantial and substantial as the first principle. If the weight of the entire body is placed over the right leg, then the right leg is substantial and the left leg is empty. If the entire body’s weight is placed over the left leg, then the left leg is substantial and the right leg is empty. If one is able to distinguish empty and full, then the body’s turning motions will be light and agile, and there will be no wasted strength. If one is unable to distinguish, one’s steps will be heavy and sluggish, one’s stance will be unsteady, and one will easily be unbalanced by an opponent’s pull.

5. Swaying the Head, Swinging the Tail
“Admire the world for never ending on you—as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away,” Dillard writes in Chapter 5 of The Writing Life.

At first, I was terrified of my failure after hearing from the agent. Then, I agreed. I hadn’t titled it Learning to Ride the Wheel.

I understood what our tai chi instructor said: “Your best opponent is yourself.”

6. Holding the Feet with Hands
In The Writing Life’s penultimate chapter, Dillard asks her painter friend Paul Glenn how his work is going. Instead of answering directly, he recounts a story about an old neighbor on their northwest island who in the afternoon had rowed out to an Alaskan cedar log to bring it back for construction. When the neighbor reached the log, the tide began to pull out. The man rowed all night, caught in the current, until dawn broke and the tide rolled back in.

I think writers on a roll, or artists of any kind, like to hear and tell stories about the cost of creating new art. Not the grand total. The old proverb of appreciating the journey more than the destination.

I pushpinned a map of all the bus routes around Ames above my desk and sat down to revise. First, I threw out the beginning. Then, I rewrote it line by line.

I can’t explain how it felt to start over, but I can recount a story Dave told me about our tai chi instructor Matt. Back when Matt first lived with his now-wife Laura, he had asked her to take care of his cat. Matt, also a sustainable agriculture professor who had summer field projects to monitor, sometimes spent weeks away from home. Shortly after Matt left, his cat left. Laura looked and looked, and then she found the cat and brought it inside. When Matt called and asked how the cat was doing, Laura said that it was fine but didn’t mention the disappearance. Laura came to like the cat. Laura was looking forward to having Matt come home, and she was sure the cat would be glad to see him. When Matt came in the door, after hugging Laura, he saw the cat and said, “That’s not my cat.”

The other cat, the original cat, was still missing. Matt and Laura kept the replacement.

7. Screwing the Fist
Dillard ends The Writing Life with an essay about a stunt pilot and geologist named Dave Rahm. Rahm saw “the air as a line,” which later looped into a noose when he died during a skydive. First, Dillard witnesses his air show’s “end unraveled in memory while its beginning unfurled as surprise.” Then, she discovers the cost Rahm risked when she flies with him as he takes his plane within inches of the landscape before he yanks up and the G-forces slam down.

I don’t know if there’s a way for a reader to fully experience the act of writing. Should readers sit in the cockpit as a co-pilots or just enjoy the ride as passengers?

I restarted Riding the Wheel: “Zoe looks through me as she boards my bus.” I reorganized my chapters into a repeating pattern of circular routes that looped around the university, my fixed routes that ran back and forth across the city, and odds and ends salvaged from my draft’s junkyard about picking up/dropping off, cleaning buses, and then I ended the manuscript checking out a bus one last time before quitting, when “I set [my sign] to Not-in-Service.”

Once, Dave and I witnessed a man doing the complete 108 sequence of tai chi. We had met at a park after class ended that spring and continued to practice together. In a field, we saw a mop of black hair swaying along with limbs in a white T-shirt, athletic pants and sneakers moving silkily. He wasn’t practicing. I didn’t know the full form, but I recognized the pure pattern.

8. Rocking the Bubbling Wells
I had read The Writing Life five years before finishing Riding the Wheel. I hadn’t remembered Dillard’s best advice until I reread it after finishing a draft of my manuscript. I didn’t remember her advice as a koan to mutter as I wrote but rather as something I needed when my agent friend’s commented on my draft. I remembered it when I needed to revise. Isn’t revision actually reseeing? And in nonfiction, looking at memory again, differently?

My first tai chi instructor said not to worry, that we would remember something incorrectly—we would—but it is easier to correct a consistent mistake than to have to relearn moves. In class, we would walk back and forth, retracing our steps while smoothing them and softening them, building up energy with intention until we returned to the beginning position to restart.

earned an MFA in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University, after which he worked a variety of odd jobs including driving a bus. He is currently rewriting his memoir about the experience, Riding the Wheel, into a novel. His writing about reading has also been published in the Ames Tribune and on Essay Daily and Lit Pub. Read more at