Sunday, December 27, 2015

BAE 1998 read by Craig Reinbold: On Annie Dillard, Fanatic

It’s never easy writing about your heroes, up on their pedestals, cast in bronze. The only way to do it, really, is to knock them down a bit.

The worst I can say about Annie Dillard is that she is, more or less, a regular person. Or this might just be rumor? This secondhand intel came from a poetry professor at the U. of Southern Mississippi, where I was once briefly a graduate student, and where this prof and I occasionally drank from the same communal coffee pot. There were only a handful of us in the department who indulged in this bottomless Folgers (snobs, the rest of them!) and I occasionally ran into her between classes, in the closet where the coffee pot lived, simmering its life away. 

One day, offhandedly, this poetry professor mentioned meeting Dillard at a conference, or something, or maybe she was once her student and actually knew her (?), I can’t remember, but the point is, Teaching a Stone to Talk and especially Holy the Firm are two of my all-time favorite essays/essay collections, and Dillard, for me, has always existed on another, ethereal, plane. She’s a sibyl, an oracle, a Pythia with an oleander crown and wearing golden robes and—

“Actually, she was just wearing pants when I saw her. Khakis, I think,” said the poetry professor. “And a sweater, or maybe it was a shawl?” And, “And actually, this is interesting: that creek, you know, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—where’s the creamer, the non-dairy stuff? Thanks—it’s just, like, a ditch or something."

“A ditch?”

“Yeah, someone who went to visit the spot said it’s just a little ditch with some water in it and some mud and some bugs, and that’s it.” 

I wasn’t too disillusioned by this revelation about the creek being little more than a ditch—I mean, who cares? But Dillard in khakis? Khakis and a sweater! Not even a little crown of gemstones or a tiara or something? I mean, c’mon, this woman won a Pulitzer at 29! 


I didn’t choose to write about the Best American Essays 1989 because of Dillard, though inevitably when I come back to it, after this, it will be to re-visit her here. Her essay, “Schedules”, well, there’s a lot to it, but I’d like to focus, more or less, on this: 
It was on summer nights in Roanoke, Virginia, that I wrote the second half of a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek… I had a room—a study carrel—in the Hollins College library, on the second floor. It was this room that overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. A plate-glass window, beside me on the left, gave out a number of objects: the roof, a parking lot, a distant portion of Carvin’s Creek, some complicated Virginia sky, and a fair hilltop where six cows grazed around a ruined foundation under red cedars. From my desk I kept an eye out.
She writes of being distracted by the world outside this window, until eventually she “shut the blinds one day for good…lowered the venetian blinds and flattened the slats.” She kept herself to a strict schedule after that, the routine that wrote the book:
I slept until noon, as did my husband, who was also writing. I wrote once in the afternoon, and once again after our early dinner and a walk. During those months I subsisted on that dinner, coffee, Coke, chocolate milk, and Vantage cigarettes. I worked till midnight, one, or two.
To illustrate this devotion she recounts how her husband and their friends drove off to the city for some July 4th festivities, and how she demurred: “I begged off; I wanted to keep working. I was working hard, although of course it did not seem hard enough at the time—a finished chapter every few weeks. I castigated myself daily for writing too slowly…”

And she did it. She wrote the book, the book that won her the Pulitzer at age 29, that set her up with the privileges that come with literary success, namely, more time and freedom to keep writing. She did it. And how?

Devotion turned to fanaticism, her word, for what it took to write the book as she did.

“During that time,” she writes in the essay’s coda, “I let all the houseplants die. After the book was finished I noticed them; the plants hung completely black, dead in their pots in the bay window. For I had not only let them die, I had not moved them.”


She would also be divorced, “amicably”, soon after, though as a writer she’s much too reserved to drop this into the mix here, at least not directly. She let the plants die. Any implications lie between the lines.


I too went through a period in my late twenties when I barred myself in a study carrel, not all night, but all day, though unlike Dillard I have nothing, really, to show for it. No Pulitzer, obviously, but no book either. No tenure-track teaching job. No teaching job. No time or freedom to write—I’m writing this on stolen time actually (I'm supposed to be studying glycolysis and the Kreb cycle!).

In truth, I barred myself in that study carrel, but only 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and many days I’d ditch out early, wanting to enjoy a walk with my wife before making dinner. And I kept my weekends free, for living, rather than writing. Mine was a more measured fanaticism. Not fanatical enough, apparently.

Even in my 20s, when I was young, and pushing hard, I was never the type to let the plants die. There's no smugness in my saying this. If anything, I admit this with some regret. If that awesome fanaticism is what it takes, not just to write a book, and get that book published, but to make an actual life out of your art, out of writing, then I have entirely failed. Some people are destined for greatness, literary or otherwise, and some are stuck, forever, middling, where exactly? Here? Where is here? I don't know—it's not even on the fucking map. Fuck.

I was seven when the BAE came out in '89. Then in the 2nd grade and still wearing striped athletic socks stretched to just below the knee. That may have been the winter I also wore a pleather bomber jacket, stitched with wings and insignia, and various patches, black, like Maverick’s, though the neighbor boy, two houses over, had a brown bomber that I thought looked slightly cooler, and this is probably why he was the second most popular boy in our class of 22 while I was the third least popular. Oh, the quiet jealousy, the coveting. Much has changed since then—26 years have passed!—and much hasn't. Here I sit still quietly jealous, coveting.

Have I learned nothing?


Well, life is one long and tortuous learning process. Early in the essay, Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I remind myself: Hey asshole, you just spent five hours on a Friday thinking deeply about life, and purpose, and meaning, and the art of writing. That's like the definition of privilege. Life is so good!

As the father of two someday-to-be-adults, I wonder what I will say to them when they feel like failures, as they inevitably will, at some point in their hopefully long and full lives. What will I say to my eldest, Ari, now just shy of 3 years old, if he fails to publish a book before he’s thirty? There’s always next year, I think, would be a good start. Then, Keep at it. And if my youngest, Jack, now 9 months, does, in fact, win a Pulitzer at 29, but ends up divorced that same year, possibly because while he was fanatically devoting himself to shaping pleasing sentences his marriage, untended, fell apart? I might suggest reevaluating priorities. But really who’s to say what will be right for him.

Dillard ends her essay with: “…the fanaticism of my twenties shocks me now. As I feared it would.” Not that she suggests she would have done anything differently, she doesn’t, but one senses, at least, a pause for reflection, and in that reflection, decision. And the decision is important. To make a conscious choice. To choose what sort of life you would like to lead, and live each day accordingly.


I’m going for a coffee, a small indulgence this beautiful December day, and then I think I'll steal another hour or two to reflect on this: I have no book, have nothing really to show for years of hard work, but at least our twenty or so houseplants are still kicking it. Indeed, they're thriving.

Craig Reinbold is one of the curators of Essay Daily. It's true, he has no book to his name, but his work has won some awards, been Notable'd in the BAE, nominated for several Pushcarts, and has appeared in many fine places, most recently in Zone 3. He spends his days alternately hanging out with his two boys and studying to become a nurse. 


  1. Hits a nerve. Pretty great way into this group of essays on BAE series.

  2. To this essay and to your house plants, I say bravo.