Friday, August 6, 2010

How to tame your lion

I'm reading Annie Dillard's book about writing and I wanted to share these passages without comment, because I cannot add a single word without diluting her words.

"The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow . . . or this time next year.
"You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins.
"The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back . . . .
"Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself . . . .
"A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fasten a halter, but which now you can't catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, 'Simba!'

Annie Dillard is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a non-fiction narrative. Her observations on life resist classification. This is her husband's description of her writing: "Her distinctive, and distinctively American, prose style has been widely recognized and openly imitated. She is, like Thoreau, a close observer; she is, like Emerson, a rocket- maker; her works’ prose structures and aims, however, are all her own."


  1. Thanks for sharing this amazing post, Rahma! A work in progress does become feral. And snarls and bites, until we tame it to purr like a contented kitten.

  2. Thanks for such an amazing metaphor for one's wip! :-)

    You really have to care for this feral creature and make it trust you enough to allow you to look after its needs!

    Take care

  3. I read this book for a writing class years ago. Loved it.

    Thanks for bringing it to mind. I shall search it out from a box in the basement and give it another read.


  4. Rachna and Old Kitty: great continuation of the metaphor. I related to the lion metaphor so well in so many ways, you have no idea! :-)

    Cat: you might want to have a chair in hand when you go to the basement. Just sayin'

  5. "I hope the birds ate your crumbs." Reminds me of Cynthia Leitich Smith: she considers the first draft to be a way to get to know her character and deletes the file when's she done.
    Oh, to be that brave!


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