On Studying with Annie Dillard in 1989

Me in 1989, trying to look like Morrissey
Me in 1989, trying to look like Morrissey

When I was studying with Annie Dillard, this is a bit of what she saw when she looked over the table at me.

My memoir of that time is up over at The Morning News.

Many people have remarked on all that I learned from her in the essay, but of course, there’s way too much to put in one essay. If you’re interested in more on what she taught me, check out this post on her method for using the Best American Essays/Stories anthology as a guide to the market, and this column I wrote in 2002 for Indiebound, “You Write What You Read”.



  1. Okay, I just read the entirety of your essay. Dillard seemed like an amazing teacher to have. The class seems brutally hard, but I envy you for having had that opportunity. I was a psych major in undergrad, and only took one creative writing class. This was at a point in time when I was in denial that I wanted to make this into a life — it didn’t actually seem like an option. I don’t regret my choices, but I do wish I had had more specific schooling on writing. The techniques and specific things she calls your attention to are ideas that never even occurred to me. I’m totally going to try to apply that way of thinking to my writing now. I’m doing my MFA now, but that kind of attention to small details over the technique of writing is something I’ve yet to encounter. Anyway, thanks for this. A lot for me to consider, personally.

    Also, I always find it intriguing how people stumble across their path towards writing. I had no idea you were into studio art before. Funny how things happen.

    The way you approach your writing must have been heavily influenced and changed after such a rigorous course. I wonder what your writing was like before. I remember being struck by how fluid and lyrical and vivid your words were in Edinburgh, and it seems so incredibly natural to you. I’m sure the “raw talent” you started out with was already strong, but I wonder how much of what you do now was ingrained in you through all the hard work you’ve done.

    Rambling, sorry.

    1. Thanks, Karissa. And ironically, she is now painting.

      Her methods for teaching technique were rigorous but I have to say, applying them to my students over the years, the difference afterward is extraordinary. I was and am still very grateful to her. The style you describe I came to on my own, but by using her technical training. I was always good with metaphor, but needed to pay attention to tone and diction.

      And that museum of cliches.

    2. Also, Karissa, you’re a regular on here, you’re totally allowed to ramble.

      There was no way to put everything I learned from her into that essay, but I wanted to do what I could to highlight some of the best.

      1. I read the other two links you posted. Good reads.

        I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole verb/adverb business since I read your article. Obviously, we’ve always been told adverbs are evil and lazy, but it was nice to have it pointed out that the reason they’re evil is because they show that you’re using the wrong verb. I have a lot of trouble with this, the fall back on an adverb to describe the same verb over and over again: He said… quickly. Quietly. Sadly. Etc, etc.

        Now that I’ve read your article, I’m even more conscious of the fact that I can’t seem to find the right verb, and it has become this thing I do where I stick in a verb/adverb combo and tell myself I will come back and fix it later with the “good” verb.

        But really, it just occurs to me that there needs to be a big dictionary/thesaurus of JUST verbs. Great verbs. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Look up your verb/adverb combo, and find a list of award-winning active verbs. Then I’d never have to wrack my brains for a way to say that she said anything cheerfully or carefully ever again.

  2. I enjoyed every word of your essay on Annie Dillard, but your description of the way she taught is amazing. The details of her calling each of the thirteen of you by your last names and the way she ate the caramels and let the plastic wrappers pile up put us there in the classroom with you. Wow.

    However, what I am most fascinated by are your details of the way she helped you release your voice–the cutting away of all but the best sentences, the circling of the verbs, the attention to the “right verb.”

    I know you mentioned at the end of the essay that you send your students to find their places on the bookstore shelves, but I wonder if you teach others the way she taught you.

    Thank you for sharing Annie Dillard with the rest of us.

    1. Thank you, and thanks for reading it. If you were to ask any of my former students, they would tell you I quote her often and teach using many of her methods, or methods I drew from those methods, for technique. It was my hope also in writing this that some of her legacy in teaching writing could be made a little more widely available. The Writing Life, her book on the subject, was being edited by her while she taught us, and has many of those epigrams, but that book did not address technique.

      1. I am a fan of that book, and in particular the passage where she writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives…” I named my blog “catching days” from that passage.

        But at the moment I am craving writing technique, which is one of the reasons I was so taken with your essay.

        And btw, but unrelated, I just bought one of her paintings. She is finishing up where you started…

      2. As one of those former students, I loved this piece – a lot of those exercises, especially verb-counting, are familiar from your class, and of course I remember you passing on AD’s wisdom on many occasions. Retracing the lineage of those exercises is exhilarating; reading this piece is like being re-inducted into a literary society of trade secret-sharers. At the very least, it proves there was a method to your madness! Hope all’s well.


  3. I thought your essay was wonderful and I laughed when I read, “I learned that the first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four.”

    I thought you must have been in my head. I found this out quite a while ago when reading what I had written and realizing I had taken forever to get to where it really started.

    I also realized this was a necessary aspect to writing (at least for me). As you describe, it’s the business of clearing your throat. It’s really only a problem if you don’t junk it or move it in the rewrite.

    I envy you the time you had studying with her.

    1. Thanks, Bill. She was a great teacher. And I did want the essay to pass along some of the experience of being her student.

  4. I really enjoyed the essay and I am envious that you studied with Annie Dillard. I’ve read many of her essays and now I also have a vivid picture of her style. Thanks for sharing her wisdom and your own. I found the essay via Moonrat and your blog from there. It was fun to come here and find more useful and interesting writerly stuff. I will look for your books.

  5. I’ve read your essay three times. I will, I’m sure, read it a fourth before I rework a short story that is kicking my a&%.

    Your link to Diaz’ piece helped, too. (I can find one good thing. I think. 😉 )

    New to your blog, via Moonrat. Love it.

  6. I very much enjoyed your post on Annie Dillard. I, too, took a writing course from her at Wesleyan, in the spring of 1980. At the time she was teaching poetry writing.

    I was prodded, earlier this year, to write my own recollections of Annie as a teacher, and I have emailed them to you, as this is probably not the forum for such a memoir.

    What you wrote was very consistent with my experience. I tell anyone who asks that she is a far better teacher than she is a writer.

    Thank you for your recollections!

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