On the Pleasures of Dillard

I can’t recall how young I was when I first read the prose of Annie Dillard—a literary encounter made possible, like so many others, by way of a gift. (Isn’t this the beauty of literature, and all art for that matter? That it arrives and thrives as a sequence of gifts: from the Muse to the Artist, from the Artist to the Publisher, from the Publisher to the Reader, and from the Reader to other Readers.)

The first time I read Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, I sounded like Dillard in my head for days. For years, the surest sign I had that a writer had affected me was if my linguistic patterns began to conform to theirs—a behavior consistent with the insight that imitation is the highest form of flattery.

But this wasn’t simply a function of admiration: when a writer touches me, it’s because they’ve given voice to the previously mute stirrings of my own heart—and once given expression, these stirrings seek further articulation in the very language that gave birth to them through utterance. Said another way: the writer is saying something I could have said (having once thought, felt or done the same), but their saying it in their own inimitable way is what paradoxically sparks the moment of recognition.

A case in point is the opening paragraph of Dillard’s essay A Field of Silence:

“There is a place called ‘the farm’ where I lived once, in a time that was very lonely. Fortunately I was unconscious of my loneliness then, and felt it only deeply, bewildered, in the half-bright way that a puppy feels pain.”

Two lines! A mere two lines! Yet two lines that illuminated (for the first time) the hazy melancholy of countless of my grade school years—a time when I’d felt very much misunderstood by children my age and to which I trace my enduring aloofness to human beings below the age of twelve. I’ve read that passage countless times and I still marvel at the clarity it induced (and the identification it provokes).

And this, perhaps, is the other beautiful thing about literature: that for all the diversity and singularity of its voices, its melodies and harmonies remain—so hauntingly and poignantly—the same.


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