“I really miss the sports,” says writer Annie Dillard. "I’m down to ping pong.” Which, apparently, she's expert at. What she doesn't miss, or at least doesn't admit missing, is writing. “I had good innings, as the British say. I wrote for 38 years at the top of my form, and I wanted to quit on a high note.”
Dillard has written award-winning books, including Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize. She’s written extensively about the process of writing, most comprehensively in her book The Writing Life, a title that referenced both her profession and her identity—writing was her life: thinking about it, talking about it, doing it, and teaching others how to do it.
And then, it wasn’t. In an interview in support of a new collection of previously published essays, The Abundance, Dillard describes the moment that she knew that something was different:
“I came into a room and saw a legal pad with my handwriting on it, and I read it. ... it was the beginning of a sentence, and I thought ‘what a promising beginning of a sentence, I wonder what in the world that was to have been about.’ I couldn’t figure out the end of it from the beginning. And I thought ‘Time to quit!’”
And she did. In that description she presents as cavalier, and perhaps overly spontaneous. We all forget things, of course. Even when speaking, let alone writing, we can get through half of a sentence and forget what we meant to say.
Dillard seems to be aware of that. She nevertheless returns to that moment less for what it was, than for how it felt and what it meant to her. It was the moment when she realized that, for whatever reason, she couldn’t do what she had done before. She had spent her life writing narratives, engaging with what she calls “the complexity of prose rhythms,” and knowing where she was going before ever putting pen to paper.
What she realised was that she was increasingly unable to work in the same way. “All along I’ve been trying to work toward a vision of where we are on this earth. What’s here, how can we describe where we are.” The level of attention she had once been able to give to overarching narratives, to big ideas, was being reduced to a halting attention to forgotten sentences. It was time to quit. She was 70.
When asked if it was a difficult decision, she answers without a blink. “No! We’re here under conditions … [and] the conditions aren’t going to change at all. You can either fight them or bitch about them all the time. But you might as well accept them.”
And she does. These days she paints, reads, thinks. “I write a lot of emails.” She also continues to inspire people, just as she has been doing for decades. She just does it in different ways than she used to.