When I find myself struggling to be creative or productive, I always think of a story I read in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. It was about a rower who was pulled out to sea one evening by the ocean tide. He rowed and rowed all night and kept being pulled farther and father from land by the ebbing tide. In the morning, however, the direction of the tide reversed, and he was pushed back to the shore to safety.

I remember this story so vividly because I had to write a very short essay about the book in my A.P. English class. We had to answer three specific questions about the book in one paragraph each. The teacher stressed how important it was for this assignment to be brief; only one page and three paragraphs.

I chose to answer the last question by writing about the story of the rower. Unfortunately, my explanation of the rower’s story stretched to two whole paragraphs, making my essay far longer than the one-page limit. At that time in my life, I had no idea how to pare down my writing even if it meant cutting parts of it I liked. I agonized over how to cut it down, but decided, uneasily, to turn it in as it was, despite it exceeding the one-page limit.

Happily, my overlong essay was a big success. I may have I understood the story of the rower better than even the teacher did, because the day after I turned it in he began the class but projecting my essay—all two pages of it—onto the classroom’s pull-down screen, and asking the whole class to read it. He seemed genuinely touched by it, too.

This evening I pulled the essay out of my archives to reproduce below. The last two paragraphs are about the rower. I think about the ideas expressed in them on a weekly basis to this day.

An Approach to The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (20th century [1980s])

Michael Descy

AP English


A main theme of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is the importance of overcoming all the difficulties faced in the fulfillment of one’s dreams. The life of a writer can be dark and lonely, demanding much introspection and many late nights alone with an unruly manuscript. The writing process itself is difficult beyond most people’s conceptions. It is so harrowing, so haphazard, and so time consuming that most people that have one burning idea for a particular novel or story are never able to actually follow through its capitalization. Most never really even start, and the few who do often form such an attachment to their work, because it was so hard for them to accomplish, they will not allow themselves to alter it in any way, even to tie up loose ends or discard the beginnings of dropped themes and plot turns. Thus, their piece is never perfected; their dream is left to waste. Despite all these trials, however, writing is a very rewarding activity. Writing is like a passion eating at you, an aching, a hunger that can kill if not satiated. Only persistence, slogging through the murk and endless toil of the process, will enable one to fulfill his dream.

A dominant tone of the work can be described as enthusiastic. Dillard is intense as she explains the writing process. She describes writing in exhilarating terms, comparing it to playing tennis, lion taming, and stunt flying. Her metaphors are powerful, zesty. She shows your work as a line of words pulsing through your bloodstream and shooting across the universe. She tells us committing a vision to paper is a futile fight with the jealous, tyrannical page, the forces of time and matter working against you. Her chapters are choppy, broken down into many vignettes and tiny observations. There is a break on almost every page. They are so frequent each seems to be a gasp of breath between her quickly blurted images.

A strong scene that feels as though it will provide a good doorway for thoughtful attention to an important aspect of the work is the story of Ferrar Burn, which her painter friend, Paul Glenn, told her. One evening, years ago, Ferrar Burn caught sight of an eight-foot log of Alaska cedar floating out in the channel by his house. It was high tide, the water slack, so he rowed out, tied the log to his little eight-foot pram, and proceeded to tow it in. The tide turned, however, catching him, pulling him farther and farther out to sea. But Burn kept rowing against the tide, stubbornly, obstinately towards his house. He strained against it all night to little avail. When the tide finally changed the next morning, it finally pushed the still-rowing Ferrar Burn back home.

This scene connects very well to the aforementioned theme. Through persistence against terrible odds, the rower Burn was finally able to succeed. Had he given up, stopped rowing, he would have drifted so far out to sea that the tide change which eventually pulled him back in would not have helped him. A writer too must pull against opposing forces to accomplish his or her goal. There is much about the process that pushes people away. Most would just assume go along with the tide, take the easy route, and be led far away from their dream. But the few with the dogged insistence to stick with their craft, pull through their troubles, and never lose sight of their objectives are able to ride out the tough times and sail swiftly and smoothly through the good times. These few are steeply rewarded in the end. Their prize: accomplishment of a dream.