A few years ago, I heard the opening passage of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek read aloud. It made an impression on me; as I listened to a woman describe a tomcat crawling on her chest in the early morning, leaving a trail of blood like roses, I knew that I would remember it, because it sounded like something I had heard before and recognized. I could smell the musty room, and see the window, the bed, the furniture, just becoming visible in the bluish light from a not-yet-risen sun. These weren’t the author’s words, but this was the image I kept in my head like a stone in my shoe for the next two years, remembering the book and knowing that I needed to read it.
I had the privilege of doing just that over this summer, a season which has allowed me many hours of reading brilliant and often life-changing books. I’ve discovered that Ms. Dillard’s writing is like none I’ve ever experienced. It is bracing and sharp, a constant incision, and it caters to no expectations – none of mine, anyway. “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is a book about nature, and Dillard devotes herself entirely to the natural world around her, rather than adopting that world as a subject for herself. She studies it religiously and finds the religion in it. She is absently bitten, gnawed, stung, trying to inch closer to her subject, and this is also the way her words affect the reader; one walks away from the book feeling raw.
There is almost nothing in the book that interests me literally; I read for hours about muskrats, cockroaches, spiders, and frogs, and often I would reach the end of a page realizing I had absorbed nothing of what I’d just read. The book captivated me for weeks all the same. I finished it curled up on the landing of my sister’s staircase, with half a mind on the page and half on my week-old niece lying a few feet away, caught up in what marvels they both were.
In the first chapter of Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis describes a phenomenon that is not man-made but lives inside of us, and feels as natural as breathing even if we are not always aware of it. He speaks of morality, but I bring up the idea because I believe that there is a similar law inside of us which recognizes beauty and truth, just as our morality recognizes right and wrong. I find a book exceptional if it seems that the story it tells exists on its own, and that it would have continued on living had I stumbled upon reading it or not. Annie Dillard is a nonfiction writer, so my initial reaction to her words makes sense; she chronicles reality, and so upon listening I felt as though I was being reminded of something I had already seen or known. This is her style – she relentlessly dissects the world around her, usually in terms of science or logic.
But what is, to me, even better, is if a writer can accomplish this through fiction. Storytelling that sounds like truth is difficult to find, but storytelling that feels like truth is remarkable. Each time I experience such work from an author, like I have recently with Annie Dillard, I am overwhelmed in thinking, I didn’t even know you could do that with words.
This summer I reconnected with an old friend, also an aspiring writer, who dreams of publishing fantasy or science fiction or a blend of the two. We have discussed the differences between our attempts and ambitions – she would prefer to make her readers feel whisked away on an adventure, their horizons expanded to magical impossibilities, while I would prefer my work to foster something that a reader has always known is real but has only just realized.
A popular quote from Pilgrim on Tinker Creek describes this feeling: “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” The best works of fiction I’ve read this summer – Everything Is Illuminated, Remains of the Day, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – have all seemed to me like the stories of people who have lived or are living, and reading about them has only been the discovery of an inevitable reality. Much like holding my niece for the first time – she appears to be an inevitability, even if I never knew her before.