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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: annie dillard

Keeping Company With More Than Paper

"It should surprise no one that the life of the writer - such as it is - is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the author's childhood. A writer's childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience. Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper." -Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I've been in brilliant company this last week. Thankfully, it was neither pieces of paper nor my laptop.

Our family drove to Chicago to spend the week visiting with family and friends. Because we'd planned our trip to accommodate our children's fall break, we didn't stay long enough to participate in any real Thanksgiving feasting.We did, however, hold a three-day birthday celebration for Nathan, which was lots of fun but now that I think of it, might be the very kind of thing perpetuating the notion that his birthday is a national holiday.

It's always a good thing to step away from my otherwise normal writing life and the technology, which supports it. When we cross into Michigan and my iPhone tells me that I no longer have access to data (except for an exorbitant charge), I feel relieved. Radio silence descends, revealing just how reflexive my digital habits are: all those empty minutes inhabited by a quick scroll through Facebook status updates and tweets; rabbit trails of mental activity, as I follow one article after another. Not a bad thing - but not always defensible and certainly a source of distraction.

I welcome a pause when it arrives.

And although I didn't write this last week, I did make some writing connections.

I met Katelyn Beaty, the managing editor for Christianity Today, for breakfast one morning. About halfway through the conversation (at which point I'd finally slowed my nervous chatter to a normal speech cadence), Katelyn made the wonderful and unexpected offer that I join Her.meneutics as a regular contributing writer. (P.S. I forgot to tell you I wrote another article, which they published last week: "What You Don't Know About Complementarian Women.")

I'm grateful for this opportunity, knowing that great readers make for great writing. And Her.meneutics, with its outstanding roster of women writers, certainly courts a theologically thoughtful audience. At the same time, the offer makes me feel all jittery inside, wanting alternatively to do cartwheels or move to Montana.

There's courage needed for the writing life: to keep at it, to keep risking the sound of your own voice. Which is one of the many reasons I am grateful to belong to Redbud Writers Guild, a community of women writers. For the first time last week, I had the chance to meet some of the buds in person.

Shayne Moore, author of Global Soccer Mom  and the soon to be published, Refuse to Do Nothing

Teri Kraus, a seasoned fiction writer who has published 13 books

Aubrey Sampson, a newbie like me

Margaret Philbrick, who is working on her first novel

And a friend I've known a long time, Alisha Venetis.

So there's my update, friends: I've spent a week living not just recalling the real world. There was even a lazy morning spent at a coffee shop with the my beautiful daughters: hot chocolate for them, a latte for me, and several rousing rounds of Checkers and Clue.

And if that's not life . . .

Celebrate Advent: Receive the gift of seeing.

I close my eyes and crane my neck awkwardly over cold ceramic. Who doesn't think grand thoughts, their head in the shampoo bowl? I've been reading Annie Dillard's, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

One doesn't actually read Annie Dillard. You dip your fingers in the ribboning chocolate of her prose, savoring the exquisiteness of each image, every sentence.

In this book, she describes her quest to see, recalling early on her childhood memory of surreptitiously hiding pennies in sidewalk cracks for strangers. Hidden pennies become the metaphor for beauty.

"The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But - and this is the point - who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go on your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a liftetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get."

I want this gift of seeing. If it’s true that I’m the only keeper of this story, if it’s true that these everyday moments are burning bushes and planted pennies, I feel the urgency of seeing it all well.

Maybe it's because they're growing tall and I'm growing gray. No one of knows the measure of her lifetime.

Annie Dillard again: “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wide view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

I feel blindly along the hem of this mystery. What would it be like to really see? In her book, Dillard talks about the research done on patients who received sight when their cataracts were removed. In many of the cases, the patients felt overwhelmed by their newfound capacities. Many lapsed into the means of perception they'd used before the surgery, continuing to use their tongues and their hands, rather than their eyes, for discovery. One boy of 15 despairs, "No, really, I can't stand it anymore . . . If things aren't altered, I'll tear my eyes out."

Advent is mystery, God-Man in swaddling clothes.

I want to see, says the blind man.

But have you the courage?






First Kiss (and special thanks for the new blog design!)

Writing is like kissing. A first kiss, that it. Your very first one. (I was thirteen.)

He's leaning in. You're thinking of your body as it's shaking. You're willing it to stop, begging your insides to stay clam. Keep cool. You rehearse the mechanics of kissing as you've learned it from your friends and wonder if, when his lips touch yours, you'll know what to do.

A half-second of approach. It's enough time to remember: tilt your head, close your eyes.


You want to leave your body and stare this moment in the face.

Am I doing this right?

You untangle.

This moment was much easier in the takeoff. No one prepared you to land. You disappear giggling, your cheeks flushed, your body electrified.

It's not about lips at all, this first kiss. It's about you. You growing up. You deciding to take on your own clumsiness. You deciding you were up for a thrill. You leaving some child skin behind.

And writing is like kissing.

A first kiss, that is.

There's all the anticipation of doing it and the rehearsing of the mechanics.

There's the wishing you could leave your skin.

Am I doing this right?

It's not about sentences. It's about you. You taking on your clumsiness. You feeling, you daring, you leaning in.

You, leaving some child skin behind.

* * * * *

"Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write."

--From Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

* * * * *

This blog is my blank page, my awkward daring, my clumsy take-off.

Thank you to Ryan, my husband who listens and loves. He's been nudging me from behind. I've needed his voice. And his kiss. And I have them both. Thank you, and I love you.