In an author’s note to her collection of 14 essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk:
Expeditions and Encounters (1982,), Annie Dillard asserts that “this is not a collection of occasional pieces, such as a writer brings out to supplement his real work; instead this is my real work, such as it is.” This statement attests to Dillard’s passionate conviction about the validity and artistic merit of the essay; it also acknowledges the speculation, confusion, and misreading that can arise when a writer refuses to confine herself to one genre. In addition to a wide variety of books of nonfiction prose, including a foray into the natural world, a memoir of childhood, reflections on the writer’s craft, an account of her experiences as a member of a literary delegation, an exploration of human suffering, and a book of literary criticism, Dillard has published a novel and two collections of poetry. The Annie Dillard Reader, which draws from a number of these works, was published in 1994.
Though Dillard is quick to assert that Teaching a Stone to Talk is her only essay collection, to her displeasure many continue to use that label to describe Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which won a Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction. In a 1989 interview, Dillard describes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as “a single sustained nonfiction narrative.” She acknowledges that her decision to give each chapter a separate title has led readers and critics to call Pilgrim at Tinker Creek a book of essays. Selected chapters of the book have appeared in magazines and anthologies of essays, also contributing to what Dillard regards as genre mislabeling.
While the most fitting classification for any piece of Dillard’s prose can be debated, certainly not in dispute is Dillard’s contribution to modern nonfictional prose. She is often compared with Thoreau and Melville and to her own contemporaries such as Loren Eiseley. Her essays can be found in numerous magazines including Antaeus, the Atlantic Monthly, Christian Science Monitor, Esquire, Harper’s, Harvard Magazine, Living Wilderness, New York Times Review of Books, North American Review, Parnassus, Ploughshares, Yale Literary Magazine, and the Yale Review.
In her introduction to the 1988 volume of The Best American Essays, which she edited with Robert Atwan, Dillard observes, “The essayist does what we do with our lives; the essayist thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically.
In either case he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts.” She restates this assessment of her writerly lot and the company she keeps a year later in an interview recorded for the American Audio Prose Library: “One great advantage of the essay is that it mimics on paper what it is we do with our own minds at their best which is try to make sense of experience—actual experience. Fiction makes sense of imagined experience;
nonfiction makes sense of actual experience.” Nowhere does Dillard recast this more eloquently than in “Total Eclipse,” the essay from her collection that is most often anthologized: “The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try to save our very lives.”
In this same interview Dillard admits that she dislikes opinion essays. It is narrative essays that interest her, and these constitute her offerings in Teaching a Stone to Talk.
The essays in this collection recall many of the images and themes developed earlier in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But unlike Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which focuses primarily on one geographical location and the reading experiences that Dillard brings to bear on her time spent there, Teaching a Stone to Talk covers much more distance geographically and topically. The essay collection includes “Life on the Rocks: The Galápagos,” “An Expedition to the Pole,” “In the Jungle,” “The Deer at Providencia,” and “Total Eclipse,” an account of that natural phenomenon as viewed near Yakima, Washington in 1979.
In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard continues to probe the act of seeing which she began in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In “An Expedition to the Pole,” she says, “I stood on the island’s ocean shore and saw what there was to see…” This sounds very much like a passage early in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “Like the bear who went over the mountain, I went out to see what I could see.” She returns to this idea in “In the Jungle”: “The point of going somewhere like the Wapo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there.” This passage is followed by an observation that sounds as if it could easily have come from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.” Dillard entitles one of the chapters in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek “Seeing.” Titles of two essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk, “Lenses” and “Mirages,” also make seeing the subject.
Dillard moves beyond a discussion of seeing in both Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Teaching a Stone to Talk to an exploration of perception and consciousness. The main focus of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’s chapter “The Present,” the quest for “experiencing the present purely,” is also of primary concern in “Total Eclipse.” Here Dillard says, “We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust.” She laments that “We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall.” Much of Dillard’s exuberant prose serves as a wakeup call to her reader. Here she keeps company with the young man in “Total Eclipse” whom she labels affectionately “a walking alarm clock.”
Readers of Dillard’s prose are struck as much by her sense of mystery as they are by her sense of humor. At times she can be a prankster and even mislead her readers. She admits in her interview with Kay Bonetti (1989), for example, that when she found out that it was virtually impossible to determine when the next solar eclipse in Yakima would occur, she simply invented a date. While Dillard’s tone can be flippant and whimsical, it can also be celebratory and awestruck. She returns often to an acknowledgment and exploration of the transcendent in her prose. Her Christianity is most evident in Teaching a Stone to Talk’s shortest essay, “God in the Doorway,” and in the Yale Review essay, “Singing with the Fundamentalists.” To her credit, Dillard zealously privileges art over ideology in her writing. When asked if she has a theology, she quips, “I have a prose style.”
See also Nature Essay
Born Annie Doak, 30 April 1945 in Pittsburgh. Studied at Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia, B.A., 1967, M.A., 1968. Married Richard Dillard, 1964 (divorced, 1974). Columnist, Living Wilderness, 1974–76; contributing editor, Harper’s, 1974–81 and 1983–85; contributor to many other journals and magazines. Scholar-in-residence, Western Washington University, Bellingham, 1975–78. Married Gary Clevidence, 1980 (later divorced): one child and two stepchildren. Visiting professor, 1979–83, full adjunct professor, from 1983, and writer-in-residence, from 1987, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. Married Robert D. Richardson, Jr., c. 1988. Awards: several, including the Pulitzer Prize, for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1975; New York Presswomen’s Award for Excellence, 1975; Washington Governor’s Award, 1978; Appalachian Gold Medallion, 1989; honorary degrees from three universities.
Essays and Related Prose
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, 1981
The Annie Dillard Reader, 1994
Other writings: the novel The Living (1992), two collections of poetry (Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, 1974; Mornings Like This, 1995), Holy the Firm (1977), on religious and metaphysical questions, books on literature and writing, and the autobiography An American Childhood (1987).
Bonetti, Kay, “Interview with Annie Dillard,” Audio Prose Library, June 1989
Chénetier, Marc, “Tinkering, Extravagance: Thoreau, Melville, and Annie Dillard,” Critique 31, no. 3 (1990): 157–72
Clark, Suzanne, “The Woman in Nature and the Subject of Nonfiction,” in Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989
Dunn, Robert Paul, “The Artist as Nun: Theme, Tone and Vision in the Writings of Annie Dillard,” Studia Mystica 1, no. 4 (1978): 17–31
Felch, Susan M., “Annie Dillard: Modern Physics in a Contemporary Mystic,” Mosaic 22, no. 2 (1989): 1–14
Hammond, Karla M., “Drawing the Curtains: An Interview with Annie Dillard,” Bennington Review 10 (1981): 30–38
Johnson, Sandra Humble, The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1992
Keller, Joseph, “The Function of Paradox in Mystical Discourse,” Studia Mystica 6, no. 3 (1983):3–19
Lavery, David, “Noticer: The Visionary Art of Annie Dillard,” Massachusetts Review 21 (1980):255–70
McClintock, James, Nature’s Kindred Spirits: Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994
McConahay, Mary Davidson, “‘Into the Bladelike Arms of God’: The Quest for Meaning Through Symbolic Language in Thoreau and Annie Dillard,” Denver Quarterly 20 (Fall 1985): 103–16
McFadden-Gerber, Margaret, “The I in Nature,” American Notes and Queries 16 (1977): 3–5
McIlroy, Gary, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Social Legacy of Walden,” South Atlantic Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 111–22
McIlroy, Gary, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Burden of Science,” American Literature 59, no. 1 (1987): 71–84
Reimer, Margaret Loewen, “The Dialectical Vision of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 24, no. 3 (1983): 182–91
Scheick, William J., “Annie Dillard: Narrative Fringe,” in Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J.Scheick, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985
Yancey, Philip, “A Face Aflame: An Interview with Annie Dillard,” Christianity Today 22 (1978):14–19
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