By Iris Monica Vargas

As heard from author Alan Lightman (Mr. G, Einstein’s Dreams)

Author Annie Dillard. Credit: newyorktimes.com

The following notes were taken during a writing seminar at MIT as part of the Science Writing Program. Writer and theoretical physicist Alan Lightman was addressing the question of how to produce an effective essay, through a discussion of writer Annie Dillard’s work.

Annie Dillard, for example, is a voracious reader, and she brings her readings into her writing. It gives her writing richness, allows her more to talk about, brings other perspectives to her work. Whenever you, as a writer, bring other authors into your writing, you are giving the reader the impression that, just like her, you, too, are learning, that you don’t know it all. Of course, when you have a limit of 1,000 words, there isn’t much space to quote others.”

“The length of an essay determines what you can do and where you can go with your ideas – it seems obvious but apparently it isn’t. If you decide to write something longer than 1,000 words, your writing must have an anchor – i.e. a place, an idea, a word to which you keep coming back. That anchor will bring coherence to your essay, it will be a sort of framework or context that will orient the reader. The idea is to have an organizing principle. If there is that, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to digress happily.”

“In Annie Dillard’s essay Seeing, the reader feels as if she were following the author on a journey through the writer’s thought process. It is a very personal piece. Dillard’s sentences are well constructed but you have the feeling that nothing has been premeditated. You feel that you are embarked on a journey along with her, discovering as she discovers. She writes as if  thinking in ‘real time’. The reader of Dillard feels that she or he is in a magical journey with a writer who is very intelligent, and very well-read.”

“To continue with Dillard’s example: She is very specific in her writing. For example, she names the birds she sees. She is very specific in her details. And she provides many details – something you should always do when you write an essay.”

“She [Dillard]  isn’t continuously telling her audience what she is going to talk about next. That is an annoying habit.”

“Dillard’s metaphors are excellent. Think about your metaphors carefully.”

“Dillard researches her subject matter well. You can’t, or shouldn’t, write an essay without doing good research of your subject first.”

“Dillard is a superb ‘seer’ of herself – that’s important when you are a writer. She really remembers that whenever you observe you slow down; in fact, in order to be able to observe you must slow down; and so she does. A writer should always contemplate things around her as if in slow motion; she must give herself the time to really observe. If you allow yourself such time, and only then, should you try to put your observations into words. Then you will be able to produce something original, i.e. not just a way of writing, but a whole approach to the world.”

“To have fecundity, you have to be fertile, and to be fertile many things have to happen, both in biology and in producing thoughts. You have to try many different avenues.”

“When you use the second person pronoun in your essay, you are making the reader feel that you are referring to her, that she is been given a responsibility. You are engaging the reader. You are ‘asking’ the reader to put herself in your shoes and to share with you the responsibility of an idea.”

“It is great when the reader can feel that the essayist is being blatantly honest with you, that nothing is hidden, that the writer is examining closely both the external world and her own internal universe. It is also great when your reader can feel that the writer is giving her permission to discuss the writer.”

“There are writers who don’t want to tell you everything they feel for fear of not sounding well or of not looking good. Dillard isn’t like that, perhaps, because the questions she poses aren’t solved completely in the essays. What she does is offer you a different perspective on a subject because the questions she poses don’t have a real solution.”

“It’s worth struggling to think about exactly the right word to use, especially in writing an essay. Remember that.”

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