Annie Dillard

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Annie Dillard
Portrait by Phyllis Rose
Born Meta Ann Doak
(1945-04-30) April 30, 1945 (age 76)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Occupation Writer
Nationality American
Period 1974–present
Genre Nonfiction, fiction, poetry
Notable works Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; Holy the Firm; For the Time Being; An American Childhood; The Maytrees
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction
1975 – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard (born April 30, 1945) is an American author, best known for her narrative prose in both fiction and non-fiction. She has published works of poetry, essays, prose, and literary criticism, as well as two novels and one memoir. Her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Dillard taught for 21 years in the English department of Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut.

Early life and An American Childhood

Annie Dillard was the eldest of three daughters in her family. Early childhood details can be drawn from Annie Dillard's autobiography, An American Childhood (1987), about growing up in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It starts in 1950 when she was five. Dillard's memoir An American Childhood focuses on "waking up"[1] from a self-absorbed childhood, and becoming immersed in the present moment of the larger world. She grew up in Pittsburgh in the 50s in "a house full of comedians."[2] She describes her mother as an energetic non-conformist. Her father taught her many useful subjects such as plumbing, economics, and the intricacies of the novel On the Road, though by the end of her adolescence she begins to realize neither of her parents is infallible. In the autobiography she describes reading a wide variety of subjects including: geology, natural history, entomology, epidemiology, and poetry, among others. Influential books from her youth were: The Natural Way to Draw and Field Book of Ponds and Streams.[3] as they allowed her a way to interact with the present moment, and a way of escape respectively. Her days were filled with exploring, piano and dance classes, rock collecting, bug collecting, drawing, and reading books from the public library including natural history and military history, such as World War II.

As a child, Dillard attended the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, though her parents did not attend.[1] She spent four summers at the First Presbyterian Church (FPC) Camp in Ligonier, Pennsylvania.[4] As an adolescent she quit attending church because of "hypocrisy." When she told her minister of her decision, she was given four volumes of C. S. Lewis's broadcast talks, from which she appreciated that author's philosophy on suffering, but elsewhere found the topic inadequately addressed.[5]

She attended Pittsburgh Public Schools until fifth grade, and then The Ellis School until college.

College and writing career

Dillard attended Hollins College (now Hollins University), in Roanoke, Virginia, where she studied literature and creative writing. She married her writing teacher, the poet R. H. W. Dillard, eight years her senior. Of her college experience, Dillard stated: "In college I learned how to learn from other people. As far as I was concerned, writing in college didn’t consist of what little Annie had to say, but what Wallace Stevens had to say. I didn’t come to college to think my own thoughts, I came to learn what had been thought."[6] In 1968 she earned an MA in English. Her thesis on Henry David Thoreau showed how Walden Pond functioned as "the central image and focal point for Thoreau's narrative movement between heaven and earth." Dillard spent the first few years after graduation oil painting, writing, and keeping a journal. Several of her poems and short stories were published, and during this time she also worked for Johnson's Anti-Poverty Program.

Dillard's works have been compared to those by Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and John Donne.[7] She cites Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Ernest Hemingway as a few of her all-time favorite authors.[8]

Tickets for a Prayer Wheel

In her first book of poems Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), Dillard first articulated themes that she would later explore in other works of prose.[9]

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

In 1971 she read an old writer's nature book and thought, "I can do better than this." Dillard's journals served as a source for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a nonfiction narrative about the natural world near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. Although the book contains named chapters, it is not (as some critics assumed) a collection of essays.[9] Early chapters were published in The Atlantic, Harpers, and Sports Illustrated. The book describes God by studying creation, leading one critic to call her "one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th Century."[9] In The New York Times, Eudora Welty said the work was "admirable writing" that reveals "a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled... [an] intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare," but "I honestly don't know what [Dillard] is talking about at... times."[10]

The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, when Dillard was 29.

Holy the Firm

One day, Dillard decided to begin a project in which she would write about whatever happened on Lummi Island within a three-day time period. When a plane crashed on the second day, Dillard began to contemplate the problem of pain, and God's allowance of "natural evil to happen".[9] Although Holy the Firm (1977) was only 66 pages long, it took her 14 months, writing full-time, to complete the manuscript. In The New York Times Book Review novelist Frederick Buechner called it "A rare and precious book." While other contemporary reviewers wondered whether she was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, Dillard denies it.[9]

Teaching a Stone to Talk

Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982) is her sole book of short nonfiction narrative essays and travels. Out of the 14 essays, "Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos" won the New York Women's Press Club award, and "Total Eclipse" was chosen for Best Essays of the Twentieth Century. As Dillard herself notes, "'The Weasel' is lots of fun; the much-botched church service is (I think) hilarious."[9] Following the first hard cover edition of the book, the order of essays was changed. Initially "Living Like Weasels" was first, followed by "An Expedition to the Pole". "Total Eclipse" was found between "On a Hill Far Away" and "Lenses".

The essays are entitled

  • "Total Eclipse"
  • "An Expedition to the Pole"
  • "Living Like Weasels"
  • "In the Jungle"
  • "The Deer at Providencia"
  • "Teaching a Stone to Talk"
  • "On a Hill Far Away"
  • "Lenses"
  • "Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos"
  • "A Field of Silence"
  • "God in the Doorway"
  • "Mirages"
  • "Sojourner"
  • "Aces and Eights"

Living by Fiction

In Living by Fiction (1982), Dillard produced her "theory about why flattening of character and narrative cannot happen in literature as it did when the visual arts rejected deep space for the picture plane." She later said that, in the process of writing this book, she talked herself into writing an old-fashioned novel.[9]

Encounters with Chinese Writers

Encounters with Chinese Writers (1984) is a work of journalism. One part takes place in China, where Dillard was member of a delegation of six American writers and publishers, following the fall of the Gang of Four. In the second half, Dillard hosts a group of Chinese writers, whom she takes to Disneyland along with Allen Ginsberg. Dillard describes it as "hilarious".[9]

The Writing Life

The Writing Life (1989) is a collection of short essays in which Dillard "discusses with clear eye and wry wit how, where and why she writes".[11] The Boston Globe called it "a kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer's task." The Chicago Tribune wrote that, "For nonwriters, it is a glimpse into the trials and satisfactions of a life spent with words. For writers, it is a warm, rambling conversation with a stimulating and extraordinarily talented colleague." The Detroit News called it "a spare volume...that has the power and force of a detonating bomb."[9]

The Living

Dillard's first novel, The Living (1992) centers around the first European settlers of the Pacific Northwest coast. While writing the book, she restricted herself from reading works that postdated the time in which The Living was set, nor did she use anachronistic words.[9]

Mornings Like This

Mornings Like This (1995) is a book dedicated to found poetry. Dillard took and arranged phrases from various old books, creating poems that are often ironic in tone. The poems are not related to the original books' themes. "A good trick should look hard and be easy," said Dillard. "These poems were a bad trick. They look easy and are really hard."[9]

For the Time Being

For the Time Being (1999) is a work of narrative nonfiction. Its topics mirror the various chapters of the book and include "birth, sand, China, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, thinker, evil, and now." In her own words on this book, she writes, "I quit the Catholic Church and Christianity; I stay near Christianity and Hasidism."[9]

The Maytrees

The Maytrees (2007) is Dillard's second novel. The story, which begins after World War II, tells of a lifelong love between a husband and wife who live in Provincetown, Cape Cod. It was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2008.[9]


Dillard's books have been translated into at least 10 languages. Her 1975 Pulitzer-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, made Random House's survey of the century's 100 best nonfiction books. The LA Times' survey of the century's 100 best Western novels includes The Living. The century's 100 best spiritual books (ed. Philip Zaleski) also includes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The 100 best essays (ed. Joyce Carol Oates) includes "Total Eclipse," from Teaching a Stone to Talk. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in 1999, and For the Time Being, in 2002, both won the Maurice-Edgar Coindreau Prize for Best Translation in English, both translated by Sabine Porte.[12]

In 2000, Dillard's For the Time Being received the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.[13]

To celebrate its tricentennial, Boston commissioned Sir Michael Tippett to compose a symphony. He based part of its text on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In 2005, artist Jenny Holzer used all of An American Childhood to stream, letter by letter, vertically, in lights, at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, as an installation.[14]

On September 10, 2015, President Obama awarded Annie Dillard with a National Medal for the Arts and Humanities. [15]

Personal life


In 1975, she and Richard Dillard divorced amicably, and she moved from Roanoke to Lummi Island near Bellingham, Washington. She taught at Western Washington University part-time as a writer-in-residence. She later married Gary Clevidence, an anthropology professor at WWU's Fairhaven College, and they have a child, Cody Rose.[7] She has been married for over two decades to the historical biographer Robert D. Richardson, whom she met after sending him a fan letter about his book Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.[8]


Dillard taught for 21 years in the English department of Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut.[12]


After college Dillard says she became "spiritually promiscuous". Her first prose book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, makes references not only to Christ and the Bible, but also to Judaism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Inuit spirituality. Dillard converted to Roman Catholicism, and in 1994 won the Campion Award, given to a Catholic writer every year by the editors of America.[16] However, her personal website lists her religion as "none."[12]


Her website sells her paintings to benefit a charity called Partners in Health. Dr. Paul Farmer founded the charity to rid the world of infectious disease.[17]

Major works


  1. 1.0 1.1 Dillard, An American Childhood, p. 195
  2. "An American Childhood by Annie Dillard". The Washington Post Book Club. August 1, 2004
  3. Dillard, An American Childhood, p. 81
  4. Dillard, Annie. "Seeing" in Albanese, Catherine L.; American Spiritualiaties: A Reader; p. 440. ISBN 0-253-33839-5.
  5. Dillard, An American Childhood, p. 228
  6. Lawrence, Malcolm. (April 30, 1982). "Tete a Tete: Lunch with Annie Dillard". Retrieved December 1, 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cantwell, Mary. (April 26, 1992). "A Pilgrim's Progress". The New York Times. Retrieved December 1, 2011.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Suh, Grace. (October 4, 1996). "Ideas are Tough; Irony is Easy: Pulitzer Prize-Winner Annie Dillard Speaks". The Yale Herald. Retrieved December 1, 2011.
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 9.12 "Books by Annie Dillard". Annie Dillard's Official Website. Retrieved November 30, 2011
  10. Welty, Eudora. (March 24, 1974). "Meditation on Seeing". The New York Times. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  11. Dillard, The Writing Life, back cover
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 "Curriculum Vitae". Annie Dillard's Official Website. Retrieved December 1, 2011.
  13. PEN American Center
  14. Artist Lecture with Jenny Holzer
  15. [1]
  16. Smith, Leanne E. (February 25, 2010). "Annie Dillard (1945– )". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
  17. "Annie Dillard Official Website". Retrieved December 1, 2011.

Further reading

  • Johnson, Sandra Humble (1992). The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. ISBN 978-0-87338-446-9. OCLC 23254581.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Parrish, Nancy C. (1998). Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 978-0-8071-2243-3. OCLC 37884725.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Smith, Linda L. (1991). Annie Dillard. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7637-0. OCLC 23583395.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links