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Annie Dillard’s “A Writer In The World” and Trusting my Own Voice
I have tried to type something on Google Docs at least five times. Each time it’s deleted by that lovely voice in my head: “That’s s***. Complete s***.” So bad that I will be dethroned from being the “Queen of the personal essay”. But, I’m here still, writing. Not just for the deadline, but for Annie Dillard’s “A Writer in the World”, which I’ve just finished reading for a third time. This time, out loud with a blue pen, underlining, starring, writing, scratching out, and underlining again.
Annie Dillard is not one to shy away from anything. She writes freely about weasels, frogs, sharks, and shouting “Swedish meatballs!” at cows. She writes, and writes, and writes. There’s no doubt that she’s smart. But she scared me. She’d reel me in, leading me to underline quotes, annotate, and then have me lost again on the next page. I was susceptible to writing her off as “too much” or “too smart” for me.
I’m not a Dillard thinker. I don’t ponder frog guts the right way, if at all. I’m not mindful or transcendental. I literally sit with my head against pillows and walls, pleading with myself, “why, why, why?” about something I said 2 years ago, or what I will say in the future. I look up definitions of words at least three times to be sure I am right, sickened by the twisting of my stomach that I’m doing this in the first place. I cry when I scratch my mother’s car not only because I scratched it, but that it will reaffirm my friends’ supposed opinion that I am a stupid, white, privileged WASP. It is such a task for me to get up from my desk and close my eyes for six minutes, to bring myself into the present. To stop thinking that this person will hate me if they knew how pathetic I was.
Then, I read “A Writer in the World” and underlined eight ideas on the first page, starring, starring, starring. I thought, on the first page, “There it is. There’s the epiphany. What I’ve been thinking for so long, unraveled.” Finally, something we truly, definitively agree on. She writes:
“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain because you have never written it on any page, there you begin” (Dillard 105).
Dillard says exactly what still draws me to writing. It’s the power of the individual perspective and what it can bring.
For years of my life, I have been afraid to acknowledge what I think and feel. I’d be spit out from the depths of a deep monster, threatening to kill me with thoughts of slashing myself in the shower, rage so deep I wanted to throw people at walls, searching online frantically for medicine so I would stop hyperventilating, only to collapse on my bed and read Vogue for hours. I was spit out on the shores of spring, shaking, angry, losing 14 pounds in 4 months to get my life “on track” from the chocolate peanut butter binges of winter. I was so afraid of my mind and its power I told no one the full story, until I collapsed crying in front of a jigsaw puzzle and a therapist was called. I had sheets and sheets of paper with my “idiosyncratic thoughts”, the ideas “hard to explain”, the lies of my brain, the obsessions I thought were “wrong” that I never showed this therapist. I could handle it myself. I stopped seeing her after four sessions.
But I was wrong. I could not handle it myself sophomore year. I tried to cure myself by reading the words of others who had been in pain like mine. It worked, sometimes. But there was still that sinking realization that none of these people were me. I began to doubt myself more and more. I told myself I didn’t have an illness. Instead, I was defective.
It took months before I could tell anyone I had a problem. I was terrified to ask for help face-to-face, so I sent an email to my guidance counselor. I wrote down those “idiosyncratic” thoughts, thoughts I told myself “no one else” understands, thoughts I had “never written before on any page” that I had showed to anyone. I got an email back with the address of a therapist. There, I began.
I kept seeing this therapist. I kept seeing her when I fell deeper down junior year into a mental health crisis. Before I knew what was happening I withdrew like mad. I splashed water on my face between classes to lessen the stinging pink of my cheeks. I walked down the hallway with invisible hands around my throat and a knot in my stomach, yellow-blonde hair a blanket in front of my eyes.
But here’s what was different: I was mad, awkward as hell, neurotic as hell, but I wrote like mad. I exploded into journals, notes, sometimes four times a day. I did what Dillard says to do: “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience solely consisting of terminal patients...What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” (Dillard 106). These illnesses told me I would die before I even tried to die. I was breaking apart on the inside. The lack of sleep, the thoughts, the people, the expectations. It was life, but I was a “terminal patient” - sick, crippling, entirely unfit to face the world like a normal person. I was often “enraged” at myself and the people around me. My disorders, my illnesses, were nothing but “triviality”. I was denied medicine the first time I asked. The reasons I gave were dismissed by “Every teenage girl has problems with their body”, “Binge eating is much better than being on drugs”, “You’re very successful.”
So, I wrote a 50 page book. About a girl like me, binge eating, depressed, and suicidal, with a massive personality crush/obsession on her teacher she sometimes thinks hates her. The majority of that book is exaggerated, but her thought patterns are not. They came from me. I actually wrote consistently, 500 words per day, but it was harder than I thought it would be. Writing isn’t like breathing when it’s a 50-page story about some of your deepest pain.
Annie Dillard agrees. “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity” (Dillard 106). I was given the opportunity to write a 50 page “novel” about anything I wanted. If I was going to write about a girl in this insane situation with a brain like mine, I had better do it right. I could hardly believe I was doing what I was doing, writing a story with a teacher I actually had a personality crush on. I blushed as I wrote my “own most intimate sensitivity”. The binge scenes were hard to write. I had to comb through years of my past. I placed my head back to ninth grade, when I had no idea how to talk to my parents and spent hours alone in my room.
But I did what I needed to do. I “forced myself” to finish this book with a “strict discipline”. I wrote about those violent thoughts that threatened me like a time bomb, about the teacher who wouldn’t leave my head, about the past that haunted me daily and threatened to consume me. It was, in some ways, cathartic. I was also able to see what would happen to a girl if she kept everything to herself. She would explode.
I reached my boiling point several times in the winter. I was put on medication and immediately taken off as soon as I had specific plans to commit suicide. They didn’t go away when the Lexapro was out of my system. My parents received endless phone calls from guidance counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists. I sometimes had days where I was positive it would be my last. I heard my own screams, saw my own blood.
But my illnesses affected my ability to communicate. I would be so embarrassed and scared about how people would react that I would wait to tell them weeks, or even months later, long after the specific urge was gone. I also doubted myself constantly, speaking mostly in ambivalence. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to get better.
My parents had no clue what to do with me. They thought any kind of hospitalization would disrupt my schooling. I was often desperate to go. I could barely concentrate in class, and I often had late notes from frequent shut-aways in the guidance counselor’s office. I missed school and called hotlines. My wrists felt “funny” all the time, as if they were bursting out of their skin, reminding me to slash them.
But I made it. After all of that, I’m here. I’m here for a number of reasons: I took my medicine every day, without fail. I did everything to get 8, or at least 7, hours of sleep. I dropped out of ITGS HL. I listened to music. I had supportive friends. I told myself I deserved life. I looked in the mirror and told my depression, “You’re lying.”
I also talked about it. I did what Annie Dillard says to do: “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly...Do not leave it, do not course over it as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength” (Dillard 144). I expressed my emotions: from gratitude, to anger, to sadness, to shame, over months of therapy. I knew there were so many things, after what had happened, that weren’t “understood”. After six years of suffering and a grand explosion, I was finally on a path to true recovery. My illnesses were finally being treated as they deserved to be treated.
It was hard. It’s still hard. I had moments where I felt everything and nothing at once, screaming in my car until my lungs were sore the next day. I was allowed to scream. I was allowed to cry. But I did not give up.
Reality became easier to bear. It’s a mystery, and I am often confused, but as I analyzed, as I talked, as I processed the specificity of the situations, I began to see my strength, and the strength of these situations in my life.
When I was in this pain I used to hate those sayings about needing the rain to make the rainbow. I don’t want anyone to suffer the pain that I did. But people do. And without it, I would be a very different person. I wouldn’t be as aware of myself, my emotions, and their consequences. I wouldn’t have the drive that I do to share my story and show others there is hope.
But, I’m still me, and me is afraid. Afraid of what I’ve done, what will happen, etc, etc. I’m afraid to reveal things, do things, fearing the thoughts of others. I was afraid to write this paper, but I wrote it. I was afraid to tell people I was sick, but I did it. I’m afraid to tell others my story, but I will do it. Annie Dillard also describes this importance of the human voice: “The impulse to keep to yourself what you’ve learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes” (Dillard 115).
For years, I concealed what I “learned” out of shame. Whether it was the distorted perceptions my brain created, my ideas about life, or an answer to a question, I hid them out of fear of rejection and inadequacy. But because of my battles with mental illness and the pain they caused, I now realize how “destructive” it is to keep things hidden. It not only exacerbates symptoms, but it becomes harder and harder to become healthy again.
I’ve undergone depression without support and did everything a distorted, cracked mind can do to become healthy again. But I had a really difficult time because I spent months in such a state of isolation. I was not enthused by anything that formerly interested me, and every word that came out of my mouth came from a foreigner, an apparition. I “opened the safe” of who I was, and just found “ashes”, fragments of a person, of who I was, or who I was supposed to be.
I’m learning, through my own writing, the writing of others, the passage of time, and that old, nagging, vicious voice in my head that I’ve learned to dull, the “That’s complete s***” voice, to trust my own. The true voice. The one that got me help, the one that tells me to forgive myself and others, and the one that tells me life is a gift everyone deserves. Annie Dillard’s A Writer in the World was not there for me in the past. But it is there for me as a blueprint for the present and the future. In all of her essays, Dillard begs the reader to pay attention to what she’s learned. Not only that, but to pay attention because life matters. And so does the individual perspective and voice. All we have in life is ourselves. Each person deserves to see how important their voice is.