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The life of a woman of letters

Reading fan mail doesn’t swell your head, though it often startles by extremes: “You are my friend, Annie Dillard, you are my true fucking friend.” Of course you never hear from the many who didn’t like what you wrote, unless their teacher makes them write you: “You have a great talent for focusing on detail, including the most tedious.”

A historian ended his note, “I am sorry to invade your privacy. But you have invaded mine.” Another letter concluded, “This is not a form letter. The only other person I have contacted for this thesis is Milton Berle.”

Would I “guest star” on a Minnesota cable-TV show called Wishin’-n-Fishin’? The producer would pay for “all transportation throughout Minnesota,” as well as lodging and food, “even bait.”

“Envelope #1562,” by Andrew Bush. Courtesy the artist

“Envelope #1562,” by Andrew Bush. Courtesy the artist

“What’s your favorite word? Mine is usually ‘margin.’ ” A U.S. district judge in Connecticut wrote from his chambers to tell me the name of a good restaurant in Santa Monica. A man in Taiwan finished my pioneer novel, The Living: “I actually said aloud, ‘Thank you,’ startling my wife in bed beside me.”

A reader sent me a check for a hundred dollars. A woman hand-stitched me a beautiful quilt. A man concluded his letter, “I wish you luck, and above that, I wish you timing.”

A professor of philosophy in California sent me three photographs of “the world’s largest hair ball,” found in the belly of a dairy cow. A literary critic commented on a passage I wrote about the “heave shoulder” in Leviticus: “Dillard is attracted to the verb.” True.

I flinched when school boards forced children to read something I wrote. “What is your favorite animal? Is Annie your real name or your fake name? How many book’s have you wrote?” Students in a high-school class got stuck illustrating my (poor and tiny) tropes in colored marker. They sent me these illustrations, so here were, among many others, “a blacksnake caught in a kitchen drawer” and “a dog thin as death.”

College students agree with children wholeheartedly that my books are not for them. “Quite a brain teaser.” “Personally, I need more of a story line.” “You might want to think about writing an easier version.” “You threw out too many ideas.” And, dazzlingly, “This book, Ms. Dillard, is an outstanding reference to life itself.” (I read this sentence over and over.) So hundreds of blameless students grow up cursing my name.

From an undergraduate at Yale: “One thing I would really like is an interview. It would take up some space and look very good.” Another college student wanted answers to specific questions “so that it will be easy for me to write my paper. I need to get an A or a B . . . as soon as possible. . . . I will be forever thankful to you for helping me save my scholorship.”

To prevent curriculum designers from inflicting further cruelty on children, I tried to open a book with a sex scene. I couldn’t write one. So I began books with pages that were hard to read. Foolishly I confessed this strategy to my agent, who winced.

The publisher called, excited. A school board in California had removed from a syllabus a bit I wrote about throwing snowballs at cars. (Lest those California schoolkids, many of whom were presumably huffing or injecting God knows what, get ideas.) He wanted me to issue a statement to the press. It was too silly; I just laughed. He insisted: other writers issued statements and got free publicity. I kept laughing, as the publisher, not for the first time, tore his hair.

Unintended consequences: an English professor in New York said his nineteen-year-old student “stopped by” to tell him that she had refused a proposal of marriage from her boyfriend “directly as a result” of reading an essay of mine that he had assigned. She “told her young man that she still had three years of a university education ahead of her and could not assent at this time, even though she loved him.” (Kid — I’m sorry!)

A professor called to invite me to speak and got steely as he reacted to my polite regrets. What was he going to do? He had to print announcements on deadline. I gave him the names of, and contact information for, about twenty entertaining writers. None was famous enough for him. He said, “We want a household name.” A grown man, he apparently believed the race was to the swift, just as some readers assume that the book of mine that won the biggest prize is the best book.

I checked my reality by every so often suggesting that an inviter try asking John Updike or Jonathan Lethem. The response never varied: “I wouldn’t want to bother him!”

On the phone a university press offered me five thousand dollars for an hour’s congenial work. I had to decline because I didn’t have an hour. The editor burst out, “Why can’t I get a woman?”

“You’re not so bad,” a journalist told me on the phone. Sir? “I heard you were impossible.” That is, I declined an offer, no matter how graciously. I could not get free of family obligations to speak at President Carter’s inauguration either. They got James Dickey.

People die when you least expect it, when you are, say, flipping through the bills and flyers in the mail. Gene Kelly’s widow wrote to say that, dying, he asked her to read aloud from my memoir, An American Childhood. (Gene Kelly was a fellow Pittsburgher.) A grief-crazed forest ranger said one picture of me reminded him of his late wife. She died of a brain tumor and left him their five kids.

Here in the mail came another report from the front lines. A photographer often traveled to Honduras to assist and translate for an eye doctor. There, a local boy lived with his mother, who made a poor living selling fireworks. Their hut caught fire and burnt the boy badly: upper body, face, and both eyes. Home in the United States, the doctor found an eye bank to donate one cornea. After he transplanted the cornea, he talked other surgeons into looking at the boy’s burns. They released the tight scars of his old grafts and put him in a body cast that placed his bent arms high above his head. (The doctors called him Touchdown.) A photograph that came with the letter showed a burnt boy, his arms raised, his eyes huge and white with scar tissue, glassy, apparently unseeing, and gazing up.

A book club that had been discussing one of my books raised some questions for me. The first was: “Should this book be read between the lines or between the words?”

A letter from another book-club member specialized in juicy details. An aside in An American Childhood mentions that my father’s ancestor started American Standard long ago. The letter said that, at a meeting to discuss that book, the hostess “showed us their toilets — since they were of American Standard vintage.” The hostess’s husband belonged to “the Explorers Club in New York and has a rat named after him.”

“Marjorie couldn’t understand how you got the Pulitzer Prize for this. . . . Next time I’ll tell you how I happened to be in Cody, Wyoming, in 1948.”

She said she gave a talk about the book at hand. Since “only a handful” of the club’s members had finished reading it, “I concentrated on you, your works, and your husbands.”

Nearly three decades ago, I took similar stock of my mail. In the years since, I found myself becoming a letter writer and an email writer instead of a book writer. Now I no longer answer strangers. I miss the people and welcome the time.

Here’s one more, from the good old days. Under the heading Miracles of Nature — a private category of mine — a woman begins calmly enough: “One summer day, I was sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s, Flushing, New York, eating a quarter-pounder and enjoying the familiar scene, when I heard a strange scraping sound, barely audible, coming from the passenger seat occupied by a standard box of regular-size Kleenex. As I watched with appreciation, the available Kleenex began a slow descent into the box through its slit.” Copies to Al Gore, Jared Diamond, and Prince Charles.

’s The Abundance, essays old and new, will be published this month by Ecco.

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January 1998

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