On the Outskirts of a Forest

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise. ” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Gosh, I love Annie Dillard.

I cannot get enough of her sentences. They breathe. They literally inhale and exhale with such natural rhythm that to envy them would be to envy a baby’s sound sleep. Who but one with a gift for true loveliness would write of life as a “faint tracing of mystery,” or find inspiration for that thought in a leaf?

Recently, I’ve been analyzing what the point of writing is and why, more specifically, I’m so obsessed with it. Why all this fuss? Why the stress? The deadlines? The reading of a manuscript out loud, and then silently, and then, after a few more sentences have been adjusted, out loud again?

It is utter madness. But as much as I recognize how warped my perspective can be at times, there is such redemption in the act of writing, and in the act of reading other people’s. Sentences are a dark tunnel with light at the end. Or, they should be.

I think of this on the day after having announced my intentions to leave my current job. For almost two years I’ve been processing accounts payable for a property management company. Because I’ve been in graduate school while doing what would make most writers crazy, I’ve enjoyed it. It is predictable, structured, and completely rational – three things my writing and my writing life are not.

Because I have enjoyed this job and respect the people I’ve worked for, I had to stop and wonder if finishing graduate school were such a great reason to quit. I thought I might take the safe path – keep the financial stability, continue to reserve my writing time for 7pm to midnight and try to “make it work.”

Earlier this week, though, as I was loading numbers into an excel spreadsheet, contemplating whether to keep my job or give myself to my writing, I had a realization. Dividing my time between accounting and writing suddenly felt disabling, as though I would be cheating myself out of what Annie Dillard calls “the wider view,” allowing myself only a parcel of land, as opposed to an entire landscape.

And, as crazy as writing can make me, there is life in it; in it there are ideas from which conversation, reconciliation and enlightenment can arise. Even if all you people stop reading my blog and I never publish anything, I can still wander out into the world’s forest of words and pick all the wildflowers. And even if I’m the only one who gets to enjoy gathering them and arranging their bouquet, that will be – has to be – enough.

Numbers really do it for some people, and for them, I’m glad. My husband, for example, is a good bit smarter than I am and is fascinated with the sort of language of numbers. But as much as I appreciate and fear their complexity, I can’t find depth in them, or life in them, or anything about them that would make me want to stay up past my bed time.

So yesterday, I surrendered to language. Turning away from the practicality and structure of a numbered life, I stand on the outskirts of a forest, waiting for it to take me in.

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