On Writing (Amongst Other Things…)

by D. C. Haddock


Writers love to write about writing. There is a widely-held stance that when another writer reads about writing, it then inspires him or her to write their own writing about writing, or even inspires a strictly-reading non-writer to start writing about reading after reading about writing, and the writers start reading writings from non-readers about reading about writing… and your head probably hurts now. Annie Dillard’s Transfiguration, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens… these are the main staples in a writer’s diet when one just wants to read about something familiar, like, well… writing.

Dillard’s essay is my unequivocal favorite; in it, she masterfully compares the writer’s passion for their craft through a portrayal of the death of a moth. And before you start wondering, no, I am not writing you a literary analysis; I already do enough of that for class. This is merely rumination on a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. So, Dillard is camping in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and writing by the light of one candle, when she watches this moth flutter down right on top of the flaming wick, attracted by the flickering light as moths always are, and it immediately and unsurprisingly bursts into flame. Throughout the next few paragraphs, you basically get the image of a moth dying slowly (about two hours worth of burning; she describes at one point how the moth’s body turns into a “second wick”) as it is burned from the inside out. I’m sure you’ve already guessed, but the metaphor lies in the burning up of everything inside oneself coinciding with that of writing, as it literally takes everything in you, mentally; writing can eat up so much of your time and life that by the end of the day, you will have sacrificed either your sanity or energy or both. Anyone who has ever written an essay of any kind before can attest to that feeling of absolute and utter relief once that long, grueling paper is finally done, and that feeling of unmitigated satisfaction when handing to the professor a piece one can truly be proud of.

But besides the moth, there is another animal portrayed in this essay… a cat. Most people grow up to be cats. Dillard happens to notice her kitty’s tail swaying just a little too close to the flame of her candle one night (she isn’t camping at this point, if you’re wondering) and the cat quickly jumps away, frightened by the pain and heat. After all, who would want to torture themselves like that? Is it worth losing a tail over? Is writing so important to you, that you would give up portions of your life to continue your diatribe? Most people will unhesitatingly say, no. Why spend your time trying to write a masterpiece when there are already so many transcendental writings in this world already? How can you hope to ever be on par with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Twain? And when all the facts are laid out bare and naked, the hard truth lies in the fact that no one can dare hope to compare to those who will resonate throughout history. Writing is less for the masses, and more for the vanity of the writer himself. The urge to write is a little sleeping man hidden deep in your head somewhere, who knocks at your brain in the early hours of the morning, whispers in your ear as you sit in lecture, tickles your fingers until they twitch and ache, commands you to stop time and space until you pull out paper and pen and sloppily jot down a random thought flitting through the conscious. Needless to say, I believe as yet that I shall be a moth someday; how fast I may be burning out, I cannot say.

What will you be?