It was a roundabout path that led to Annie Dillard’s website. I was reading lots of things on the internet all weekend—really good things, by smart people, bringing their analytical skills and eloquence to bear on the Kavanaugh question.
But the Kavanaugh question is not even a question. We all write about it as if it were one (I’ll keep on writing things about it, as if it were). Really, though, we are all doing it just to try to keep one another sane. Anyone who knows anything about human character, or who remembers what the baseline rules of the political system were supposed to be a week ago, or who has a rudimentary grasp of how facts in the world fit together in a logical order, or even who can remember (or remember not remembering!) the visceral experience of being a drunk teenager in the 1980s—any person who grasps any of this therefore understands that Brett Kavanaugh is an obvious liar and an entitled creep and a smarmy brute, whose fundamental character is built on dishonesty and contempt for others and, most likely, some deep sickness that he tries to hide from himself with that dishonesty and contempt.
And yet we are stuck debating this, as if it were debatable, with people who have elevated Kavanaugh’s dishonesty and contempt into an all-enveloping worldview and claimed it as their own, and who control the relevant levers to put him on the Supreme Court regardless. None of their premises or purported values of the case for Kavanaugh fit together anymore, there is nothing but nihilistic absurdity, and the absurdity is the measure of their power. But you know all this, we all know this; knowing it is useless; we only write it so we don’t suffocate.
Meanwhile, I was fighting with my younger son, who is in second grade, about his homework. It wasn’t even supposed to be homework, it was a writing project he was supposed to have done in class, but, as he told it, he started to write about going to Hawaii over the summer, and then he didn’t know how to spell “Hawaii,” so he let himself stay stuck there, in the middle of the first sentence, for three days. At some point, some evening, we explained to him how to spell Hawaii and then, because we’d gone there for a wedding, he spent the rest of his writing time stuck on the word “married.”
His older brother went through essentially the same thing in the early grades, too—a ridiculous junior writer’s block, turning every assignment into a line-by-line advance on the Western Front. The older one didn’t use spelling as the excuse, but the non-results were the same: stacks of blank pages and a hyper-verbal child moaning that he could not think of what to say.
I play my part in these struggles with my own mind deeply divided. On the one hand—by necessity, the top hand—I acknowledge that this is unacceptable bullshit behavior on their part. There were and are plenty of other kids around them, kids of no particular distinction, kids who might not even have known what spelling was, filling line after line and page after page with words, and drawing pictures in the picture-boxes up top, so that the whole thing would be full-length and adequate when the time came for the dreaded Publishing Parties, where the parents have to come to school and read over the finished work before someone spills juice on it.
On the other hand (the hand I cup over my mouth and whisper into), the way young children are being taught writing nowadays is incredibly stupid and backwards, so wrongheaded it amounts to an act of malice. When I was in the second grade, I remember writing a sprawling space adventure where the first-person protagonist was knocked out by aliens (I misspelled, and thereby learned to spell for life, “unconscious”) and recovered to shoot them with a laser gun and to do other space-adventure things, which I was interested in. It impressed the teacher and left me certain that writing could be easy and fun.
The assignment my younger son was struggling with was to write a work of autobiographical nonfiction—not just any autobiographical nonfiction, but specifically a “Small Moment”; that is, not a sprawling explanation of What I Did Over My Summer Vacation, but a single scene that would convey something essential about the experience of the vacation. This is what they tell the children to do these days. My older son, back when he had had to do it, was informed to his dismay and confusion that the perfectly competent essay he had written was not appropriately focused, that he had written a “watermelon” when he was supposed to bear down and write a “watermelon seed.”
Nonfiction! This is, like everything, for the Tests. Whatever other reasons they may give, it is for the Tests, the joyless gauntlet looming ahead in third and fourth and fifth grades—with middle-school placement at stake then—and sixth and seventh and the LSAT and your direct supervisor’s end-of-year workplace performance evaluation, the whole industrial abattoir. You can’t expect the people who grade the Tests to read about ray guns.
Part of the problem is that any reasonably smart kid can smell the ulterior motive. People have been running versions of the scam on them for years: Hey, it’s time for a fun playgroup! Just come along to this empty kindergarten classroom, in a school building you’ve never seen before, with a bunch of other four-year-olds you’ve never met, and we’re going to play some games. Make sure your nametag is where we can see it!
The other part of the problem is that this particular writing task, the Small Moment, is a fantastically demanding format. I know nothing about pedagogical theory, but whoever came up with the idea of starting six- or seven-year-olds on writing narrowly delineated scenes knows much less about writing than I do about teaching. The way to write tight and small is to write big and loose and then learn, through years of trial and error, what parts to leave out, and how. Concision, compression, implication—these aren’t the starting point for a writer, they’re the goal. You can’t fit the world in a drop of water when you’ve barely begun to understand how big the world can be.
I grumble about this, to myself, and sometimes even to the kids. They’re not wrong to be stuck! I’ve coached people 20 years older than them, professional writers, through the process of writing a standalone narrative scene: How to move people on- and offstage without breaking the flow, how to make the movement of the eye stand in for the movement of thought, when to digress and how to come back.
I want them to understand this is not fair, but—traitorously—I also need them to understand that fairness and unfairness are not going to be what determines how the world treats them. The main thing you learn in elementary school is not anything in the curriculum; it’s how to live and get along with other people in a system that is going to operate arbitrarily, irrationally, or even pointlessly. It’s how to convince the system to leave you alone and give you the space to be yourself.
Blank paper does not help toward that end. He had decided he would write about the Small Moment when, walking across a Honolulu parking garage, we encountered a Lamborghini. I know how I would write it: It would be about how his enthusiasm for and interest in cars intersected with what he’d been seeing on the island, how he’d picked up on the different possibilities there already. There were a lot of Mustangs, way more than you ever saw in New York (What is this, Hawaii? he says now, when he sees a Mustang back home). There was the Lyft Jeep back from the Halona Blowhole, a real Jeep, with floppy plastic windows unzipped. He’d just bought a little toy Audi from a gift shop full of realistic Tomica cars, stacked in their boxes, imported from Japan.
And then, on the walk from the Japanese food court to the grocery store, there was a brilliant yellow Lamborghini, low and wide, parked right there outside the supermarket doors. He’d only seen them in YouTube videos before. He wasn’t even sure it was one until he asked me and I confirmed it. He hadn’t thought he’d ever see one in real life, and now he had. We walked beside it to get into the store, and then when we came out we saw it on the move, rumbling along the pavement. I’d told him long ago that these cars weren’t even built to drive around normally, that they were unhappy being held back to everyday speeds, and he challenged me on that now, saying it looked just fine to him. The world could exceed his expectations.
Now he was grinding gears, one grudgingly penciled fact at a time. What happened next? I kept asking him. What did you see? How did you feel about it?
I don’t know, he said. I don’t know, I don’t know.
At some point in the hours of struggle he, or maybe his brother, asked me: Does anyone really write Small Moments? For their job?
Yes, I said. And I went off to the big bedroom and found Holy the Firm on the shelf and got it down and flipped to the part about the moth. I say this with the definite article, the part, reflexively, the way one does when one’s introduction to a particular work was as part of a canon. I enrolled in an essay-writing class in college and Annie Dillard’s passage about the moth was handed out on a photocopy as a thing that you had to know if you were going to be a writer. So you go forward in the world on the presumption that the other writers, or even the readers, have been similarly initiated, or that it’s safest to act as if they have.
It is a great passage, I think, even absent my duty to receive it as such. I received quite a few exemplary memorable images on photocopies back then, but this is the one I sincerely and actively do remember: the moth dying in the candle flame and its body (spoiler alert!) becoming a wick and burning. I got it off the shelf and reread it and decided not to show it to my seven-year-old, after all, because I’d forgotten the precise violence of it, the attention given to the minute death throes, the “wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke,” the way “her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire.” It was a little much, for the purposes of what I would have been trying to show him.
I leafed through Delmore Schwartz, too, quickly, The Ego Is Always at the Wheel, but there would have been a lot of questions about loose ends and human vices unless I chose a piece very judiciously. So I wandered back out of the bedroom and I let the topic drop without supplying any evidence for my claim that yes, real writers do write Small Moments, and after he had gone to bed I read Holy the Firm end to end, quickly, all 76 pages of it, 66 if you don’t count the front matter.
When I was done with that, I wondered what Annie Dillard is up to, and I put my eyes back on the computer screen and typed in her name. And there was her website, terse and perfectly composed:
Here is some information for scholars. (I’ve posted this web-page in defense; a crook bought the name and printed dirty pictures, then offered to sell it to me. I bit. In the course of that I learned the web is full of misinformation. This is a corrective.)
There are lists of her works, some with brief commentary (“It took me 14 months full-time to write Holy the Firm (1977), 66 typescript pages. Critic Thomas Mallon imagined that it was written in haste”); there are firm but polite (but more firm) explanations that she is not answering letters, reading manuscripts, or taking assignments. The writer is looking after her writing.
It’s not generalizable, nor would it be good for the world if it were, widely. This is not the time for everyone to withdraw. But it was good to consider it, to pause and ask what it is we are doing with our consciousness and our attention.