There is a quote about writing I have been searching for, and finally found today. I knew Annie Dillard — one our best writers ever, and one of my favorites — had written, somewhere, about how she writes, and the passage that really stayed with me was her statement that in order to write a book, it takes a conference table. I had searched online, and also in the front of all the books I’ve collected by her. (When I mark a passage in a book, I try to mark the page in the beginning of the book. But often I’m too impatient with reading more to make myself do this.) Today, thinking how I’ve set out to write a book, but feel constrained by the way my living space is arranged with my study and the dining table on opposite ends of the house, I really felt I needed this passage. I wanted an actual writer, one who writes really well, to validate my need. It feels selfish, to “need” a huge room with a large table just to write and send out a few poems, not to mention put together an honest-to-God book. But if Dillard said it, then I was excused.
Annie Dillard and the 20-foot conference table
How do you find a quote when you know only the author’s name and the words “conference table”?
As a librarian from way back, I know how to search for things in books. As a librarian in this day and age, I know it’s both more simple and more convoluted to do that. Back in the day, when I was a public librarian and then an academic one, I knew all about tables of contents and indexes. The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature was my second-best friend. I took groups of students, in various states of alertness, around the enormous reference room in search of plot summaries, population estimates, and state birds and fossils and showing them the signposts in the backs and fronts of bound volumes.
Now we Google. Or “google,” I suppose, as it’s no longer really about the search engine but the act of typing words into a phone or PC and seeing what comes up. As a hospital librarian, I cautioned families of patients against searching for symptoms and diseases this way. I begged them to at least go to the Mayo website, where the facts were, as we are forced to say these days, “true” facts, backed up by research reported in journals and monographs. I doubt I steered many of them away from the endless chat rooms and listservs into which the suffering poured their frustration with chronic pain and mystifying rashes and gained, if not a diagnosis or cure, a lot of empathy.
Just yesterday, I was looking for something to give to my daughter on her birthday, which is tomorrow. I had seen a charming book at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and she was almost as enchanted as I when I described it to her. It was about organizing things, things like cars, by size or shape or color or what have you. I told a friend about it and moaned that I could remember neither the title nor author. She said, “Just type in some words!” So I did. I tried “organizing things” and found guides to Feng Shui and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I tried “photo book,” since it’s the books was full of photos, and got books about making books of your own photos, as well as references to discounts on Shutterfly. “Putting things in order” got me all kinds of workbooks on planning for the end of your life. Finally, I typed in “organizing things photo book” and found a book called Things Organized Neatly, which is really close (take a look, it’s great) and that, thanks to Amazon’s “Frequently Bought Together” feature, took me at last to the book I was seeking: The Art of Clean Up: Life Made Neat and Tidy.
So today I decided to try, one more time, to locate that Dillard quote. I’ve forgotten my search terms, something like Annie Dillard on writing. And I found it, deep in a post on Brain Pickings. WHAT a relief. I can hardly tell you. Here it is:
“The materiality of the writer’s life cannot be exaggerated. If you like metaphysics, throw pots. How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often “written” with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.”
A 20-foot conference table! Yes! I wasn’t just imagining things! There it was, the permission I had wanted for so long. Permission to want that kind of space, that kind of material crutch on which to lean as I sort out my thoughts, my pages, my life. Whether or not I ever install a table that large into my writing space is, right now, irrelevant. The important thing was finding the quote. Anybody can find a table; a table is just a piece of wood with four legs. I was seeking words, and vindication. Try finding that in a furniture store.