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Annie Dillard: Biography, Poems, Essays & Books

Instructor: Robin Small

Robin has a BA/MAT in English Ed, and teaches 6th grade English and Writing Lab.

Annie Dillard is a modern American author of nature writing, poetry, and fiction best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Read on to find more about the life and work of this intensely private and introspective writer.

Wading into Deeper Water

Not all writers have the courage to dig deep and ask the most basic questions about existence, but Annie Dillard does. This modern American author has proven her mettle as a thinker, as well as a skilled storyteller and wordsmith, time and again.

Bits and Pieces of a Biography

Details about Dillard's life are hard to pin down; it is no secret that she prefers to stay out of the spotlight. Born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, on April 30, 1945, Dillard was the oldest child of Pam and Frank Doak. She earned a BA from Hollins College in Virginia in 1967 and her M.A. in English in 1968.

She married Richard Dillard in 1965, divorced after ten years, and later married Gary Clevidence. They had one child together, Cody Rose, and divorced in 1988. She then married Robert D. Richardson. Her first book of poetry, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, was published in 1974 when she was 29, and her famous nonfiction narrative, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published shortly after.

Dillard wrote for Harper's magazine as a contributing editor from 1974-1981 and again from 1983-1985. She taught as a scholar-in-residence at Western Washington University from 1975-1979 and was a professor emeritus at Wesleyan University from 1979-2000.

Dillard's texts are rich in observations and reflections, and the drive to inhabit, report on, and understand the present moment is woven through all of her writing. She writes vivid accounts of moments in her early life in her memoir, An American Childhood. Readers of her memoir see the future writer mapping the streets of her neighborhood on her bike, playing baseball with the neighborhood boys, and reading voraciously in the town library. Her attachment to one particular library book, The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, illustrates her early fascination with the details of the natural world. Dillard's description of her interests hints of the writer and thinker she would become.

Throughout her memoir, she describes scenes of her childhood with the self-awareness of a philosopher and the search for understanding and truth that is such a striking characteristic in all of her work. Dillard's ability to make connections between her observations of nature and human experience has been compared to the work of Henry David Thoreau, an important influence of hers. Other writers who have influenced Dillard include Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.

Dillard has been involved in both local and national initiatives, as a member of the Poetry Society, the Committee for Public Libraries, the NAACP, the Society of American Historians, and the American Society of Arts and Letters, to list just a few. She has participated in many programs to educate and support writers, including service on literary committees, the Western States Arts Foundation, and as a usage panelist for the American Heritage Dictionary. After the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, she gave a brief commentary on NPR's Morning Edition, reflecting on the individuals who lost their lives.

She continues to write and publish, maintaining her position as a significant voice in fiction and one of the foremost nature writers of our time.

Poems, Essays, and Books

Dillard's first book, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, is a collection of poetry, published in 1974. Excerpts of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek were printed in Harper's Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Atlantic Monthly, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1975. In this book, she weaves reflections with observations and scientific facts together in a coherent narrative, framed within a year spent by Tinker Creek in Roanoke, Virginia. Dillard manages to do so much more in this book than just paint a picture of the natural world. Rather than just reporting on the systems and intricacies of nature, Dillard searches both inward and outward to, as she puts it, 'describe the creator, if any, by studying creation.'

A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Holy the Firm is another nonfiction narrative that was published in 1978, which gives an account of an island plane crash. This book focuses on the idea of a creator in a world where there is so much pain.

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