Searching for the Writing Life
by Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85
I was twenty-four years old and enrolled in my first year in the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Washington when Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life first hit the bestseller list. I devoured each page, my heart pounding as she spoke of words that hammered against the walls of one’s house, about how writing was the freest way to live. I gobbled up each of her delicate bon mots as if they were the finest Swiss bon-bons. I read and re-read passages until they flew off the page and entered my bloodstream by osmosis, her words reverberating off the soft spongy walls of my brain. Apart from being a wonderful guide on what it means to write, Dillard’s book exhibited the best in what good writing should be: fresh, interesting metaphors, near perfect use of rhythm and repetition, and complex ideas presented in a strong narrative framework.
I was twenty-four and in love with the idea of success as much as I was in love with words, and as I read her book, I vowed that I would always live the writing life. I would write brilliant novels with insightful characters that made readers laugh and cry at the same time. I would gather around me a group of writing friends, a modern-day salon where nearly every conversation would be about the meaning of art, the importance of literature, and the role that we as artists would play in the world.
Most of all, I would never, never hold down a nine to five job. That was for conventional people, for lawyers and Boeing engineers, for telephone repairmen and marketing reps, not for “creative” people such as myself. Besides if I worked a regular job, I would never have time to write. So I would do as Dillard did. As all my writing teachers at Mount Holyoke, my undergraduate institution, and the University of Washington did. I would teach creative writing. One or two classes a semester, filled with inspired, talented (though not more talented than me I hoped) students whom were also committed to the writing life. And of course, after the appropriate amount of rejection, I would win my first Pulitzer Prize, the acceptance speech for which I had already been writing in my head for at least a year. Ladies and gentleman of Columbia University…