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Annie Dillard | Biography

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Early Years

Annie Dillard was given the name Meta Ann Doak at her birth on April 30, 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The name was apt for the future metaphysical writer. Even as a child, Dillard threw herself passionately into everything she did—whether riding her bike, playing baseball, painting, drawing, dancing, or making music. But more than any of her other enthusiasms, she adored two things: books and nature. She read voraciously, and when she wasn't reading, she was collecting rocks, tinkering with a chemistry set, or studying under a microscope the items she collected during her outdoor ramblings. But she also found time to rebel, getting suspended from school for smoking, and then later being involved in a crash while drag racing with a boyfriend.

College and Earliest Writing

For Dillard's education her family decided to send her south to a women's school where they hoped she would become more genteel. Dillard chose Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, in part because she loved the creek that runs through campus. Home to a vital literary community at the time, Hollins proved a nurturing environment. Dillard thrived among professors who inspired her and fellow students who shared her writing talent. She married her creative writing professor, the poet Richard Dillard, at the end of her sophomore year. However, marriage did not keep her from completing, on schedule, both her bachelor's and master's degrees in literature. Living with her husband in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Roanoke, Dillard hiked the Appalachian Mountains, played the card game pinochle, and organized her schedule around the Hollins College intramural softball team.

She was inspired to write Pilgrim at Tinker Creek after a month-long camping trip. While she was working on that book, she published a collection of poetry, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974). Pilgrim at Tinker Creek followed several months later.

Writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

After she graduated from college in 1967, Dillard spent the next year writing her master's thesis on American transcendentalist and author Henry David Thoreau's classic treatise about nature and society, Walden (1854). Dillard praised the book but not for the reasons usually cited. She thought it lacked real insight or interest in nature. Instead she admired it for offering "a constant and inspiring parable of what is." So in October 1972, after she and her husband spent a month camping at Acadia National Park in Maine, she knew what she wanted to do. When she returned home to Virginia, she decided to write her own version of Walden. Tinker Creek, the stream in her backyard, was Dillard's Walden Pond.

She began to fill out a series of 5x7-inch note cards with research from a lifetime of eclectic reading, her observations of the woods and mountains, and her reflections on God. Ultimately she would accumulate 1,100 note cards, enough to fill a 17-inch box. Figuring out how to weave together this glut of information into a coherent book nearly stumped her: "I never from the beginning had the faintest idea what I was doing," she wrote in her journal for that year.

Even with this uncertainty, it took her only eight months to finish the book, including a summer camped out not in the woods but in a private study room in the Hollins College library where she went every night to write. Meanwhile her husband showed the first few chapters to his literary agent, who encouraged Dillard to submit the full manuscript. A publisher quickly bought it, excerpting a single chapter in Harper's Magazine before the book appeared in its entirety in 1974.

Critical Reception of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Despite the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1975, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek received mixed reviews when it was published in 1974. Some major critics and well-known writers panned it. These included fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Southern American author Eudora Welty (1909–2001), who in a review in The New York Times praised Dillard's creative ambition but claimed she often could not understand what Dillard was trying to say.

Others admired the book. Individual chapters were published in leading literary magazines and even in Sports Illustrated. The book sold 37,000 copies in its first two months. Sales of both the paperback and book club rights garnered Dillard a quarter of a million dollars, a huge sum in 1974. Almost instantly the book became a classic, landing on several "100 best" reading lists—and on the curriculum of high schools everywhere. Dillard jokes about this recognition in the afterword to the 25th anniversary edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, saying, "A generation of youth has grown up cursing my name."

Later Accomplishments

Dillard had a long and successful literary career, spanning more than 40 years, during which she published a total of 12 books, including novels, poetry, memoirs, and collections of essays. She was scholar-in-residence at Western Washington University and taught for many years at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Her body of work has garnered numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Grant in 1985 and the National Endowment for the Humanities medal in 2014. Her most recent book—which she claimed would be her last—is The Abundance (2016).
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