An Abundance of Complexity

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book of details and intricacies. The further I have delved into the book, the more overwhelming the sheer number of details has become. Instead of simplifying the world for readers, the narrator makes readers confront the sheer complexity of their surroundings. Our narrator explains to us that “creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for” (Dillard 133). Although these details are so overwhelming that no man or woman could ever hope to comprehend even a respectable portion of them, the narrator also expresses a respect for their cumulative beauty. She explains that “the texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek” (Dillard 141).

I think the narrator’s description of details and intricacies in the world can also be applied to writing, and not just because writers are often attempting to describe some of the complexities of the world. I see similar complexity in language and the act of writing. Grammar rules within the English language are exceptionally extensive, and then there are all of the individual cases for which the normal rules are disregarded. But grammar is only the beginning. There is pragmatics to consider, and the number of ways in which context can affect both speaking and writing are so numerous as to be beyond the bounds of my comprehension. What of sarcasm, irony, overstatement, and all the other devices that can cause a difference between the locutionary act and the illocutionary act? What of rhyme, alliteration, and the multitude of other strategies utilized by speakers and writers to affect the sound and meaning of words or text? How about the many differences between languages and how they affect meaning and comprehension? The list of intricacies in language and the act of writing could go on and on, and they can seem beautiful for all the options they give a speaker or writer.

What does all this complexity mean for writers? I think the answer will be slightly different for each individual. However, I think the will that many writers possess to understand the language that allows their craft to exist may make many of them at least a little curious about the details of how language works. Perhaps this interest is what separates dedicated writers from the majority of the population just as the narrator in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is different because of her interest in the details of the world around her. The narrator divulges that “I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, ‘Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?’ The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life” (Dillard 134). I sometimes have a similar tendency to speak at length about rhetoric and writing techniques to an uninterested audience, and I have a feeling that only manners keep many of them from fleeing. And like the narrator, I usually have the impression that the details I espouse could change the way others view the world if they would only listen. Just as the knowledge of others can change me if I accept it, the knowledge I possess can change others.

Supposing that a writer does possess an interest in the details of his or her craft, the question of how they apply directly to the way he studies writing seems more difficult to understand. Should we, like the narrator of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, limit our explorations to a more easily manageable area so that we may become experts about what resides within that limited area? Is it more valuable to let many of the details go and explore more areas of writing? These are questions I just can’t answer.

I also don’t fully understand how knowledge about the details of writing and language translate into greater writing skills. I do stop in my writing to consider the use of alliteration, irony, and other more uncommon devices. However, I normally don’t stop to think about my use of grammatical forms and other more commonly used tools of the craft of writing. Does what I know about the details of these tools translate automatically into my writing? How much of what I know about language and writing is simply ignored while I am engaged in writing? Should we be careful to avoid thinking too much about the details of writing to prevent a loss of productivity? In short, how productive is it for a writer to understand the complexity of his craft? These are more questions that, for me at least, have not been answered.

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2 thoughts on “An Abundance of Complexity

  1. erinmolsberry says:

    I really wanted to quote page 134’s ‘captive audience passage’ on my blog as well. I think those few sentences captures a situation which is quite relatable to many people, in which an enthusiast of some sort attempts (to no avail) to make another person understand what makes their own favorite subjects so compelling or beautiful. It is interesting to me that Dillard (despite what she says in this passage) was able to put forth her unusual own way of seeing things in a format which was so well-received. I daresay not everyone who picked up this book fled. As a writer, I don’t doubt that she was able to take advantage of the complexity of language to transmit a message which many readers found very beautiful as well as compelling.

    The questions you address are not always things writers think to ask of themselves. I, for instance, tend to think of writing as a mostly-intuitive process which is only improved by constant practice. Hence my need to be a Writing Major and practice all the time. (In other words, I typically think it best not to bear in mind the complexity of the craft, because full knowledge of what one is doing while writing can make the process downright paralyzing). However, directly probing the conscious or unconscious decisions one makes as a writer in regards to the use of the tools, devices, and trappings of writing is surely something we could all stand to do. (Unless everybody but me already is!)

  2. chutson says:

    Interesting discussion! I think if we really want to call ourselves ‘writers’ we should be aware of all the intricacies of our craft, including everything you discussed in your post. That said, I also agree with Erin that we don’t need to be consciously aware of these intricacies every moment that we are writing.

    To some extent, I think a lot of the complexities come without thinking–after all, we started having the act and rules of writing and language ingrained starting in Kindergarten, and it’s never really stopped. So we don’t really need to think to recognize a metaphor, or what grammar tense to use, or the fact that, for the most part, sentence structure is subject followed by verb followed by predicate.

    I do think that we need to pay attention to craft, and everything that comes with it that is harder to notice and achieve–pacing, tone, mood. And in the initial act of writing the first or second draft of something, I don’t think craft or technique should even be thought about, because, as Erin said, it is absolutely paralyzing, and then you can’t get anything finished. But in the revising/re-writing stages? I think reflecting, understanding, and perfecting the complexities of craft is absolutely crucial to successful writing.

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