Writing with a Clothespin
Excerpted from Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.
“The life of the writer — such as it is — is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.” —Annie Dillard
In her 1989 book The Writing Life, Pulitzer-winning author Annie Dillard recalls how she invented a technique for keeping herself anchored in the real world as she performed her “high holy art” of writing.
Dillard recalls when she had an office in the English department of a university. On nights and weekends, when the building was deserted, she’d sit in her office, enjoying the silence, while “writing a terrifically abstract book of literary aesthetic theory.”
The secretaries who worked in the office during the day gave Dillard a key to the faculty lounge. In the lounge was a teakettle sitting on a stove burner, and the secretaries told her she could use it to boil water for tea. Because a whistling teakettle is an unwelcome distraction during school hours, someone had fixed the spout with a lid to prevent it from whistling. The lid was fastened with a wooden clothespin.
Her first night writing, Dillard put the kettle on, then went back to her office. As she wrote, the teakettle in the faculty lounge boiled and boiled, but never whistled. Dillard was so absorbed that she never gave the teakettle a thought until the odor of scorched metal wafted into her office.
Panicked, she jumped up, rushed to the faculty lounge, and found the teakettle glowing redly. The water had boiled away. “I confessed the next day,” she recalled. “The secretaries said they would give me another chance.”
The following night, Dillard returned to work. She went to the faculty lounge, filled the teakettle with water, and set it on the burner. But this time she removed the wooden clothespin that held the lid on the spout and she took the clothespin back to her office.
Clamping the clothespin to her finger, she proceeded to write. It was, she later recalled, “a strong clothespin, and I had to move it every twenty seconds. This action, and the pain, kept me in the real world until the water actually boiled. … So that is how I wrote those nights, wrote a book about high holy art: moving a clothespin up and down my increasingly reddened little finger.”
That clothespin is an apt symbol of the writer’s life. We practice our high holy art, yet at the same time, we have to keep ourselves anchored in the real world, where an unattended teakettle can boil dry.
We must lose ourselves in a world of imagination. But even while we are lost in our art, we should keep in touch with the world around us, because that is the world we come from, the world we write about, the world we speak to through our work.
Whatever it takes for you to maintain that connection — even a clothespin clamped to your finger — do it. Write in the holy zone of inspiration, but don’t forget that you live in a teakettle world.
Condensed from “Reading No. 53: Writing With a Clothespin” in Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.
Muse of Fire consists of 90 readings, plus three bonus readings and an epilogue — three solid months and 90,000 words of pure, distilled motivation and inspiration for just $3.99. Each reading is from three to five pages long — just the right length to help you feel empowered to begin your next writing session with energy and enthusiasm.