Writing Tip 13: Language and Vision: Turning Sand into Glass


Consider this wonderful piece of writing by Annie Dillard on the creative disjunction between what we conceive and what we write, between the vision and the actuality. A disjunction that often crushes us as writers because we don’t understand that it is not a personal failing (‘I’m a crap writer!’), but goes with the territory – and may be what drives us on to do better.

Anne Dillard 1 –

Anne Dillard

Anne Dillard

This is not about the hopelessness of our vision, we must have the vision, it is about the hopefulness of the words, this changeling that ‘steals our hearts.Language cannot be taken for granted, is what she is saying. Words will not naturally fall into place in accord with our vision. The marvel that is the vision is quite beyond words. How inconvenient! How frustrating!

Language is not inherently transparent; it has to be worked on, massaged, cultivated, courted. A good sentence is the outcome of a successful negotiation with chaos.

We want the reader to look past the language to the story, the action, the character, whatever, but as writers we can’t do that. We can’t look past the language; we have to make the language like that for the reader. Here the difference between the reader and writer is like between a driver and a mechanic. The driver of a car assumes he can take the workings of the motor for granted. The mechanic has no such reassurance.

If we try to look past the language, or around the language, to the marvelous vision shining in our minds, we will come a cropper.

Like a kink in a rug, our language will trip us up. Every time. The wrong word, comma in the wrong place destroying the rhythm, phrases in the wrong place in the sentence mangling the meaning, a weak verb, an ambiguous construction, a sentence that won’t end… it goes on and on.

To start writing is to confront opacity.

‘The page always wins’, Dillard says, because language always wins. The words are all we are left with: a few things flung clear.

Getting the right words involves tuning your ear to the rhythms of language, and to your own unique time signatures.

A sentence is like a film shot, a camera angle. The audience hardly notices, or shouldn’t notice, (unless there’s some fancy camera work) but the shots are the moment-to-moment substance of the film. In good movies each shot is carefully thought through. So it is with sentences.

As Dillard says, you cannot render the vision, which is not of this world, into the world, but something even more marvelous may happen…


Happy Writing.