Bad Advice Wednesday: Writing Tips from Annie Dillard and Rafael Nadal

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


This was originally posted in January 2011, but given the results of the U.S. Open seems relevant:

There are those who think it’s hard to write every day.  Maybe.  I’m of the camp that it’s harder to write once in a while. The rituals of daily-ness are built to contain a writing life in a way that the formlessness of the occasional is not.  And for most of us who have chosen to make knocking words around our life, there are rituals a-plenty.  Mine include getting up early, stretching my back (chronically bad since I was a teenager), drinking a cup of tea for calm before starting in on coffee for intensity (I am currently on day 11 of no coffee for the first time in many years so I apologize if my prose is sluggish), keeping note of my hours at the desk on a chart, listening to music (different albums for different drafts—The Talking Heads Stop Making Sense, for instance, for rolling along on first drafts), and, later in the day, long walks by the Cape Fear river armed with a microcassette recorder (and later still, notes in my journal armed with a beer.)  Right off I notice that there are a lot of liquids involved in my rituals which seems right since there is an element of communion, and ablution, in the whole thing.  Like most daily rituals mine was never planned but rather evolved, and did so for the single purpose of getting words on the page.

At the moment I am teaching a graduate class called The Writing Life, and some of you might remember that I posted the syllabus last year  (I’ll paste this year’s revised syllabus below).  The class starts, fittingly, with Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and as I re-read that book I noted that her rituals were more extreme than my own, and seemed geared toward creating an intensity far beyond the everyday. She writes:  

“…writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce.  If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours along with a hundred other Zulu warriors, you might be able to prepare yourself to write.  If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance that on a certain morning the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals and drinking dubious liquids, you might, when the time came, be ready to write.  But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior or Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?

“How to set yourself spinning?  Where is an edge–a dangerous edge–and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?’

A couple of pages later she answers her own question in pracitcal terms:

“To crank myself up I stood on a jack and ran myself up.  I tightened myself like a bolt….I drank coffee in titrated doses.  It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist.  There was a tiny range within which the coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.

“I pointed myself.  I walked to the water.  I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach log, watched bird.  That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month.  Only the coffee counted, and I knew it.  Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday….”

This seems a tad extreme, even for me.  But I get it.  It’s close to trying to work oneself up into a berserker’s state of mind, and reminds me, not of my own rituals or those of other writers, but of the pre-game routine of the tennis player Rafael Nadal.  In his autobiography,  Rafael writes of his preparation before playing Roger Federer at Wimbledon:

“I was withdrawing deeper into myself, isolating myself from my surroundings, settling into the routines—the inflexible routines—I have before each match and continue right up to the start of play.  I ate what I always eat.  Pasta—no sauce, nothing that could possibly cause indigestion—with olive oil and salt and a straight, simple piece of fish.  To drink: water….Forty five minutes before the game was scheduled to start I took a cold shower.  Freezing cold water.  I do this before every match.  It’s the point before the point of no return….Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow…Nothing else exists but the battle ahead….[Next] I stood up and began exercising, violently—activating my explosiveness…”

This is very similar to the routine that Bill R. has described to me before he writes in the evening.  Kidding here, of course.  No writer I know prepares for battle with quite the intensity of Mr. Nadal (of course no writer has ever had to type against Federer ).  But if the preparation described is too extreme for our more sedentary profession, it isn’t too far off.   Here is Nadal stating his goal on the first page of his book: “Because what I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head, to shut everything out of my mind but the contest itself and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing.”

Tennis, Nadal says, is a sport of the mind, and the best player is the one who has “good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from ups and downs in morale…”

Though he is talking tennis, this  does not sound entirely irrelevant to the writing life.  Nor does his conclusion:

“And of one thing I have no doubt: the more you train the better your feeling.”





David Gessner


3:30 pm-6:15 pm  KE 1112

Course Overview:

This class will focus on all aspects of the writing life.  What does it mean to live a life of writing and reading books?   The course will be broken down into two halves.  The first will focus on the spiritual aspects of the writing life, as well as work habits, and the second on more practical aspects, the brass tacks, from writing a cover letter to a book proposal.  But while we will end on a practical note we will keep our focus on the larger picture, and the philosophical aspects of choosing to be a writer in today’s world.  Our reading will include books on writing, biographies, and more practical writing guides.


The main requirement of the class is keeping up with the reading. You will demonstrate that you have done this by:

 1. Writing short reaction pieces that are due each class.  These are answers to pre-assigned questions on the reading that I will hand out the week before we discuss each new book.  The reactions should be short and creative, and are really meant to get you thinking about the reading so we can have a lively and engaged class.  I will collect the reactions to check at mid-term and at the end of the semester.

 2. Class participation.  Everyone is expected to engage in our discussions.  If you have shyness issues please come and talk to me.

 Everyone will be assigned to be a co-leader for one of the books and expected, with their co-co-leaders, to run the discussion that day.

 3.  Everyone in the class will be asked to give an oral report. 

Please focus on a writer who has influenced your work.  Please describe the ways in which your work has been influenced by the writer.  The report should also show some awareness of the author’s work.  But for the purpose of this class the real focus should be on how the author works: work habits, statements he or she has made on the writing life, overall arc and effort of career.  Please try to engage the class—-poke, prod, stimulate.  A great source for this, highly recommended but not required, is the Paris Review interviews: 

All books are available at Pomegranate Books.  I’ll e-mail you the ISBNS since it’s essential we have the same copies for page numbers.



1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

2. Life Work by Donald Hall

3 . Winter Hours by Mary Oliver 

4. First We Read, Then We Write by Robert Richardson

5. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott



6. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

7. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

8. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet by Walter Jackson Bate

9. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

10.  On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner

  1. Peter Peteet writes:

    “How needs an MFA”,or a shower in “old water”
    the everyday morning;just presence in a morning town suffices to drive me to type.
    Also gratitude for gifts such as this reading list as I sit before both
    an open door to the dark street
    and the wide internet.
    A drunken man appears and apologizes for the disturbance of
    “being assaulted by his ex-girlfriend”-asks if I “called the cops”
    when I say no replies quickly “well I did”.
    Just so do I answer your questions-
    as Mary Oliver writes of the body’s question
    “will this pounding ever stop?”
    before I walk out into the dark where the flowers are.

    • Dave writes:

      Pete. Grateful for the comment. And the corrections! I caught the “old water” but where is the “How” that should be a “Who”?

      • Peter Peteet writes:

        Hi Dave,
        ‘Twas only in a reply to a comment
        “How needs an MFA when you’ve got Bill and Dave’s? (Pretend I didn’t say that.)”
        I’m bad at pretending,glad you’re tolerant of teasing-Happy Friday!

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    Brilliant! Might there be a need for a text book by you on this whole area?

  3. john lane writes:

    Now in my late fifties I’m interested in how the ritual presentation has changed for me. Early on, in the middle and late 1970s, I was all about a certain sort of ritual. I had to have the same pen, the same paper, journals of certain sort, my own separate room I’d call my “study” (I remember deep serious discussions with writerly friends as to whether a poet should work in a “study,” an “office,” or a “work room”), an old accountant’s desk facing a blank wall, and I’d do my typing on an old tiny portable Olivetti I’d bought at a used typewriter shop in Charlottesville in early 1980. I’d rise early drink coffee, always from the same cup, one I called “the duck cup” because it has a preening duck in the glaze.

    I’d start the morning looking back over a pile of folders containing drafts of poems, each poem in its own folder (I was a poet back then entirely), and I’d begin scratching at the draft from before of some unfinished poem, and then at some point type out a clean copy and place it on the top of the pile of drafts.

    Some mornings I’d start a new poem in my journal, copy it out on a blank sheet of paper and start a new folder and put it on the top of the pile. Later in the morning (I always worked in the morning) I’d move on to letter writing or simply muse and reflect in my journal on my reading.

    The early rituals broke down as I began writing prose. When the prose pushed in and the computer arrived (I bought my first “word processor” in 1983) I found I spent even more time at the desk but it was more structured and complex and focused. Flipping through those early floppy disks and then later all those electronic “files” wasn’t the same as picking up those paper folders and having no idea where each folder would lead me. More and more the folders became simply storage containers, not living spaces for projects holding works-in-progress.

    About that time, the late 1980s, I began teaching and I began, like David Mamet, to write in restaurants in the morning, drinking coffee, eating breakfast, tipping heavily because I stayed at one table. This was where I wrote poetry and reflected in my journal. This was always on the way to “school,” for work for me wasn’t the teaching. It was still the writing. In those early years I taught morning classes, so I had to get up early to get anything done.

    Now for almost a decade we’ve lived in this “wireless” house and for almost 20 years I’ve had afternoon classes. When we built this house we built me a “study,” and for the first five years I worked there at a desk, just like in the old days. Now the desk is simply where I plug in my printer to print something. Or occasionally sit and work on some prose.

    Most of what I do now I do on my laptop out on the porch, or, like now, sitting in a stuffed chair in the living room. The house is quiet. My wife goes to work and I stay here until lunch almost every day, working at my own things. I keep all the things I’m working on open in my MacBook Pro “dock” at the bottom of my page. I’ll admit I keep a window open for the Web as well. I tell myself I can check in on the world every hour, and I try to keep to it.

    The rituals aren’t as tight any more but I’m writing just as much or more. My special pens are all dried up. I still write in a journal, but I’m not so stuck on it having to be a “special” one. It’s been 15 years since I drafted a poem from journal, copied over on a clean sheet of paper, typed up, then stacked in a folder.

    Do I miss my old writerly self? Yes, but I will not return. Am I Annie Dillard? No, (thank God). The thing that has stayed the same is the morning ritual. Everything else is pretty different and it times it feels as different as plowing with a mule (which I imagine but have never done) and plowing with a tractor.

    Thanks Dave & Bill for opening up this space and getting me thinking about this! JL

  4. Chelle G writes:


    Love the article, and wish to reiterate the statement that I wish this type of thing had been taught in school. After graduation, in May 2010, I had to learn these things on my own. I learned to make time for my work, early in the morning or very late at night, in order to have balance in my family and business life, and to avoid Mommy and wife guilt. Now, I have a set schedule that doesn’t take time from my family or day job. I also learned pretty quickly that a lot of being successful as a writer means publishing, and that publishing requires an inordinant amount of research. Now, my schedule includes three hours a week of research in that area. To continue to grow as a writer means continuing your education (alone) by reading. To accomplish this, I’ve found several online lit magazines that I love and follow regularly. A writer’s life is tough. It requires dedication and planning but if you are called to the act you’ll find a way. One last thing-don’t beat yourself up if things don’t always go the way you’ve planned-if you fall off of the horse don’t give up, just climb back in the saddle again. Everyone has rough patches.

  5. daisy writes:

    I wish that class had existed when I was at UNCW. By far the one thing I feel I was totally unprepared for when I graduated was all of the practicalities that come with wanting to be a published writer. Sure, I felt like my writing improved, but what to do with it?

    That’s neither here nor there though; ultimately, I have no one to blame for my lack of “getting practical” except myself.

    I do, however, have a question! Two, even!

    What purpose does keeping note of the hours that you spend at your desk serve?

    Also, what’s your stance on the Internet while writing. I’ve found I allow myself to become easily distracted by things like Instant Messenger and, well, just the Internet in general.

    • dave writes:

      I’ll tackle the second question first. During my “real” morning hours, I have never written on a computer that’s hooked up to the internet. This is not due to virtue, but to the fact that I was already doing that, at 35, when the internet took off, and I didn’t see the sense of messing around with a good habit. There is a downside–no googling so I scribble a list of questions for later–but the upside is huge in terms of uninterrupted concentration.

      As for the first question, there was a little creative nonfiction (if you know what I’m saying) in my including this in my habits. I used to always keep track of my hours, but only do it occasionally now since the habit of staying at the desk is so ingrained. The original benefit, however, was having an objective practical sense of how much work I was doing (versus “Oh, that was a good/bad day.”) I actually think I once did a Bad Advice on keeping a writing chart, but I can’t remember…..

      How needs an MFA when you’ve got Bill and Dave’s? (Pretend I didn’t say that.)

      And finally here’s to a 49ers-Patriots Super Bowl.