Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

"She calls us all by our last names."

Alexander Chee, on Annie Dillard:

In my clearest memory of her, it’s spring, and she is walking towards me, smiling, her lipstick looking neatly cut around her smile. I never ask her why she’s smiling—for all I know, she’s laughing at me as I stand smoking in front of the building where we’ll have class. She’s Annie Dillard, and I am her writing student, a 21-year-old cliché—black clothes, deliberately mussed hair, cigarettes, dark but poppy music on my Walkman. I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m funny. She walks to class because she lives a few blocks from our classroom building in a beautiful house with her husband and her daughter, and each time I pass it on campus, I feel, like a pulse through the air, the idea of her there. Years later, when she no longer lives there, and I am teaching there, I feel the lack of it.

The dark green trees behind her on the Wesleyan campus sharpen her outline. She is dressed in pale colors, pearls at her neck and ears. She’s tall, athletic, vigorous. Her skin glows. She holds out her hand.

Chee, she says. Give me a drag off that.

She calls us all by our last names.

She lets the smoke curl out a little and then exhales brusquely. Thanks, she says, and hands it back, and then she smiles again and walks inside.

Lipstick crowns the yellow Marlboro Red filter.

So begins Alexander Chee’s experience of studying with Annie Dillard. Stop what you’re doing and go read the rest of it right now–both for Dillard’s writing advice and for an amazing portrait of a master writer by a master novelist.

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