Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 14 of 24 books in 28 days: pilgrim at tinker creek

Filed in Books, Writing :: February 24, 2010

Pilgrim In this project of reading memoirs and books about memoir, I find myself reading a book like Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which is not a memoir in the sense that the other memoirs I've read are memoir), determined to find the ways in which it is a sort of memoir, or at least has elements that I think of as belonging to memoir. 

In the Afterword to the 25th-Anniversary edition, Dillard says that her book is not a collection of essays and that she was attempting to write "some sort of nature book–say, a theodicy[.]"  She comfortingly describes her difficulty with settling on a structure and her feeling of being "stuck with" her form of a year's seasons.  Her battle with five-by-seven index cards is familiar to me as her difficulties with form.

At the beginning of the book she describes herself as an explorer, stalker, instrument, and pipe to be played.  Each of the fifteen chapters begins with an italicized first line which is roughly memoir: "I used to have a cat . . ."; "When I was six or seven . . ."; "It was the first of February . . ."; "I have just learned to see . . ."; "Yesterday I set out to catch . . ." for example.

These bits of personal scene setting give way to observations and thematic organization; in the course of any given chapter, the narrative might shift in time by years or minutes.  She is not telling a story governed by time in spite of the "seasons" structure.

In chapter four, just before she recounts the story of her friend Judy's bringing a Polyphemus moth cocoon to school, she warns that we will think she's going too far into childhood memory: "I have no intention of inflicting all my childhood memories on anyone.  Far less do I want to excoriate my old teachers who, in their bungling, unforgettable way, exposed me to the natural world, a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway."

Regardless of any genre I want to pin on this book, its language is beautiful, and I find myself wanting to copy passages for their exuberant and inspirational qualities.

Here's what's going on my computer monitor right now: "Live water heals memories.  I look up at the creek and here it comes, the future, being borne aloft as on a winding succession of laden trays."

Filed in Books, Writing


  1. Lindsey

    This is one of my favorite books. Dillard’s way with words awes me – it’s like watching her play with fire, at least I think so. I underline big chunks of almost every page. This book, to me, is about the glory of her imagery, about the poeticism of her prose … more than about any specific theme.

  2. whollyjeanne

    i’m almost embarrassed to tell you that i’ve never read this one, so i can’t bring anything even vaguely resembling an intelligent comment to the table. but i will.
    read it, i mean.
    and those index cards? love ’em. hate ’em.

  3. Shirley

    Two passages seared themselves in my memory and imagination when I first read this book in 1980 while co-leading an undergraduate service-learning program there. One is the section where she sees the “tree with lights.” The other is the quotation: “All my life I had been a bell, but never knew it, until I was lifted and struck.”
    I also wanted to take biology again–with Annie Dillard as my teacher!