"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003
Dillard stands as an interesting counterpoint to Didion and Suleri in that, despite her differences, she shares two fundamental similarities with them. First and foremost, Dillard, like Didion and Suleri, writes about her self. The major difference between autobiography and the personal essay is, as stated by Nancy Mairs, that "autobiographers offer an extensive account of a good part of their lives while personal essays, as Phillip Lopate states, spend their time "diving into the volcano of self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape" (15). Neither Dillard nor Didion nor Suleri provides a story of their life, wherein story is a narrative, that which has a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they fix their attention on only those pieces of themselves (those "single hot coals") which illuminate their subject.
The second key similarity among the three writers involves a conception of identity as communal. According to Oliver Lovesey this sense of "collective identity" marks a distinctly female sense of self (36). Mary Belenky, in
This conception of self as communal — enmeshed with its surroundings — comprises a major similarity among all three writers, but the process by which that self becomes enmeshed is quite different for Dillard: whereas Suleri and Didion depict themselves as symbols of their object of study (culture), Dillard depicts herself as a component of her object of study (nature). Whereas Didion and Suleri define themselves through self-conscious gestures, Dillard's text is the product of her immersion into nature, her loss of self-consciousness.
A the opening of
In order to penetrate nature's flesh, though — to "lose herself in a tree" (81), to become "petal, feather stone" (201), to "let the wind do [her] breathing" (52) — Didion must let her "self-awareness disappear" (81). If writing is the act of immersing herself into nature and immersing herself into nature requires a loss of self-conscious, then writing, according to this formulation, necessarily involves an effacement of authorial identity. Whereas for Didion writing "is the act of saying 'I'" ("Why I Write," 50), for Dillard writing demands that we "stop saying hello to ourselves" (198). Writing involves an erasure of self-consciousness.
Didion and Suleri depict the cultural world surrounding them by linking civic discourse with personal discourse, Dillard, on the hand, depicts the natural world surrounding her by attempting to eliminate self-conscious discourse itself. And yet, this, too, is a linking of discourses of sorts — the sphere of life she links herself to just happens to be silent. In order to observe a muskrat at intimate quarters, for example, Dillard must essentially turn off her self-conscious, language-grasping mind:
For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions. My own self-awareness had disappeared; it seems now almost as though had I been wired with electrodes, my EEG would have been flat. I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly; it seems second nature to me now. 
Here Dillard becomes essentially a bundle of tissues. She observes, she takes in, but she does not comment upon, analyze or contextualize. In a similar passage, Dillard's complete immersion into nature, her surrendering of her own discourse and her adoption of nature's discourse becomes even more clear. After watching and listening to birds for several hours, Dillard begins to sound like them. "Today I watched and heard a wren, a sparrow, and the mocking bird singing," she writes. "My brain started to trill why why why, what is the meaning meaning meaning?" (166). Here, the boundaries between self and nature begin to slip away. Whereas Suleri and Didion embody cultural dialogues, Dillard becomes part of a natural one. She adopts the rhythms, intonations and verbal patterns of the birds.
In "To Fashion a Text," Didion recalls that she initially planned to write
In "Professions for Women," Virginia Woolf writes aboout the "essayist's most proper and most dangerous and delicate tool: the self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist" (Woolf 150). Didion, Suleri and Dillard quite literally employ their self as a "tool," a technique, a means and medium of conveying their surroundings. This is not to take for granted, however, that using the first person is always an effective technique. Writing from the first person is a delicate proposition, and in comments about their writing, Didion, Suleri and Dillard all convey ambivalence about speaking from their own voice. Their actual texts convey a similar ambivalence: each author presents a deeply qualified self. Such qualifications are manifested in the perpetual tension between the personal and the universal, the self and the community. And yet, ironically, one has to wonder whether it is in fact the limitations placed upon the self that enable these three writers, as they interrogate the world around them, to turn that self — that potential antagonist — into a dangerous, narrative tool.
Other sections of "I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Three Female Autobiographical Texts
Didion, Joan. "Why I Write."
Dillard, Annie. "To Fashion a Text."
Lovesey, Oliver. "'Postcolonial Self-Fashioning,'" in Sara Suleri's
Woolf, Virginia. "Professions for Women."
Last modified 3 December 2006