Writing is Seeing in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Thuy Nguyen '05, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek investigates the feeling of wonderment regarding oneself and that self in relation to nature. She describes, in acute details, the actions and the life she observes in nature. The words that she uses to capture these scenes are a representation of her eyes in action. Throughout the book, Dillard continually rely on this active role of her eyes not only to render a scene but to also bring the life in that scene to the forefront. Although the descriptions are specific and informative, illuminating Dillard's motive, the descriptions are punctuated with passages that directly state the purpose of her writing.

I propose to keep here what Thoreau called "a meteorological journal of the mind," telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzying lead. [p. 13]

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it. It is, as Ruskin says, "not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen." My eyes alone can't solve analogy tests using figures, the ones which show, with increasing elaborations, a big square, then a small square in a big square, then a big triangle, and expect me to find a small triangle in a big triangle. I have to say the words, describe what I'm seeing. [p. 33]

I am as passionately interested in where I am as is a lone sailor sans sextant in a ketch on the open ocean. What else is he supposed to be thinking about? Fortunately, like the sailor, I have at the moment a situation which allows me to devote considerable hunks of time to seeing what I can see, and trying to piece it together. [p. 129]

Instead of filling the pages with her observations and letting those observations stand alone without her presence, Dillard calls attention to the fact that she is the person behind the eyes. There is a purpose to her choice of vision and she pauses every now and then to illuminate this purpose.


1. Do you think it is necessary for Dillard to tell the readers what she is doing in her writing?

2. Is it effective to break away from the rhythm of descriptions or storytelling to call attention to the writing, or was it distracting?

3. Dillard quoted Thoreau and Ruskin in the explanation of her work. Do you think there's a reason to her choice outside of the quotation itself?

4. What's the difference between Chatwin's descriptions of the scenery in Patagonia and Dillard's descriptions of the scenery around the creek?


Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper, 1988.

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