The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. It is the sensation of a stunt pilot’s turning barrel rolls, or an inchworm’s blind rearing from a stem in search of a route. At its worst, it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence.
-Annie Dillard, “Write Till You Drop,” The New York Times, May 28, 1989
I am a fan of Annie Dillard–but then, I don’t actually know anyone who isn’t. Her prose is simultaneously light and heavy, somber and comic, her insight gently penetrating. Because writing has been a vocation for me for so long, I have attended closely to her words of advice over the years, squirreling away her images and metaphors–the ones I didn’t entirely grasp–for later consumption. And so last night as I was thinking about writing, I recalled her description of the inchworm:
Few sights are so absurd as that of an inchworm leading its dimwit life. Inchworms are the caterpillar larvae of several moths or butterflies. The cabbage looper, for example, is an inchworm. I often see an inchworm: it is a skinny bright green thing, pale and thin as a vein, an inch long, and apparently totally unfit for life in this world. It wears out its days in constant panic.Every inchworm I have seen was stuck in long grasses. The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grassblade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail. What! No further? Its back pair of nubby feet clasps the grass stem; its front three pairs of nubs rear back and flail in the air, apparently in search of a footing. What! No further? What? It searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. By dumb luck it touches the grass. Its front legs hang on; it lifts and buckles its green inch, and places its hind legs just behind its front legs. Its body make a loop, a bight. All it has to do now is slide its front legs up the grass stem. Instead it gets lost. It throws up its head and front legs, flings its upper body out into the void, and panics again. What? No further? End of world? And so forth, until it actually reaches the grasshead’s tip. By then its wee weight may be bending the grass toward some other grass plant. It’s davening, apocalyptic prayers sway the grasshead and bump it into something. I have seen it many times. The blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings it to the universe’s rim. And now — What! No further? End of world? Ah, here’s ground. What! No further? Yike!
Why don’t you just jump? I tell it, disgusted. Put yourself out of your misery.
–The Writing Life, 6-8.
Dillard’s metaphor of the inchworm is widely understood to be about the writer and her encounter with the Unknown of the blank page. But I think Dillard is talking about human existence as-such, the fundamental state of every human being, whether we acknowledge it or not. The advertising industry thrives on our ardent desire to forget our true condition, which is that we are born, we live for a span on this earth, and we die. If we don’t confront this reality we miss the opportunity for perspective, and perspective is the seed from which all narrative grows. And narrative is, as it were, the DNA of Human Life. It is the stuff of the “humanities.” It is what we were, what we are, and it can offer us a glimpse of what we might become. Narratives are the stories we tell ourselves and one another, and their natural habitat is the spiral domain of drama—repeated in infinite variations. Drama is inherent to existence. The incidentals may change, but the structure is always the same. Build up, climax, resolution. Birth, life, death. The pattern is everywhere, if we recognize it—that is, if we can obtain enough perspective to see the stories, and not simply be told by them.
The inchworm’s dilemma is the stuff of drama, and it is the stuff of narrative as we human animals experience narrative in real time. There is a build up—movement down the stalk without knowing exactly what will happen next. There is a climax, a problem: we no longer feel the supportive stalk below—the proverbial bottom falls out. We flail. Eventually we find a way forward, and move on to the next episode. So it goes. Eventually the inchworm will transform into something with wings, and I suppose to continue the metaphor, this is what happens when we recognize the pattern and simultaneously live it and stand apart from it at the same time. When we are no longer -just- told by the story, but share in the telling. Like Augustine and his Confessions, when he looks back—when he sees his story with the perspective of one who has passed beyond the immediate events—he stands both inside and outside of his life. He stands in a place of perspective. It is the gift we are given (if we are lucky) as we age; it is what makes us good and then better at our jobs after ten or twenty years. A professor of English told me when I was in college that most writers don’t achieve their maturity or hit their stride until they are 40. I understand now why this is: because it takes at least that long to have come through enough cycles of drama to stand outside of them and actually see them as we live them. This is what Dante possesses at the time he writes the Divine Comedy—he has passed through the dark wood and now he can write about it. He can be inside the story and outside of it at the same time. He has perspective. In fact, the whole Comedy seems to be about perspective—seeing things in their proper place. Seeing desires, behaviors, hopes, loves, in their proper place. It is a narrative about narrative, and it is no wonder that it remains such an important pillar of our core humanistic curricula.
Over the years I have built up an apologetic argument for myself to accept that I am on this earth for the span I am given to tell stories. It has reached the proportions of a philosophy of narrative. All that I have learned over the years, even my academic arguments, circle around the importance of narrative. I think of it as a kind of medicine, as important to our animal existence as vaccines and antibiotics. We are rational (sometimes!) animals, and narratives describe what happens to rational animals when they ride dragons or topple dictators or give birth to quadruplets. As animals we have animal desires, and narratives describe our pursuit of these desires to both good and bad ends. The “village” we need to exist and learn and grow remains available in stories, in narratives, even as such actual villages have long since gone the way of the dodo. But the village remains. And as we trust and venerate some teachers and not others, we know, deep down, which narratives are true, both tragic and comic. This is because we can sniff out the distinction between fearless honesty and shameless mendacity. We can know the difference between a good joke and a bad one, between generosity and cruelty.
Seeing is its own reward, even when what is seen sears the heart with sadness. We continue to live inside the world because most of us do not want to or cannot spend our lives on a mountaintop or in a monastery. But we understand the importance of what the monastically-minded seek: reality, truth, peace, some measure of cessation of suffering. In one of my favorite Bill Murray movies, The Razor’s Edge, Murray plays a man who emerges from World War I emotionally damaged and in search of meaning. He travels the world and grows from his experiences, but it is not until the end, in the wake of a personal tragedy, that he announces, “I used to think Sophie was my reward for living a good life. But now I realize—there is no payoff.”
This statement is another bit of wisdom that has percolated in my brain for many, many years. It seemed to me for a long time somewhat nihilistic, or at the very least, stoic. Now, thinking about narrative and how essential seeing is to that process of recognition and release, I think of Darrow’s statement in a different way. It’s dead simple, and we’ve all heard it before, but here it is, again: each moment is the gift. There is no day that will be better than all the others, full stop. Looking back we recognize how precious certain moments were, but the day your daughter enters the world is not confined to one day, a prospect that seems equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. The morning you wake up to receive your degree in front of loving family and friends, despite your best efforts to the contrary, will feel pretty much like every other day except that afterwards you will do some time flailing around looking for the next stalk to grab hold of. There is no day that offers the pot of gold–even winning the lottery tends to have the effect of making people more miserable than they were before they won the money. The big payoff is an illusion—it simply doesn’t exist. What we get instead is simply everything every day, and if we fail to accept it in hopes for a “big win” down the road, we are doomed to tragic endings until we figure it out.
We need narratives to teach us this, to show us how to live and offer us the opportunity to teach others. The humanities are every bit as important to our existence as the sciences, and we will do well to stop thinking of them as either/or propositions in an educational curriculum. So here’s to stories and the people who tell them. They offer us an essential part of our humanity by reminding us we are animals who can do magic.
 Murray adapted the film from Somerset Maugham’s book The Razor’s Edge (1944); I have read the book and I think the film is better at capturing the essence of what Maugham seemed to be attempting to do.