Dillard attended Hollins College (now Hollins University), in Roanoke, Virginia, where she studied literature and creative writing. She married her writing teacher, the poet R. H. W. Dillard, eight years her senior. Of her college experience, Dillard stated: "In college I learned how to learn from other people. As far as I was concerned, writing in college didn’t consist of what little Annie had to say, but what Wallace Stevens had to say. I didn’t come to college to think my own thoughts, I came to learn what had been thought." In 1968 she earned an MA in English. Her thesis on Henry David Thoreau showed how Walden Pond functioned as "the central image and focal point for Thoreau's narrative movement between heaven and earth." Dillard spent the first few years after graduation oil painting, writing, and keeping a journal. Several of her poems and short stories were published, and during this time she also worked for Johnson's Anti-Poverty Program.
Dillard's works have been compared to those by Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and John Donne. She cites Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Ernest Hemingway as a few of her all-time favorite authors.
Tickets for a Prayer Wheel
In her first book of poems Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), Dillard first articulated themes that she would later explore in other works of prose.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
In 1971 she read an old writer's nature book and thought, "I can do better than this." Dillard's journals served as a source for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a nonfiction narrative about the natural world near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. Although the book contains named chapters, it is not (as some critics assumed) a collection of essays. Early chapters were published in The Atlantic, Harpers, and Sports Illustrated. The book describes God by studying creation, leading one critic to call her "one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th Century." In The New York Times, Eudora Welty said the work was "admirable writing" that reveals "a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled... [an] intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare," but "I honestly don't know what [Dillard] is talking about at... times."
The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, when Dillard was 29.
Holy the Firm
One day, Dillard decided to begin a project in which she would write about whatever happened on Lummi Island within a three-day time period. When a plane crashed on the second day, Dillard began to contemplate the problem of pain, and God's allowance of "natural evil to happen". Although Holy the Firm (1977) was only 66 pages long, it took her 14 months, writing full-time, to complete the manuscript. In The New York Times Book Review novelist Frederick Buechner called it "A rare and precious book." While other contemporary reviewers wondered whether she was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, Dillard denies it.
Teaching a Stone to Talk
Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982) is her sole book of short nonfiction narrative essays and travels. Out of the 14 essays, "Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos" won the New York Women's Press Club award, and "Total Eclipse" was chosen for Best Essays of the Twentieth Century. As Dillard herself notes, "'The Weasel' is lots of fun; the much-botched church service is (I think) hilarious." Following the first hard cover edition of the book, the order of essays was changed. Initially "Living Like Weasels" was first, followed by "An Expedition to the Pole". "Total Eclipse" was found between "On a Hill Far Away" and "Lenses".
The essays are entitled
- "Total Eclipse"
- "An Expedition to the Pole"
- "Living Like Weasels"
- "In the Jungle"
- "The Deer at Providencia"
- "Teaching a Stone to Talk"
- "On a Hill Far Away"
- "Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos"
- "A Field of Silence"
- "God in the Doorway"
- "Aces and Eights"
Living by Fiction
In Living by Fiction (1982), Dillard produced her "theory about why flattening of character and narrative cannot happen in literature as it did when the visual arts rejected deep space for the picture plane." She later said that, in the process of writing this book, she talked herself into writing an old-fashioned novel.
Encounters with Chinese Writers
Encounters with Chinese Writers (1984) is a work of journalism. One part takes place in China, where Dillard was member of a delegation of six American writers and publishers, following the fall of the Gang of Four. In the second half, Dillard hosts a group of Chinese writers, whom she takes to Disneyland along with Allen Ginsberg. Dillard describes it as "hilarious".
The Writing Life
The Writing Life (1989) is a collection of short essays in which Dillard "discusses with clear eye and wry wit how, where and why she writes". The Boston Globe called it "a kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer's task." The Chicago Tribune wrote that, "For nonwriters, it is a glimpse into the trials and satisfactions of a life spent with words. For writers, it is a warm, rambling conversation with a stimulating and extraordinarily talented colleague." The Detroit News called it "a spare volume...that has the power and force of a detonating bomb."
Dillard's first novel, The Living (1992) centers around the first European settlers of the Pacific Northwest coast. While writing the book, she restricted herself from reading works that postdated the time in which The Living was set, nor did she use anachronistic words.
Mornings Like This
Mornings Like This (1995) is a book dedicated to found poetry. Dillard took and arranged phrases from various old books, creating poems that are often ironic in tone. The poems are not related to the original books' themes. "A good trick should look hard and be easy," said Dillard. "These poems were a bad trick. They look easy and are really hard."
For the Time Being
For the Time Being (1999) is a work of narrative nonfiction. Its topics mirror the various chapters of the book and include "birth, sand, China, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, thinker, evil, and now." In her own words on this book, she writes, "I quit the Catholic Church and Christianity; I stay near Christianity and Hasidism."
The Maytrees (2007) is Dillard's second novel. The story, which begins after World War II, tells of a lifelong love between a husband and wife who live in Provincetown, Cape Cod. It was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2008.