Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Annie Dillard: The Death of a Moth

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 05•14

I cannot mention often enough how noticing, or awareness is a writer’s obligation. A necessary ingredient to our days. A tool that deepens and changes the way we walk in the world.  Here’s an example that proves this from Annie Dillard. candle flame

“One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her egg, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax – a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning – only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burns out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.” ~ Annie Dillard
The Death of a Moth

[The reader must be startled to watch this apparently calm, matter-of-fact account of the writer’s life and times turn before his eyes into a mess of symbols whose real subject matter is their own relationship. I hoped the reader wouldn’t feel he’d been had. I tried to ensure that the actual, historical moth wouldn’t vanish into idea, but would stay physically present.]


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  1. Nicki Chen says:

    I’m amazed by the exacting detail of her observation and reminded of how often I overlook something like the death of a moth.
    Is the last paragraph yours or hers?

    • jessicap says:

      Hi Nicole,
      I know,isn’t the detail stunning? Over the weekend I spent time watching the sun set over the Pacific. Just watching all the gradations of color.By the time I’m finished with long observations, I’m always slowed down and calm.

      The final paragraph is written by Dillard.
      Thanks for reading, Jessica

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