I’d heard about Dani Shapiro for years, but didn’t actually read her work until the summer of 2013, when I was sent a copy of her newest book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, in galley, and then devoured her other books. I reached out to Dani to let her know how much I loved her writing, and we became email friends. It was such a privilege and joy to do this conversation with her, and I found each of her answers to be a little gem of exquisite writing and profound insight. Comment on our interview for a chance to win a copy of STILL WRITING!
1. Still Writing opens with a bold claim; in its first paragraph, you declare: “everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.” Give us a few examples of how the practice of writing has taught you important life lessons.
When I think of what it mean to face the blank page each day, I think of tenacity, courage, persistence, doggedness, faith, and the willingness to make a leap into the unknown. These are all traits that I’ve cultivated in order to do my work, and at the same time, I think they serve me well in my life. I liken facing the blank page with the feeling – if we really think about it – of getting out of bed every morning. We can’t know what the day holds. Our lives are at the mercy of so much randomness. There is chaos, chance, luck. Unexpected sorrow, unexpected grace. And yet, if we were really to focus on that randomness, we wouldn’t be able to put one foot in front of the other. What writing has taught me (here’s another bold claim) is how to love in the face of all the consequences of love – because after a lifetime of hurling myself into the abyss of the unknown in my work, I also have become more willing to hurl myself into the abyss of the unknown in my life.
2. At one point in Still Writing, you say that writing is practicing “the art of waiting.” Can you elaborate on that suggestive assertion?
When I’m between books, I become a crazy person. Even though I’ve written eight books, I believe, absolutely, fervently, every time, that I will never write another book again, that the muse will not visit me, that I’m stuck forever, done, finished. I’ve learned, however imperfectly, to live with this feeling by cultivating the practice of waiting. Of patience. Or, at least, attempting patience. When I’ve tried to force something –– begin a project that’s only half-baked, or jump at an assignment just to have the deadline, or drive myself forward based only on a flimsy or tenuous idea, I always regret it. And I always end up throwing mountains of pages away. Better to wait. To ponder, mull, to live. To cook, walk, travel, take care of children, or partners, or animals, or whatever. To make the space. It’s only when that inward space is there that we are able to witness our own creative process, and give birth to something new.
3. As someone who studied piano from age 7 to age 18 and sang, danced, and acted extensively throughout my childhood, I was especially intrigued by your claim that “piano was my training ground- at least as important as any writing workshop.” How did your studying and playing piano influence and shape you as a writer? What are the similarities and the differences between writing and making music? What does your experience have to teach us about the benefits of arts instruction and enrichment for young children and in our schools?
Oh, how wonderful! I hadn’t known this aspect of your background. What I meant by piano as my training ground, particularly, is the musicality that those years of study brought to my prose itself. I needed to hear sentences, not just read them. The lines must have a certain rhythm to them, and if they don’t, I work until they do. Though there was an underside to all that musicality –– which was pointed out to me by one of my professors in college, a great writer named Jerome Badanes. Jerry said, “Dani, you know how to write a very beautiful sentence. You’d just better make sure it means something.” I have taken that lesson to heart. Musicality isn’t everything. Beautiful language, on its own, isn’t enough. As for the second part of your question, arts instruction and enrichment is where our children access the power of their own empathic imaginations and their ability to create –– what could be more beneficial than that? Especially in this high-speed, disconnected age we’re living in.
4. I don’t do yoga because I can’t exercise barefoot due to severely pronated feet, but I have practiced TM since my early 20s and feel it’s essential to both my productivity and my creativity. Tell us about how yoga has influenced your writing life.
I’ve practiced yoga since my 20’s as well, and much more recently, have developed a meditation practice. These are my tools of self-knowledge. If, as writers, we are our own instruments, these practices sharpen (and soften!) and hone these instruments. My best work comes from a quiet mind. And that quiet mind does not come naturally to me. I need to unroll my mat. If I remember to unroll my mat, the quiet mind reappears, like a mountain from behind cloud cover.
5. I see you as a demystifier, and I really admired how Still Writing generously and honestly works to lessen the sense of distance aspiring, young, or less successful writers feel between themselves and established writers. Writers never feel confident or secure, you insist: “It never gets easier” and “there is no magical place of arrival.” I couldn’t agree more! Given that we never arrive, how can we best recover our equanimity and faith in our work as we struggle, labor, doubt? What is your best antidote for writerly anxiety?
I like that you see me as a de-mystifier. What a lovely thought. I think it’s important for writers early on in their writing lives to understand that these feelings are normal. Not only are they normal, they’re necessary. Insecurity is part of the process. I would worry if a writer felt too secure. I mean, this thing we’re doing is unbelievably hard. I think that the abject fear we feel when we sit down to work is absolutely appropriate, and keeps us honest and focused on our attempt. Because we mostly spend our time alone in our rooms, we lose sight of the fact that this insecurity and self-doubt is part of the job description. I think it helps to be reminded that writers all over the world are feeling precisely the same thing.
6. You dispatch unhelpful clichés with peremptory force: no late-night writing jags for you, no writing only when inspiration strikes. For you, good writing is the result of rhythm and routine. You credit your success to sheer plod, and a little shine of “fairy dust.” Can you describe your routine for us, and can you suggest helpful tips for setting up a routine?
Well, I’ll describe a good day. A good day would first begin following a good night’s sleep. I’d wake up refreshed, stay offline, have my first cappuccino of the day (one of several from my little machine) and I’d continue to stay offline. No email. No internet. No phone. My teenaged son is away at school, and my husband is also a writer, and he has an office outside of the house, so in this “good day” I’d be alone at home with my dogs. I’d get to work by reading a few paragraphs of beautiful prose. A bit of Virginia Woolf, perhaps. And then I’d begin with the pages I’d written the day before, and which I would have revised by hand. I’d input those revisions, and by doing so, get myself going. I’d get a foothold on the day’s work, and then, at around noon, I’d unroll my yoga mat and do my practice. The afternoon would be spent getting more writing done, and then, after I’d gone as far as I could, taking care of the business of writing, and of the rest of life. By dinnertime, I’d stop for the night. But this is a fantasy of a good day – more like a perfect day. It almost never happens. It’s more likely that I will find myself sidetracked by one thing or another, and have to “begin again” multiple times during the course of the day. The most important advice I can give for establishing a routine is to stay off the internet. The internet is crack cocaine for writers. And to find tools that allow you to bring your mind back to the work. Think of the mind like a puppy you’re training. Say heel to the mind. Gently tugging the leash. Heel.
7. I love how you let us in on the backstage business of publishing, dismissing the subtitle of your memoir Slow Motion as “marketing-speak,” giving a copy editor credit for discovering infelicitous repetitions in your manuscript. Can you share another telling, funny, or instructive anecdote about the behind-the-scenes goings-on?
Oh, lord. How about my author photo from my first novel, in which the publisher spent thousands of dollars on a glamorous photograph of me, rather then send me on book tour? I didn’t know any better. I was just so grateful to be published, and felt that they knew best. I spent years living down that glam shot. And I make it my business to try to steer young writers in good directions, ones that, with any luck, they won’t have to eventually live down.
8. You tell us that writers should read good writing every day so they can “fill [their] . . . ears with the music of good sentences.” What are some especially good books, poems, or passages that you’ve read recently? and what are some of your favorite sentences, either from recent books or from old favorites?
I’ve been reading Louise Gluck’s new collection of poetry, with is magnificent. There is also a beautiful and instructive interview of her in the current issue of Poets & Writers. I’m also reading Anthony Doerr’s magnificent ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. Tony and I are going to be teaching together at Sirenland, the writers’ conference I direct in Positano, Italy. Also, Rebecca Solnit’s THE FAR AWAY NEARBY. And Jenny Offill’s beautiful novel, DEPT OF SPECULATION. And I just read Jane Gardham’s OLD FILTH. What a novel.
9. You and I are both passionate quotation collectors, and Still Writing is studded with wise and beautiful quotations from others, including many of my favorite people/writers (anyone who quotes and approvingly cites Ted Solataroff, John Gregory Dunne, and Andy Sean Greer has my undying loyalty). If you had to pick one quotation to summarize your approach to writing, what would it be? your approach to parenting? your approach to life?
I can only answer this question by saying that I have so many favorite quotes, and here are a few recent favorites:
For writing: “As the mind is engaged and anxiety suppressed, some imaginative work in some recessed portion of the being is getting done. Not to say that every moment is contributing to a book or a poem, but you can’t know in advance what will. Don’t prejudge your stimuli. Just trust where your attention goes.” — Louise Gluck
Parenting: “We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as ‘ordinary blessings.’” — Joan Didion, Blue Nights
My approach to life: “The health of an eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” — Emerson
10. Still Writing serves as a salutary corrective to the pervasive belief, endemic in the literature of self-help, that success is the result of having a shrewd plan or a well-honed strategy. So much is accidental, so much is luck, so much is outside our control, you remind us, from the twists and turns of plots that unfold in ways we could never have predicted to the surprising disappointments and inexplicable triumphs of our careers. You cannot plan it, “you cannot force it,” you cannot make it happen. Openness to the unexpected and “embracing uncertainty” are crucial, you suggest, if we hope to write, and live, with equanimity and grace. How can we make ourselves more open to the unexpected? How best to embrace uncertainty?
This question is quite possibly the central question of my life, and the focus of my memoir Devotion, as well as thematically at the core of most of my fiction. I have no answers to this profound question. Only that if we hew to our own dharma – if we steadfastly force ourselves to work, in the words of the artist Anne Truitt, “along the nerve of (our) most intimate sensitivity,” then we have the chance to be alive to all of it –– to face into the wind –– to understand that life is precious and its very unpredictability is what makes it precious, and that to be born, to be alive at this very moment, is such a rare, extraordinary, unlikely thing. If we have this deep awareness, and if we are able to wear it lightly, I think we have a greater chance to embrace it all –– the whole human catastrophe. Just this morning I was reading a piece in the New York Times about the Siberian tiger that Vladimir Putin set free in the wild, and there was an amazing photograph of the tiger’s face at the moment of his liberation. The tiger doesn’t know that there are potential poachers awaiting him. He doesn’t know that he’s going to cross the border between Russia and China. He’s just moving steadily with such blazing light in his eyes, being everything he’s meant to be. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this story, but there you have it. I want to be that tiger.
11. In a lovely and generous moment, you gently remind your readers that “to allow ourselves to spend our afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend re-reading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing –is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives” (198-99). Why do you think we find it so difficult to find the value in or to justify spending our time in the ways you describe? How can we give ourselves permission both because such wandering, watching, or immersion in art help us with our own creative endeavors and because reading, noticing, and way-finding are valuable in and of themselves? What’s a recent experience like this that was especially restorative for you?
To go back to Louise Gluck’s advice to “trust where your attention goes,” I think this is so hard for writers –– hard for all of us. How can we know when we’re creating the space we need within us, and when we’re just procrastinating? Earlier today, I went to the market and got the ingredients for a chicken stew that I planned to make in the slow cooker. The whole exercise took a couple of hours. The marketing, the chopping and dicing, the simmering. I even took a photograph of the dish and posted it on Instagram, with the pithy question: “Chicken with pancetta and peas? Or procrastination?” But in truth, I knew that I was simmering. As I write the answer to this question, I’ve been home alone all day. I’ve cooked. Shelved some books in my library. I’ve taken a bath. I’ve read. This is a day of creating space in my mind, even though it could be argued that I haven’t accomplished much. For me, all I know is that, when I’m between books as I am now, I need a lot of time to meander. When I meander, I discover. Or, as in the epigraph of Still Writing, a quote from David Salle: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.”
12. What is the greatest peril of a creative life? The greatest pleasure?
The peril: Failure of nerve.
The pleasure: To quote Thoreau, it is the “fearless living out of your own essential nature that connects you to the divine.”
Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, as well as five novels, including Black & White and Family History. Her most recent book is Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, and The Los Angeles Times, and has been widely anthologized. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School, and Wesleyan University, and she is a cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She is a contributing editor at Conde Nast Traveler.