Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

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A Year in Reading: 2013

Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you’re like us, when you look back, you’ll mark out the year in books — weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder.

And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013.

For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2014 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City.
Alice McDermott, author of Someone.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen.
Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity
Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing.
Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure.
Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon.
Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
David Gilbert, author of And Sons.
Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger.
Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.

Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives.
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Edwidge Danticat, author of  Claire of the Sea Light.
Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9.
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge.
Scott Turow, author of Identical.
Chang-rae Lee, author of  The Surrendered.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.
Tom Drury, author of Pacific.
Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns.
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Paul Harding, author of Enon.
Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods.
Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors.
Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City.
Tess Malone, intern for The Millions.
Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World.
Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask.
Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin.
Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil.
Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections.
Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking.
Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed.
Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review.
Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird.
Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape.
Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer.
Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.

The Pleasures And Perils Of Writing About Writing: An Interview With Dani Shapiro

I first met Dani Shapiro in 2011, at One Story magazine’s annual debutante ball, where she was being honored with an award for her mentorship of younger writers. I interviewed her that night about her teaching career and in the course of our conversation she told me that she tries, above all, to teach patience. When I asked how one goes about teaching patience, she offered a piece of advice that has stuck with me since. She said, “Immersion in the work creates patience.” And then she paused and reconsidered: “Or maybe it’s that patience creates immersion in the work.”

Both formulations, I think, are wise; but it was the fact that she had the presence of mind to pause and rethink her answer in the midst of a crowded party that struck me as the real object lesson in patience. You can sense that same calm in Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing, a writing guide that is partly advice gleaned from years of teaching, and partly a memoir of Shapiro’s own growth and struggles as a writer. It’s a book that focuses on process more than craft, and in particular, the importance of routine. Shapiro is candid about her own habits of procrastination, as well as the rituals that have helped her to overcome her worst impulses.

I interviewed Shapiro in late September, just before her book was due to hit the shelves. She spoke to me from her home office in Connecticut, which she describes in detail in Still Writing, including the antique chaise lounge where she often sits to read and write.

The Millions: So, I feel like I know exactly where you are because I’ve read all about your workspace in your book.

Dani Shapiro: Ha, yes, I’m not on the chaise lounge, but I’m looking at it.

TM: And were you writing this morning?

DS: The irony of Still Writing being about to come out is that I’m not getting any writing done at all. I’m doing the stuff that writers do when we are about to get a book into the world. It becomes over-stimulating at a certain point. I’m not remotely able to always practice what I preach. For me when I’m working on the book, I pretty much just work on the book. There’s the writing and then there’s the talking about the writing. And I feel like they occupy really different places in a writer’s life.

TM: When does this stage of nervous expectation come to an end in your experience? When will you be able to write again?

DS: You know, one of the things that I increasingly understand over the years — not that it makes the process easier, not that I understand it better — is that so much goes into a book — giving it everything we’ve got, holding nothing back — so that when a book goes out into the world, it’s like watching your toddler making its way across the highway during rush hour. It feels like a defenseless and vulnerable newborn and it requires a lot of support. And also, nothing is ever enough. I don’t know a writer who actually feels, “Oh, excellent, I got that great Times review.” I have a friend who got a beautiful Times review for his debut novel and I was so pleased for him. And he called me up and the feeling was more of relief than joy — of crossing that thing that you had been so worried about off the list. And, I’m just going to be really honest here, in the last five minutes before you called me, I saw on Twitter a really lovely review of Still Writing and in the same five minutes I also saw that an essay that I had written for Ploughshares, one that I hoped would make it onto the list of notable essays in Best American Essays, didn’t make it onto the list. And so there you have it. I would like to be the kind of person who appreciates kind words from a friend rather than looking for my name on some list. I mean, who even reads the list of notable essays except for people who are hoping to be on it?

I bring up that example because this is a noisy, noisy world we’re all in. That’s not going to change. And I think for writers and for anyone in a solitary profession, there’s always this Pavlovian response to want to know more and to want to know what’s going on. And there’s such a danger in that. And when I’m writing I really do shut it down. I actually wrote an essay about this called “#amwriting.” There’s this hashtag on Twitter, #amwriting, and I started looking at it and thinking “No, you’re not!” And so I wrote this essay about it on n+1, about trying to do the work. For writers, the Internet really is like crack. Almost every writer I know struggles with it or has found a way to really shut it down. We require all these tools and rituals, whether it’s a different computer or whether or it’s writing by hand, which is what I do when I’m starting something new. There’s such freedom in a notebook. And there’s this great program Freedom, which allows you to work on your computer without going online.

TM: Yes, I actually just reinstalled after reading your book. I had it on my old laptop and recently I’ve been really distracted. It has to do with trying to balance childcare with writing time. So I realized I had to start using Freedom again.

DS: For me new motherhood was a very conflicted time. The feeling of carving out the time to write and feeling like somehow it was a luxury or frivolous in some way. Like it was not something I needed to be doing. Which is ridiculous because I support my family with my writing. But somehow if I’d have to put on nice clothes and go to a law firm and have a boss it would be — well, women in that position are conflicted, too. But with writing you have to make it happen and you can’t just show up for it. And I think that’s where the Internet comes into play.

TM: Being on the Internet can feel very productive.

DS: Yes, it can be in the name of research, it can also be email. I feel it in my brain, I can feel when it’s been a few hours since I’ve gone into my inbox. When I go online my brain feels like it’s sizzling. It’s not a good way to think for someone who needs to make intuitive and imaginative and memory-based connections. Someone who is operating at a different frequency.

TM: What inspired you to write this kind of book, a writing guide for writers?

DS: Well, I first of all never thought I would write book-length nonfiction after Slow Motion. But in 2008, 2009, I was in that state of being in-between, which I talk about in Still Writing. It’s never comfortable, no matter how many books I write, it always feels like this time it’s going to be different, this time it’s going to be over and I won’t have an idea. But then Devotion presented itself as the next book. And it wasn’t the book I would have picked. It was another memoir — and a spiritual memoir, my god! And so I wrote Devotion and that really ended up being a life-altering journey. And I had to get past my own resistance about it because I had a job to do. And just as when I wrote Slow Motion I had a feeling that it was going to change my writing life. In my novels before Slow Motion my obsessions were leading me around, and in my subsequent novels I think I have been a bit more in charge. Writing Slow Motion gave me a new lens, a different way of entering my imagination because I had taken care of writing that memoir. And so I had the sense that when I was writing Devotion that it was changing my lens again. But when I was working on Devotion, I also started working on a novel. Which I never do. And I started talking about it, which I caution people not to do. I wrote myself right into a wall. It was some of the best writing I’ve ever done, it was fragmentary, a collage, a hybrid fiction that employs nonfiction within it. A gray area, blurred boundaries. It’s something I’m very interested in right now. But it’s very tricky territory. And for the first time in my writing life I put a big chunk of writing in the drawer.

And in the meantime, for the last number of years, I’ve had a blog. Initially I had a blog because everyone told me to have a blog. And when I started, I thought what can I regularly blog about that feels like a deep enough well? And the answer was: the process of writing. The creative process itself. What it takes to do the work, what are the pitfalls and the joys, the struggles and the privileges. We do what we do alone in a room. Yet we’re struggling with the blank pages. People call it different things. It’s a leap of faith or lunacy that makes you feel that what you are going to fill it with is something that’s going to connect with other people. And so I started this blog and over the years I got tons of notes and it was from such a range of writers. And they always said the same thing: “This is what I needed to hear today.” I never thought about turning it into a book — even when people wrote to me and asked if it was going to be a book. And finally, it was in that space of finally putting a big chunk of a novel into a drawer that I thought, well, maybe this is the book I’m supposed to be working on.

I sold Still Writing based on the fact that I had a blog. But I didn’t look at the blog when I wrote Still Writing. I really wanted to start from square one and find a way to structure a memoir hybrid that would hopefully be useful and so that it didn’t feel like assembled material.

TM: It’s interesting that the book springs from that experience of getting stuck. Did you feel as if you were writing it for yourself, in a way?

DS: One of the things that I felt was that the minute you really think you know something, you’re in trouble. I remember I was being interviewed for a literary magazine as I was working on the novel that I put in the drawer. And they asked if I had ever had to put a novel in a drawer. And I said no, I’d been lucky that it hadn’t happened to me. But I was thinking to myself, That would never happen to me. And meanwhile I was working on the very thing that I ended up putting in a drawer.

In Still Writing, I was thinking more of, what do I need to remind myself of? I think that’s one of the reasons I love teaching. There are these moments when I teach when I say something and I realize it’s true and I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. And that’s when teaching is at its most alive. And I think this book came from my teaching self as much as from my writing self. I think it comes from the twenty years of teaching and especially the kind of teaching that I do, which really has a lot to do with trying to help people find courage.

Speaking of moments when I say something that I realize is true: years and years ago I was teaching an MFA course and I remember saying that I thought voice was practically synonymous with courage. And when I said it, I thought, that’s right — you can’t find your voice without having that sense of courage. It’s not confidence. It has nothing to do with confidence, it has to do with moving past fear, embarrassment, mortification, shame. It’s knowing where you’re writing from.

TM: How aware of the genre were you when you began? Did you read other writing books or look to any others as a guide?

DS: I went back and I looked at a lot of them. Because I had to ask myself the question of why do we need another book on writing? I went back to the ones that I found most illuminating, the one I could just dip into always. The one that was model for me and that I felt I could add to in some way is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. It’s pure wisdom. It doesn’t instruct exactly. It goes very deeply into the head of a writer. And there’s nothing sugarcoated about it. It’s not saying everyone can do this. And I’ve come to this recently lately, this idea that there are two kinds of teaching now when it comes to teaching writing. There’s writers who are coming to the workshop or a retreat because they’re trying to get it right with every fiber of their being. And then there’s this other world of writers who will go to a workshop or a retreat because they’re trying to get it down. And getting it down and getting it right are two different things. For some writers getting it down is enough. And I think that has more to do with writing as a kind of therapy or catharsis. And getting it right has nothing to do with that. With Dillard, you see the absolute clarity and wisdom of her intention. She says a good book takes ten years. And I feel like reading that to my students who want to have a book deal by the time they graduate.

Stephen King’s On Writing I owe a debt to because the first half of that book he writes in bits and pieces — not in any kind of narrative way — about what formed him as a writer. A light bulb went off for me. I saw I could incorporate memoir, and it gave the book the chronology of beginnings, middles, and ends. It was a little scary to look at my process, because it’s a Pandora’s box, the question of what am I going to find? What did it mean to be an only child? What did some of the painful or difficult life lessons that I learned early in my life, what did they have to do with forming my subject matter?

Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott was also an influence. Another book, one that I actually didn’t know if it would still speak to me, was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. Goldberg has a kind of spiritual cast to her writing and she’s someone who has a spiritual practice.

As I read them, I felt like what I wanted to do was different enough. It didn’t feel like that’s been said, that’s been done. And the reason I’m saying that is because in writing every other book I’ve had the feeling that I had to write it. Still Writing didn’t feel like I had to write it.

TM: I was wondering about that, because in Still Writing, you describe how your books announce themselves. And I wondered if this one had announced itself.

DS: Other people kept announcing it to me! It was one of those moments of realizing that there was something that I had apparently been doing for a few years without consciousness of it, something that was striking a chord. I can’t imagine approaching a piece of fiction that way.

TM: So, may I ask — knowing you do not like to talk about work in progress, and  knowing that you are currently in a state of nervous expectation — if you are working on something new?

DS: I will give you a very reserved yes. But I have a piece of short fiction coming out in a couple weeks that Electric Literature is publishing. I’ve mostly been working on that short story, “Supernova.” Actually, it’s about two of the characters from the novel that is in the drawer. Because I really, really was and am attached to the characters and even though it was in the drawer, it had a heartbeat. It was alive. So I pulled them to see what would happen if I gave them a life of their own away from the larger work surrounding it. Aside from that short story there is the strangeness of…well, I taped an hour with Oprah!

TM: I was going to ask you about that — I saw a notice on your website. What show is it for?

DS: It’s called Super Soul Sunday and it’s on her network. It’s amazing in terms of the company. She interviews people like Elie Wiesel and Maya Angelou. And she actually has Annie Lamott coming on. And this great Buddhist teacher called Jack Kornfield. And Karen Armstrong who has written some of the best spiritual biographies. It’s about what she loves to do, which is to have a deep conversation about how to live a meaningful life. It’s what she’s interested in. I couldn’t believe it when I got the call. It was very instructive to get that phone call because obviously I wasn’t expecting it. And around my house we’re pretty regularly waiting for phone calls. But it’s a law of nature that the phone never rings when you’re waiting for. The day I got the call from my agent about Super Soul Sunday I was shocked. I’ve been shocked before by bad news. I didn’t know good news could shock you in the same way. The next morning I said to my husband, “Did I dream that? I really think I may have dreamt that.” The good news can also emerge out of the ether, out of the blue. Anything that has ever happened to me hasn’t been when I was waiting for it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Playing Survivor on Novel Island

1.
There’s an index card on my desk that says “Don’t start anything new.” Writing the first sentence of this essay is a violation of that rule, but I’m cheating because it’s after 9 p.m. and there’s no danger, anymore, of whiling away the entire day on a personal essay (or a short story, or a poem) that never actually finds its form, but meanders lackadaisically like a conversation between two old, slightly tipsy friends meeting on a Sunday afternoon.

Like Sonya of the Red Boots, I’m on Planet Novel — except I’m going to tweak her metaphor a little bit and call the place I inhabit Novel Island, in part because childcare duties prevent me from launching into orbit, but mainly because that’s what my half-finished manuscript feels like: some island I sailed to on a whim, began to explore, and now wish to leave. But I can’t go because I’m deep in an overgrown valley, with no horizon in sight. The ground is muddy, the underbrush prickly, and every move I make seems to entrap me further. I daydream constantly of other projects, which, to stretch this metaphor way too far, is like dreaming of rescue by airlift. From high above, Novel Island would seem so pretty and peaceful, the thorns invisible from a distance, the overgrown valley looking like a shady forest, the perfect place for a picnic.

I should be having a picnic, I tell myself. Why am I not having a picnic?

In her forthcoming writing guide and memoir, Still Writing, author Dani Shapiro likens being stuck in the middle of her second novel to “being in a boat in the middle of the ocean with no land in the sight,” which is sort of the inverse of my island metaphor. She assures her writer-readers that this is a normal feeling, that many novelists do not find the structure of their book until they reach the middle. “Just as the middle of life requires discernment and discipline,” Shapiro writes, “so does the middle of a story. We take a step back, we see where we are.”

I read this aloud to my husband, thinking that it will be interesting to him, to us, since we are in the middle of our lives. “But we’re really just at the beginning of the middle of our lives,” he says, in his optimistic way.

Everybody loves beginnings, it seems. That’s why I keep fantasizing about new projects. The other day I heard a story on the news that has nothing to do with the novel I’m working on, but which may have a link to the one I want to write next. I got excited thinking of how I might incorporate the news story into the storylines of characters still so hypothetical they go by the names “Narrator” and “Narrator’s friend”. What if I just made some notes, I say to myself. Maybe if I just wrote one scene, I would get it out of my system. Then I see the note on my desk: “Don’t start anything new” and I am forced to admit that my delusional note-taking is just another form of procrastination.

Shapiro is candid about her own distracted daydreams, often spurred by the internet, with its online shopping sites and search engines. “I am easily thrown off course — and once off course, there I stay,” Shapiro writes. “And so I know my job is to cultivate a mind that catches itself. A mind that watches its own desire to scamper off into the bramble, but instead, guides itself gently back to what needs to be done.”

2.
My son learned to walk last week. I always thought that babies learned to walk over the course of a day or two — and maybe some babies do — but my son took his first step in early August and then spent the rest of the month pulling himself up to standing, taking a step, and then sitting down, as if to ponder the mechanics of his legs and hips. Sometimes he would take two steps, and when that happened, I would hold out my hand, urging him to take a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth. And he would stand there, staring at me, for a good thirty seconds — the perfect yoga student preparing for a balancing pose — before deciding, at last, that he should sit down and think over this walking thing a bit more.

“The babies know just what they need to do,” observed one seasoned mother, watching my son on the playground. He was standing at an iron gate performing what honestly looked like a series of leg-strengthening exercises. He was very focused, very serious. He didn’t need a sign reminding him not to start any new projects.

“It seems like he could walk if he wanted to,” I said. I wasn’t impatient, exactly. I just wanted to see it. Walking, you realize, after months of watching your child crawl, is one of the big markers of humanity. When a baby starts walking, he stops being a cuddly little animal. He becomes a little person. It’s suddenly possible to imagine him as a boy, a young man, an adult.

When he finally learned to walk it was on a bright Saturday morning with the sun shining onto the newly-painted yellow walls in his room. He was so eager to touch the wall that he pulled himself up and walked right over to it, without even noticing what he was doing. All those weeks of standing and squatting and sitting and stepping suddenly came together. That’s what’s going to happen on Novel Island, I think (I hope). Because isn’t storytelling as fundamental as walking? One day when I’m clearing yet another thorny mess out of my path, I’ll see something attractive in the distance and I’ll walk right over to it without even realizing that there was an opening in the underbrush, allowing me to see it. Until that moment, I’ll be writing my sentences, one by one, hoping that they add up to something as graceful as a body in movement.

Image via nattu/Flickr

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