Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

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I Was Formed by What I Didn’t Know: The Millions Interviews Dani Shapiro

In the spring of 2016, Dani Shapiro received one of the biggest shocks of her life when she learned, through an Ancestry.com DNA test, that she and her adored, deceased father were not biologically related. She had taken the test on a whim and wasn’t expecting to discover anything new. In fact, she thought she had pretty well excavated her family history in two of her previous memoirs: Slow Motion and Devotion. But the results of the test forced her to revisit mysteries she thought she had put to rest:
There had always been something more—something I could never quite fathom. An invisible live wire stretched between my parents and me. Touch it, and we might up in smoke. I knew this, too, thought I couldn’t have articulated it. I had turned away from fiction, toward memoir, as if a trail of words might lead me there.

Inheritance, her latest memoir, is the remarkable story of how, with just a few clues, Shapiro discovers both that she was donor-conceived, and the identity of her donor. With her mother also deceased, there are many unanswered questions, and Shapiro finds herself delving into the early history of sperm donation, and interviewing the remaining friends and acquaintances of her parents. But she’s most powerful when she writes about the strange memories that have never left her, memories imprinted with a mystery she couldn’t recover.

After reading Inheritance, I was very curious about how she went about writing this story, which is so different from her recent memoirs, but at the same time, speaks directly to them. I spoke to her over the phone last week, and as in her book about writing, Still Writing, she was very good at describing the different stages of her writing process. Our interview has been condensed slightly and edited for clarity.

The Millions: When did you know you would write about this experience?

Dani Shapiro: Very, very quickly. I’m a writer who has mined my own life and attempted to shape my experience into stories for my entire writing life. And then this massive wrecking ball of a story came into my life. I can’t even say it’s a story; it’s a revelation about what has always been true. It never occurred to me not to write about it. Somebody actually wrote to me on social media today—how do you think you would have written about this story if your parents were still alive? I wrote back, that’s a big question, and I’m not going to start responding to it on social media, but the fact that my parents were gone, and I was left with this massive mystery, and the only way I’ve come to understand anything about myself or about life is by writing about it, by following the line of words. And so I began jotting down notes very early on. Just fragments. Part of it was that I thought I wouldn’t remember the very early feelings and thoughts because I was in such shock. And the other reason was because I was aware that anything I might learn about the truth of my origins and the culture and the time and place that made me, those people who might know something about that, were very old if they were still living. I felt this urgency to put my reporter’s hat on and learn as much as I possibly could. I did not have the luxury of thinking, I’m going to write about this five years from now, after I’ve processed it. And, also, some books require distance, but this one felt like it required immediacy.

TM: It’s interesting that you realized right away that the clock was ticking in terms of the research you could do, and the interviews you could do.

DS: I think I would have felt that way whether I was writing the book or not. Writing a book sometimes gives you the excuse, the permission to pick up the phone and call people. I’ve always felt that way, whenever I’ve done a journalistic piece—a personal history piece—it’s always been spurred by what I really want to know but I don’t have permission ask. And if I have an assignment, then I have permission. So, there was something of that.

TM: When I was reading it, I thought it was so lucky that you are a writer—and also you had a journalist husband who could help you with your research. I just felt you had a good way of processing it, but I wondered if you felt that way, too?

DS: Initially I was just in it. I was in the fog of it; I was just doing anything I could, whatever I could. I felt that my emotional future well-being required that I at least try to turn over every stone that I could. I didn’t know what I would discover. But one of the things I figured out very quickly is that, if you have to find out that you’re donor-conceived, I had a miraculously good story. I had almost eerily so, just enough clues. My mother had once let slip, just in one brief conversation with her, certain vital clues: the word “Philadelphia,” the word “Institute.”

And then, let’s start with the fact that I did the DNA test at all. Because I easily could never had done that. It was a very random thing to decide to do, and it was only because my husband was doing it, and the prices have come down, so I thought, Sure, why not? It was so casual, and then the incredibly fast time that it took from the moment that I realized that my dad hadn’t been my biological father to finding my biological father. It was crazy, it was 36 hours, it was a domino effect, one thing leading to another, and a kind of hypothesis, and a couple of clues, and a couple of educated guesses, and the fact that my first cousin was on my page on Ancestry.com, and the fact that we could figure out who he was. It wasn’t hard. There was a certain amount of journalistic chops that were required; I think when my husband figured out that the name associated with my first cousin wasn’t first name-last name, but last name-first name, that’s the kind of thing that maybe somebody who is not an investigative journalist might not have gotten to as quickly, but it did happen in this way that, when I look back on it now, was miraculous.

I’ve heard a lot of stories now of dead ends, of donors who don’t want to be disturbed, or who don’t come around, and don’t respond. I just recently heard a story of a woman who is nearly 80 who just found out that her father had not been her biological father. What do you do with that when you’re 80 years old? I feel like the when in my life when I found out, was probably when I had the most stability, the most time and space, to actually be able to truly, deeply go on this journey. I wasn’t too young and I wasn’t too old. I write about this in the book, but when I was told about donor-conceived people who tattoo their donor numbers on their body, I get that. I had 36 hours, which is nothing, of feeling like I may never know who my biological father was. It felt like I was walking with a void underneath me. Like I had been uprooted—the roots that I thought that I had were no longer my roots. I might never know the facts of my identity.

TM: Did you know the structure of the book right away? And did the writing of this book feel different from writing previous memoirs?

DS: I started writing right away and I thought that I was writing the book. It’s funny, because I’ve taught writing for many years, and I’ve written a book about writing, and every once in a while I come up against something where I think, I know I would tell a student that this is impossible, but it’s not going to be impossible for me…

I learned something important to writers, regarding writing from experience. I have written directly from experience before. In my memoir Devotion, and in Hourglass, those are both books written like the present is a laboratory, and writing from the center of experience, but what was totally different about embarking on writing Inheritance was that those earlier books were not being written from a place of trauma. In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.

I wrote 200 pages of a draft. And I was already under contract and I was feeling actually pretty good about what I had on the page at that point. But then I had to go on tour for Hourglass. And I went on the road and I had to go on this mode of really not thinking about it, because I couldn’t think about it and be talking about Hourglass, which was a book that I felt so proud of, and wanted to be promoting. So I was on the road, and I think it must have been about two months that I didn’t touch the manuscript. And I sort of settled in, and I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.

And then I went back and I reread The Year of Magical Thinking. Because my editor and I had spoken about The Year of Magical Thinking before I had even started writing. She brought up that book as something that had within it a sense of immediacy. And yet at the same time, a powerful coolness to it because that’s what Didion does. In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story. And so I understood that I hadn’t known what that was. So I spent a couple of months exploring what that place was from which to tell the story, that was on the one hand still unfolding. But the actual breathless 36 hours of that story was very much in the rear view mirror for me when I sat down in earnest and was writing.

My job as a writer was twofold. One was the opposite of what writers need to do—I had to really slow it down. It’s a runaway train of a story, and I had to really think about how to give it the ballast and the weight that it required. The other way that it was different was that I was aware of the outsized details, the sheer strangeness of the story itself, and the uniqueness of it. I mean, I know it’s happened to a lot of people, but most people haven’t experienced it. Yet I wanted to write a book that people would be able to read and find for themselves what’s universal in it. In my memoir Slow Motion for example, my parents had been in a car accident. Even if your own parents haven’t been in a car accident anyone can emphasize and imagine what the person might feel like.

When I’ve written a couple of times about my son when he was little and he was sick, anyone, whether they’re a mother or a father, can put themselves in the shoes of this person telling the story. And I was aware that discovering in midlife that my father was not my biological father, I was going to have to a) help the reader understand what that feels like and b) write a book that took those experiences and took the strange, later-in-life journey that I found myself on, and really made meaning about what is this teaching me about human nature, about personhood, about identity, about family, about love, about what makes a family, about what makes a father, about nature and nurture, about all these huge ideas that I was suddenly grappling with on a deeper level than most people ever have to, and certainly than I had ever done before.

TM: The experience you describe of being able to see your biological father online, giving a video presentation, was just so stunning—I mean, the fact that we are even able to do that, first of all, but also the way you could recognize him. It just must have been so bizarre. You did a great job of describing it, I felt like I experienced it, and it made me think about how we look like our relatives, how my children look like my grandparents, or whomever, and I take it for granted, I don’t really think about it.

DS: Yes—or, if you know that you’re not biologically related to your parents, or one parent, then you know that and that also becomes part of your identity. And that’s a point that I find that I need to make, because it’s not an obvious one. People who are adopted or people who are donor-conceived, who have always known this, or parents who have donor-conceived kids, or adopted kids, who have always disclosed to their children their origins, that is a completely different story from mine, or from the many people these days who are discovering that a secret was kept from them. If you grow up knowing that you don’t know something, then that lack of knowledge becomes part of your identity. But if you grow up believing something that isn’t the case, and something about it just doesn’t make sense—that was the story of my life, and I think it’s actually the reason for all those memoirs.

TM: I actually had the same thought while I was reading. I found myself wondering if you would continue to write memoirs after this?

DS: I very much doubt that I will ever write a straightforward memoir ever again. Hopefully I’ll write fiction and I’ll write nonfiction. I was moving in a direction before I wrote Inheritance that was kind of a more fractured narrative, and away from traditional narrative, which is hilarious to me and ironic because then I had this story land on me, that was like a story with a capital S that could only be written in a straightforward, linear way. I hadn’t written in a linear fashion in a decade or more. So I have no idea what’s next for me, but I really do believe that my writing life has been formed by not knowing and always searching for what I did not know. There are clues all over all of my books. There are clues in my first novel, there are clues in my second novel, there are clues in Slow Motion, there are clues in Still Writing, and there are certainly clues in Devotion; there are clues in all my books except perhaps for Hourglass, which is really a book that is about marriage and time and memory and kind of steered clear of some of my other obsessions, but I was formed by what I didn’t know.

TM: I think Inheritance is also, in a way, a book about writing. Because you write about looking back on your old books—on what you’ve written before—and I also appreciated the amount of textual analysis you applied to the emails from people, and to what people say to you, and what you said to yourself.

DS: I love that, you’re the first person who has said that to me, and I was aware that I was parsing Ben’s emails—he used this word or he made this Freudian slip—and parsing the language that was used at the time of my conception. The word “treatment,” the word “boost.” And all the ways in which euphemism was used, to create a cloud of unknowing, that parents could find themselves wandering in a fog for the rest of their lives about what they had done—if they wanted to, they could do that. And also, I really do feel like everything I’ve written has led to this. My husband, early on, I think he felt bad that I had made this discovery, and it was his fault because he had asked me if I wanted to do the DNA test, but I have never had a moment—not even at my most destabilized—of feeling like I haven’t known. Because my life, in particular, as somebody who has been relentlessly exploring identity, my dad, my relationship with my dad.

It’s taught me a lot about stories and the narratives that we tell ourselves—all of us, not just writers. It’s how we all understand ourselves through storytelling. My narrative about both of my parents had to be reconsidered in light of this new information. I have a shelf of books that supply reasons for why they were the way they were and all of that is still true, but it’s not the whole truth. I was missing the biggest bone. The part that puts it all into complete dimensionality had eluded me until I made that discovery. And then it made everything make profound sense. Almost instantly. It didn’t make it less painful. It was very hard to digest. But I knew absolutely that I was looking at the truth and I had never seen the truth in my life.

TM: One last question—I was wondering if you have read Proust?

DS: I have read Proust, I have taught Proust—why do ask?

TM: I felt like the theories of memories you write about are similar to the ones in In Search of Lost Time, especially the idea that the memories that survive childhood, the deep ones, are the ones that have the truth in them and you have to kind of deep dive to find them.

DS: And to return to them. Why did that conversation with Mrs. Kushner stay with me my whole life? Because I don’t have a good memory of my childhood, but that—I can tell you what the leaves on the tree looked like, and the glasses of iced tea, and what Mrs. Kushner looked like. It was seared into my memory. And that was also true of the conversation I had at Sarah Lawrence with my mother, and on the car ride home. And what’s Proustian about all that is that we don’t know that those moments are becoming recorded in a way, but they are, because somewhere within us there is this very subtle recognition of their importance.

When I taught In Search of Lost Time it was in a graduate writing program at The New School, and I was teaching the literature of autobiography. I made my own syllabus, and I chose books that I wanted to reread. I think I taught that class for 10 years. And I would end every year with Proust. What was drawing me again and again to thinking, to the way he thought about memory? That’s part of what I mean by it all led to this. My friend Hannah Tinti, who is one of the people that I told pretty early on, she had one of the best reactions: She burst out laughing, first of all—laughing at the incredulity, and also like, of course. She wrote to me the next morning and said I had been in training for this my whole life. And I thought, what is it to be in training for something my whole life and have it happen? Or was I in training because of it? It haunts me that I could have possibly have never known this, because I would have missed my mark.

A Writer’s Toolbox

1.
I pulled the heavy red book down from my dad’s bookshelf. Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, its cover announced. “David Foster Wallace said it’s the only usage guide he ever consulted,” my dad said, a note of pride in his voice as if he and DFW had been old buddies. “I got it on sale at The Strand.”

“Huh,” I said and sat down, opening the tome on my lap to the word “eventuate,” the subject of a controversial debate with a coworker at my day job. The entry was short and snarky:
Eventuate is ‘an elaborate journalistic word that can usually be replaced by a simpler word to advantage.’ George P. Krapp, A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927).
Then came several examples of its misuse, explanations of what was wrong about it, and suggestions for words should have been used in it place (e.g., “happened,” “occurred,” “took place”). This comprehensive lesson perfectly resolved my confusion, since I had misconstrued the meaning of “eventuate” as something along the lines of “would eventually lead to.”

“This is terrific!” I told my dad. “Usually when I have a usage question at work, I just Google the question—like further vs. farther—and read the first few entries that pop up.”

“See, that’s the trouble with the Internet,” he scoffed, single-handedly dismissing an entire global digital stratosphere. “The demise of authoritative references.”

It was nice to have such a complete and well-researched reference on language usage right here at my fingertips. I immediately looked up several more entries, and started chuckling and reading them aloud. “Hey, listen to this, about ‘insofar as:’ ‘the dangers range from mere feebleness or wordiness, through pleonasm or confusion of grammar.’ Zing!”

“Keep the Garner’s, then,” my dad said with a smile. “I never use it.”

Tickled, I hugged my newest diction and style guide to my chest. What a great new writer’s tool I didn’t even know that I needed. This got me thinking about my other writers’ tools. What are the books that every writer should have handy? My other go-to writing books are not necessarily manuals of mechanics, but instead are resources that provide inspiration, moral support, models of good writing, and above all, comfort.

2.
When I was 18, taking expository writing in my first semester of college, my professor, Kevin DiPirro, assigned Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. It was an optional text, so while he assigned us to read certain chapters concurrently with our other assignments, we never once discussed the content of the book in class. Instead, we wrote expository essays trying to frame rhetorical situations, analyze evidence, and make well-researched arguments. But my teacher-student relationship with Natalie Goldberg started that year, and for that, I’ll always be grateful to Kevin.

One afternoon, in a darkened corner of the library, I cracked open Writing Down the Bones. What’s this all about? I wondered. Natalie’s words spoke aloud to me, like a calm teacher, echoing in my mind:
Writing As Practice
This is the practice school of writing… You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance…  Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination… My rule is to finish a notebook a month. Simply fill it. That is the practice.
Then, at the end of the chapter:
Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, with our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.

Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with this moment and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.
I wrote for about five or 10 minutes in my notebook, and wrote what was running through me. My experiences and deepest longings leapt straight from my heart and out onto the page through my hand, and the act of writing became so simple and direct that it was as if my brain was just a spectator, anxious mutterings quieted at last. By the time I finished, I was quietly sobbing in that dark corner of the library, in the sheltered desk carrel that shielded me from the rest of the campus studying on that day in late September of 2002. Something was unleashed that day, and I was so moved by that feeling of being granted permission to write any way I wanted that I dated that page in Writing Down the Bones. Something big happened here today.

I kept that book with me, when things were great and when things were shitty, when I felt despair or years of writer’s block or crippling fear. It’s okay, just write for 10 minutes. Natalie has given me permission to write the worst junk imaginable, because it is the practice that matters. Now, more than a decade later, in my writing sessions, I can finally distinguish the feeling of the juice, the flow of when I’m finally cooking with gas or sparks are flying—pick your metaphor—and I can channel that energy into whatever feels important to work on. But first I have to warm up. Even if I’m writing every day consistently, I still have to shake off the rust and the stiff joints and re-enter the river of writing, the thrall of my own subconscious voice, in order to be receptive enough to conduct electricity when lightning strikes. When I’m stuck, I open up Writing Down the Bones and read:
Be Specific
Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit—‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.

Don’t Marry the Fly
Watch when you listen to a piece of writing. There might be spaces where your mind wanders.

A New Moment
Katagiri Roshi often used to say: ‘Take one step off a hundred-foot pole.’
3.
One paradox of my writer’s toolbox of books is that I don’t often write at my writing desk—preferring instead the anonymous yet community feel of a table at my local coffee shop. But I tend to carry that dog-eared and war-torn copy of Writing Down the Bones with me wherever I go. Sometimes I switch it out for my almost-as-demolished copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is funnier and a bit more genre-specific about writing fiction. Over the years, I have trafficked through copies of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, On Writing by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett—which technically isn’t a craft book, but I lump it in, because it’s a memoir of being a young unpublished writer and of “making it,” documenting one particularly deep writing friendship. You could say that I’m a craft book junkie. You could say that.

I also keep books around that remind me of what I love about good writing. I have books that I reread just for the feeling of basking in good writing, like snuggling under a warm blanket or quenching my thirst with a perfectly cold glass of water. Novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Motherless Brooklyn, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Fight Club, and the Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of these books, and in college, along with the books I was reading for classes, I kept a “greatest hits” shelf of books that made me feel better just by dint of their being nearby.

Yet I don’t own a dictionary. My fiancé, a recreational poet, has a rhyming dictionary, which it has never occurred to me to purchase. I use an online thesaurus regularly at work, but in this digital age, I would never buy a hardcover copy.

Recently, I picked up a copy of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which I think of as a kind of lifestyle companion for writers delusional enough to think they might someday might make real money from this. It has anecdotal guidance and moral support for writers and those pursuing the writing life, a type of useful and practical advice that reminds me of my regular bimonthly Poets & Writers arrival. My subscription always seems on the verge of lapsing, but I read the magazine cover to cover whenever it arrives. I read the Residencies and Conferences and Grants and Awards sections with a pen in my hand.

4.
I was giddy but apprehensive about my gift of Garner’s Modern Usage. My first thought was, I should bring this to work! In my office, my windowsill-turned-bookshelf has on it a weathered copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an ancient copy of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, an untouched copy of the AP Style Guide, and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The latter is interesting but not comprehensive, so I eventually stopped looking up entries that didn’t exist. But it has a beautiful cover.

My second thought was, Screw work, I want to keep this at home and use it for my own writing at my writing desk! My immediate third thought was, I have to clean my writing desk! Lacking bookshelf space, I started stacking books I’ve just read or want to read on one corner of the small wooden desk I shellacked with rejection slips years ago, back when literary magazines sent paper rejections. I have a tiny ceramic lamp that sits on the other corner of the desk, and without a home office space larger than the footprint of this desk, I’ve collected a variety of other things on its surface—papers, folders, envelopes, DVDs, an unpaid doctor’s bill. My checkbook, more books I’m planning to read, recent drafts of novel revisions, with all manner of handbags and tote bags hanging off the handles of my desk chair like a flea market handbag stall.

Could a single modern usage book revolutionize my home writing space and daily writing practice?

I’ve always thought of myself as a writing nomad. Natalie says,
Write Anyplace. Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams….Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write.
I write her words, copy them into my notebook, and in that moment, I am reborn. I like having authorities, teachers, mentors on the page. Natalie has taught me a great deal in the 15 years that I’ve been reading and rereading her book.

Maybe Bryan Garner can become my newest teacher on the page, in his witty biting asides about “eventuate” and “insofar as” and many other linguistic predicaments that I have yet to identify. Of course, one great appeal of having the voice of Garner giving me authoritative advice on proper usage is that hovering over his shoulder is the friendly specter of David Foster Wallace, and next to him, my dad nodding along and laughing at my enthusiasm. When he gifted me the book, he said, “This is a great reference for a writer.” It’s in those tiny moments that I feel his slight seal of approval, or at least simple affirmation, of that life that I’ve chosen for myself. He sees me as a writer. Thanks, dad.

Surprise Me!

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