The Question of What It Takes to Tell the Truth on the Page: Q&A with Dani Shapiro

Dani ShapiroI first had the pleasure of meeting Dani Shapiro in 2007 at Le Sirenuse on Italy’s Amalfi Coast at the initial Sirenland Writers Conference. Shapiro (who is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History) established Sirenland in Positano, Italy, with Hannah Tinti “to provide an antidote to competitive, hierarchical writing conferences” that she “can’t imagine would be good for anyone’s creative process.”

Her latest and well-received book is an extension of that intention. Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (Grove Press; 256 pages), Shapiro’s “love letter to other writers,” offers an intimate exploration of what it means to be a writer, to “hone and hone and chisel and chisel away at ourselves until we arrive at that true place, at the deepest level of specificity.” Part memoir, part instruction, Still Writing shares Shapiro’s process, struggles, success, and wisdom to inspire writers—at all stages of development—to trust the work, trust themselves, and keep writing.

In late October, I discussed Still Writing with her. The following is a portion of that conversation:

ZYZZYVA: You’ve published five novels, two memoirs, and now Still Writing, which is a national best-seller. You’ve written screenplays, are published in the best magazines, have taught all over the world. You have your own writing conference in Italy, you’ve appeared on “Today” and Oprah’s TV show. Does this feel like success?

Dani Shapiro: No! Boy, oh boy. Success is such a curious idea for an artist. Maybe it is for everyone. I don’t know. Ask any writer what their favorite book is, and always it’s the one they’re working on or the one just entering the world. I’m very wary of any feeling of accomplishment. When someone tells me they love Slow Motion, that it’s their favorite of my books, I think, I wrote that in 1997! Or even Devotion, which I brought out in 2010.

The idea of any kind of place of arrival, it’s not real. If every book is a new mountain and every day you are at the bottom of that mountain looking up at it, then there never really feels like a place of arrival. Really being a “successful writer” means schlepping through airports, and staying at the Staybridge Suites on the side of the highway, and sometimes showing up at bookstores to very sparse audiences. There’s a line from Still Writing that I find I say a lot: every day a new indignity. I think I should have T-shirts made for all of us. I don’t think anybody stops feeling that way, at any point.

Z: In the forward to Still Writing you talk about the page as a writer’s mirror. That what happens inside of us is reflected back on the page. What do you think would most surprise the younger Dani—the one publishing her first novel in grad school—if she were to see your writing life today?

DS: I think writing Devotion probably would surprise my young writer self the most, because that wasn’t a book I even knew I had in me. And then it was urgent that I write it. I was seated at a dinner one evening, right around the time I started Devotion, next to a literary agent who was horrified that I was going to write a spiritual memoir, especially after my two previous novels had gotten some really nice acclaim. She told me I should write another novel. She was so horrified, she actually called one of the editors who had the book proposal and said, I don’t think Dani should do this.

If you’d asked me when I was starting out, I would have said that in a perfect literary future I would continue to only write literary novels and be living in New York City and teaching at a university and that would be my life. Which is also kind of a fantasy because I might also have said that I’d have three or four kids. The nonfiction that I’ve written, and the degree to which all of that has grown in its fascination for me, and the interest that I have in moving back and forth between genres and even in blurring genres, all of that would have surprised me. And I have grown to really love the kind of teaching I now do, and almost feel like I’m forging new ground. I move pretty fluidly from: I teach in MFA programs to I can also create a writers’ conference. Why not? I also regularly lead large weekend retreats at places like Kripalu [Center for Yoga and Health].

These retreats aren’t about workshopping per se, but more about inspiration and being able to create an environment that can be genuinely productive, generative, and that people leave feeling like they have renewed energy around their work. In an environment like that I can throw in meditation, even a little yoga. I can utilize these different parts of myself and my interests and what works for me as a writer and not be stuck in just one model. It’s thrilling. That’s what Hannah [Tinti] and I are doing with the Wishing Stone Workshops—a new series of workshops that we occasionally lead in beautiful spots around the world. Part of our excitement is that we get to make it up as we go along, try new things and really be creative and use the environment, teach people to observe differently, to pay attention more deeply. It’s very cool stuff to feel like there isn’t just this one path to a literary life.

still-writingZ: Does teaching feed you as a writer?

DS: Different kinds of teaching feed me differently. When I’m teaching a small workshop focused on craft, based on the kind of close reading we do in my private workshops or at Sirenland, I will find that often I find new ways of formulating a thought about craft that can be illuminating for my own work.  I also think teaching utilizes a different part of me; a more public, performative part. And the kind of teaching I do at big retreats can be very spiritually satisfying. I don’t have a community in that way in my life, and so, whenever I’m in a position to create one or to create an experience for a group of people, there’s something about that that really does feed me.

Z: In Devotion, you wrote there was no end to my desire for self-improvement. How does one balance that desire for self-improvement with one’s desire to develop as a writer?

DS: That’s a really interesting and provocative question. I think the two are almost opposed. My deepening as a writer does not always come from the same healthy place as the no end to my desire for self-improvement. It can, and often is, coming from a much murkier, darker place. To create my strongest work, I have to dive deep into whatever the heart of the thing is, and the great tortured difficulty of doing that is a very different impetus.

I had an interesting correspondence recently with Cynthia Ozick because she had read Still Writing and sent me an admiring note. She wrote something to me about how she’s come to believe that to be a writer you have to be a monster, she said something to the effect that you are not a monster. It raises the question: Do you have to be a monster? I fervently don’t want the answer to that to be yes. And at the same time think about what Didion has said, or what Janet Malcolm has said, about the writer as betrayer, the writer as always willing to fling anything and everyone under the bus. Do you need to do that? I won’t do that, though some people would accuse me of having already done this, it depends who you ask. I wrote an essay, Evil Tongue,” published in Ploughshares earlier this year. In it, I was grappling the very notion of literary betrayal, along with Lashon hara—the Hebrew phrase that means “evil tongue”—considered among the greatest sins, up there with adultery and murder. You pretty much can’t get out of bed without committing Lashon hara. Even harmless gossip is Lashon hara. The essay came out of a very strong desire to write about something I wasn’t sure I had the right to write about. And I struggled with it for years. It had to do with my grandfather who’s been dead for a long time. What right did I have to unpack something that would potentially stand as a piece of his legacy or reputation? So I ended up writing about writing about it. But by doing that, by writing a piece about literary betrayal, I betrayed. I know that.

Slow MotionOr there was a piece I wrote about [my son] Jacob that was in the Times Book Review last year. This American Life was rebroadcasting a piece of me reading from Slow Motion and I was in the car with Jacob and I realized it was going to be on that day. I turned off NPR because I didn’t want Jacob to hear a promo. When I wrote Slow Motion he hadn’t been born yet. Would I have written Slow Motion after he was born? The mother in me would like to think that I wouldn’t have, the writer in me would like to think I would. But in writing the piece for the book review, which was about all this, I was in fact making even more certain that he would know about the events of my life that I wrote about in Slow Motion and I knew that, too.

So it’s complex, the whole question of what it takes to tell the truth on the page—whether fiction or nonfiction. There is a feeling of recklessness when a writer has really embarked on something. That recklessness stands in opposition to this other, gentle, and discerning rumination. When we sit down to meditate it’s not with recklessness. It’s like a tree that divides and these two branches divide and go off in these very different directions. Trying to be someone who wants to do both means living with those contradictions and that internal conflict.

Z: In your piece “On Having the Last Word,” a post in your blog Moments of Being, you wrote about the challenge of writing memoir about your dead mother. What do you say to writers who attempt to avoid this challenge by planning to wait until everyone has died, when it feels safer?

DS: First of all, when I talk about recklessness, I don’t mean reckless with people’s feelings. It’s a personal, intimate thing. It’s a hurling oneself into the unknown. But in terms of the question of waiting for people to die, I found it more difficult to write about people, specifically my mother after she had died, because I was aware that she could no longer fight back. I was surprised by the feeling of responsibility that I had, as I wrote in that blog post, of being the one who got to have the last word. Who got to define in someway the memory and the legacy of this person. That’s kind of an awesome responsibility, and if you think of it that way then everything becomes a eulogy. I thought I would be liberated, and in one way I was, but in another way there was this new sense of guilt and responsibility. Everything I wrote when she was still alive, although she would argue this, I did write with a filter of not wanting to hurt her and only going as far as I needed to tell my own story. I thought that after she died that filter of needing to protect her would be gone but it wasn’t, it just morphed into something else.

Z: It’s often hard for those who aren’t writers to understand a writer’s need for silence and solitude. You captured that so beautifully in the chapter “The Cave.” What advice would you offer writers about claiming their “cave” and creating permission in their world by helping those they love and share their life with to understand?

DS: I think about this question of permission all the time. I think it’s so important to have that feeling of protecting your own work. Because a writer is inseparable from her own work that means protecting yourself in whatever ways you need that are absolutely essential in terms of the conditions that you need to get your work done. It’s different for every writer and for each writer over time.

When I was younger and before I had children, I thought that the only way I could write was to roll out of bed and get to work while I was still half asleep, and not talk to anybody and not look anybody in the eye, maybe put on a pot of coffee and go straight to work. You can’t really be, in the Buddhist term, a “householder” and do that. You can’t be a parent and do that. You might be able to be a partner and do that, maybe not an outstanding partner. But there’s a family life: animals, children, a spouse, whatever. I had to learn another way, because for the last 14 years I haven’t been able to roll out of bed in a semi-conscious state and grind the coffee, pour the cup, and just pad over to my desk. What I learned to do was to keep a little bit of myself at bay, not just to go through the motions, because it was very important to me that I be there for my kid and that he not feel like Mom’s already off in some sort of dream world.

No writer should start the day with the Internet but we all do, or so many of us do, and it’s really challenging. One of the things I realized was that I needed to not check my email, go online, for any reason at all until after my son had left for school for the day. My attention wouldn’t be divided more than it had to be.

Z:  Ron Carlson says that as soon as a writer checks her email, she’s done for the day.

DS:  He’s very wise and quotable on the subject. He says it’s like writing in an amusement park; it’s true and it’s truly complicated. Generally speaking, we can only divide our attention so much, if at all, before we lose the thread, before we lose the possibility that we’re going to be able to actually catch hold of anything on any given day. That was helpful to me […] that I’m just not going to do this, I’m going to wait until my son leaves for the day, and then I’ll make my coffee, then I’ll go upstairs to my desk. Maybe I’ll check my email to be sure the world hasn’t ended overnight, or see which fire to put out, but then I’m going to get to work.

A feeling that I’ve had from the very beginning of my writing life is that I need to keep regular hours. Not everyone does. Amy Bloom once told me she always wrote in the middle of the night because she became a writer when she already was a mother. She had young kids under her roof and it was the only time the house was hers and hers alone. Alice Munro wrote at her kitchen table, she didn’t need apparently to have a room of her own to produce her glorious stories. She felt more like she needed to be in the hearth. It worked for her. I would be very distracted. I’ve always needed to be able to close the door. At various times I’ve had an office outside of the home, but about the time I started writing Devotion I’ve had my office in my home, because the one way I know to restart my day if it’s gone off the rails is to practice yoga. So if I’m home I know I can unroll the mat and I can do that. It’s become an integral part of it for me.

More than anything it’s about respecting what it is that you need in order to be able to get to work, and to attempt to explain to the people closest to you what it is that happens internally if you don’t, or can’t, have that. I have a best friend, she’s still my best friend, who I met freshman year in college. She’s a therapist and we had a power struggle for years because she did not understand why I would not answer the phone in the middle of the day or why I wouldn’t break for lunch. She felt like I was being rigid and I felt like she was being judgmental. I asked her, When you have a patient are you answering the phone? You’re doing what you need to do for your work and I’m doing what I need to do for my work. If I answer the phone my day is over.

If I have a lunch date I might as well not even start in the morning. That’s always how it’s felt to me. But I know people who have written a novel in one hour a day, wonderful novels, because they’ve found a way to make that hour sacred. In order to have the sensitivity that is the writer’s lot in life, it’s not a choice, you have it. But in order to use it and not burn out and have it be in the service of the work I think we require a lot of cushioning. And it’s different for everyone.

devotionZ: You’ve written about the problem of exposure in telling our own stories. Yet I sensed a greater ease in the telling of your story in Still Writing. It was personal, yet universal in a new way, different from Devotion.

DS:  I like that. I think it’s true. I think Devotion changed me; it was a book that I felt was working on me as I was working on it and that it altered me in some pretty cellular ways. The journey that I went on to write that book was the journey that has continued. I think that there’s just a different acceptance of the holding of the contradictions. For a long time I felt a little apologetic for having a complicated life, having complicated family and family history, and my own various sort of twists and turns, and I think I’ve reached a place of feeling very accepting of all of it. Not only have I come to a place of acceptance of that but I’ve come to a place of a kind of pride in that, where it feels that it’s uniquely what I have to offer as a writer, a human being, as a mother, a wife—as all of it.

When I was writing Devotion, I really did feel like I might be writing a book that no one would be interested in reading. It felt so idiosyncratic, so specific; then the opposite turned out to be the case, precisely because that specific turned out to be universal. When we are at our most specific, when we hone and hone and chisel and chisel away at ourselves until we arrive at that true place, at the deepest level of specificity, that is also what becomes so completely relatable.

When Devotion came out, Sylvia Boorstein said to me, “Honey, you’ve written a book about what you know now.” And that was very liberating for me because implicit in that was you’ll know more later. And I do know more now. That’s the place maybe, to go back to your earlier question, that’s were the intersection of self-improvement and the creative process perhaps reside. It isn’t always comfortable or pretty, but I’m a whole lot less interested in that, or in being self-protective.

Z: Still Writing is dedicated to Grace Paley. What is it about her that influenced you most?

DS: To go back to the very beginning of our conversation, when I talked about my life as a householder and my life as a writer being indistinguishable, you can’t separate the person from the artist. I didn’t grow up knowing any writers at all. Grace was one of the very first writers I ever met when I got to Sarah Lawrence. And I think, without knowing it, that what I recognized in her was someone who had a life, had a marriage, children, and her social activism, her passionate love of the world, her profound sense of needing to show up wherever there was injustice, and her writing. Look, that’s why we have so little of her writing. But there was such a feeling of it all being braided together, of not feeling like there was any preciousness or contradiction between the woman and the writer.

She was extremely nurturing and loving as a teacher and as a presence at Sarah Lawrence. And that, too, the feeling that as a teacher that one could come from a place of such generosity, almost a kind of maternal, very loving, and she had good boundaries and was able to be protective of herself and her time all the while. Sylvia Boorstein reminds me a bit of Grace. I think its one of the reasons I was so drawn to Sylvia. I’ve looked for older women role models all my life. There were other teachers there who were as important to me as Grace, but there was a feeling of the role model piece of it that I just felt strongly.

Z: You write about bad days and conclude: We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. Yet, the writing world isn’t kind, for emerging and established writers. Do you think it’s harder to be a writer today?

DS: It’s both harder and easier. The world of blogging is more democratic, and can occasionally allow a writer’s voice to really find its way into the world. And it’s exciting when that happens. I think it’s much different to be a published writer today in terms of what is required than it was when I was starting out. It is absolutely a full time job to navigate and manage a publication—that’s true for every writer I know—unless they completely opt out. The social media components are real.

I’m in the midst of a book tour for Still Writing that will, in one way or another, be ongoing. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and I don’t mean the writing, I mean everything around the writing. It used to be that a book would come out and it would be driven by reviews, but now there are far fewer outlets for reviews, so what drives a book is much more the Internet, that’s where word of mouth is created. So writers are spending tremendous amounts of time staring at their computer screens for reasons that have nothing to do with getting work done. That’s very troubling and problematic, and I don’t think it’s going to change because our culture is noisier and noisier. It helps our books find readers but it’s also to our detriment creatively.

Z: Do you imagine industry creating services that could free writers from this busy work?

DS: It’s still ultimately about voice, but I sense some real turning points. A lot of the events I’m doing are not in bookstores. People are creating salons in their living rooms, or small, very special festivals that attract a passionate audience of readers. That’s exciting for writers. In the old model of the traditional book tour, publishers would send a writer out on the road. In one of my early experiences I arrived at a bookstore in Northern California, and there were five people waiting to hear me read: a homeless man in the back row, a crying girl in the second row, the bookstore manager, and most horrifyingly my cousins from Petaluma who were probably looking at me thinking, I can’t believe she makes a living at this.

The burden is very much on writers to figure out a way to get their readers to show up. I haven’t done a single event for this book where there has been anything less than a packed house because over the years I’ve learned a lot. I’ve had to be an entrepreneur and businessperson as well as a creative person who does the work. I don’t find it easy. It’s very challenging, because the person who wants to be alone in the room, whose natural habitat is solitude, having to put on these other hats and do these other things is the biggest complexity to what it is to be publishing in 2013.

Teresa Burns Gunther‘s work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, most recently in Northwind Magazine, Best New Writing 2012 and Barcode by Pure Slush Books. Her interviews can be found at Bookslut, Shambhala Sun, Glimmertrain Press, “Writer’s Ask,” Literary Mama and elsewhere. She is the founder of Lakeshore Writers Workshop in Oakland, California.

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