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Teresa Burns Gunther

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.

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