As a lover of books on the craft of writing, I’d had Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing on my to-read list for several years. It was her recent extraordinary memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage that prompted me to read it finally this fall. Shapiro writes memoir and fiction, which makes Still Writing an excellent contrast and complement to John McPhee’s Draft No. 4.
It’s almost a memoir itself more than a book on craft and belongs in my mind with other writing classics like The Writing Life (adored it!), Bird by Bird (loved it!), A Writer’s Diary (loved it and heard about years ago via Dani Shapiro’s lovely blog), and Writing Down the Bones (have yet to read it). With McPhee’s book I needed to do some digging to find the advice most useful to me, but with Still Writing nearly every page was relevant to my writing life.
The book is composed of short chapters with titles like Muses, Beginning Again, Second Acts, and Reading Yourself, divided into three sections: Beginnings, Middles, Ends. The chapters are highly digestible and kind of addictive. But it’s worthwhile to take your time and not overindulge.
The insights into writing are infused with a sense of grace and salvation. A pervasive notion that writing can help you become the best person you can be. There is an urgency to be grateful for and make the most of the combination of gift and curse that writing can be. There is virtue in writing well and shame in not doing the best you can. This feels right for memoir especially, but is relevant to all forms of writing. Many writers (including myself) would benefit from an extra moment or two of self-reflection. In writing and in life.
As I mentioned, nearly every page of Still Writing speaks to me, so it is tough to choose which passages to share. I hope they’ll convince you to give the whole book a chance.
You don’t need to know where you’re going
On starting without quite knowing what to write: “I always think I should know more. That I need more information. That I should outline, perhaps. Or do some research. But really, I need to remind myself that this not-knowing is at the heart of the creative endeavour.”
And you can let the writing surprise you: “Paradoxically, the not-knowing is often what creates the energy, portent, and momentum in the piece of work itself. One of the truest pleasures for the writer alone in a room is when our characters surprise us by doing something unexpected.”
On being uncomfortable: “I’ve learned to be wary of those times when I think I know what I’m doing. I’ve discovered that my best work comes from the uncomfortable but fruitful feeling of not having a clue.”
Create something from nothing
On the blank page: “We writers spend our days making something out of nothing. There is the blank page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on that page. There is no shape, no blueprint until one emerges from the page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can’t know. And so we need a sense of structure around us.”
On discovering what you want to write about: “But when we stumble upon it, we know. We know because it shimmers. And if you are a writer, you will find that you won’t give up that shimmer for anything. You live for it. Like falling in love, moments that announce themselves as your subject are rare, and there’s a magic to them. Ignore them at your own peril.”
On the first draft: “The imagination has its own coherence. Our first draft will lead us. There’s always time for thinking and shaping and restructuring later, after we’ve allowed something previously hidden to emerge on the page.”
On being a beginner every day: “Wherever we are in our work, we have never been exactly here, today. Today, we need to relearn what it is that we do. We have to remind ourselves to be patient, gentle with our foibles, ruthless with our time, withstanding of our frustrations. We remember what it is that we need …. Whatever it takes to begin again.”
Don’t wait for inspiration
Getting started even when you’re feeling unprepared can be the difference between doing something (however bad) and nothing.
“If I waited to be in the mood to write, I’d barely have a chapbook of material to my name. Who would ever be in the mood to write? Do marathon runners get in the mood to run? Do teachers wake up with the urge to lecture? I don’t know, but I doubt it. My guess is that it’s the very act that is generative. The doing of the thing that makes possible the desire for it. … A writer sits in her writing space, setting aside the time to be alone with her work. Is she inspired doing it? Very possibly not. Is she distracted, bored, lonely, in need of stimulation? Oh, absolutely.”
But where does the motivation to sit down every day come from, especially on the days where it seems useless and pointless? From gratitude. “I try to remember that to sit down and write is a gift. That if I do not seize this day, it will be lost. I think of writers I admire who are no longer living. I’m aware that the simple fact of being here creates a kind of responsibility, even a moral one, to get to work.”
On blessings and catastrophes
The work of the writer is to pay attention and empathize:
“It’s the job of the writer to say, look at that. To point. To shine a light. But it isn’t that which is already bright and beckoning that needs our attention. We develop our sensitivity — to use John Berger’s phrase, our ‘ways of seeing’ — in order to bear witness to what is. Our tender hopes and dreams, our joy, frailty, grief, fear, longing, desire — every human being is a landscape. The empathic imagination glimpses the woman working the cash register at a convenience store, the man coming out of the bathroom at the truck stop, the mother chasing her toddler up and down the aisle of the airplane, and knows what it sees. Look at that. This human catastrophe, this accumulation of ordinary blessings, of unbearable losses.”
But how do you know if you’re doing it right? “Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us? Are we climbing on the shoulders of those who paved the way for us? Are we using every last bit of ourselves, living these lives of ours, spending it, spending it all, every single day?”
Pain leads to the story
As a memoirist, Shapiro writes about the suffering and tragedies of her life. She quotes Anne Sexton: “pain engraves a deeper memory” and adds: “Pain carves details into us, yes. I would wager, though, that great joy does as well. Strong emotion, Virginia Woolf said, must leave its trace. Start writing, grow still and quiet, press toward that strong emotion and you will discover it anew. … These traces that live within us often lead us to our stories.”
Writing demands that we move toward that pain, again and again: “To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain. To scream to it, with it, from it. To know it — to know it cold. … To be alone in a room with yourself and the contents of your mind is, in effect, to go to that place, whether you intend to or not.”
The writer goes voluntarily to that place to seek the truth. Why? “Not because I’m a masochist. Not because I live in the past. But because my words are my pickax, and with them I chip away at the rough surface of whatever it is I still need to know.”
Creating a world and staying inside it
On the seclusion of writing: “One of the strangest aspects of a writing life is what I think of as going in and out of the cave. When we are in the middle of a piece of work, the cave is the only place we belong.”
The difficulty is sustaining the world you create and maintaining the seclusion needed to do so:
“A writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there. She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go dancing, and then pop back in. The work demands our full attention, our deepest concentration, our best selves. If we’re in the middle — in the boat we’re building — we cannot let ourselves be distracted by the bright and shiny. The bright and shiny is a mirage, an illusion. It is of no use to us.”
On the optimal state of flow as a writer: “To forget oneself — to lose oneself in the music, in the moment — that kind of absorption seems to be at the heart of every creative endeavor. It can be the deepest pleasure, though it doesn’t always feel like pleasure. Not exactly.”
She goes on to describe Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s definition of flow or “optimal experience”. Then: “We don’t always get to feel unadulterated joy when we are in the midst of an optimal experience. Think of it as joy deferred. The work itself can be challenging to the point of physical and psychic pain.” She quotes Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Feeling pleasure isn’t the point of writing. It’s tough but satisfying, better than pleasure.
The seed of something new
One of my favourite parts of Still Writing is where Shapiro describes staying with friends after a winter storm takes out the electricity in her home. She finds a spot in the home to write, away from everyone else, a room of her own. Although the point of the anecdote was the importance of a good writing space, it was a hint that opened up a larger story in my mind as I read. It was a seed that grew in my imagination. Or perhaps it was the water that sprouted the seed.
That is my favourite kind of writing, the kind that somehow contains something that combines with my mind in a sort of chemical reaction and sends me spinning off into my own world. It’s one of the reasons I read so much, what I’m always hoping for. The world of the book itself can be immersive, but what really makes a book extraordinary is when it allows me to create a new world of my very own. And in a book about writing, that feels like magic.