Dani Shapiro

The Sunday Salon: Down the Rabbit Hole

Lately I’ve fallen down one of those rabbit holes of inquiry so common among readers. Sometimes they can be a bad thing, right? You go slip sliding away from whatever it is you’re focused on and within a bare few minutes your attention has gone careening like a pinball from one topic to another. Usually this kind of destructive activity can be traced directly to the internet. You click onto Google to look up a fact, and the next thing you know you’re buying a pair of sandals from QVC.

Sometimes, thought, the rabbit hole is a good and true thing, a shower of creative sparks skyrocketing inside your brain, making your fingers itch for a pen or a QWERTY keyboard so you can capture some of them before the shine goes dim.

I’m happy to say, that’s the kind of rabbit hole I’ve been living in for the past few days.

Write On Wednesday: Desperate Distractions

I’ll be honest - I nearly cried when I looked out my window this morning.

Snow fell in wet, white sheets, and the sky was gunmetal gray. Skeletal tree branches rattled in the wind, and the chickadees clung desperately to the feeder as it swayed dizzily back and forth.

It wasn’t going to be a good day.

This winter has seemed plagued to me, with illness and unrest, bitter cold and gray skies. I’ve been sick again this week, some odd combination of maladies that appeared out of nowhere.

The winter of my malcontent, I’m calling it. 

So far, 2015, I am not impressed.

I had great plans for the day too - nothing scheduled outside of the house, so I was going to catch up on writing, make headway on publicity for an event involving both my handbell ensemble and the community theater I volunteer with, and maybe even do the taxes (or at least gather the paperwork - yes, I’m one of those tax procrastinators.)

But my energy and ambition fell with a wet thud, just like those snowflakes that were piling up on the porch. 

 Most successful writers will say it’s necessary to put yourself in inspiration’s path: show up at the page every day, don’t wait for inspiration to come find find you. 

One of my favorite writers, Dani Shapiro, whose book Still Writing sits on my desk, talks about the pattern she has for her writing life. “Three pages every day, five days a week,” she maintains. But then she goes on to note that if you “do the math,” this means she could write a novel length manuscript in half a year. 

“I have never written a novel length manuscript in half a year,” she admits. “In fact, two years would be fast for me."

So what happens? As author William Styron put it - “the fleas of life” get in the way. Shapiro agrees. “The dog has a vet appointment; the school play is at noon; it’s flu season, a snow day, who knew there were so many long weekends? The roof springs a leak; the neighbor’s house is under construction; a friend calls in a crisis. Life doesn’t pause to make room for our precious writing time. Life stops for nothing and we make accommodations."

There is an incredible amount of willpower necessary to write, especially when writing isn’t your “bread and butter.” Distractions abound - not only the alluring call of the internet, but homelier distractions as well. Like the bed sheets that should be changed, the towels that needed washing. There is always tea to be made, maybe it would help settle my queasy stomach - or if not that, some toast, dry but still something after all. While the tea brews, perhaps just a few more pages in that new novel I just started. Maybe I’ll finish the chapter before the tea cools, and then go back upstairs to write. By then it’s time to take the dogs outside, which means another pass with the shovel so their short legs don’t become encumbered with icy snowballs.

Ah yes, you know the drill, I can see you nodding your heads guiltily out there. After a while, it all becomes a little desperate, doesn’t it? Sort of like the way we feel when we open the window and see another snowstorm, another gray sky, hear the thunk and scrape of the snow blade as it passes down the street for the 10th time today.

Perseverance. I managed to put myself into the chair, open the page, start to write. Time slips by, you get lost in whatever world you’re creating. For the writer - and I suspect for the musician, the painter, the cook, the seamstress - it’s all part of the same battle. Put yourself where ideas and inspiration will find you. 

And hope it doesn’t get sidetracked by distractions of its own on the way.



Still Writing

desk 2It’s a fine line we writers walk, the line between wanting to be a writer and actually doing the work of it. As Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing. I love having written. Sometimes, sitting at my writing desk in the mornings, trying to restrain my itchy fingers from clicking on the Facebook icon one more time, I sigh in frustration. Where is that inspiration they kept promising me would come if I showed up faithfully every day? I want to go downstairs and make myself a cup of coffee. I really should put in a load of laundry. And there is, of course, Facebook and Twitter to check.

Instead, I pick up Still Writing, Dani Shapiro’s new book. I open it up and read:

It’s so easy to forget what matters. When I begin the day centered, with equanimity, I find that I am quite unshakable. But if I start off in that slippery, discomfiting way, I am easily thrown off course - and once off course there, I stay. And so I know that 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. This kind of equanimity may not be my nature, but I can at least attempt to make it my habit.

If, as I have said to myself, that for this year at least what matters to me is this writing work I have set out to do, then I must be ever vigilant about guiding my mind back to what needs to be done, shepherding it gently away from the list of distractions all too ready to lasso it and wrestle it to the ground.

I must learn to be still. And write.

This book of Shapiro’s, this small square volume,  sits now always on my writing desk, always at hand. It serves as a guide, when the writing road becomes rocky and my mind has wandered into the bramble. It is my devotional, a dose taken daily even before I touch my finger to the keyboard, before the screen blossoms into life. “The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life,” the book is subtitled, and Perilous it can seem at times, to have chosen a life of words, of weaving expressions smooth as silk from nothing but rowdy thoughts that flit and flicker across the valleys of my mind.

But oh, the Pleasure to be had when mind and fingers work in tandem, when thoughts form as tangible things in tiny icons of black and white, marching steadfastly across the blank page. When words mirror the images in your head, brush them with the glow of painter’s finest bristle, and set them alight for the world to see. When you finally understand that thing that has eaten away at you for most of your sad, sorry life, when the words have worked it around in your head until at last you say “Aha! Of course! That is why I am the way I am!” When you write, and write some more.

When hours go by and -  still - you are writing.

There it is, then, the reason I sit down at this table every morning, the reason I shush the voices that beg me for coffee, that chide me about laundry, that niggle me for news from the Internet.  

Be still! I tell them. Go away with you.

I’m writing.


Still Writing 

Author: Dani Shapiro

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 230

Buy A Copy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble


Hieroglyphs on a Rock

I endured these (childhood) fantasies and premonitions by writing about them. The stories I made up were medicinal. My inner life was barbed, with jagged edges. Left untended, it felt dangerous, like it might turn on me at any moment. Intuitively, I understood that I had to use it. It was all I had. By writing, I was participating in a tradition as old as humanity. I was here. Hieroglyphs on a rock. I was here, and this is my story. Dani Shapiro (Still Writing)

Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro often writes about the way her childhood influenced her writing. The only child of older parents who “fought constantly” and “whose greatest source of conflict was me," Shapiro says she “felt as if she were navigating the world on a borrowed visa.” She turned to writing as a way of coping, of marking her territory, of staying safe. 

I was here, and this is my story.

I can relate to Shapiro’s sense of danger and unease about her place in the world.  As the cherished only child of over-protective parents and grandparents, I was treated more like a china doll than a normal little girl. Ever fearful of my getting broken, my mother tried her best to keep me in a safe cocoon. In her eyes, disasters lurked around every corner like potential land mines waiting to explode.  I often had bronchitis and asthma, and so many of the activities my friends engaged in were off limits to me. Things like running (which made me short of breath), swimming (chlorine in the pool aggravated my asthma), ice skating (I might fall and break something), overnights with friends (their houses might have too much dust which would set off my allergies) were all verboten.

I developed a sense of fragility about life in general and my own in particular, a belief that I should never put myself in harms way- even if the potential for harm was practically negligible. So I learned to be content with quiet pursuits like writing stories, many of which were potboilers about young girls in dangerous situations - locked in haunted mansions, being pursued by ghosts or kidnapped by gangs of thugs. Interestingly enough, I rarely finished these epic tales, probably because I couldn’t conceive of a way to reach the happy ending I wanted so desperately.

I think I was in fourth grade when I first heard about the cave paintings in Lascaux, those images etched into the walls of a dark cave that appeared to be a form of primitive communication. I remember a chill running down my spine as the teacher explained how scientists believed these drawings to be early man’s first efforts at leaving a message or telling a story. Preserved for eons, these odd images were proof positive that some sentient being existed, one who was compelled to leave a message for posterity.

From that moment on, I became fixated on the idea of using words and images to leave a lasting legacy. My belief in the power of our individual stories was born on that day. No matter what might happen to me  (a fatal asthma attack brought about during a secret playdate in my friend Lisa’s dusty basement!) my mark on the world could be ensured through writing.

I was here, and this is my story.

This year I will publish a book called Life In General, a collection of essays from the past 8 years. These pieces will tell the story of my here and now, my life in this 21st century - what makes me smile and laugh and cringe in fear. They are the compilation of my hopes and dreams, my thoughts about family and home and reading and writing. They are the shared stories of women I know, those of us who struggle to balance our lives with the needs of children and grandchildren, spouses, aging parents, and employers. They are all aspects of my story, each one a hieroglyph on the wall of my cave.

I was here, and this is my story. 

And I’m excited to share it with you.

Write On Wednesday: Embrace the In Between

Because the way I know myself is through the written word.  The ways in which I am able to access any understanding of what makes me tick, how I see the world around me, what I feel, what I know, is through the daily practice of grappling with the page.  The grappling itself is the point.  Ideally something comes of that grappling, eventually.  Every story, novel, essay, memoir begins with that dive, that free fall, that willingness to not know.  We begin with the barest of ideas, a flickering image, a phrase, just outside our grasp, and we begin to try to capture it by sitting with the page and seeing what emerges. Dani Shapiro, On the In Between

wow_button1-9-1I haven't been able to forget Shapiro's words since I read them yesterday morning, and in fact have returned to her blog several times today to savor them once again. She's writing about the time in between completing a book and starting the next project, the time when the writer's mind is fallow. She worries during this time period, worries that her imagination has left her, that no good ideas will come. She writes "this between-books limbo is, for me, like a long, slow leaching of color from the world.  A steady decline of mood and connection to the universe until one day I wake up and hardly know who I am."

It's true for most writers (and I count myself among this number) that we do our best thinking on the page. I've recently returned to the practice of morning pages, three pages of stream-of-consciousness style journaling, a habit I had been seriously committed to for several years but one that fell by the wayside during a particularly busy time in my life and never got picked up again. Since I resumed this practice, I realized  that taking time to write those three pages is as valuable for me as eating three meals a day, or getting seven hours of sleep, or taking my morning walk. I've written through some things that were bothering me and discovered other things I didn't even realize were going on in my head.

And it's true that the act of sitting down and starting to write - something, anything - often helps me over the hump when I've procrastinated on an outside writing assignment, blog post, or review.

But where Shapiro finds the "in between" to be a soul deadening place, I wonder if it sometimes is more fertile than she - or the rest of us occasionally fallow writers - realize. I wonder if, during those times when when we're not actively writing but going about the business of life full throttle, when we're reading and conversing and driving, when we're sitting in meditation or performing sun salutations, when we're dicing onions or measuring coffee out in spoons, I wonder if we are really gestating the ideas and emotions that will work their way onto the page.

Shapiro says No. For her the real gestation happens on the page when her fingers begin to dance along the keys, the pen scrawl across the paper.

Lately I've been thinking about mindfulness, about paying closer attention to the world around me, getting my head out of the internet and television and even books and taking more time to be quietly thoughtful. I think some of that has to happen before we can even begin to put words to the page. And because for most of us daily life  (or the things that Virginia Woolf called "non being- the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner")  tugs at us so insistently, it's easy to think that productive mindfulness could not occur in the midst of this banal state.

But with a subtle shift of perspective, I think writers have the power to elevate themselves beyond the state of mundanity, have the creativity and depth of emotion to see past the "cotton wool" of day-to-day living and find instead the moments of gold, the moments that could bring those first tiny seeds set to grow into something larger, something that will indeed sprout to life on the page. With age, I have come to appreciate the beauty and sacredness in my daily routine, in preparing and partaking of meals, in reading books and conversing with friends, in porch sitting and dog walking.

I've learned to embrace the in between, confident that something will grow from it, the words will return in their own time, when they are ready.

How about you? Do you embrace the time in-between writing (or other creative projects)? Or do you chafe against it?