Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative LifeStill Writing, by Dani Shapiro


A few weeks ago someone dear to me asked, “Are you still writing? I wondered if you’d decided to get a part-time job.” I’ll admit right now, right here, this crushed me. My first novel is still months away from launch and my second novel is out on submission. I recently finished the first draft of a third, and I’ve just returned from a life-altering residency and poetry workshop. Yet in the space of fourteen small words, I felt my entire raison d’etre smashed to smithereens. This didn’t come from an acquaintance or a well-meaning but clueless friend, this came from someone I hope would be a champion for my work. My job. Which is writing.


It wasn’t until I read the final pages of Dani Shapiro’s sublime meditation on the writing life that I realized the universality of my hurt and exasperation. I had to laugh. I’ve been dipping in and out of this book for two months and the title only just dawned on me as I closed the back cover. Still Writing. Jesus.


Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of Creative Life is part memoir, part collection of meditations on what it means to be a writer. I think we writers gravitate to these books on process and creative endeavor in hopes of finding a few answers, and perhaps a mentor. I found both. I nodded in breathless agreement at each entry, exclaiming, “Yes! This!” I reread passages, underlining sentences and paragraphs, dog-earing the pages to remember later until I realized that I would be marring every page with pen or corner fold, and that it would be possible to return, open any page, and find comfort within.


I don’t know about you, but there are times when I need permission to accept I’ve chosen a life inherently insecure and dependent upon the moods, whims, and tastes of others. The notion of the artist scribbling away in blissful solitude in her light-filled atelier or in the warm bustle of a café, pouring her soul onto the page, is lovely and romantic, but in reality—if one hopes to make a living writing—the risk and vulnerability are breathtaking and sometimes stupefying. You are dependent upon forces beyond your control: the gatekeepers of the publishing world. You refine and hone your craft in the small and lonely hours, hoping each day of writing will make you that nebulous better writer. It is so refreshing, therefore, to read someone who has found success (i.e. readers), call it like it is:

“When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt—spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.”

And yet those lonely hours in that atelier (or, more accurately, in the dining room, on the living room sofa, tucked in a messy corner of a shared home office, and yes, in that bustling café) pulse and burst with all the lives that have written before us, the books we have read, authors we have studied, mentors who guide us, the few encouraging comments we cling to like life rafts to avoid the whirlpool of rejection and doubt.

“Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censors, our teachers remind us that we’re not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us. And so we must ask ourselves: Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us?”

For we have the calling, the responsibility even, to push past the doubt and keep writing. I struggle with this Ironically, the only thing that quiets the demons of doubt is the work.

“Donald Hall writes, ‘If work is no antidote to death, not a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can.” There is this—only this. It would be good keep these words in mind when we wake up each morning. Get done what you can. And then, the rest is gravy.”

At this stage of being in my mid-late forties and only just getting started as a writer, it’s hard to see the gravy from the smorgasbord crowding my plate. I don’t have the luxury and seeming-invincibility of youth to build a career. I write with a sense of urgency. It took me until the age of forty-one to find my voice and five years later those pent-up words continue pouring out, but I’m still this raw and unformed writer who has years of fundamental learning ahead of her. Who knows that fiction writing alone will not sustain her financially. Yet the world of freelance writing, of speaking engagements, of being asked is a foreign land to which I haven’t yet been approved for residency. But I’ve been granted a visitor’s visa and hopefully, I’ll be able to stay. I taught my first writing workshop this weekend and there are more to come in the fall. Yesterday, I started the class by reading from Still Writing, specifically the lovely section entitled Shimmer. Here’s part of it:

“That knowledge, that ping, that hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note. I’ll have to write about this. It happens when our histories collide with the present. It comes with the certainty of its own rightness.”

I have returned to Shimmer several times since my initial reading, knowing this is, in part, why I write. It is the inevitability of the calling. The endorphin rush of the words, a craving of the soul that must be redeemed on the page. These moments of shimmer that, when I recognize and respond to them, reward me with a sense of wellbeing. Not money, recognition, external approval, guidance or proof of my skill. But a simple, complete peace of heart and mind. It is a privilege to feel this way and I recognize what a privilege it is to call myself a writer.

“Unlike other artists—dancers, sculptors, or cellists, say—as long as we hold onto our faculties, writers can continue to grow creatively until we die. The middle of a writing life is much like being in the midst of a book itself. Here we often discover our weaknesses and strengths.”

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book, touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, to turn you around and push you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”


Yes. Yes. I am Still Writing. In hope. In terror. Sometimes with one eye on that dwindling savings account. Because I can read Rilke’s question: “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?” and respond: Yes. Yes, I must.

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21 thoughts on “Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

  1. “I was standing in the schoolyard waiting for a child when another mother came up to me. “Have you found work yet?” she asked. “Or are you still just writing?” Anne Tyler, essay entitled, Still Just Writing, in The Writer on Her Work, ed. Janet Sternburg, 1980, WW Norton. What good company you keep my dear. I have had these conversations, too. I answer briefly and with a smile, over and over, and eventually the question goes away. This is an important rite of passage, I think, because the person we most need to answer to is ourselves and it helps us to hear it out loud. And for the record I began this thing full time when I was 54. You have time. And I LOVE that crazy irony that doubt is quenched by the work. I have sat at my writing table and said out loud, “Shut up I’m doing it anyway. Leave me alone.” xo


    • Oh. I must find the Anne Tyler essay! ”

      the person we most need to answer to is ourselves and it helps us to hear it out loud.” I had never thought of it that way. It still sounds strange to my ears when I say, “I am a writer”. Especially when the other person responds, “Really?” I know their response is “Really? That’s cool!” but I hear, “Really? That can’t be! ” This whole ‘afraid to speak my voice’ thing, it’s just got to go! 🙂 xoxo


  2. Julie…I always get hair standing up on my arms when I read your words. Your words move me always. Still writing..pfffbt. Hell yes!!!


  3. I love this, Julie! I related to everything you wrote and have felt everything you’ve felt. I’m older than you, working full time in a completely unrelated field and have only recently started writing again. But, I write, therefore I’m a writer. You’re an inspiration to me. I’ve been reading “bird by bird,” and will read “Still writing,” too. Thanks for this honest and heartfelt post.


  4. Lovely post, as always, Julie. I struggle with the same demons. I think all writers do. The only way out is through. We just keep writing, because it’s what we do.

    And please, honey, never question whether you’re a writer. You are a BEAUTIFUL writer. Whether you’ll make a living at it, well, that’s the question of the ages, isn’t it? But if we were in it for the money, we’d be writing ads. 🙂

    Screw up your courage and get back to it. Big hugs.


    • Oh, I love this embrace, Kelly. Thank you, my friend. I think one of the greatest things about being a writer is the extraordinary company we keep. The support and fellowship of other writers is such a gift. And you are so right- it is this thing we are called to do that allows us to breathe, to feel compassion, to share and open our hearts. Material success, recognition–nice work if you can get it, but we’d write, regardless. XOXO

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I saw Dani speak recently in Aspen, Julie. She was just as lovely in person. I definitely relate to many of the feelings you share here. Looking forward to reading this book—thanks for a great post!


    • Colleen- thank you. I envy you the opportunity to have seen Dani in person– I will seek her out if she presents nearby. Maybe find a way to get her to Port Townsend for the annual Writers’ Conference. Her voice is so vital and vibrant.


  6. I like these comments and get the feeling of the pain of the 11 words. Yet, like you, in my profession it is the work that keeps the fears at bay. Part of the beauty of writing is the ability to co-opt the fears to create, make beauty, and move emotions.


    • Les, this is so true “Part of the beauty of writing is the ability to co-opt the fears to create, make beauty, and move emotions.” And I think, in your profession, the giving of self is endless, whereas I can pull back and curl in a corner if and when I need to. The work you do changes lives and only a few can answer the calling the way you have-with grace and humor. I so admire you, my friend, and I’m so glad you are in my life.


  7. You’re totally my writing hero. I take a lot of inspiration from your determination and diligence. I mean, look at you! A soon-to-be published novelist! How many people turn “I want to be a writer” into an actual traditionally-published book? That’s a tremendous accomplishment. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.


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