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 every.single.day. 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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The Breathings of Your Heart

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart – William Wordsworth

 

Someone remarked to me the other day that writing isn’t craft, it’s art. The commenter stated she isn’t a writer, but an avid reader who can tell when a writer has crafted the story, rather than allowed it to unfold.

This came in response to a discussion of a recently-published writing guide I had read, enjoyed and learned buckets from, though with a solid caveat emptor. There were elements to the guideopinions posited by the author as writing shoulds and muststhat made me twitch. At times it seemed I was reading the Starbucks business plan: no matter where you arebe it Seattle, Shanghai, Salamancathe store, the coffee and the service will be exactly the same. In other words, just stick to the blueprint for guaranteed success. Although I applaud Starbucks for its acumen, the coffee is unpalatable. And so it is with story.

Perhaps my fellow bibliophile was offering an antidote to the writing guide: respect the process of creation and value writing as an art form, not as a craft with a set of rules.

Yet, I disagree that writing is only art and not craft. Just as a photographer must know her camera and understand composition, a painter must know how to create perspective, understand human anatomy and mix paints on his palette, a dancer must spend hours at the barre or a pianist at the keyboard, practicing the same pieces over and over, so too must a writer understand and practice plot and structure, be proficient in grammar, and revise revise revise, becoming a better writer through the magic of hard work. Reading widely is a natural companion to writingI’m a voracious reader and can’t imagine my life without booksbut only by writing can a writer become a better writer.

And yet. My friend has a point. A very, very good one. It’s art über alles. But what is the art of writing? Hell if I know, I just got here. Ask that guy at the barhe looks like he knows the place.

Perhaps art is imagination or inspiration, perhaps it is an ear intrinsically attuned to the music of language. Perhaps it is the calling or compulsion to create. Art is passion. Passion for the subject, certainly, but more than that. It is passion for the act of writing, it is a helplessness that says “If I didn’t write, what else would I do?”

Art is beyond rules. It is emotion. It is the breathings of your heart. It is, as Richard Hugo so poignantly stated, the way of saying you and the world have a chance.

Perhaps craft is the ability to make art that people enjoy and/or find meaningful. It is the means by which we harness the heart just enough to put words and structure to our passion.

I have a small library’s worth of writing guides. I adore them, for it is like having a shelfful of mentors who are there when, and only when, you really need them. One in particular, Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, gave me the courage to commit to the writing life; others provide motivation, inspiration, direction and enlightenment. But they are only guides. In the end, the writer must move forward on her own.

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. — Neil Gaiman

 

P.S.:

1) Butt in Chair.
2) Write Words.

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A matter of perspective

The Writer’s Portable Mentor: Reading About Writing Is The Next Best Thing

The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing LifeThe Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel the same rush of hands-rubbing-together glee buying a new writing guide as I do a new cookbook (well, almost – if only writing guides had drool-inducing photographs of Truffled Saint-Marcellin or Bucatini all’Amatriciana or Salted Caramel (fill in the blank with anything).

An unread book on the craft of writing is full of possibility, of secrets waiting for revelation, of motivation and inspiration. It may contain the one thing I need to know that will turn my writing life around, the checklist I can follow that will make me a real writer, the advice that will level the uphill road and ensure a rejection letter will never again be addressed in my general direction.

Okay, I’m not that naive optimistic. Still, cracking open an author’s literary toolbox and peering inside seems so hopeful and busy, like I’m thinking super hard about writing. When what I should be doing is, well, writing.

Priscilla Long presented at the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham this past June. She had me at, something –  I can’t remember what  – but I adored her. Modest, quiet, funny, pragmatic. And a ridiculously accomplished writer who works. Hard. Every day.

Enough of the preamble, the backstory, the poorly developed characters. Let me get right to the point:

You must read this.

Poring over the opening pages of this book coincided with writing the opening pages of my novel. Only a few weeks ago, yet I’ve forgotten already which came first. What I remember is finally giving in to the one thing that every author of a writing guide writes in their opening pages: You must write every day. Yeah, I know. I know. But look, I have a day job – writing every day isn’t feasible. I already get up at the crack of dawn. Earlier. I’m exhausted by the time I get home in the evenings. When am I supposed to do this writing? When do I get to work on what I want to work on, if I’m having to submit to the drudgery of a 15-20 minute free write, every day?

Excuses. That Priscilla Long finally gave me the courage to stop making. And it was so easy. Now I feel I have no other choice. And I’m thinking that if you aren’t heeding Priscilla’s advice by page 20, you should just stop reading this book until you can. The only thing that makes a writer a writer is writing. Every Day.

Thanks to my consistent daily free writing by hand, I have pages of scenes, character notes, setting sketches. Every day of scribbling brings me closer to my story, my characters, their motivations. I create and cover plot holes. A random writing prompt leads me to ask questions about my plot, jotting notes in the margins of ideas to pursue, details to research. I regularly transcribe these daily writings into my Work In Progress on the computer and doing so leads to other scenes, ideas and characters.

All that, just from reading Chapter One.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor is to a writer – of any level of experience and ambition – as much a toolbox as one of those gazillion-piece Craftsman tool sets is to an automotive repair pro. And Priscilla makes you work – there are no hypotheticals here. You take your own work, you take work of authors you admire, and you examine them, rework them, learning every step of the way.

I now keep a Lexicon notebook (right, so it was an excuse to buy what comes third in my bookstore thrill-seeking – after cookbooks and writing guides: Moleskine notebooks). But I have a growing collection of lovely, evocative, provocative, delicious words and sayings that I will find a way to use or be inspired by: phrases such as back-lit light of polished steel (poet Mary Oliver), marzipan moon (author Hilary Mantel), as tender as an extension cord (Pete Wells, restaurant critic, The New York Times); words like borage, palavering, sump, scialytic. It scares me to think of all the gorgeous words and phrases I’ve forgotten after forty years of reading!

I have several stories cooling in a drawer. I’ve chastised myself for not making the time or creating the courage to rework my pieces, research markets and submit them. Turns out I was wise to leave them sit, letting my thoughts sift, before returning to them with fresh, more critical eyes.

With Long’s guidance on structure, openings, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, word choice, and revision, I’m tearing these stories apart and reassembling. And I will submit, resubmit – even those previously published, where possible. Long is very keen that you get your work out there – the creative process is not complete until you have attempted to share it with the world.

I will ‘fess up: I did not do all the exercises. I did not comb through books I admire and craft my own sentences and paragraphs based on their models. I’m in too much of a groove with my writing and I don’t want to slow the momentum. You can’t be dogmatic about these things, any more than you can cook every single recipe in a cookbook and blog about it, then write a bestseller that will become a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, now can you? Oh, wait…

This isn’t the be all and end all of writing guides – there are so many astonishing and revelatory works to discover and reread – several that are on my list to explore for the first time, many others I return to for inspiration and practical advice. But if asked to make a Desert Island decision – if I could take only one book – my choice would be clear:

I’d take my writing-practice notebook. And a pen. Thanks, Priscilla.

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