Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Dani Shapiro

A 1/2 Dozen for DANI SHAPIRO

bestselling novelist and memoirist

giving sage advice about

the title that arrives and demands the book,

writing to stave off a midlife crisis,

the 3 kinds of bad reviews,

what seems to be a beautiful blur
of love life & writing life.

(For more check out her brilliant blog
by clicking HERE.)


I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Something happened with this book that has never happened to me before--which is that the title appeared to me and I had no idea what it was or what it meant. (With most of my other books, I've had whole manuscripts written and still no title.) I was in the middle of my yoga practice--in tree pose, actually, standing on one leg like a stork--when all of a sudden the word Devotion floated before my eyes, as if in neon. As soon as it happened, I knew. I knew that I needed to write a memoir about my struggles as a wife, mother, human being on the planet, with what--if anything--I believed. I was horrified! What the $#@% was this? I had no intention of writing a memoir. I was waiting for a new novel to start forming in my mind--but instead, here was this other thing. It felt as if I had no choice.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I feel better when I'm writing, though it's almost always a struggle to get to the page. What I know about myself, though, is that I feel much, much worse if I don't get to the page. So if I have a sense of discipline, it comes from the knowledge that, at the end of the day, I will be a kinder, more compassionate, more peaceful person if I have, in fact, written. My family will like me better. My dogs will like me better. You don't want to be around me if I've had one of those days where I let every single other thing get in the way.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

My husband, Michael Maren, is also a writer and I feel so incredibly lucky (broke, but lucky...just kidding...sort of). We talk about our work all the time, we share our work, sometimes we even collaborate. Our whole life together feels like a collaboration. We run a writers conference, Sirenland together. Many of our friends are writers. Of course also can be a nerve-wracking, complicated, indignity-filled life, and that poses its challenges. We have good days and bad days. We both get moody. People ask if we're competitive with each other, and I always find that question perplexing. I can't imagine feeling competitive with him, or vice versa. We're in it together, and we each feel one another's victories and defeats as our own. But I'm not trying to paint a rosy picture here. There are plenty of moments I wish we had more security, more of a sense of what the future will bring. Being with a writer--whether or not you're a writer yourself--is a roller coaster. I like to think it keeps us from having a midlife crisis.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I think it's incredibly important for a writer to feel safe, in order to be able to take risks in his or her work. It's such a high wire act, so exposing, so deeply personal, so scary to set down that line of words on the page. I think finding one's voice requires enormous courage, courage that constantly has to be renewed. And a lifelong partner who is genuinely supportive, understanding, constant, and kind, can be a tremendous help. Also--if you have kids together--a partner who takes on parenthood as an equal partner. As for a brief love story, I feel like I've already been sappy enough about my husband here, but I'll say this: our first encounter involved Halloween, a return trip home from Somalia, a canceled trip to Los Angeles, and it was love at first sight.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Don't use the internet as a distraction when you're stuck. Back when people smoked, I smoked, and I loved nothing more than a cigarette break. When I was stuck, I would light a cigarette and stare out the window for the duration. But today, I think many writers use the internet as our cigarette break, and it's a disaster. It isn't anything like smoking and staring out the window. It brings the outside world in, it breaks concentration and focus, and--at least for me--leads to the purchasing of boots, or sheets, or expensive bottles of olive oil. Seriously. Stay offline while you're working. That's my biggest tip these days.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

Writers don't exactly sign up for a lifetime of ease and contentment. It's hard. It's always hard--it never stops being hard. I thought that maybe after my first book, I would develop a thicker skin, or at least a sense that I knew what I was doing. I thought the same thing after my second book, my third, my fourth, my fifth... You get the picture. It never gets easier. Every time I begin a new piece of work, whether an essay, a story, a novel or a memoir, I am accompanied by these self-defeating words: here goes nothing. I think this every single time. I had the realization, not too long ago, that most that work did, in fact, turn out okay. But I had to wade through a bog of self-doubt, I had to overcome my own fears and insecurities. And truthfully I wouldn't have it any other way. I distrust the happy writer. The confident writer. Confidence is overrated. Confidence means that you're not really grappling with everything you need to--because if you were, you wouldn't feel confident. Downheartedness is part of the process. Make it your friend. Embrace it, understanding that you are taking part in a long tradition. And then sit down at your desk. The only true danger of downheartedness is letting it stop you.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I think there are three kinds of negative reviews. There's the kind you learn from, the kind that pisses you off because it's so wrong-headed, and the kind that doesn't do much of anything. The only negative reviews I've ever received that really bother me are the wrong-headed ones. As someone who writes book reviews myself, I see it as such a huge responsibility, an almost sacred responsibility to another writer. One must try to understand what the writer was trying to do--and judge it on that basis, not on the basis of our own personal preferences or the book we might wish the writer had written. But my favorite story about criticism comes from Joyce Carol Oates, who is nothing if not prolific. Once she and her late husband Ray were sitting at the breakfast table, and he was reading the newspaper. He told her that there was a review of her most recent book in there, and she said she didn't want to read it, because if it was a good review it would ruin her writing day, and if it was a bad review it would ruin her writing day--and she intended to have a writing day. I love that story because it's about focus and tenacity and keeping one's eye on the big picture. I wish I could say I don't read what's written about me--positive and negative--but I do. I just try to keep it in a very separate space in my mind from the place where the writing happens.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I do teach writing and have since the beginning of my writing life. I've taught in MFA programs, I teach a private workshop that has been ongoing for (yikes) fifteen years, and I direct a writing conference in Positano, Italy called Sirenland along with One Story magazine I love teaching, though I try not to allow it to consume my writing life. What I most get out of teaching is the necessity of focusing on craft, of really thinking about what works and what doesn't on the page. While I'm writing, I'm never thinking of the merits of first versus third person, or how structure emerges, or the benefits of past or present tense. No writer should be thinking of these things while writing, because they're intellectual, abstract concepts. But it's very helpful to deconstruct these things in a workshop. I often hear myself saying something, while teaching, and think: huh, that's true. I didn't know I knew that.

Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, and has been widely anthologized. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University, and she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.