Monday, January 25, 2010

Read this Book: Devotion by Dani Shapiro

I first became aware of Dani Shapiro in her knockout memoir Slow Motion. I began reading everything she wrote, and following her career, because from Black & White to Family History, she was so fearless in her writing, so honest, that every page seemed to breathe. Dani’s latest, Devotion: A Memoir, was one of those books I carried around with me for weeks after I read it. Her quest to find spiritual meaning in life was so intelligent and so moving, that I was gripping pages, and often in tears. Thank you, Dani, for agreeing to answer my questions.

There have been a lot of books and articles about the nature of God and atheism, of late. Some scientists feel that God is possibly an evolutionary and genetic development because religion supports community and keeps humans from despairing too much. Anne Lamott has said that when you start talking about your belief in God, people sometimes see your IQ points fall. Were you at all anxious about facing those kinds of critics as you were writing the book?

I was beyond anxious. I was absolutely terrified as I was writing Devotion. First of all, I felt I had no business writing it. I kept asking myself: why me? Why do I think I have anything to say about spirituality, about God, about meaning? I'm a novelist. I'm used to imagining and inventing characters and stories, and here I was grappling with the story that requires the greatest leap of imagination (and possibly invention...who knows...) I needed to find the willingness to take a good hard look and consider what it is that I really believe about the biggest questions in life. I must have asked myself Why me? a hundred times a day. It was the whispering voice in my head that I had to find a way to shut down in order to write, in order to think. Of course, I also worried that the outside world—critics, readers—would be asking the same question. Why her? I realized, at a certain point, that part of this difficulty in giving myself permission to explore these questions had to do with my upbringing itself. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, women had very specific roles, and those roles did not involve intellectual query—much less public intellectual query. And also, I was aware that it was essential that I tell a story. After all, reading about someone's spiritual journey is about as interesting as watching water boil. I wanted to write a page-turner of a spiritual journey.

Devotion deals with finding meaning in life, but the answers you found are complex and complicated and seem to indicate to me that the journey is never really over. Where are you now on that journey?

When I finished Devotion, I was depressed for a while—perhaps I still am—because I wanted to continue to spend my days in the way I had been: practicing yoga, meditating, reading and doing nothing except thinking about these matters. The book has 102 small chapters, almost like pieces to a puzzle, or a mosaic, and I wanted to open a new document and begin with 103. I just wanted to keep going. One of the reasons I embarked on Devotion was because I so much wanted a reason to go on this search, and writing a book about it gave me that reason. But of course the search continues. I hope it's life-long. The process of writing the book was really one of living inside the questions. I never expected to find anything like an answer. I was wary of the whole idea of answers—and continue to be. But living inside the questions seems, to me, like a good way to live.

In your addictive blog, you talk about how after 7 books, your writing has gotten leaner, that you’re more concerned with the truth being told than the beauty of the language. Would you say that your writing is now following your spiritual journey in a sense?

That's such a great question. I think that's very true. I realized recently that Devotion is my seventh book, and the number seven has great mystical significance in many traditions—often it marks the end of some sort of life cycle. That feels apt when it comes toDevotion, which feels like the culmination of everything that I have learned and understand up to this point in my life. The painful and the joyful facts of my life—the losses, my father's early death, my mother's recent death, family rifts, my son's serious illness when he was a baby, as well as the great gift of his recovery, and the great gift of my marriage—all have brought me to this place, in midlife, the necessity of seeking, the longing to make sense of it, not in a literal way, but in a way that creates greater empathy and solace and meaning. I hope that, whatever I write next (and, tellingly, for the first time I have no idea) it will spring from this new place in which I find myself.

Threaded in the narrative is the story of how you almost lost your baby to a rare illness. Even though he survived, the fear remained. Why didn’t it occur to you to blame God?

When my baby was so sick, as I write about in the book, what I did—among other things—was pray. I found myself, in every quiet moment, praying. Sometimes these prayers were the Hebrew prayers of my childhood, even though I didn't have the first idea what the words meant. Other times, the prayers were a lullaby as I rocked my son to sleep. Other times, I was aware that the word please kept running through
my head. I didn't feel I was directing these prayers toward a specific God, because I wasn't at all sure that I believed in that kind of God. So it was kind of hard to blame God or be angry at him/her/it, because that wasn't my conception of God, and still really isn't. I mean, to blame God is to believe in that kind of causality. If God could have singled out my son to be sick, then God can also get my parking spaces, stop the plane from crashing. That God would be able to stop genocides and famines. It's hard to believe in a God who
could do those things (parking space aside) but doesn't. I've spent a tremendous amount of time since those years of my son's illness (he's now ten and completely fine, which I consider a miracle, but don't believe that God saved him any more than I believe that God made him sick) and I do believe there is something greater than all of us, some sort of pattern or invisible fabric that connects us, but I don't think of this fabric as the God of my childhood, up in the sky, writing our fates in the Book of Life, making plans. I guess I don't believe in God as micromanager.

You talk about the between space, being still and empty, and how helpful that can be. But how difficult is that for a novelist to do that, when the urge to create story, to make meaning out of everything, is so large? Or, is that ability to make story a kind of salvation?

I think that space between being still and being empty is enormously helpful to anyone doing creative work! It's where it all happens. When my mind is cluttered with the million things I need to do, or worse, with the toxic crap of: why did she say that, and I should have done this and I feel guilty about x, y, or z thing, that is not |conducive to any kind of creative mindset. When my mind empties during meditation—even if just for a few seconds—I think that's where the seeds of creative work reside. And yes, Caroline, I absolutely think that being able to create a story is a kind of salvation. Don't you? I think we novelists are enormously fortunate to be able to take some of those seeds—the yogis word for this kind of seed is samskara—and build stories out of them. Otherwise, at least for me, they sit there and fester. In the silence, this is where I find them.

You also write about midlife when those losses get larger and we know they will continue to increase—and how you grappled with them and discovered that being in the moment, that just standing there and paying attention helps. Do you think you could have accepted this kind of knowledge in your twenties? Does it all have something to do with being in midlife

Oh, I don't think I could possibly have accepted this kind of knowledge in my twenties. It's so much a midlife thing. When I was about halfway through writingDevotion, my agent called one day and asked how I was. I told her I felt like I was staring straight at the sun. The foreknowledge of loss—of loss being the way of life—is something that the Buddhists know and teach so eloquently. Carl Jung terms midlife (which he defines as everyone over the age of 35) the afternoon of life. He also says that the knowledge and tools we attained in life's morning—in our youth, in our twenties—is of little use in the afternoon. How true this is! We have to keep opening ourselves to the truth of what is, otherwise we become...I don't know...somehow stunted. My fear, at this point in my life, of being stunted is greater than my fear of recognizing the truth of loss and change.

What are you working on now, and what question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask you?

No, these are great questions and there's nothing I'd rather be thinking about! I'm getting ready for the publication of Devotion, and trying to stay in the same mindset as I have been for the past two or three years since embarking on this journey. I'm working on small things, but the big thing for the moment is this.


a gracious plenty said...

i had never heard of dani shapiro and very much enjoyed your interview. you know how to ask questions that receive thoughtful and engaged answers. thanks.

Alexis Grant said...

Great interview! I can't wait to read this one, too. Already ordered it!

Navya said...

Thanks for sharing interview..
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Simone Dance-a-holic said...

Thank you Caroline! I read this book on your recommendation and I loved it! I really related to all the cultural retention vs assimilation thoughts and finding our own way within it. Beautifully written! XX