Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The amazing Dani Shapiro talks about STILL WRITING, yoga, leaps of faith, paying attention, her husband's new film A BRIEF HISTORY OF DECAY, and so much more

I first met Dani Shapiro through her work, soul-scarring memoirs, brutally honest fiction and the occasional amazing article. Then we finally had lunch, became friends, and I can't tell you how lucky I am to know her. 

What I loved so much about Still Writing is that it isn't just a book about how to be a writer, how to make the most of that particular way of life, it's how to be a human being, how to make the most of any day. Pay attention. Be kind to yourself. Focus. Don't give up. It's all hard but it's all so worth it. This is the kind of book you want to hand to friends, whether they're writers or not, because it nudges you to be your very best self. It reminds you that caring about something is always worth the cost. 

I'm so honored to host Dani here again (my blog is always your blog, Dani.) Thank you so, so much, Dani.

You’ve written astonishing memoir and brilliant novels. Why a book on writing now? 

Oh, Caroline, thank you for that compliment.  I feel like I’ve built my writing life a sentence at a time.  I just try to get better with each book.  That’s always been my challenge to myself.  Can I make each book better than the last?  

So, a few years ago, I started a blog for the same reason a lot of us start blogs: my publisher told me to.  But I couldn’t figure out what I could post about in a regular manner that would interest me or anyone else, until I chose writing as my subject.  Not craft, so much as the process: the sweat, the rejection, uncertainty, resistance, distraction, self-censorship, questions of betrayal, exposure, that are a part of every writer’s day.  And after I’d been blogging for a while, I noticed that I was getting a lot of notes from other writers.  These writers ranged from well-known to just starting out, and they all said the same exact thing: this is what I needed today.  I mean, word for word, over and over again.  This is what I needed today.  But it never occurred to me to turn the blog into a book.  People kept asking me if I was planning to do so.  They assumed I was going to.  And then finally I caught up with the message I was clearly getting, which was that when it came to writing about this life we all lead, I might have something helpful to contribute.  And even though I sold Still Writing based on the blog’s success, I never once went back and looked at the blog as I wrote this book.  I wanted the book to be a book, written with the kind of care and attention and focus that a book requires –– which is different than the looseness with which I approach blogging.  

Anyway, that’s how Still Writing came about.  All of my other books announced themselves to me.  This book took a chorus of voices, basically asking me to write it.  I had to pay attention to what I was being told.

This is actually so much more than a book on writing, because it ties together how to live a life, as well as how to write a book. It’s almost a spiritual manual on writing. (Well, actually, it IS that.) Can you talk about that? Did you always approach your writing in a spiritual way?

I do think writing is an act of faith, whether we think of it that way or not.  There’s the blank page.  And then there’s the leap onto that blank page without the slightest indication or proof that anything will come of it.  It’s like diving into a swimming pool and hoping it will fill with water between the dive and the landing.  That leap requires many traits.  A kind of lunacy, a tenacity, a stubborn willingness to fall, pick ourselves up and leap again (“Fail better,” to quote Beckett) but it also requires a kind of faith.  For me, the act of taking that leap every day of my life for the past twenty years has been what has formed me and helped me know how to live. 

As one cannot, absolutely cannot, stay in a yoga class for more than two seconds without wanting to flee, I’m curious if you can speak about how you came to yoga, and how it changed you as a writer and as a person.

Well, first of all, come to a yoga class with me!  I’ll bet you just haven’t found the right one.   I’ve been practicing yoga since I was in my twenties.  I began because a friend had a wonderful teacher and invited me to share some private sessions with her, so that was a pretty great introduction.  Over the years, my reasons for practicing yoga have changed.  At first, I was just in it for the exercise, and for the vanity.  I liked what it did for my body.  But over time I became aware that my mind quieted down during yoga practice.  That ideas came to me.  That it was a fertile, fluid, wordless way of coming home to myself.  Of knowing what was going on in my mind and in my heart.  And so, in recent years, it has become an integral part of my writing life.  I work in the morning, unroll my mat at some point during the day, practice yoga, then go back to my desk.  Of course I’m describing a perfect day, in which I don’t get lured by the Internet or distracted by my endless to-do list.  “The fleas of life,” as Styron calls it.  

You talk about how when writing, you want to write above the emotions, to not be laughing or crying or carrying on when you write.  But have there ever been difficult passages, where you did weep because you were so lost in the story world and it was so real that you were actually living it?

Oh, sure.  I think this relates more to fiction for me.  When I’m deep into a novel, the characters are so real to me that I feel I’m living two realities –– the one of my book, and, um, the other one.  Those characters have made me cry.  I have felt their stinging loss, their powerful grief, their betrayal of each other as surely as if it were playing out in my  “real” world.  I think, though, in memoir, that I cast a colder eye.  Simply in the sense that I’m aware that I’m crafting a story out of my life, and keeping in mind first and foremost the story.  Otherwise one runs the risk of being really self-indulgent.  I will say, though, that I just recorded the audiobook of Devotion and I did get choked up a couple of times, particularly when reading the parts about watching my father pray when I was a little girl.

The work is the only thing that saves us. I know so many writers who feel that the work is what keeps them from madness (myself included.) Shouldn’t then, we really see our work--despite the sometime agony of it--as a great gift?

What I also really deeply appreciated was your talking about “the cave”, the way we need to be immersed in our work uninterrupted, that we can’t just grab coffee and then come back to our writing desks because the whole rhythm is spoiled.  The hermetic joy. as you call it, really is that. I’ve had friend say they can’t imagine doing what writers do, but my feeling is, I can’t imagine going into a noisy bustling job everyday. For years, I’ve thought of that as a failing of mine, but I’ve begun to see it as a positive Can you talk about this? 

I relate to this so completely!  I’ve begun to embrace the parts of myself –– my shyness, feeling like an outsider, my need for solitude –– instead of seeing them as liabilities, I’ve come to understand that they are traits necessary to being a writer.  Almost like a prerequisite!  I couldn’t have worked in an office either.  I become over-stimulated very, very easily.  I’m thin-skinned.  I think we all are.  My feelings are easily hurt.  I don’t enjoy groups.  Thank god I’ve been able to make a life for myself as a writer, because I can’t imagine what else I could have done.  As for madness, I am certain that writing saved me.  It has allowed me to know my own mind.  And that is the beginning, at least for me, of sanity.  

I also love the very true picture you present of what it is to live a writing life--that there is economic unease, that there is risk, that sometimes there is envy, too. On top of that, writers are expected to have a platform. Can you talk about the dangers of writers becoming self-marketers at the expense of their work?

Oh, the irony of answering this question on the eve of the publication of my new book, responding to questions for your wonderful blog!  I think it has become more and more time-consuming and complex for all of us writers.  Right now, getting my new book out into the world is my full-time job.  That was the case with Devotion as well.  It really has been the last five years or so, I’d say, that writers are expected to have platforms.  (I write, in Still Writing, about how much I hate the word platform, unless it is attached to the bottom of a very cool shoe.)  That said, I’m on Facebook, and Twitter, and I have the aforementioned blog.  I will be going on book tour for the next few months.  Months!  And I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity.  In fact, I’ve made many of the opportunities happen myself, by sheer force of will.  I’ve learned to ask for favors, to enlist people –– just as people ask favors of me.  This is part of what we do for each other.  In a way, it’s more grass roots than ever, and I like that part of it.  

As for the economic uncertainty, risk, envy –– all just part of what we signed up for.  I’m married to a screenwriter/director and our life is a pretty much a constant rollercoaster.  The only thing to do is embrace the rollercoaster.  This life is not for the faint of heart, or the risk-adverse.  

I also loved when you talked about how every writer’s journey is simply that--their own journey. We can’t know when we will have a shot of great luck. For some it comes early, for others, it comes later, and it's often something we can't plan or work toward. You’re going to be on Oprah! So I’m wondering, given that Oprah slot, do you feel now that you can relax, that you’ve made it? Or, would you still feel uneasy even if you won the Pulitzer?

I know, crazy, right?  When I got the call inviting me to appear on Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday” –– she spends an hour interviewing me about my life and my work –– it felt like it fell out of the sky.  Of course, it both fell out of the sky, and was the result of a lifetime of work.  It’s a great lesson in doing our work and keeping our heads down.  In not anticipating, or waiting for the phone to ring.  (It never rings when we’re waiting for it to ring.  This is a law of nature.)  It was the first time in my life I’ve ever been shocked by good news.  But no, there is no relaxing.  No sense of having arrived.  I mean, can you imagine that?  Look at what’s happened to your career over the last five years or so.  Do you brush your teeth in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror  and think, hey, I’m the coolest?  No.  I didn’t think so.  But it also keeps us honest, and hungry, and creatively ambitious.  And that’s a good thing.  Complacency has no place in an artist’s life. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Well, there was a pair of Rag & Bone boots, but I took care of that obsession.  Just kidding.  Or JK, as my fourteen year old would say.  I’m thinking a lot about books that live in the blurry boundaries, the grey area –– ones that aren’t quite fact, aren’t quite fiction.  Hybrids.  I recently wrote an essay for Tin House about Elizabeth Hardwick’s wonderful novel, Sleepless Nights, which occupies that territory.  I think when I finally come back to the page, that’s where I’ll be heading. 

As for a question you didn’t ask.  How about: Dani, your husband just directed his first film!  How’s that going?

Caroline, I’m so glad you asked.  My husband’s beautiful film, “A Short History of Decay” is going to have its festival premiere in just a couple of weeks at the Hamptons Film Festival.  His stars are coming in, they’ll all be on the red carpet, and I will be giving a reading that day at my neighborhood bookstore in Connecticut.  Well, at least I don’t have to go buy a new dress.  

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