Joanne Hus, a member of our Saturday writers’ group at the Library, was the first person to bring our attention to Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. Joanne’s story “We All Fall Down” was published in Venü magazine. She sent us this post:
A number of books about writing and creativity sit at my fingertips to inspire me: Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird among them. The most recent addition to the inspiration kit I keep at my desk is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.
Shapiro (right, photo by Joanne Hus) has written bestselling novels and memoirs. She has a lot to teach us (in fact, she has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, The New School, NYU, and Wesleyan University, as well as being cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy), and I found Still Writing to be singularly generous. This is not a book about writing technique; rather, it is a book about the writing life. As she says in her introduction:
“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.”
What makes Still Writing so useful is Shapiro’s honesty about how hard it is to create something out of nothing. She names the temptations that threaten to derail any creative endeavor, especially what she so accurately calls the “crack cocaine” known as the Internet.
I was fortunate to catch up with Shapiro at Hickory Stick bookstore in Washington Depot, Conn.—in Litchfield County, where she resides—in October. She began her presentation with a brief explanation of why she wrote the book. Like many books, Still Writing started off as a blog. Shapiro’s readers kept asking her to write one, so she asked herself what topic she could write about “that wouldn’t make me want to shoot myself.” Lucky for us, she decided to write about “what it takes to be alone in a room with nothing but a blank page for company.”
Shapiro is disarmingly honest about her own wrestling with creativity. For aspiring writers like me, it is at once reassuring and sobering to realize this struggle doesn’t get easier with practice. Indeed, according to her comments at Hickory Stick, the struggle is “harder and harder—in a wonderful way.”
She told us, “The most treacherous part of my day is the walk from the kitchen to my office. On that walk, I can get into so much trouble!” For example, on that walk one day she noticed that the curtain rods in the living room needed updating. When she got to her computer she decided to check Restoration Hardware’s website to look for replacements. Somehow, an entire morning vanished. Shapiro shares similar stories in Still Writing, and I found it especially encouraging (if a little frightening) that even someone of her stature and accomplishment is sometimes thrown off course by the Internet and other distractions. Like anyone else, she struggles to get out of her own way.
Most of us are alone when we create something, if not literally then metaphorically. I am happy to have Dani Shapiro next to me at my desk, whispering words of encouragement as I do battle with the blank page:
“Sit down and begin. Act as if you might just create something beautiful, and by beautiful I mean something authentic and universal. Don’t wait for anybody to tell you it’s okay. Take that shimmer and show us our humanity. That’s your job.”