Writing on Writing

Dani Shapiro
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013)

Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview one of the doyennes of the publishing world, an editor whose critical instincts and unerring taste have earned her a loyal stable of writers whose names regularly appear on all the right kinds of lists (Best of, Bestseller, Shortlists). When I asked her why she’d been so successful, she spent the better part of an hour explaining how she went about discovering authors, building relationships with them, and helping them to tease out and refine the stories they felt called to tell. What was the secret, I wanted to know, to keeping them happy? What you have to understand, she told me in her flutey, patrician voice, is that “writers are narcissists.” She said this without an ounce of malice, just simple, clear-eyed acceptance.

This editor has a gift for understanding just how to tweak the underlying machinery of a story to make it hum along at a powerful clip. She has single-handedly shepherded along more than one title that is now an established part of the cultural canon. But her most valuable talent, in her mind, may be her ability to manage outsized egos.

Of course, as a writer, I’d like to think that the editor had it wrong, but even years later I routinely find myself thinking about what she said. Her words flash through my head on those mornings that I find my mind wandering away from my writing desk, lost in pie-in-the-sky daydreams about seeing my name in the New Yorker’s Table of Contents. I think about them every time I accept another unpaid gig for the pure joy of knowing that someone, somewhere will read my words. And they reverberate once again each time I find myself cracking open the spine of a new book about writing. Because really, what other profession can you think of that is so rife with neurotic navel gazers that it has spawned its own sub-genre, a peculiar lovechild of how-to manual and self-help book?

Despite knowing this, I am usually among the first in line for these books. My taste for them is as insatiable as it is catholic. I’ve read them all, from the most inspirational (Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird), to the most practical (William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well and Stephen King’s On Writing), to the most philosophically-minded (John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction), and the most unapologetically commercial (No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty). So it will come as no surprise that I greeted the arrival of writer Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, with glee—albeit a glee tinged with guilt.

What fuels this desire to read about the particular struggles of the writer? Is it all ego, as the editor might contend, or is there something nobler at work here? A hunger for mastery? A desire to recognize oneself as a part of some larger community? An ongoing quest for the literary equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, the key of all keys? Probably, like the writer’s mind, it’s a mixed bag of base and grand impulses. As Shapiro quotes writer Valerie Martin, “there are three kinds of dispositions: a good disposition, a bad disposition, and a writer’s disposition.” We writers are the poster children for cognitive dissonance. If we are prone to over-inflated egos, these egos exist side-by-side with crippling self-doubt.

The writing book can serve a variety of functions, but, as I was reminded frequently while reading Still Writing, its primary purpose is often simply to make the writer feel better. (After all, not all of us have powerhouse editors to prop us up when we’re in a slump.) Shapiro’s book inarguably does that. Much of the advice she offers—give yourself permission to tell your story, establish a rigorous routine, carve out a space to write, embrace uncertainty, be brave, etc.—will be familiar to those of us who’ve already steeped ourselves in the literature. What Shapiro, a novelist, bestselling memoirist, New Yorker contributor and long-time teacher, excels at is providing balm for the writer’s soul. Despite her enviable credentials, she seems fundamentally less interested in facilitating the creation of “great literature” than in demonstrating how writing can make you a better person.

Shapiro freely admits that writing saved her from diving headlong into self-destruction after an unhappy childhood, and Still Writing can be understood as a kind of gateway for similarly troubled spirits in search of an avenue for self-discovery. Her book is full of trenchant advice, hints, and tips to get you—and keep you—working. But more than anything it is a treatise on the psychological make-up of the writer. It paints a picture of writers as a group of bruised souls in search of answers to questions no one else wants to ask, bent on achieving a level of self-knowledge that is at once liberating and excruciating. “To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain,” Shapiro tells us. “To scream to it, with it, from it. To know it—to know it cold.” The writer’s job is to uncover the “holy mess” at our cores, because in doing so we expose not ourselves, but the truth of human nature. This work, according to Shapiro, demands that we embrace our own darkness and contradictions. (Good news: all this self-involvement is in service of the work, people!)

If you’re looking for a feel-good book that will make the act of writing seem not just manageable, but downright honorable, look no further. But readers should go into Still Writing with the understanding that Shapiro’s book is less of an intellectual exercise than it is a motivational screed, and as such, it occasionally suffers from a lack of critical rigor. In the section on “Tics,” for instance, she extols us to be on the lookout for “unconscious repetitions” in our work and to recognize them as signals of the need to “dig a little deeper.” But Still Writing is, itself, full of unconscious repetitions (an ample smattering of clichés and a lazy overreliance on italics being the most distracting). Shapiro also embraces a fairly homogeneous view of writers that assumes that many of us live in a world full of morning meditation and yoga classes and long, uninterrupted days of contemplation. Being squarely in Shapiro’s demographic myself made this easier to stomach, but some readers will likely find this narrow characterization alienating (most notably: men). All in all though, Shapiro’s is such a generous-hearted, soulful book these flaws can be forgiven.

Still Writing is unlikely to convince skeptics of the writing book genre of its basic utility—hell, it might even provide further evidence of the writer’s inherent narcissism. But for those of us who will go ahead and indulge regardless, it’s a worthy, quite frequently inspiring addition. 

Contributor

Orli van Mourik

ORLI VAN MOURIK is a Portland-based journalist and fiction writer. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, Discover Magazine, SEED Magazine, and Brooklyn Based.

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