Interview: What Gets Dani Shapiro 'Still Writing' After All These Years
Dani Shapiro is the kind of writer you wish could write your memoir. Her voice is witty, but she's not trying too hard, and as you read, you often feel like she has more insight into your own life than you do. Shapiro is the author of bestselling memoirs Slow Motion and Devotion. Slow Motion recounts how her parents' tragic car crash allowed her the opportunity to pivot her life towards purpose; in Devotion, Shapiro reflects on her struggles to come to terms with her spirituality in light of life's challenges. And in her newest project, Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life (Atlantic Monthly), Shapiro gives readers direct and sincere suggestions for building a creative process.
So much of Still Writing resonated with me as a writer and a human. It's at once a practical guide to navigating the work of writing, a memoir of Shapiro's creative life thus far, and a reflection on her unique artistic process. Especially significant is her advice about the patience required for the writing life — a writer must "ride the wave" of creative inspiration and trust others and herself. Shapiro shared thoughts on Still Writing with Bustle — as well as waxed on Nietzsche. (Because, obviously.)
BUSTLE: You talk about control as a writer and explain that you work linearly — "one foot in front of the other." How do you know when to be patient with a piece of writing and when to move on to something else?
DANI SHAPIRO: I'm like a dog chewing on a bone with a piece of writing. Once something has really engaged me — once I'm deeply invested — it stays alive until I've figured out how to make it work. Sometimes this takes years. A recent story of mine, just published in Electric Literature, took two years to write. Obviously I didn't spend all my time on that one story over two years (I do have to put food on the table!) but it had a pulse. I would feel it, thumping in the corner of my office. Just waiting for my attention.
Mark Slouka wrote a New York Times column and echoed your statements about the singularity of the writing process. He wrote, "...nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready." He parallels your discussion of how vulnerable writers are when they share new work. Do you talk about your work before it's finished?
I try not to. The one time I talked a lot about a piece of work — a novel — as I was working on it, I wrote myself straight into a wall. I keep a quote from Nietzsche pinned to the bulletin board above my desk: "That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking." Oh, Nietzsche. That nihilist. But it does help me to remember to keep my mouth shut so that the creative pressure can build.
Your blog is named after Virginia Woolf's memoir, Moments of Being . What's your favorite Woolf novel?
With which Woolf character do you identify most?
I think I would say that I identify most with Woolf herself. Not with the immensity of her gifts, god knows, but with her struggles with the page. I keep her A Writer's Diary on my desk and dip into it all the time, for friendship, for solidarity, for solace, for clarity.
Which memoirists do you most respect?
Oh, there are so many. Tobias Wolff, Vivian Gornick, Michael Gilmore, Donald Hall (a poet, but I love his memoir Life Work.) Mira Bartok's The Memory Palace.
Tell me about something that's happened to you in the past week that prompted you to think, "I have to write about this."
If I told you I'd have to kill you. Just kidding. I've been on book tour so those moments have been few and far between lately. Also, if I told you, then I'd be breaking Nietzsche's rule.