Dani Shapiro knows not to believe everything you read on the internet. “Google divorced us,” she tells her husband, after discovering he is listed as a former spouse in her search engine-generated bio. It’s a moment she recalls in her most recent memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage published by Knopf last month. (Concerned readers will be happy to know that by the end of the memoir, the error has been rectified.)
There’s an irony to writing a memoir about marriage at a time when the all-powerful Google has effectively divorced you, for reasons unclear. “There’s something urgent and daring about telling the truth of our internal lives,” says Shapiro, talking to me from a little corner of the Bel-Air hotel in Los Angeles, where she is on tour for Hourglass. “We live in a culture in which just the sheer volume of noise, of busyness, of devices, makes me feel that it’s more important than ever to be a truth teller; to use the tools at my disposal — which are literature and writing and crafting stories, both fiction and nonfiction — to tell the truth of what I know.”
Hourglass has been called Shapiro’s most personal and intimate memoir to-date. Her other books include the memoirs Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy, and Devotion: A Memoir, as well as five novels.
“The book was such a scary book to write, in so many ways, so it’s enormously gratifying to hear from readers who seem to be connecting with it on a very deep level,” she says, when I ask her if she does, in fact, consider this her most intimate book yet. “I was writing directly from the inside of my life, from the inside of my marriage, from everything that is consuming me, and obsessing me, and that I’m thinking about. I wasn’t writing Hourglass from a distance or from a sense of retrospect, of being in another place and looking back. I was writing from the white-hot center of it. So that in and of itself is a creative risk that makes it not necessarily more personal, but more immediately personal.”
“I felt this sense of being in the thick of life, in the thick of a long-ish marriage [of 18 years] and wanted to write from that place. I had this sense of: we’ve walked down this road together, we’ve had a child, that child is growing up, we’ve formed ourselves toward each other and alongside each other and even sometimes against each other, and we each wouldn’t be the people we are today if not for the other. So, what’s that about? I really wanted to make an inquiry into the very nature of what it is to walk alongside another human being over time, and the only way I know how to do that is by using my own life as my material.”
In the book Shapiro writes:
Here we are. We have been married for almost eighteen years. Our son is nearly sixteen. We have two dogs, one large, one small. We have attended twelve weddings, nine bar or bat mitzvahs, six graduations, five funerals. We have set foot in twenty-two states, seven countries, two continents. We have flown one hundred forty-six thousand miles and easily driven twice that.
The couple also came close to losing a baby, Shapiro’s son, who, at the time of writing, was that then-16-year-old boy. By the time Shapiro and I talk, her and her husband, whom she refers to in Hourglass as “M.” have both buried each other’s parents. Her catalog of their life together is documented early on in the memoir, and continues to describe health scares, disagreements, family illnesses, and more.
“Someone said to me recently that Hourglass should be given by every mother of the bride to their daughter, and I love that so much because I was that bride — twice — who didn’t really know or think about what it meant to weather the changes that time exacts on all of us, alongside another person. You can’t know that, because you can’t know what you haven’t lived yet,” says Shapiro, whose marriage to M. is her third. Her first two marriages, as noted in the book, were brief.
The writer then quotes Toni Morrison’s oft-cited words about writing the book you want to read. “I hadn’t read anything that dealt with the truth and the complexity of what it is to be committed to another person," Shapiro says. "There is a lot of literature, a lot of language, about “happily ever after”, but what does happily ever after really mean? It’s a myth. What does it really mean to go through the stuff of life with someone?”
“This is not your mother’s marriage and this is not your grandmother’s marriage,” Shapiro says. “I actually feel like I have grown into someone who takes many more risks in the world, actually because of the friction and differences between my husband and myself. It’s a radical thing to feel whole enough and confident enough in oneself to be okay with being shaped and formed alongside someone else.”
“It should be 'happily' and then 'parenthesis, every other emotion under then sun’, 'ever after'.”
Hourglass is a slim text — Shapiro also describes it as delicate and ephemeral — 145 pages of brief but specific vignettes that take readers from Shapiro’s honeymoon through the next 18 years of her relationship with M., though not in chronological order. “I wanted the reader to have the experience of ‘reading it in a breath’,” Shapiro says. “That is how I thought of it. Not picking it up and putting it back down, but reading it in one or two gos.”
Hourglass started as an essay, then titled The Virtual Dementia Tour, in which Shapiro explored ideas of time and memory and inheritance. She was interested in exploring if the past could fit into the present, but it was an essay she says she struggled with, before finally compiling 25 pages that felt, for the briefest of moments, complete.
“The morning after I finished the essay I woke up, and the horrifying thought I had was: this is not an essay. This is a book.” Shapiro ripped up the essay and didn’t publish it. “I think if I had published it as an essay, it would have taken some of the heat and the urgency out of it. So, from what started as a 25-page essay, all that remained were a few passages. I had to kill my darlings and leave some really good stuff on the cutting room floor, and then begin again.”
After that, the memoir only took Shapiro about a year to complete — a journey that, in part, involved the writer revisiting the journals she’d kept throughout her life, including a stack of journals composed during her honeymoon with M.
“It was like a gift from the literary gods,” Shapiro says. “Here are these journals from when I was a bride. It felt like that bride was talking to me and I wanted to talk back to her. So, the journals became part of the narrative.”
“Then I decided maybe my other journals were a part of the narrative as well — that I needed to look back at this 17-year-old girl who still haunts me: who was she, was I visible in her, is she visible in me? These were all questions that were of tremendous interest to me for years, I guess in a kind of personal quest for wholeness. I think we all have that. We can’t shed our former selves, whether we like them or not.”
“Memory is not linear or chronological, and I wanted to mirror that in some way. I wanted that to impact the reader.”
In Hourglass, Shapiro writes of her younger self: “I had no sympathy for the girl I once was.” It’s the kind of honest declaration that I think most readers, albeit cringingly, can relate to — not just a lack of sympathy for our former selves, but almost a sense of nonrecognition: who was that girl? or what was her problem, anyway? and does she have anything at all to do with me? are all questions I’ve certainly asked myself before. I ask Shapiro if, through the writing of Hourglass, she ultimately came to discover any compassion for that girl, after all.
“I found a compassion for her that I don’t think I was able or ready to feel earlier in my writing life. In Hourglass, I write about trying to revisit those journals years ago when I wrote my first book, Slow Motion, and I really wasn’t ready. I came to realize that if I kept on reading those journals I probably wouldn’t write the book, but this time more years had gone by. And also, my son was the age that I had been when I wrote them.”
It was a connection Shapiro didn’t make while writing the book, but realized later, noting the compassion she felt for her teenage son and his friends, which she’d never been able to summon for her own young self. “I think it’s often much harder to be able to find that kind of compassion for ourselves. It’s common to feel more generously towards others than we do towards ourselves.”
I ask Shapiro if she kept her journals, after mining them for significance while writing Hourglass (eyeing my own, perhaps too-long preserved diaries on the shelf next to my desk, and recalling an article that went viral a few years ago, about another woman who burned decades of her personal notebooks as some sort of releasing, purifying ritual.) Shapiro, as it turns out, still has those journals — but maybe not for long.
“I think I can let them go now,” she says. “I now understand why I kept them all those years — because I was eventually going to write this book. I’m glad I didn’t burn them. But now I feel like I don’t actually want anyone to read them. They were a very private and personal record of a time and place in my life, and having a life which will have left quite a lot of public record of times and places, I think I would prefer for that to be what stands. So maybe when I go home we’ll have a big bonfire. Maybe I’ll make it a party.” Shapiro laughs.
As we’re speaking, something I immediately notice about Shapiro is her relationship to quotes — just minutes into our conversation, she’s already directly referenced and quoted word-for-word (I checked) Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Rainer Maria Rilke, and most-frequently, Virginia Woolf. The quotes come from Shapiro’s commonplace book — a journal in which she hand-writes the words and wisdom of other writers, things she comes across in the course of her own reading, that inspire or resonate with her. Shapiro’s description of this commonplace book, both in our conversation and in Hourglass, rather sounds as though she’s describing a spiritual practice. Which, for a writer, keeping a commonplace book very well may be.
Similarly, Hourglass is filled with quotes from Shapiro’s commonplace book — interwoven seamlessly into the text, as though her memoir is in conversation with all sorts of books that came before it. “Those commonplace books are such a part of my life. They’re always with me,” Shapiro explains. “They’re with me when I teach. They’re usually with me when I’m traveling. In a way, when I write a piece of wisdom or a quote into one of my commonplace books, it becomes a part of me. So, it wasn’t a surprise that they started to find their way into Hourglass. I wanted them to be a kind of pattern and punctuation.”
“There’s so much curation in how we live,” Shapiro says. “One of the important moments in Hourglass was when I wrote about: 'here’s what goes on Instagram' and 'here’s what doesn’t go on Instagram.'” We live in a culture where someone can wake up, and before they’ve even brushed their teeth they’ve compared their lives to 50 other people — 50 other lives that have been curated and burnished.”
I ask Shapiro about the importance of not only women’s stories, but women telling their own stories; about what it means to be memoir writer and a woman writer working today — whether she finds her work takes on an added significance in a world that still, to varying degrees, elevates the voices of men over those of women.
She responds by explaining how she will often, sometimes daily, open Virginia Woolf’s A Writers Diary to whatever page it falls open to — again, almost as a spiritual practice — and ask: "What does Virginia have to tell me today?" According to Shapiro, the book never disappoints.
“The books that I keep closest to me, always, in my writing room are Virginia Woolf’s diaries and several beautifully written journals by the sculptor Anne Truitt,” Shapiro says. “And I didn’t know Virginia Woolf obviously. Anne Truitt and I were at Yaddo [the 400-acre artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York] at the same time, but I didn’t get the chance to meet her. She writes exquisitely about what it means to be a woman, a creator, a mother, a wife, a friend, a politically conscious person — all of these things — in a way that makes me feel less alone in the world.”
“In the same way that I keep those writers near me, I feel like what I’m doing — what I’m hoping — is that by using great specificity and, I suppose, a kind of fearlessness, my own internal life will become something that resonates with other women, in a way that those writers before me have done.”
She adds: “I mean, I’m terrified. But I do it anyway.”