Moments of Being

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

- Virginia Woolf

On a Delicate Balance

I have not been writing.  There, I’ve said it.  I have been traveling the country talking about Still Writing, but I have not been writing.  Because writing a book and promoting a book are two entirely different things.  Because my new book needs me.  It’s a baby I’ve given birth to, and abandoning it to make its own way in this noisy world would be akin to leaving an infant on the changing table, tiny legs flailing in the air.  I am devoting my time and energy to traveling, teaching, speaking and reading.  And please don’t get me wrong: I love meeting my readers.  I love teaching retreats like these.  I’m just back from AWP in Seattle where I spent time with the most warm and receptive people, generous people.  One reader handed me a gift –– no card, no name, no nothing –– just a beautiful soap dish and bar of fragrant soap, to thank me for my books.  I could have wept.  It is meaningful beyond measure to see my words find their mark.  To know that these decades of work are cumulative, that I am mining veins that are like tributaries, finding their way to others.

But I’m not writing.  And when I’m not writing, I’m not well.  The world is leached of color.  My brain is fuzzy.  My heart, overfull, hurting.  Sentences wind around and around me –– unwritten –– and form a sticky, uncomfortable web.  These unwritten sentences don’t wait.  They are alive, and like any living thing, untended, they wither and decay.  They calcify, then turn to dust.  They will not appear again –– not in this precise way.  Each day that I don’t capture them, they are gone forever.

As I write these words, I am on my chaise for a few days reprieve between trips.  This weekend I will be in Palm Beach.  Next weekend, Fort Lauderdale, with Brooklyn in between.  Then New Orleans.  Then Italy.  Then San Francisco.  Then LA.  Please understand that I am not complaining.  I am blessed, enormously fortunate to have these opportunities.  I will meet my readers, see old friends, forge new relationships, have new experiences.  This is a great gift.  But there are only two modes for a writer.  We are either in the cave, where we do our work in the darkness, or we are out of the cave, blinking like night creatures exposed to the light of day.  Certainly there are writers who stay in the cave, who don’t promote their books, perhaps those who simply can’t, because of their own temperaments, or those who have reached a point at which they don’t need to.  And there are other writers who abandon the cave entirely, and spend all their time spinning, spinning, moving around the world, going from event to event talking about work they wrote years, sometimes decades, ago.  But for those of us –– myself among them –– who move out of our dark and solitary natural habitats and into the fast-paced, populated, bright and beautiful world, and back again, we need always to remember who we are beneath it all.

Writing is how I come to know myself.  The blank page is my mirror, my teacher, my salvation.  When I return to it –– and I can feel that time coming –– it will be at a point when I have nurtured STILL WRITING along so that it has found its way.   I will take a deep breath and grab hold of the first words of a sentence as if it is a lifeline.  Because it is, in fact, a lifeline.  For me, for all of us.  I will recede into the darkness, hoping to emerge one day with whatever new treasures I find there.

On What Disturbs, Then Nourishes

Lately I’ve been moving at a rapid clip.  My bags are no sooner  unpacked, it seems, then once again I’m pulling them from the closet, and completing my flight’s online check-in.  My desk is littered with lists.  .  My toiletries are in a plastic bag filled with sample sizes.  I’m reading more on screens — lots of downloaded sample chapters.  Little bite-sized pieces of literature.  My dogs are confused.  They hang their heads when they hear the zip of a suitcase.  My husband and I compare calendars, hoping we might be in the same place at the same time.  It’s all good.  That’s what I keep saying, and in fact, it’s true.  It is all good.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t challenging.  Or complex.  Or difficult to navigate while staying true to my deepest self.

As I write these words, I am once again stretched out on my chaise, in my office at home.  My dogs are sleeping near me.  The house is quiet.  This is my natural habitat, that place where I come to know what’s happening in my heart and mind.  We all have such a place, if only we are able to identify it for ourselves.  For some of us, we become reacquainted with ourselves in nature.  For others, it’s during meditation or yoga.  Others find it in music.  In silence.  In community.  But when we stray too far from whatever it is that allows us to know what’s going on, we risk losing our center.  I think of it as a pilot light, always burning inside of me.  It’s there –– just as the breath is there –– but if I ignore it, it can’t catch hold.  It can’t set aflame any ideas or insights or emotional truths.  It just dims and sputters.

A couple of weeks ago, I led a remarkable retreat with a small group of spectacular women writers, and invited a very dear friend of mine who is a great yoga teacher to join us.  She led us in two very beautiful asana practices, and at the start of one of these practices, she read  “The Winter of Listening by the poet David Whyte.

No one but me by the fire / my hands burning / red in the palms while / the night wind carries / everything away outside. /  All this petty worry / while the great cloak of the sky grows dark / and intense / round every living thing. 

What is precious / inside us does not care / to be known /by the mind / in ways that diminish its presence. /  What we strive for / in perfection / is not what turns us / into the lit angel / we desire, / what disturbs and then nourishes us has everything we need.

What disturbs and then nourishes us has everything we need. 

The truth of these words penetrated me on that blustery winter afternoon as the great cloak of the sky grew dark around me.  Whatever I know, whatever I have learned, whatever glimmers of wisdom I have gained in my life, has come from what has disturbed and then nourished me.  Think of the way a wound heals, that tender, shiny new skin knitting itself together, protecting, yes, but also signaling: something happened here.  If we are fortunate enough to live long and full lives, we are covered with these scars, these disturbances.  What we do with them is our choice.  What disturbs does not have everything we need.  Only what disturbs then nourishes.  If we take in the difficulty, turn it over in our minds, feel the facets in our hearts, find the stillness to grow and understand –– well, then we are making something profound out of our experience.

And if we are artists, this is the way we make art.

On Living Out Loud

One of the many reasons that writers lead strange, out-of-step lives is that to do our work requires solitude, silence and contemplation, and to promote our work requires that we step out into the world, to whatever degree we are able.  These two aspects — the doing and the promoting — are not easily reconcilable.  In fact, they clash in so many ways that it can drive a writer crazy.  (And I do mean crazy.)  If you run into a writer in the midst of a book tour,  you will encounter a shell-shocked creature, thin-skinned, nervous, anxious about how it’s going, lonely for home, unused to the sound of her own voice.  This writer has stepped out from her dark cave — that shadowy, hallowed place where she created her work — and now she is squinting, shading her eyes from the sunlight.  She’s happy to be out in the open air, but at the same time, her nerves are jangled.  She wrote the book.  She poured her whole self into it.  Isn’t that enough?

It most decidedly is not enough.  Writers today have relationships with our readers that go far beyond the pages of our books.  To be able to connect with readers is an enormous privilege.  But here’s where it gets complicated.  Now, if we aren’t careful, we can bring that sense of being in public right into our very own writing rooms.  We can sit at our desks and feel like we’re living out loud.  Facebook!  Instagram!  Twitter!  Amazon customer reviews!  Goodreads!  If we so desire — or even if we don’t desire, not at all, but cannot help ourselves — with a single click we can try and convict ourselves in the court of public opinion.  A writer might be sitting at her desk, about to get to work, and with a swift self-Google, she can find someone, perhaps many someones, who just isn’t that into her.  She can fling open the door to her inner sanctum and let all the noise and opinion of the world pour in.

I am one of those writers who has an online presence.  I have not built it strategically, or even consciously.  It has evolved over time, and I quite enjoy it.  I’m on Facebook, and Twitter, and even recently joined Instagram.  I have kept this blog. up for a long time now –– even though I don’t post very often.  I usually wait until I  have something to say.   Since the publication of Still Writing I have done dozens of online interviews, even one in which I interviewed myself.  I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago that stirred up some controversy, in which I openly addressed a reader who was nasty to me on Facebook.  Before the piece was published, my husband made me promise that I wouldn’t read the online comments.  There were a lot of them, and do you know what?

I didn’t.  Not because I wasn’t interested.  Not because I didn’t care.  But because I knew that there would be bruising, painful comments and that reading them would be like falling down a rabbit hole.  The toxic comments –– amidst all the others –– would stick to my bones, while the supportive comments would wash over me like water.  Like most of us, I am all-too-ready to think the worst of myself.  To censor myself.  This soft underbelly is the place from which I write, and I must at all costs protect it.

I get to spend my days –– when I’m writing –– shaping chaos (the chaos of  imagination, the chaos of memory, the chaos of history) into stories.  I feel lucky to be able to do this, even when it’s agonizing, which it is, much of the time.  As I sit here writing, snow is falling outside my window, my dogs are on the floor beneath my chaise, my third cappuccino of the day is by my side.  I move pieces around on the page, or in my head, or both — to see how one might make music, might make a greater kind of sense, when juxtaposed with another.  When I am able to do this, time falls away.  I am at my most miserable only when I fail  in the attempt– meaning, when I don’t get to the page at all, which is the only true failure.

The only way I can make this attempt, every day, is to be sure the voice I am most listening to is my own.  Other voices are wise, some are cavalier, some are malicious, others are kind.  But I cannot lick my finger, then stick it up to see which way the wind is blowing.  My inner sanctum needs to be precisely that.  So that when I emerge –– when I blink and squint in the light of day –– I know exactly who I am, honed and chiseled in the darkness.

 

 

On Vulnerability

I know how things look right now.  If you go on my Facebook page, or catch a glimpse of me on Twitter, or sit in a crowded bookstore audience where I’m giving a reading, or attend one of my weekend retreats, you might make certain assumptions about me and my life.  You might assume, successful author.  You might assume, has it made.  You therefore might make the leap to: she must feel great.  Or even, as in the title of a book and blog I like a lot, I Want To Be Her.

“We love to hate Dani Shapiro,” a radio host recently told me.  “You have a perfect life.”

Let me pose a question.  Do any of us have perfect lives?  Or do we carefully curate our public personas, keeping our true selves safe, hidden from view?  Of course, we show only what we want the world to see.  In my case, if you were to go on my Facebook page, you would see an author who apparently never has a bad hair day, who happily travels from city to city, occasionally posting announcements about readings, or appearances, or good news about her book, her family, her life.  She’ll post a trailer of her husband’s new film, but won’t write about the years of struggle, the sleepless nights, the financial upheaval, of making that film.  She’ll post a photo of herself on Oprah, or giving a big reading, but she won’t post a photo from the day before, where only ten people showed up in a bookstore.  She’ll put a selfie up on Instagram (is there anything less revealing of self than a selfie?) but only from a good angle, in a place she wants to be seen.

But true vulnerability is an art.  It is the art of allowing oneself to be seen.  Without putting up our guard.  Without pretense.  Without all the masks we don in order to get through our days.  Vulnerability also requires vigilance.  Some days it’s easier than others to simply be our true selves.  When I went on Oprah, all I hoped to do — my single task for that hour — was to be myself.  I wanted to shed all of my defenses and engage in the most genuine conversation I possibly could.  The stakes were high –– by which I don’t mean the public stakes.  I mean that my own sense of truth was on the line.  Could I enter an arena with lights that bright and still just be me?

I trained for that hour as if it were a marathon I was running.  Instead of getting media coaching, I meditated.  Instead of trying to get my sound bytes down, I opened my heart.  I learned a great deal from that experience, and something within me shifted.  I hope that shift is permanent — though I know better.  I know that growth is a process, that as we continue to live, we continue to adjust to new circumstances.  But within that shift, I have grown less comfortable, more wary, of the idea that how things look is how things are.  I mean, yes, sure, I’ve written eight books, my husband made a (beautiful) film, oh, and our kid is photogenic and fabulous (sorry, proud mama moment).  All that is true.  Here is what is also true.  I had nightmares last night — real ones.  I am sitting in a dark hotel room at the crack of dawn in the yoga clothes I slept in.  That weird dislocated feeling of being in an unfamiliar city (Seattle) is upon me.  I’m worried about the future.  About my health.  My husband’s health.  My kid and his happiness.  I’m worried that we need to repaint our house this spring, and we’re going to need to re-shingle the roof.  I worry about what’s next.  That whatever I do next won’t be good enough.  I obsess about aging.  I know some people just don’t like me and that makes me feel weird.  And then, underneath all this, the stuff of nightmares.  My sad, dead father.  My angry, dead mother.  The paucity of relatives.  The feeling that often visits me of a profound loneliness.

All of this is true.  All of these selves make up one self.  The successes, the failures, the losses, the joy, the grief.  The triumphs and the fears.  These are what I want to bring with me everywhere I go — not just some of the time, but all of the time.  So that when I get up there and speak my truth, it isn’t a version of the truth, or just what is smooth, easy, and palatable, but rather, that it begins to touch what it means to be human in all of our complexity, in all our fallibility.  That ultimately, it has to be enough to say: this is me.

 

On Being Yourself

I’m writing this from the air –– somewhere between New York City and Phoenix.  It’s been a bumpy flight so far.  The guy next to me just spilled his plastic cup of water all over his jeans.  I’ve gone through my usual air travel routine of leafing through guilty-pleasure type magazines (it says something about my stage of life that these are along the lines of Us Weekly) .  And now it’s time to turn my attention to the week ahead.  I am anticipating this week with a range of feelings, the most complex of which is this:

Joy.

There is a sentence in Still Writing in which I explain that I have not, nor have I ever been joyful.  Modestly happy, yes.  Content, certainly.  But joy?  Not so much.  That sentence happens to be in a passage that I’ve been reading aloud at some bookstore appearances.  And each time I get to that line, it strikes me as no longer true.  I am joyful right now.  Even on this turbulent flight, in my cramped seat, hungry, run-down, tired, I am filled with this unfamiliar abundance.  This slightly uncomfortable, brimming excitement that it’s difficult to contain.

I’m on book tour for Still Writing.  Phoenix tonight.  San Francisco tomorrow.  Los Angeles on Friday.  On Sunday morning, I will be alone in my hotel room in Beverly Hills.  I will order a room service cappuccino, turn on the television, climb back into bed and settle back into the pillows, and here is what I’ll see:

5 24 2013-SSS- Dani Shapiro

Life seldom grants us our dreams as we dream them.  Life rarely shocks us with good news.  We do our work.  We labor alone.  We follow the line or words, one at a time, like breadcrumbs that might, just might, lead us out of the forest.  We expect nothing.  Or perhaps I should speak more personally, more directly.  I have spent my writing life practicing the art –– to paraphrase Colette –– of waiting.  I have waited between books.  I have waited for books to emerge.  There has been no master plan.  At times I have longed for a plan.  I have felt a crisis of identity.  Am I a novelist?  A memoirist?  An insult was once passed along to me (a questionable act, disguised as being helpful):  Dani has only one subject.  It stung.  It stayed.  But secretly, I wondered if it was true.  Was my subject myself?  And if my subject was myself, how might I take that singular, tiny, idiosyncratic self, and make it larger –– much larger –– so that I might have something to say that would resonate with others?

When I wrote Devotion I had no role models.  What literary novelist swerves into spiritual territory?  I was told I was making a mistake.  That I ought to keep writing fiction, where I was starting to make a name for myself.   But –– obstinate, willful, and most of all unable to pick and choose my obsessions –– I traveled to this strange new land.  There were lessons I needed to learn.  Questions I longed to address.  These questions haunted me.  They burned bright.  I spent a life-altering couple of years writing Devotion, and when I finished the book, the path did not end.  There were more questions.  More lessons.  I hope there always will be.

When I got the call inviting me to be Oprah’s guest on Super Soul Sunday, my initial response was disbelief.  The next morning, I thought I had dreamed it –– literally.  In the weeks that followed, I kept thinking it would somehow be taken away from me.  I mean, why wouldn’t it?  How could such a miraculous, beautiful, fortunate thing happen to me –– to me?  But in the weeks leading up to my conversation with Oprah, something interesting happened.  I began to grow clearer and clearer about what I needed to do.

I didn’t need to think.

I didn’t need to rehearse.

Rather, I needed to grow very quiet and centered, and arrive in Chicago for that conversation with an open heart, a clear mind, and a joyful embrace of the extraordinary opportunity.  And on that day, when one of the producers put her arm around me and said: “All you have to do is be yourself,” the words went through me like a shock.

All you have to do.

Is be yourself.

It has been a lifetime, people.  A lifetime of running away and returning to myself like a child playing tag with a tree.  And, like a stately old tree, roots spread deep in the earth, my best self –– all of our best selves –– has always been there, ready, silent, observing, waiting.

It’s hard work to be ourselves.

That hour with Oprah was one of the highlights of my life –– right up there with meeting my husband and giving birth to my son.  In part because she is utterly amazing, in part because I was filled with the awareness that our conversation has the potential to reach many, many people –– but more than anything, because the stakes were high, and I rose to them.  I sat in that chair and told the truth of myself, the truth of my life.  The girl I was –– the woman I’ve become –– my losses and grief, my pleasures, the lessons I’ve learned.  I was myselfI was in the moment.  When I left the studio on that beautiful day, I called my husband and told him this:

Every word I said was true.

 

On Small, Seismic Shifts

As I wrote the title for today’s post, I thought back to the title of Grace Paley‘s story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.  One of the great titles ever.  Do enormous changes ever come upon us in any way, other than the last minute?  We apply ourselves each day.  We show up.  We practice our craft.  We love the people we love.  We try to be good friends.  To be kind.  Compassionate.  We soften into life, like velveteen rabbits.  And then one day –– at what feels like the last minute –– we discover that maybe we know a little something.  That we’ve changed.  Altered in some way that will serve us and the people around us.  It has happened so slowly that we hadn’t even known anything was happening at all.  And then it is here.  Seismic.  Something has shifted.

When I say we, I of course mean me.  I mean all of us –– but my experience is all I have.  So yesterday, during a conversation with my fourteen year old son, I had a shock of awareness that maybe, just maybe, I had learned something along the way.  A small but seismic piece of wisdom that I could share with him.  One that I had begun to live –– without ever putting into words.

And.  Not but.

Without getting into details, we were talking about some difficult feelings.  Have you ever met a fourteen year old –– or a human being, for that matter –– who doesn’t experience difficult feelings?  I was trying to console him.   To tell him that things would improve.  That he wouldn’t always feel exactly this way.  And as he responded to me, the first word out of his mouth was but.  But…

And I stopped him.

No, I said.  Don’t say but.  Say and.

Our lives are not comprised of this but that.  But rather, this and that.  We are full of contradictions.  Our joys are bittersweet.  Our sorrows stem from love.  Our growth is painful.  The lessons we learn –– the ones that allow us to move forward in life -– are so often fraught.  This and that.

As I write, I’m sitting in a beautiful hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  There is a siren in the distance.  Somewhere, someone is getting a traffic ticket, or has fallen on the sidewalk, or is robbing a convenience store.  The steeples and domes of Harvard University –– a school I didn’t even dare dream of attending when I was a kid –– are in the distance.  The autumn leaves on the trees in the courtyard below are a riot of color.  As usual, a cappuccino has grown cold at my side.  Across the room, my husband is preparing for the festival release of his beautiful film this weekend.  I’m speaking to some wonderful booksellers tonight, giving a reading on Wednesday night.  Tears are springing to my eyes as I write these words.  And.  Not but.

I spent a lot of years selling myself short.  A lot of years feeling that I didn’t deserve, couldn’t shouldn’t, wouldn’t.  My dreams –– if I had dreams at all –- were shockingly small, as if I had gotten the message, somewhere along the line, that I didn’t deserve much.  That if I was pretty, I couldn’t also be smart.  That if I had made a mess of my romantic life when I was younger, that meant I wouldn’t be allowed to be happily married.  That if I had a difficult mother, that meant I wouldn’t know how to be a mother myself.  And that if somehow I managed to grab a bigger piece of the pie than I deserved –– happiness, success, a bountiful life –– that something terrible would happen.  The other shoe would drop.

This and that, I said to my beautiful son.

Hold it all.  Cup your hands and let the world pour in.  Say yes, not no.  Yes to bounty, to the lessons, the gladness, the pain, the fleeting joy, the opportunities that your life is offering you.  Strike the buts from your very heart.  That smallness, pettiness, stinginess and fear has no place in this life you’re living.  Take this day –– this one, precious day –– and face into the wind.  Remember what the great Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has to say about what it is to be human:  this too, this too, this too….

 

 

On Beginning Again

Another passage from STILL WRITING, just out this week:

 

The page is your mirror.  What happens inside you is reflected back.  You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego –– and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude.  No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain.  Isn’t this true for most of us?  A surgeon about to perform a difficult operation is at the bottom of the mountain.  A lawyer delivering a closing argument, an actor waiting in the wings.  A teacher on the first day of school.  Sometimes we may think that we’re in charge, or that we have things figured out.  Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves.  Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure.  We fail better.  We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.

On Publication Day

On the occasion of the publication day for my new book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, I thought I’d share a passage from the book: 

As I write these words, I am, of course, alone.  It’s the middle of the day and I have barely stepped outside except to pick up a couple of envelopes full of books and manuscripts that FedEx left on the porch.  I have spoken to no one since seven o’clock this morning.  I’m wearing the ratty T-shirt I slept in last night.  The house is silent.  A crow caws outside my office window.

These solitary days are my lifeline.  They are the lifeline of every writer I know.  We hold on to our solitude, fiercely protect these empty days.  But at the same time, we long for community.  We have no water cooler.  No office gossip.  No Friday night drinks after work.  No weekend softball game.  We’re outcasts and loners, more comfortable being out of step than part of a group.  If pressed, you’d find that most of us had not pledged sororities or fraternities in college.  We don’t tend to be members of clubs. We approach themed parties, baby showers, boy’s night out, with something like dread.  Back when I lived in Brooklyn, our house was in a neighborhood lousy with writers.  A quick trip to the corner bodega meant running into writer friends who were out buying a roll of paper towels, sneaking a cigarette.  And though from my rural hill, it’s easy to feel sentimental about those encounters, at the time, I recall a certain discomfort on both sides, especially if it was in the midst of a writing day.  We liked each other, sure––we might even have a plan to meet later that evening for a drink––but right then we didn’t necessarily want to be reminded of each other’s existence.  We were working.

This prickly, overly sensitive, socially awkward group of people is my tribe.  If you’re a writer, they’re yours as well.  This is why I’ve never really understood competition and envy among writers.  We are competing with ourselves –– not with each other.  And when we do encounter each other, whether at readings, or conferences, or online, hopefully we recognize ourselves and the strange existence we all share.  We realize that we are part of the same species and that we need one another to survive.  Though we write our books alone, ultimately everything we do involves some collaboration.  Every good book you’ll ever read has the thumbprints of other writers all over it.  As we finish a manuscript we may find ourselves thinking of who to turn to, who can help us.  Who will read us with generosity and intelligence and care.  From where I sit, I can see a pile of manuscripts and galleys across my office floor.  They are books by students, former students, teaching colleagues, friends, and strangers –– sent to me for blurbs, or with requests to help them find an agent, or whatever.  I try to help when I can.  When the work is good, I’m eager to be a part of ushering it into the world.  Nothing excites me more than wonderful writing.  It lifts me up.  It shows me what is possible.  And it makes me feel connected to this larger community of writers in the world.

A long time ago, I sent a draft –– actual manuscript pages –– of an early novel to an idol of mine, the writer TIm O’Brien whose The Things They Carried is one of my favorite books.  I got his address from a friend, wrote him a note, and stuffed my manuscript into a manila envelope.  I knew that many writers of his stature had sworn off blurbing, believing the whole process to be corrupted and ennervating (a view I sometimes share).  I had, in fact, recently received a five-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter from a well-known American novelist, explaining to me his policy of not blurbing.  Tim O’Brien and I shared no one in common.  He was not a cousin of my best friend’s best friend from camp.  So I sent off my manuscript with no real hope.  A couple of weeks later, I received a thin letter back.  I stood in the lobby of my apartment building and ripped open the envelope.

Dear Dani Shapiro, it began, It is now three o’clock in the morning––

I began to cry.

––and I have just finished your beautiful book.

I can still see the black ink on the plain white sheet of typing paper, the handwritten scrawl.  I’m happy to offer a comment––

Tim O’Brien had stayed up until three o’clock in the morning reading my manuscript.  He opened the envelope, began to read, kept reading.  He had then felt moved to write me back, along with precious words of support.  These twenty years later, I still have not met Tim O’Brien, but he is part of my community.  I will forever be grateful to him, not only because of his act of generosity to a young writer, but also because he taught me a lesson I have come to live by.  I don’t forget what it was like.  I reach out a hand when I can.  I remind myself every day that it’s about the work.  I am here in Connecticut.  You might be in Missoula, Montana, or Taos, New Mexico, or Portland, Oregon.  You’re in a cafe, or at a writers’ conference, or at your kitchen table.  Your words have come easily to you today, or you feel like your head is about to explode.  You’re a household name, or laboring in obscurity.  I am here, and you are there, and we are in this thing together.

On Making Sense

Once, years ago, I spent an hour with one of the smartest people I know, a therapist who had also become a friend.  I had a lot going on.  Work questions.  Personal questions.  Big life questions.  All of it came spilling out in a torrent.  I was at a crossroads.  Confused.  Feeling the whiplash of many different things happening at once –– some of which felt contradictory.  I talked and talked.  He listened and listened.  And then, as they are wont to say, our time was up.

As he walked me to the door, I turned to him, in despair, and asked: “Does any of this make sense?”

And he responded: “Dani, everything about you makes sense.”

What a liberating idea!  That everything that comprised my life — the early screw-ups, the stops and starts, the misguided first career, the ups and downs of my twenties, the poor choices, eventually the good choices, all of it added up to something coherent.  Something that at least one person thought made sense.

As I write this, my life is full of contradictions.  I am feeling them more than ever.  How did I get here?  I have a new book coming out –– my eighth.  This makes me feel about a thousand years old, but in fact, it all comes from putting down one word, than another, than another, over the span of the past twenty years.  I am a novelist who loves nothing more than to live in the world of my imagination, and yet, for the past six years, I have written mostly non-fiction.  I am a teacher who began my teaching career in academia, and now I find myself, more often than not, leading retreats where I am free to experiment and be creative in the ways I help my students approach the page.

We are all in such a hurry to define ourselves and others!  In a well-publicized feud this past week, Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen had some things to say about commercial writers versus literary writers.  I am loathe to jump into any kind of fray, but part of me wants to stand up and shout: why do we care?  We are all a bunch of thin-skinned, rag-tag misfits, overly sensitive, socially-awkward, and our natural habitat is solitude.  Our conducting these kinds of public non-debates –– or even engaging in private snobbery –– calls to mind two enormous, hermetic old tortoises poking their heads out from their shells and staring balefully at each other from opposite sides of a pond.

I am a literary writer in the sense that my sphere of interest, to quote Faulkner, is the human heart in conflict with itself.  I am interested in story only in so much as it illuminates that conflict.  And I am interested, too, in making the reader want to keep breathlessly turning the pages.  It was James Michener who once remarked that he knew nothing about plot, but if asked to describe a chair, he could make a reader want to read to the end of the page.

We diminish ourselves by categorizing ourselves.  I have been called a female writer.  A Jewish writer.  A writers who only writes about mothers and daughters.  A writer who only writes about family.  Or who only writes about herself.  (Ouch.)  I have been taken to task for wearing nice clothes.  Or being blonde.  Or having been a model and actress in my youth.  Or living in Connecticut.  It has taken me a lifetime –– and eight books –– to finally shrug free of the chrysalis of all this and understand that there is beauty in being undefinable.  In defying categorization.  In a refusal to be pigeonholed  In being this and that.

 

On Shining a Light

I’ve been thinking lately about the maxim that we should write the book we want to read.  I’ve always found that very helpful to keep in mind when I’m embarking on a piece of work, or when I’m stuck.  But in the last few years, a wrinkle has developed for me.  What if the kind of book I want to read –– the kind I really want to read –– is changing?  What then?

Samuel Johnson offers this:  “A book should either allow the reader to escape existence or teach him how to endure it.”

Earlier in my life as a reader, I enjoyed a good escape.  Sure, I was mostly interested in a literary escape, which is to say that it was important to me that the work be beautifully made, the sentences crafted, the characters and circumstances rendered in a way that allowed me to suspend my disbelief.  I also wanted to recognize my own internal life on the page –– you know, that sense of identification that so many of us feel when we start reading as children.  That sense of being a little less solitary in our strange, prickly, unique inner lives.  I liked a good story, and that feeling of sinking deep into a world so intricate and well-developed that, for a time, it allowed me to leave the world around me.  I tried to write books like that.  In a couple of cases, I think I succeeded at least a little bit.

But now I find myself gravitating again and again to books that do something else for me.  Books that don’t nudge me toward escape,  but rather, embed me more deeply in my own consciousness by allowing me to  inhabit the consciousness of another.  I find that these books are often hybrids.  They call themselves novels or memoirs –– but really, they inhabit a gray area, the rogue territory of genre-less-ness (a word I’ve just made up) in which questions of fiction and memoir don’t apply so much as whether we are injected, infected, with the consciousness of the writer.

Recently, I re-read Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, a novel that succeeds at this brilliantly.  Renata Adler pulls this off in her novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark.  As does, in ways I haven’t yet been able to sort through, Jess Walter in Beautiful Ruins, which is a novel, certainly, but maintains at its core the consciousness of the writer –– in the case of Walter, one who is able to move the reader in and out of time and place and form with a surety, an acrobatic ease.  And Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, also lives in this gray area in ways I found thrilling.  (Side note: I was so pleased to see it long-listed for the Booker Prize.)

As I cast about in the netherworld of pre-publication, reading, thinking, trying to be patient, to live in the in-between, waiting for my next book to announce itself to me, I am noticing the kinds of books that have been exciting me, these past few years.  Books that are puzzles of consciousness.  Books that leave room for the reader to enter.  Books with white space –– calling to mind a park bench where the reader can rest for a while inside the pages themselves.  I’m not focused on whether these books are fiction or non-fiction, but instead, ask of them that they shine a light.  That they open a door.  That they blow my mind.  That they help me endure.