On Art and Life

I’ve spent a lot of time, more than I wish, thinking about shoulds and what ifs.  Oh, how I wish I could have back all the hours I’ve mused or worried (or panicked) about things that either a) are pointless self-flagellation, or b) uncontrollable.

In the should department, I’ve worried that I should be doing better in virtually every area of my life.  I should spend more time working.  I should be better at what I do.  I should spend more time with my son.  I should spend more time with my husband.  I should cook more.  I should do more yoga.  I should meditate more.  I should re-do the living room.  I should spend more time with my friends.  I should take up a hobby.  Like knitting.  I should knit.

Well, this is funny, even to me.  Because notice how each should cancels out the next.  There aren’t enough hours in the day.  These shoulds do nothing but make me feel scattered, paralyzed, unworthy.

Let’s move on to the what ifs.  These are the biggies, of course.  What if something terrible happens to someone I love?  What if I get sick?  What if we have no money?  What if I lose my mind and can’t write any more?

This is less funny.  Because the truth of life is that something terrible will happen to someone I love.  The phone will ring and it will be bad news.  At some point.  I will get sick.  At some point.  To love is to risk heartache.  To live is to withstand loss.  At some point, we all suffer.

I’m well aware that there are people who walk around not thinking about any of this.  Usually these are people with regular jobs that don’t involve sitting around in ratty yoga clothes or (truth) a bathrobe in the middle of the day, staring at the walls, or pacing the floor.  John Updike called writing “the subtlest instrument for self-examination known to man.”  That self-examination, combined with the capacity and willingness to witness the world around us, is not a comfortable place to be.  We writers often feel raw and exposed, out-of-step.  I myself am often struck mute – as if I can only figure out what the hell I want to say when I’m in the process of putting pen to paper.  This isn’t a choice – its a way of being.  Nobody becomes a writer who doesn’t have to.

If we are our only instrument – as of course, we are – how do we navigate this business of living our lives, quieting the shoulds and what ifs, and finding that inward space in which we’re able to find that truth, as Thoreau wrote, that strikes us from behind and in the dark?

I’m going to suggest something radical here – something that is much easier said than done.  We must not separate our life from our art.  Louise Gluck recently spoke of this in an interview with William Giraldi in Poets & Writers:  “You have to live your life if you’re going to do original work.  Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.”

I’m often asked about motherhood and writing.  About teaching and writing.  About making a living and writing.  Beneath all of the questions is a deeper question, thrumming: Can I have a life and be a writer? 

I’d like to answer a resounding yes to that question, though with the caveat that this requires a daily practice, a daily awareness that perhaps we need not delineate between life and art, draw a line down the center of our days and put our work on one side and everything else on the other.  Sarah Ruhl offers this:  “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life.  And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion.  At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.  And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

And so, my friends, embrace the snow day, the traffic jam.  Embrace the flu.  Say thank you to the midday school conference, the vet appointment, the plumber, the memorial service.  As I said, easier said than done.  But it helps to remember that every single moment you wholeheartedly experience becomes part of your instrument, part of what you know.


  • Lindsey Ruby

    Beautiful! Can’t have one without the other. Hugs!

    • Danishapiro


  • Kristin Espinasse

    Serendipidous! Just yesterday I was depressed at a writers quote: (something like) “guard your writing time and don’t let others usurp it!” Only, I knew after over 12 years of defending my writing time that said writing time is most often walked all over anyway: kids, husband, neighbor, the dogs, the postman, a call from my mother-in-law… And then, shazam!, the thought this morning that I am freer by giving up my boundaries than by defending them. Write right through the chaos, as always. And then your wonderful article. Thank you!

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome, Kristin!

  • Ellen Hummel

    So well said, though I’d like to not embrace the flu. Everything else, yes. And congratulations on the Write Life’s 100 Best. Your writing is always inspiring.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Ellen. And I’m on the mend.

  • Raymond Cothern

    Wha? NOW you tell me?

    • Danishapiro

      Haha, Raymond.

  • Heather Johnson Durocher

    This is beautiful and so true. And just what I needed to read today. Thank you. I love your writing.

    • Danishapiro


  • kduich

    As a full time single mother and a full time freelance writer, I too am to be found at times in ratty clothing and unwashed hair in the middle of the day, avoiding my desk and the agony that sometimes awaits me there. The avoidance, the resistance itself, becomes a greater beast than the undone work, an aching and increasingly impassable obstacle to what little creative fire I may have had access to before it took up residence in the exact center of my body.

    I experiment with letting the day unfold, the sudden urgency to wash the slipcovers of the sofa, the call from the school that someone is sick, the absolute blankness of mind that arises and seemingly wipes out all possibility of good work. The call of the trail rings in my ears, almost daily, oh, the longing to be in the woods, traversing creeks and examining mushrooms for hours and hours. I have found that if I can respond with a certain lightness of heart, holding at the same time a steady, choiceful faith that indeed the writing will get written, it indeed does. The absence of the resistance to the incessant and unavoidable presence of Life frees up enormous space and energy. It’s an investment in future creative payoff. And while it can be quite uncomfortable, like any practice, it feels more like peace in my heart and less like a stone with each day I devote to it.

    • Danishapiro

      Lovely. Thank you.

  • Starla J. King

    Dani, this seems to fit with Beth Kephart’s advice to writers:
    “Read far more than you write. Live even more than you read. Don’t measure yourself against a soul.”

    It’s all intertwined, isn’t it?

    • Danishapiro

      Yes, Starla! And thanks as always to the wisdom of Beth.

  • Katia Vladimirovna

    A writer. A mother. A yogini. A knitter (yes, that’s a lifelong hobby for me). A ‘regular’ office employee working to support her family. My own identity overwhelms me at times. I am learning to let go of the need to grasp onto my time, which inevitably leads to the ‘what if’ and, more often, the ‘should’ statements that ring in my head. I am learning to allow life to unfold as it will, but also prioritize. Always prioritize. I may be out of the house for the majority of the day, but doing so has taught me to use my time wisely and avoid procrastination. You might be thinking how counter-intuitive this is to the life of a writer. Yet, it works. Little notes are scattered all over my purse, and my email inbox is filled with emails that I send to myself throughout the day, writing down little vignettes from my day as they happen, putting ‘real,’ or ‘regular’ life on hold to get my inspiration on paper (or into my email) as it arises. And of course, I have my weekly writing time, my own time, though even then, my children sometimes have a different agenda that might not always coincide with my writing time. I believe this will always be a lifelong learning process for me, a dance between tension and ease. And I’m more than okay with that.

    • Danishapiro

      I don’t think it’s counter-intuitive at all. Thanks.

  • Raphaela

    Great to read your words! You know, I still remember reading one of your books and thinking that it’s really brave to share such insight into ones life. I never thought of myself as a writer, but recently I have this feeling that there’s so much in me that wants to be put on paper. I have no clue where to begin, nor how…but this sentence “Nobody becomes a writer who doesn’t have to.” really struck me and it’s so true. Going through a life crisis myself at the moment it’s soothing to hear you talk about how every single moment we wholeheartedly experience, even if super challenging and sad, becomes part of our instrument, part of what we know. Thank you for sharing yourself and your thoughts with us, it’s a great gift!

    • Danishapiro

      You’re so welcome. I hope you continue to feel soothed through this crisis.

  • Annette Talbert

    My life- my daily experiences at work and at home drive my creativity. I cull through my mind for the best (or worst) of the day and my writing is richer as a result.

    • Danishapiro

      Lovely clarity. Thanks, Annette.

  • Glen Hunting

    Poignant and perceptive. Many thanks.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome!

  • E.G. Moore

    Finding your site and reading this post couldn’t have come at a better time in my career. Thank you for insight and reassurance.

    • Danishapiro

      I’m so glad — I love hearing that. Thanks.

  • Sheila Blanchette

    Very well said. It’s what I attempt to write in my novels. A slice of life.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Sheila.

  • So beautiful and true. I think the quote about life/intrusion comes from Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write, though?

    • Danishapiro

      Liza! Thank you. You’re absolutely right — and of course I knew that, and had one of those moments in which two of my favorite writers melded into one. I’ve made the change — and so appreciate your catching it.

      • Thanks, Dani. It sprung to mind as I’d *just* finished reading Ruhl’s collection last week. You are one of my writing heroes – love your blog & books, and turn to Still Writing often when in need of inspiration. I hope to attend one of your retreats in the future, especially if you have one in California sometime! All best, Liza

        • Danishapiro

          That you turn to Still Writing means a lot to me, Liza. Thanks. Who knows… maybe a California retreat will happen some time soon. I spend enough time there, that’s for sure! The closest on the books at the moment is Aspen in June. Or Whidbey Island in May…

  • Jim Ward

    A pleasure reading your perspective on the matter. This is something I’ve tried to stay mindful of myself lately. Thank you!

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Jim!

  • Laretta

    Those blasted shoulds. And I say this as I’m ironing my sheets, ironing bed sheets for godsake, instead of writing. And I know, from past experience, that writing makes my heart soar. So why am I ironing sheets? Fear. Good old fear. But I’ve thumbed my nose at it before and I can do it again. Your post gives me courage. Thanks so much, Dani. I attended your workshop in Taos last summer. Loved that you started every session with yoga, then segued into a free write. I’m still practicing yoga and, when not ironing sheets, words find their way on paper. : ) You’re a wonderful teacher, Dani. I’ve read “Still Writing” once and reading it again, one essay a day, as a jumpstart to my practice. Good words, good writing, are inspiring. And your writing is sublime.

  • L. Donsky-Levine

    Sorry ’bout being a little behind the eight-ball with this comment, but being a new follower of yours it’s taking a little time catching up with your posts. All of which are simply and eloquently written, making it easier for your reader to connect. And what I felt connected to most in this piece was the statement about one’s work will come out of an authentic life. It helped to remind me that those shoulda’s, coulda’s and what if’s don’t really matter in the end.