On Protecting Your Instrument

I’m back on the chaise.  I’ve just finished with the last full week of teaching I’ll be doing until March.  All summer long, I’ve wondered what this moment would feel like.  I have no flights scheduled, no dates on my calendar (except for a few small weekend retreats like this one and this one) and a real swath of time stretched out before me.  A magic carpet, rolled out, ready for me to step onto it with the intention of finishing a draft of my new book.

Today is the day.  The fluffy white dog is lying by my feet.  I’m wearing the world’s most comfortable sweatpants, a favorite yoga tee shirt, and a ratty cardigan.  My hair is a mess.  My glasses perched on the bridge of my nose.  My house empty — husband doing errands, boy on a boat ride.  Just a couple of weeks ago, a photographer was here to take my portrait for an upcoming essay.  I was sitting just here, the fluffy white dog just there, and I quipped: this is exactly what my life looks like.  And she responded: it looks pretty damned perfect. 

Ah, yes.  Here I am in my perfect life.  There’s only one problem with it.  Can you guess what problem might be?

Inside my head, all is chaos.  Tears are backed up behind my eyes.  I can barely sit still.  The deepest parts of myself, unfathomable.  This summer involved an unusual number of workshops, readings, or other business in Seattle,  Aspen,  Vermont,  LA,  Atlanta,  Rhinebeck, Salisbury,  Provincetown — with many days in New York City in between.  It has been a summer in which I led meditations, lectured, dove deeply into student work.  A summer in which I said yes to judging a couple of awards and fellowships that have required an insane amount of reading.  A summer I have taken care of my family as best as I know how.  A summer I have loved – completely loved – and yet I am here, as parts of myself feel as fragile as small birds riding wind currents, trying to find their way back to me.

In Still Writing, I quote a list of instructions for writers left by the poet Jane Kenyon:

Protect your time.  Feed your inner life.  Avoid too much noise.  Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.  Be by yourself as often as you can.  Walk.  Take the phone off the hook.  Work regular hours.

I think of this as protecting my instrument – and yours.  When that instrument is out of whack – and mine is now – it is my job to go back to the simplicity of Kenyon’s list.  To have patience.  And above all to understand that the noisy, noisy world we live in – with its carnival of distractions and enticements – is not where we find the words.  The words are stones at the bottom of the sea.  We train ourselves. We expand our capacity to hold our breath underwater.  And then we dive – alone, we dive.  Sometimes we emerge, gasping, our hands empty.  But if we dive deep for enough successive days, weeks, months, years, decades, a lifetime — we might – just might – emerge with something new, some fragile, shimmering thing no one has ever seen before.



  • colettesartor

    Thank you for this. My instrument is also in need of tuning. I will keep this post near to me and follow your advice.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, and good luck!

  • Needed these words. Thank you.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome:)

  • Raymond Cothern

    We are creatures of rhythms. Whether a busy summer of traveling and teaching or care-giving for months and months, when the pace changes we feel out of sorts, the previous chaos the norm, the emotions barely skin deep. Sometimes any physical movement helps, a walk outside, sometimes just going outside, down the driveway, the street, the country road. It doesn’t matter how long, minutes, and the focus changes. Later, in the evening, a shot of vodka has been known to help.

    • Danishapiro

      Wise words from RC:)

    • Louisa

      The Dalai Lama said that the key to living a fulfilling life is routines. I would have expected him to offer something more exalted, but that simple answer really rings true to me.

  • Glorious. And so true. I’ve found this summer to be a time of distraction, noise, professional obligation, private shpilkes, all of which I’ve had to live with while being on a major book deadline. I came away actually feeling guilty for needing and wanting to dive deep, to close out the world, to read, to focus, to shut out the noise. But there’s no other way. Jane Kenyon was right, as are you.

    • Danishapiro

      Yoga helps too, Elissa. Let’s meet one late afternoon or early evening over at that place in Watertown. I’ve been meaning and meaning to try it.

  • sheilatheauthor

    I have two more months of chaos and busy days, and lots of notes I will revisit when things slow down at the Inn and the cold returns. I haven’t “done” winter in three years now and never thought I would say this but i am looking forward to a large roaring fire, the quiet library, snow drifting past the large windows, and writing. Writing all day long.

    • Danishapiro

      I hesitate to say this, but winter is the BEST, Sheila. At least, best for the work. As long as the power doesn’t go out.

  • lolshelley

    Hi Dani. I have just finished reading Devotion.Wow! So much insight, such exquisite rawness and honesty in your writing. I am someone who holds a book as being sacred, no bent covers or coffee stains on the pages of my book collection. They remain pristine, honoured. But something happened during my reading of your memoir. I found myself bending corners of pages that struck me as profound, words and sentences I knew that I would want to revisit over and over again. At first I thought there would be just a handful of bent corners (in my mind that wouldn’t be too disrespectful) but now as the last page has been turned, I find myself with a book with equal parts perfect and bent corners. I have re-defined my idea of honouring a book. Defacing those crisp pages isn’t disrespecting them, it is paying homage to the wonder of the words contained within.

    Your post resonated deeply with me. I am working on my first novel and came into 2015 with renewed energy and motivation towards it. But somehow life keeps getting in the way. It’s not just work and running a home but dealing with the emotional fragilities of those I love leaves my mind unable to stop, quieten itself so that I can dive deep below the water to grasp those words. I am trying to meditate more but am struggling with that too. I would love to hear any suggestions you have. Shell.x

    • Danishapiro

      Hi Shell, I love hearing this — and take it as a supreme compliment when readers want to engage with my books in this way. It happens with my newest one, Still Writing, too. When people come up to me with coffee-stained dog-eared copies with post-its and scribbles all over the margins it just delights me. I find that I want that relationship more and more with the books I love. Thank you — and good luck with your work. As for meditation, there’s a terrific app called “Insight Timer.” Download it and see what you think!

      • lolshelley

        Thanks Dani. I will check out Insight Timer. Oh, and I adore Still Writing too! I am forever grateful to that book as it was the book that led me to all your other books! Your publishers really need to promote your books more here in Australia. I had to order Slow Motion and Devotion from Amazon as tragically they aren’t available here on Kindle or in book stores. I know that you would have a massive fan base here with your honest and eloquent writing. It is on my bucket list to one day come to the States and attend one of your writing workshops…but Australia is a truly beautiful place and would be perfect for a writer’s retreat…..just sayin’ <3

  • Springsteenfan

    I so needed this today. I have spent 18 of the last 22 days on the road. Finally heading home to be with the fam and flight is delayed 7 hours. I look forward to being very present for my kids but also to resting and restartingy yoga practice. Your writing feeds my soul!

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you! Good luck with your reentry:)

  • suzy vitello

    Thanks, Dani. I really needed to hear that today.

    • Danishapiro

      So glad to hear this, Suzy!

  • Beth Kephart

    Sending love and peace, Dani. And time.

    • Danishapiro

      Beth! Thanks. Lovely to hear from you. xxx

  • Thank you for this beautiful bit of guidance, Dani. Your timing is impeccable!

    • Danishapiro

      Glad to hear it, Melanie!

  • Belinda Shoemaker

    I am so grateful for this advice. Than you. Cherish yourself, Dani.

    • Danishapiro


  • Love the metaphor. “A carnival of distractions and enticements.” Yup, that just about sums of my life as a writer. Enjoy the final dog days, Dani.

    • Danishapiro

      You too, Evelyn!

  • Beautiful! I’m sharing this not just with my writer and artist friends but with those who might want to understand what it’s like (and why I need to turn down invitations).

  • Crista

    Dani- this is beautiful. Thank you for these words that helped me find that small, still voice inside yet again.