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.