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.

  • Starla J. King

    my god, Dani… *chills* … CONGRATULATIONS and thank you for letting us see the words in your head.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Starla!

  • kfuphoto

    it seems very much the same for all creatives. I can relate to this as well….

    • Danishapiro

      I agree it’s the same for all creatives. Only the details are different…

  • Congratulations!

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks!

  • Lesley Dormen

    I feel honored to have received that same generosity from you, Dani.
    And here you go…I’ll be rooting for you from the dugout (currently my bed), a team member cheering you on. And oh yes, to read the new book, the physical object with the beautiful cover, on its way to me right now. With love and friendship.

    • Danishapiro

      I’m enjoying thinking of you in your bed/dugout cheering me on. Right back at you! xx

  • Rudri Patel @ Being Rudri

    Congratulations, Dani. I cannot wait to devour every word. xoxo

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Rudri!

  • Linda K. Wertheimer

    Dani, what a beautiful post, and so true. We writers do not need to be competitive with each other. We need to support each other. I am blesses to have many writers friends, near and far away, who know how to be there when I need them and know when I just need that quiet time and space to write. Not to mention, I’m in the Boston area, home of the amazing Grub Street organization. Congrats on your latest book. Sounds like yet another eloquent gem. – Linda

    • Danishapiro

      Linda, thanks. By the way I’ll be at the Booksmith next Wednesday evening! I hope you can make it.

  • Susan Barr-Toman

    Lovely. I think it was John Cheever who said, “Writing is not a competitive sport.”

    • Danishapiro

      Love that. Thanks.

  • What a beautiful post. Congratulations–celebrating the publication of your new book with you from afar (separately in solitude :D)!

    • Danishapiro

      Lovely. This day has been full of such wonderful kinship and support. Thank you.

  • Chris

    I have been anticipating October 1 ever since I learned ‘Still Writing’ would be coming out today. I live in Mexico so won’t be able to buy my hard copy until I go to the States. This copy will I know for sure sit by my writing desk filled with highlighted words, notes-to-self in the margins and tattered corners. Until then I am happily downloading the ebook version. Your writing always inspires me. Thank you and congratulations. Oh, and an extra Oct.1 bonus, it’s my husband’s birthday. A big celebration day, all around.

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, thank you so much. And HBD to your husband!

  • Diane Travers

    You are generous in spirit & that is a wonderful thing. I am too. I find I’m happiest when generous & I notice a constriction within when I’ve been a bit stingy with someone. Good luck with your new book. I look forward to reading it. Mine doesn’t exist yet, but I truly believe it will.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Diane…

  • ayala

    Congratulations, Dani. You are a generous spirit and I feel it in your words. Beautiful.

    • Danishapiro

      Smiling at this.

      • ayala

        Keep smiling 🙂

  • Wendy Bradford

    what a lovely, encouraging story! I can’t wait to start your new book.

    • Danishapiro

      I hope you enjoy it!

  • Priscilla Warner

    Two years ago, I found myself worn out after writing an extremely personal memoir, and obligated to find people to blurb it. I don’t hang out with a lot of writers. One woman I approached was at least honest. “I only blurb books for friends,” was her response.

    But somehow I worked up the courage to approach a writer I admired greatly – Dani Shapiro – for a blurb. I’d heard her speak and felt a kinship.

    Dani, I smiled when I read this post. You are my Tim O’Brien! I hope that you know how much I treasure the beautiful email you sent me, along with your generous blurb. You are the real deal. A writer, a mentor, and a friend to so many. Your huge heart and integrity inspire me and move me.

    Your book is due to arrive in my mailbox tomorrow. Hooray!

    Congratulations on your pub day!

    I send you much love.

    And, always, gratitude.

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, Priscilla. This is the real deal — things coming full circle. I so believe in this, and it makes me happy to read these words. xxx

  • Kate Connors

    What a lovely reflection — on a day that you could be “all about you” — congratulations! — you are reaching out to others. I am buried in the busyness that keeps me from the meaningful solitude I crave… I find encouragement in your gentle humility. I attended a talk you gave this summer in Provincetown (FAWC) and was struck then by your generosity and encouragement of others. Best to you with your projects, and thank you. Kate Connors

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Kate! I always like hearing about these threads that connect all of us. Glad you were at that talk at the FAWC. What a lovely evening that was.

  • Daggi Wallace

    I’m not a writer, but a visual artist and completely relate to what you’re saying. I feel the same way about all artists!

    • Danishapiro

      Indeed! All artists! Thanks.

  • Maura Casey

    Dani,
    One of my closest friends, Connie Schultz, just posted this on facebook. I have to tell you that I’ve never read anything about writing that struck this combination of shouted truth and church bells in my life. Connie and I are both writers; we both support each other, and read each others’ precious words – like you, I am in Connecticut, she in Ohio. There’s so much about our work that those who don’t string words like beads will never understand. You articulated our journey better than anything I have read in a long time – and brought tears to my eyes. Congratulations, and I can’t wait to read your book.

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, thank you so much, Maura. This means a lot.

  • Miranda Gargasz

    I began reading this and started to squirm in my seat. All this time I thought my social awkwardness and love of solitude was because I was just an odd duck. This absolutely makes me feel I’m part of a community. It’s nice to know that as I “labor in obscurity.” Thank you for this!

    • Danishapiro

      You’re so welcome!

  • pau wilson

    Wonderful piece. Especially love the phrase “lousy with writers.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks:)

  • Diane Brandis Scavuzzo

    amazing and beautiful

  • Ryder Ziebarth

    Wow, Dani. You made me really feel like a writer. I am one of the obscure ones, but I walk the walk, every day.And when I talk the talk, I want it to be with others in my tribe– so hard to find amidst our hayfields of central NJ. Thank you for making me feel that what I do is real and tangible, I am not alone, and my tribe is out there.

  • Penny

    Thank you for this beautiful piece Dani. As a 20-year-old Australian girl working tirelessly trying to write my first book, your words resonate with me on the other side of the world- from Connecticut to Sydney. Thanks for this. I have printed it out and hung it in my room as a daily reminder that I’m apart of a global writing community 🙂

  • Lara

    “Every good book you’ll ever read has the thumbprints of other writers all over it.” A lovely reminder!

  • The Black Tortoise

    I will hold this post in my heart as I await responses from my beta-readers. My first novel.

    By the way, I got a beautiful and supportive rejection letter from Cynthia Platt. My non-writer friends laugh that this pleases me. Encouragement in the solitude is like raindrops to the thirsty.

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  • Joy

    Those early words of encouragement from established authors we love are so important aren’t they…

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  • gluttonforlife

    Thank you for reminding me why I write and why I read.

  • LindseyOConnor

    Dani, generosity is the glue of our tribe. Our profession is so lonely, yet we feed on the solitude even when we want to get out into the world. Knowing that our tribe is there, doing what we do, and loving it even in our chosen quiet, is solace. Thanks for your beautiful post. And thanks for sharing this story of generosity.

  • Erin Ryan Burdette

    Dani,
    This reached me on the perfect day. I am in the coffee shop, lousy with obscurity. One of those days–my daughter at preschool a precious few hours, the clock bearing down on me, think of something fabulous before 2:00, Erin, how many days will pass until you’ll be able to write again?!–toiling to organize what is spilling through my brain onto the page in a way that warrants being shared with people and not just a journal entry. LIke that line between funny and pathetic, genius and crazy, this place is an art to get to, at times unbearably fuzzy. AND (not but!) I am exactly where I need to be, and I am not alone, and that makes all the difference.

    Much love to you and sweet Jacob and Michael. I am in the dugout with Lesley, cheering you on like that embarrassing mother screaming crazy from the stands!–E

  • I just love this. It’s easy to feel like we need to compare ourselves to others, but you’re so right. We’re in this together. We understand the unique joys and challenges of this life. And we need to help others, like we’ve been helped. 🙂 Thanks for stating it so well.

  • Alexandra Magalhães Zeiner

    Dear Dani,
    A dear friend, in Holland, sent me your article and I would like to share what I’m doing for “the tribe” members I had the opportunity to meet past years: http://www.adoptanauthor.brjp.org
    Right now we’re a small group, but I found out we’re all over the world.
    Thanks for sharing, hopefully we can “create” new ways to support each other, wherever we are!
    Cheers,
    Alexandra

  • Jim Ellis

    Ms Shapiro,

    Greetings from Scotland, I saw your name in Brian Pickings, and followed up. Wonderful stuff. Labouring alone can be trying, but your words reminded me that I have friends: my teacher in NYC; a writer friend in Miami, and another in Boston. None here in the Homeland, but that’s OK.

    Birthday next Saturday, with Mr God’s permission; your book is on the list.

    Kind regards,

    Jim Ellis

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