Dani Shapiro
February 16, 2016

On the Submerged World

As I write, a hard rain is pelting against yesterday’s snow, and patches of dark green, wet stone, fallen twigs are visible just beneath fields of translucent ice. A world, submerged, slowly reveals itself. It reminds me of what it is to make a book – or, perhaps,  what it is to live a life.

A world – submerged – reveals itself.

It begins with noticing. Something buried rustles and stirs. If we’re quiet and attentive enough, we may notice the stirring. What is this? Perhaps we poke at it. Or maybe we turn our backs. Run away. We ignore it. Or we don’t notice at all.  We stick our fingers in our ears and hum a merry little tune. If we don’t notice, the noise might grow a bit louder, but maybe the contents of that submerged world – that beast  – will turn over and go back to sleep. At least for a little while.

The thing about the writing life – or any creative, contemplative, solitary life, really – is that merry little tunes don’t work. Not in the long run. Not even in the short run. What we ignore, we ignore at our own peril. What we embrace with courage, perseverance, humility, and clarity, becomes our instrument of illumination.  This is why I often say that when I’m not writing, I’m not well. What I mean by this is that my mind and my heart begin to become unknowable to me, because the way I come to know myself is through following the line of words until the ice melts, until the field once again becomes visible. Countless times, over the course of these thirty years of writing, I have looked back at a piece of my own work and realized: so that’s what I was thinking. That’s what I was feeling. I had no idea.

Sitting with the discomfort of not-knowing, of the fearless excavation, is not easy — but it is simple. Any meditation teacher will tell you that the moment you feel you want to jump up from your cushion and make sure the stove is turned off, or write something down you’re sure you’ll otherwise forget, or even open one eye to see how many minutes are left to go – that is precisely the moment to stay the course. To allow yourself to be pierced by whatever it is that’s just beneath that impulse. What longing? What uncomfortable thought? What sorrow? What desire? The only way we can know is to be still enough to find out.

It’s a life’s work, this revelation. I’ve come to understand that there is no destination. Just as each book teaches me only how to write that particular book – no more, no less – each season of my life has new lessons for me. Beneath the translucent ice, more is thawing.