On What it Means to Grow

The night before Devotion was published, I was alone in a hotel room in New York, anticipating the next morning, when I’d be appearing on The Today Show to promote the book.  My mind was a see-saw, teetering back and forth between excitement and abject terror.  Who the hell was I? What did I know? What right did I have to be an authority on anything? I was pretty sure The Today Show had made a mistake and booked me in error. It was a classic case of imposter syndrome, sure, but it felt very real.

I couldn’t fall asleep.  I called my friend the great Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein at her home on the west coast, where it was three hours earlier and stuttered out my fears to her.  After a gentle pause on the other end of the phone, Sylvia delivered a sentence I’ve never forgotten.

“Sweetheart, you’ve written a book about what you know now.”

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I felt instantly liberated by Sylvia’s wisdom. After all, we can only know what we know now, right? Implicit in this is the idea that we can only work with what we have, and our truth is built on that limited understanding. I took this to heart, and have repeated it to students over the years. Recently a student asked me how to handle the fact that in the time that it takes to write a book, we change, we grow. The self who finishes a book is not the same self who started it. And so, how do we reconcile these selves? How do we continue to evolve when what we know also continues to evolve? If we are our own instrument – we are the viola, the cello, the paintbrush, the chisel – how do we continue to tune ourselves when life changes us?

In the past month, I have made a profound, seismic, traumatic discovery. I don’t say this to scare anyone. I’m not ill, thank god, nor is anyone I love. My little family is perfectly fine, healthy, intact.  But nonetheless I have learned something that has rocked me to the core, and has changed everything about what I have ever known to be true.  This may sound dramatic — because it is. At the same time that this discovery is shattering for me, it is also – I recognize, even in my shock and grief – a stunning and remarkable opportunity to learn and to grow.  Because all I have ever done, all I have ever been able to do with heartache is to make meaning from it.  I could fall apart, I suppose.  I could cave, collapse.  I could succumb to despair.  To cruelty and disregard.  But instead, I will attempt to do what I’ve always done.  In the quiet aftermath, using nothing but language – the only tool I have – I will write my way into it and through it, and discover how the pieces fit together anew.

Wallace Stegner, a grower if there ever was one, wrote this: “Largeness is a lifelong matter… You grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly because if it doesn’t, its teeth grow long and lock. You grow because you are a grower; you’re large because you can’t stand to be small.”

Here’s to growing, my friends. It’s all we can do.

  • Laurie J Lockhart

    Lovely. We are seeds of potential and growing unlocks our destiny.
    You, are brilliant!

    • Danishapiro

      :)))

  • Eileen Obser

    Excellent blog, Dani. I’ll be sharing this with my memoir writing students and colleagues, and rereading it for myself. So well expressed.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Eileen!

  • Love this so much, and you!

    • Danishapiro

      Love you too, Ally. Let’s have another cappuccino at Luxxe very soon! xoxo

  • ayala

    Amen! All we can do is grow. xox

    • ayala

      I am sorry for the heartache but I have faith in your will to learn and grow. I hope everything will work itself out.

      • Danishapiro

        Thanks, Ayala!

  • Even for writers of memoir, who spend our creative lives unpacking our histories, unraveling and trying to make sense of them, life necessitates forward-moving and growing; our pasts invariably illuminate our present and our future, and not always/never easily or comfortably. This is what makes us human and earthly. Your beautiful blog post is laden with wisdom and seismic pain, which usually travel hand in hand. As Stegner said, You grow because you are a grower. With every book, with every essay, with every story, that’s what you do, and you share it with us, which is a profound gift. In this difficult and challenging time, you have the unwavering support of your scores of readers, fans, friends, and family; you have given us all so much, and we thank you.

    • Danishapiro

      This brought tears to my eyes, Elissa. xoxo

  • Mathias Dubilier

    Dani, There are two kinds of discoveries: those which are the rewards at the end of a intended voyage or search, and those which trigger a departure from what we know. You write of having the latter discovery, the one which forces you to depart from what you knew and forces you into a search. From what little I know of you, I know how much stability means to you and thus how devastating it is to be, once again, thrust out into the unknown. I’m so sorry to hear you are suffering. All my thoughts and good wishes are with you. From what little I know of you, I know that you have the exact emotional tools to navigate this unknown once you get through the storm of its full impact and implications. Words from your most inner core of yourself will be your guide and salvation. I have confidence you will lead yourself to new discoveries; new knowns. … And thanks, once again, for being so courageous in sharing and making yourself so vulnerable in this revelation to all of us, so that we can be reminded that us writers all have it within us to rely on words as our navigational tools in our darkest hours. Take care, -Mathias

    • Danishapiro

      Mathias, this is beautiful, lucid, and very kind of you. It truly means a great deal. Thank you.

  • Claire Olsen

    Dear Dani, First I’d like to say, I always enjoy your blog entries. Thank you for taking the time to generously share your thoughts and wisdom. I find it so helpful. I had two thoughts as well. I have recently been thinking about the big grief of life, the kind that rocks you to your core as you said, in terms of Niagara Falls. It was something I read in a book called Everyday Grace in which the author said “People enjoyed the beauty of Niagara Falls long before its hydroelectric power lit whole cities. Today, we know there is love in our hearts, but we have only begun to scratch the surface of how we can use it to restore and transform our world.” It can be a radical shift to see “Niagara Falls” size grief as something beautiful, but if we can, I think we, I, would be more able to creatively imagine how something useful (like hydroelectric power) could possibly manifest from heartache. The other thought is in relation to the work you do connecting writing, transformation and meditation. I don’t know if you look at Pico Iyer’s blog as well, but he has a piece in the section called “The Writing Life” called “Writing Undoes Me,” where he says: “Writing is a form of meditation, I sometimes tell myself (though no doubt I could say the opposite the next day). But it’s a form that deconstructs itself, so finally you come to feel that writing is just the convulsive exercise you do to get to the place where all writing ceases.” Perhaps you might enjoy the whole essay too. You guys seem to be kindred spirits of sorts. Yours warmly, Claire Olsen.

    • Danishapiro

      Claire, thanks for these thoughts, which prompted me to head over to Pico Iyer’s blog. I do feel a kinship with his work and hadn’t realized such a treasure trove existed.

  • Helayne Short

    Hi Dani, I’m really sorry to read that you’re suffering and are in a state of turmoil. I wish you strength, courage and peace.

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you so much, Helayne.

      • Helayne Short

        I must also say Dani, I gifted a copy of Still Writing to a friend, a beginner like me, and she has found it an incredibly valuable ‘tool’ and inspiring; and keeps going back to it, as do I. Once again thanks for Still Writing, such a great book, which my dramturg Francesca Smith put me onto. I wish you well. Helayne

  • Diane

    I’ve just read Still Writing for the second time. Only a few pages in, I knew my 42-year-old daughter needed your book (for many reasons, writing and otherwise) and I sent her a copy. She loved it. While I had returned to your book for your wisdom about writing, I also was clear that your observations about writing are applicable to conducting a life – through its easy times, its disappointments, its challenges. I benefit from your encouragement to keep at it and to practice compassion when we fail. When I read today about your recent “traumatic discovery,” it made me feel kind of nauseous. Probably because I just finished Still Writing and not long ago read Slow Motion for the first time. I think I am feeling protective of you (useless as that is!), and I am wishing you the time and space and energy and whatever else you need (time off?) to inhabit this life which somehow now has altered everything you knew to be true. On a good day, I can think that all this business of growth is great; on other days, I want to scream, “Enough!” Today I wish you didn’t have to endure this difficult part. You have offered valuable guidance and encouragement to so many of us who don’t know you personally. I’d like to think that you might benefit in some karmic way from that generosity. Take care, Dani.

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you, Diane. I’m very touched by this — more than I can say.

  • Stunning. Thank you, Dani! xo

  • Karey B. Shaffer

    HI Dani,

    I read your book Devotion. I found it very interesting, being that I grew up in Monsey, as you mentioned you’ve been there. I’m currently writing a book about my own journey through understanding my religious upbringing, my arranged marriage, and the devastating pain it brought upon me. I thought it would be very interesting for you to read how my spiritual perspective evolved…. I thought I would contact you about it sometime… reading your post now.. I am wondering if now would be a good time.. it may prove very inspirational and enlightening for you…