On What it Takes

A number of years ago, I was seated next to a literary agent — not my own — at a dinner party.  At some point during our conversation, she asked every writer’s favorite question: what are you working on?  As it happened, I had recently begun working on a memoir.  No one was more surprised by this development than I.  My previous two books had been novels, and I had been waiting for the next novel to materialize, as a glimmer, a glimpse of something urgent in my imagination.  But that hadn’t happened. What happened was this word, D-E-V-O-T-I-O-N, literally spelled out in front of me one day as I practiced yoga.  I knew what it meant, and I wasn’t at all happy about it.  I hadn’t planned to ever write a second memoir.  I was a novelist.  A serious novelist.  The thought of writing another memoir — much less a spiritual memoir — was not what I had in mind.

The agent sat back in her chair and looked stricken, as if somehow my news affected her personally.

“But you can’t!  You’re getting such great attention for your novels.  You’ll lose your readers if you turn to memoir.”

The agent went so far as to call one of the editors who was interested in my new book to tell her she thought I — along with my actual agent — was making a mistake.

This stayed with me, haunted me, while I wrote Devotion. A writer in the midst of a book is nothing if not suggestible. But I had no choice. The book had chosen me. It had tapped me firmly on the shoulder, wedged its way into my consciousness, demanding my attention. The years I spent writing Devotion, I wondered if I was indeed making a mistake. Who was going to care about my idiosyncratic, complex, singular spiritual journey? What’s more, the book’s structure was also worrisome when it revealed itself. The book seemed to want to be written in small, almost puzzle-like pieces. I had always written in long, narrative sweeps. What the hell was this? I felt like my head was exploding. I felt doomed to write a book no one would read, told in fragmentary prose poems.

When Devotion eventually was published, it turned out that my fears – along with my dinner companion’s dismay – had been unfounded. The puzzle-like structure worked. Readers from all kinds of backgrounds responded to the story. That book and its reception in the world changed my life – not in a yippie-I-can-renovate-my-house kind of way, but in a much deeper way.  It brought me to an abiding, powerful understanding of the way we human beings –once we dig beneath our protective shells – are more similar than different.  The same worries keep us up at night.  The same fears and insecurities drive us.

Just this past weekend, in a workshop, I was discussing some manuscript pages of one of my students – a lovely writer who has been working on a memoir for the past ten years – and I wasn’t telling her what she wanted to hear.  What she wanted to hear was, of course, what we all want to hear, which is: this is magnificent, and your work here is done. After all, she had been working on the manuscript for ten years.  She had poured everything she had into it.  But her work wasn’t done. And as we began to talk about it, she told us she was trying not to cry.

And what I said in response was perhaps not the most teacherly thing I have ever said: I cry every day.

My students stared at me.  Many of them have been with me for years – some, for decades.  They had never heard me say anything like this before. But it was true, and I always try to tell the truth. Especially about writing, because, let’s face it, the writing life is hard. It’s solitary, often thankless, painful to the point of near-madness. It can look, from a distance, especially on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, like the writing life involves days bracketed by beautiful cups of cappuccino in the morning, perfect glasses of Priorat at night. It can look like conferences in fabulous, far-flung places, writers gaily cavorting at festivals wearing cute clothes. But the truth is a wee bit darker. The truth is that writers, if I may generalize, are sensitive, impatient, fearful people, sifting through the sands of the every day, panning for gold.  We never know what’s next.  The next book, the next sentence, the next word all reveal themselves to us in their own time, with their own peculiar alchemy.

If I had held on to my flimsy self-identity – I’m a novelist – I wouldn’t have written Devotion. If I’d held onto the pages I was working on a couple of years ago, ones that weren’t working, I wouldn’t have written Still Writing. And now, as I sit here on the chaise on a gloomy day, my eyes still bleary with sleep, the weight of my new work pressing against me from all sides, the questions lining up, the old terror, my inner censor screaming no, no, no, not this, you can’t, you mustn’t, I find I have less and less patience for impatience — from others, from myself.  This is the way it is, to try to make something out of nothing. This is the price of admission. This is what it is, to press against the bruise — I am pressing now — with no reward other than the doing, and the hope that bruise will bloom.

 

  • Leigh Stein

    Hi Dani, you don’t know me…I’m a writer who just moved from Brooklyn to Connecticut. I’d been thinking about taking your workshop at Yogapata this weekend because I’m a big fan of your writing. This blog post pushed me over the edge! Looking forward to meeting you on Sunday, and thanks for writing this.

  • Lindsey Ruby

    I love this.

    • Danishapiro

      :)))

  • Gail Hudson

    Thanks, Dani. This reminds me that I’m not alone in switching genres, in writing a memoir for a long time that seems to have chosen me, and , of course, in all the tears. <3

    • Danishapiro

      Good luck, Gail. You are far from alone.

  • Beautiful! May the tears you shed help others to do the same. The places in my own memoir where I cried in the writing are now the places readers underline. Deep calls to deep.

    • Danishapiro

      Lovely, Shirley. Thanks.

  • Joanne Luongo

    Thank you for your bravery, your authenticity, for being REAL!

    • Danishapiro

      The older I get, the realer I get. Sort of like a writerly velveteen rabbit.

      • Joanne Hus

        “a writerly velveteen rabbit.” What a beautiful image!

  • katrinakenison

    Trying to make something of nothing — it really doesn’t ever get any easier. But I can’t tell you how comforting it is to know that you’re there, shedding your own tears, feeling your own fears, wondering if the next sentence will come and whether it will lead to another one after that. Thank you for this post my friend. Well timed, well timed.

    • Danishapiro

      I always love it when something I write resonates with you, my dear Katrina. Friend, kindred spirit. xxx

  • conscious_blog

    This: “The truth is that writers, if I may generalize, are sensitive, impatient, fearful people, sifting through the sands of the every day, panning for gold.”

    So much truth here. Beautiful post.

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you.

  • Sharon Van Epps

    Another great post. Thank you.

    • Danishapiro

      Hi, Sharon:) You’re welcome.

  • Oh, Dani. Your timing is perfect. As agents tell me my writing itself is great, but memoirs are a tough sell if you’re not a public figure–I try not to pout, not to cry, not to stomp my feet like a toddler:). And these are not my modus operandi. But, I think this is probably part of the test for all of us. Our story resonates with those who need to hear it, but not with everyone–and much beautiful work sees the spotlight that many an agent thought would not be easily sold. I’m glad you persisted–and I plan to also:).

    • Danishapiro

      Well what those agents are telling you is simply not true. Great memoirs are rarely written by public figures. Where do I begin? This Boy’s Life, Duke of Deception, Patrimony, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Night of the Gun, I could go on and on… I also believe that good books find a way. Best of luck!

  • JennieB121

    <3 It means so much hearing this from you, Dani. And I guess JK Rowling was right – the wand chooses the wizard.

    • Danishapiro

      Indeed!

  • sheilatheauthor

    Thank you, Dani. I just self-published my third novel and I am in that open space where I am looking for my next story. This is when I always feel anxious. Will another idea come to me? But I go about my days, eyes and mind wide open, looking for the next hook.

    This time while I am in the lull, I am in the process of a major life change. Today is my last day working as a full time bookkeeper. It is a champagne kind of day for I am leaving a career that was always more a job that paid the bills. My husband and I are moving to Connecticut to run an inn where I dream of writing more novels in my free time and opening the place up to other writers for workshops and craft talks. I imagine many stories will come through my door.

    As always when I am in-between books, i will be re-reading Still Writing. It helps me get through that empty place when I haven’t found my next story. Thank you for writing that book.

    • Danishapiro

      You are so welcome, Sheila. Good luck being in the in-between.

  • Jenny Douglas

    What a beautiful post!

    • Danishapiro

      I appreciate this, Jenny!

  • txcg

    Bravo

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you.

  • PrairieBren

    Sensitive, impatient, fearful. Sounds like someone I know real well. Loved this post.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks! 🙂

  • Dona Bolding

    Dani, you are one of the kindest souls I know. I love you. And look, there’s Leigh Stein in the comment just below! I love Leigh, too. We did a karaoke to the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” in which she sang and I danced. Picture it!

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you, Dona. You’re such a delight. And I love it when friend find each other in a comments section. Writers doing karaoke! xx

  • I am so grateful for this post! Thank you! “Who was going to care about my idiosyncratic, complex, singular spiritual journey?” — I think about this all the time. But we’ve cared to read others, right? We’ve needed those stories? Yes.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re so welcome, Laura. And exactly right.

  • Vicky Lorencen

    Keeping obeying those firm shoulder taps. Keep pressing. Semper deinceps. Forever forward.

    • Danishapiro

      Indeed. Thanks.

  • katiejdevine

    Thank you, Dani. Your willingness to press against the bruise, and to write about and share the often painful process inspires me to keep sifting through the sands, and to keep pressing my own bruises. Reading this should be my daily meditation. Thank you. xx

    • Danishapiro

      Sending you a big hug, Katie.

  • lauracatherinebrown

    Dani, this is a beautiful essay. Thank you for sharing it. Patience without reward day after day because the doing is the reward. Or so I keep telling myself–and your voice makes me feel less alone. So I’m coining a letter for that screaming impatient harridan who’s as intimate to me as she is to you: Dear Inner Censor, shut the fuck up!

    • Danishapiro

      Hey, Laura — and yes, exactly! Sometimes, shouting works.

  • Beautifully said, Dani. Thank you so much for sharing so much of your heart with us. And here I thought I was the only one. 🙂

    • Danishapiro

      You’re so welcome:)))

  • Jenn Mariano

    Thank you for being one of the writers I had the pleasure of learning from this weekend. I faced the “what are you working on?” question for the first time there. & thank you for these words as I reflect on that question and face that work today.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome, Jenn. Best of luck with your work.

  • Elaine Mansfield

    Thank you. Tears come whether or not I write, but they keep me sane. The loneliness of the life I’ve chosen can bring me to my knees, and maybe that’s just where I need to be when I write.

    • Danishapiro

      :))))

  • Gratitude for this post is overflowing here. My tears are never outward; always on the inside. Yet for all the reasons you reference. Currently, it’s my first memoir in progress now for 7 or 8 years, and still seeming like a jumble. How can I thank you enough for your words shared? I suppose to just write!

    • Danishapiro

      Precisely, Sherrey.

  • ayala

    A beautiful post. I am always drawn to your kindness and honesty. You inspire ! Hugs.

    • Danishapiro

      Hugs back. :))

  • colettesartor

    Thank you for this. It reminds me of why I keep writing, even when in doubt.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome. Thanks for taking the time to tell me.

  • Raymond Cothern

    Oh, I am just running out of smart things to say in appreciation when you post such piercingly honest gems about writing. As I was reading about crying daily from all of the doubts that surround us, it occurred to me why you have so many of us that want to hear what you have to say. You have an innate ability to put your finger on the bruises living delivers all too often. You make us all feel that the pain is the connective tissue between us all. As writers we have to continually push on the bruise and record through tears exact descriptions of why it hurts.

    • Danishapiro

      Raymond, please never stop writing to me. Okay? Thank you. This is beautiful.

  • Dani,

    Thank you. With so few words, you help writers feel less alone. That is a gift. xo

    • Danishapiro

      I’m so glad, Rudri. Thanks.

  • jenna

    Wow! I cry every day too, at least I have for the past year. I’ve been in the midst of major and so far treatment resistant depression. Two things keep me going: my teen daughter who needs her mom, even though I haven’t been the normal, happy mom she was used to; and the thought that, once I am on the other side of this, god willing, I will write about it and be able to help people find hope amid hopelessness and desperation. I hope that comes soon because it’s a very tough road. Thanks dani.

    • Danishapiro

      Wishing you healing, Jenna. Thanks for writing. Hang in there.

  • Adam Friedman

    Wow. Wow. Wow. Namaste.

    • Danishapiro

      Namaste, Adam. Thanks.

  • Denise Ullem

    Oh yes. Nodding at the truth and steeping in gratitude that you wrote it. xoxoxo

    • Danishapiro

      xxx, Denise.

  • Kurt Proctor

    I love the idea of conferences in fabulous, far flung places.
    I love the idea of gaily cavorting as festivals.
    I love the idea of beautiful cups of cappuccino in the morning.
    But they are like the tiny chocolate truffle at the end of an arduous meal of saltine crackers.
    …glad I like crackers.
    Thanks Dani!

    • Danishapiro

      Me too, Kurt:) Thanks.

  • You sound like a wonderful humane teacher. I bet you sent that writer who’d worked on her memoir for ten years back to the work, after those tears…Ever since grad school tears have seemed to be part of my process. (It took me 30 to work out my first novel. Ugh. I was sent back to work after tears many times but oh the things I learned in those revisions.) Thank you for the honesty of this.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome, Katie. Thanks for writing.

  • Dr. Liz Alexander

    Thank you so much for your honesty, Dani. You are so right. Books choose us. Creating something of quality takes time and dedication to supplying the right “nutrients,”– the same needs a baby has in the womb, before being ready to be birthed. That’s something that the “marketers” out there who have–or at least are trying to –taint book writing and publishing with their “knock a book out in a weekend” and “find out what your audience wants and give it to them” tactics just don’t understand. So I applaud you for sticking to your guns in light of that agent’s comments about your memoir. Just goes to show you–not even the “professionals” and the “experts” know what they’re talking about sometimes, in this madcap world of writing and creating we’ve chosen to live in. Brava on the much deserved success of Devotion. Because that’s what you showed: D E V O T I O N!

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, this is lovely, LIz. Thank you. I would go so far as to say that marketers, agents, editors can never tell us what to write. That is an inside job. I’m glad you wrote.

  • L. Donsky-Levine

    always love, love, love your pearls of wisdom and the honesty wrapped around them.

    • Danishapiro

      Thank you!

  • susie klein

    OMGoodness. I now have tears as i read your description of Devotion. I need to read this book! My tears are because I am working on a book that I could not fit into a genre. My spiritual journey, told by beginning each chapter with an event between me and God and then ending with an application to the readers’ life and a prayer. But it does not feel like a traditional devotional or a memoir.
    Anyway, happy that I found you and look forward to wandering around your website today! Thank you. Susie

  • Victoria Mizen

    Thank you Dani. I have recently published my first novel ‘The Green Velvet Dress’ after about twenty five years of writing and re-writing it. The next one won’t take nearly so long, partly because I feel more confident and hopeful after meeting writers like you on line and learning that we all go through the same doubts. Producing a book is like producing a baby, isn’t it? Then we have to offer our baby to the world and hope at least some people will love it, at least enough to read it, and perhaps tell us how much and why.

  • Seldom do I finish reading an entire blog post, especially one of a writer I’m unfamiliar with. I am so happy to have found your blog because I needed to hear this. It is a struggle to remain disciplined and to understand why some of my pieces turn out so drastically different from others. When my mother tells me, “I don’t get it,” I don’t have to give up writing that particular poem. To someone else, its fragmented form or sparse imagery will make sense. Thanks, Dani.

  • Loved reading about your experience for “Devotion.” Books do find us, we just have to have the guts to write them when they knock at our doors.

  • I was just directed to this post and want to thank you for speaking so well for all of us writers. I’ve just finished the third draft of a memoir and cried almost every day – both for the story I was telling and the fear that I was not a good enough writer to tell it. I’m sure I’ll cry through the next three. I’ll take a break and go on to some other projects, but each day I will have the fear that I will never write a decent sentence ever again, and if I do then I fear that it will not be anything anyone else would want to read. But I write it anyway.

  • Inspiring story! A similar memoir is forcing its way out of me. I have no idea if it will ever get published or lost on the pages of Amazon, but writing it has been an amazing and enriching journey. Editing is a little more tedious.