Dani Shapiro
August 22, 2021

Two Strangers With a Stunningly Intimate Connection Walk Into a Restaurant…

This is All on the Table, a column featuring writers we love sharing stories of food, conflict, and community.

The choice of restaurant was important. It needed to be not too large, not too small. Not too noisy but not oppressively quiet either. Not formal but definitely not casual. And no hovering waiters. We needed to be free of interruption. The cuisine? There had been some discussion over email: Greek? French? Italian? We chose easy, cozy Italian. The geographical parameters were also specific. My lunch date would be staying in New Jersey for a few days, just a two-hour drive from my home in Connecticut.

I obsessed over every detail. How would I greet him? Shake his hand? Give him a hug? Who should pick up the check at the end of the meal? The lunch loomed in my calendar for months, eclipsing all else. The possible faux pas seemed endless. Even the most updated edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette does not contain an entry for how to behave when meeting one’s biological father for the first time at the age of 54.

And then the day arrived. The four of us—my husband and me, my biological father and his wife of 50 years—convened at a dark, bustling suburban restaurant in Teaneck, New Jersey. I had called ahead and asked for a quiet table. The maître d’ asked if it was a special occasion. Yes, it was. Birthday? Anniversary? Not quite. Just special. As the four of us settled in, I was aware that other diners, if they noticed us at all, would assume that we were a family. I looked just like him.

I scrolled through faded black-and-white photographs. A handsome couple (my biological grandparents!) in front of a Midwestern farmhouse. An elegant white-haired man (my great-grandfather!) looking solemnly at the camera, in the manner of the day. The ancestors I had grown up believing were mine had come from an Eastern European shtetl.

As I began to digest what I was seeing, my phone rang. It was our teenage son, calling to see how lunch had gone. I handed the phone to my biological father and introduced him to his grandson. Their words may have been polite, almost inane—it’s nice to meet you, it’s nice to meet you too—but the air around the table was charged with the energy of worlds coming full circle.

We lingered over cappuccinos and a few shared desserts I no longer recall. Cheesecake? Tiramisu? My stomach was in knots. It was nearly dusk by the time we left. My husband and I walked them to their car, all of us with the sense that this was the beginning of something, not the end. I would soon be on a book tour, which would take me out West to their city. “We’ll come to your reading!” they said. We hugged goodbye. Collapsing into the passenger seat, my relief that it had gone so well—that I liked the man I came from—made me suddenly ravenous.

A few minutes from home, we pulled into our favorite spot, the Mayflower Inn, a grand country hotel where we’d spent many long evenings over the years. We grabbed a table in the taproom. The pianist played Thelonious Monk. I ordered a vodka martini dry with olives. My life, my history, the whole of my childhood and the secrets my parents kept swirled around me, invisible, silent, shocking. When I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room, the face staring back at me in the mirror told a brand-new story. I felt strange, floaty, not quite myself—whatever “myself” now meant.

In the meantime it was comfort food I was after: the Bibb salad with Gorgonzola, frizzled shallots, and tomatoes—a house specialty so beloved that locals have been known to revolt when it’s not on the menu. It had been a while since anything had tasted quite so perfect. Then, a bacon cheeseburger with crisp french fries. And one more martini. Hiraeth. All my life I’d carried a strange, undefinable longing without knowing why. Now I knew why. My eyes stung as I reached for my husband’s hand across the candlelit table. No matter how painful, I recognized this accidental discovery as a gift. A rare opportunity to understand the fault lines in my own history, and perhaps even to liberate myself from what had long haunted me.

December 13, 2020

The Corona Correspondences

March 23, 2020

Dear Adam,

We weren’t supposed to meet like this. We were supposed to meet in Nashville next month at a benefit for a local literary organization. I had all sorts of plans for that trip: a pretty dress, a date with a friend to go hear Hayes Carll play some music. Our names were already on a list. Plans! My life was so full of them. When my book came out last year, my publisher created a Google Doc with my tour schedule. Every morning, I’d wake up and consult it to see where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do.

But since I’m much more a creature of paper and pen, I also kept an old-fashioned Filofax in which I’d fill in the upcoming weeks. March: San Antonio, Steamboat Springs, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris. April: Philadelphia, Nashville, Sydney. And so on. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I don’t like to cross things out on my paper calendar. It offends my sense of order. So, over the years, I’ve devised a system. I take mailing labels and cut them into strips. Then I take these strips and cover over the canceled events. Et voila! Order is restored.

As I begin to write you this letter, it’s late afternoon in Connecticut on the kind of perfect early spring day when the birdsong is just a bit . . . chirpier, and the branches of the maple tree out back are beginning to redden. A few daffodils and snowdrops have pushed their way up through the soil. They don’t know it’s meant to snow tomorrow. They don’t know that the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in our state is now at 233, with the assumption that there are many, many more people who are infected, contagious, and haven’t been tested. They haven’t studied the flatten-the-curve graphs. Out my window, a crow caws.

Let’s back up a moment. Three weeks ago, a friend who knows that I lead a writers’ conference in Italy texted me. You’ve seen? She attached one of the first pieces about the outbreak in the Lombardy region, in the north. We, I smugly wrote her, were going to be in the south.

This same friend, who knew that I had upcoming travel, urged me to buy pajamas to wear on the flight, and then discard in the airport bathroom after disembarking. She strongly suggested I get a mask, and not just any mask, but the N95 one. And Hefty bags, she said. Cover your seat with Hefty bags.

I was irritated with this friend.

There is no order. I know this, of course. I have observed myself for much of my adult life as I’ve tried to dance with uncertainty, deny it, push it away, only to have plans upended, loved ones fall ill, hopes dashed. I meditate each morning, and when I sit with my eyes closed in lotus position, I try to watch my mind as it races from thought to thought like a cooped-up puppy. Most of our minds do a version of this racing. The more melancholy of us tend to lean back into the past. (Regret, recrimination, longing, grief.). The more anxious among us trip forward into the future. (Anxiety, worry, agitation, terror.) No one who knows me would be surprised that I fall into the latter category.

Now it’s the next day. I’m sitting in a big leather chair in my library at home. Ice pelts the rooftop. The daffodils and snowdrops are nowhere to be seen beneath a film of white. With me in my home are my husband and college sophomore son. Jacob has returned from London, where he was spending a semester abroad. All through January and February, he would FaceTime me from the Tube, pubs, clubs, various European cities. A quiet alarm was sounding in the background as I saw his beautiful, young, happy face on my phone’s screen, but I ignored it. Wash your hands, I told him. Stop touching your face. Two Wednesdays ago, he went to a production of Hamilton in the West End, and afterward, to a blues club. On the double-decker bus home, he saw the news about the travel ban, the NBA season cancellation, the announcement that Tom Hanks had the virus. That night, he booked a ticket home.

My husband Michael had cancer last year, and not just a little bout—a terrifying, life-threatening diagnosis that entailed seven months of treatment and radical surgery. He survived, and seemingly in a gift from the universe (if we believe in gifts from the universe) a film project he had been working on for five years came together like magic, with a stellar cast, fabulous producers. He was in LA, in the midst of that rarest time in the life of a filmmaker: a green-lit film. The one-year anniversary of his diagnosis was that same Wednesday. I posted about it on Instagram, earlier in the day. Last year, a nightmare. This year, a dream, I am embarrassed to say I wrote this. Why embarrassed? Embarrassed to believe? To hope? To trust even provisionally in a future?

Michael’s film shut down with seven days left to go. He packed up, his crew broke down sets, stored props, his actors flew home to their respective families. They’ll finish, everyone says. But this, even this, becomes small, the tiniest of tiny, personal concerns, when set against the backdrop of this pandemic. I bolt upright at 4:30 each morning—I hardly need to even look at the clock any more—and think about Italian bodies piled into churches; health-care workers and how frightened they must be; the woman who cuts my hair at a downtown salon in New York City, who is a single mom; the friends with small businesses that don’t translate to a virtual platform. The divide between essential and non-essential. I also think about all the people out there who still think this is a hoax, or a political ploy, or that it doesn’t apply to them. My husband texted today with a nurse he became friends with during his ordeal. The New York City hospital ward where he was treated has now been turned into COVID triage. “What would have happened if I’d had the surgery now?” he asked the nurse. “You would have been in another ward. And you would have been scared shitless,” she said.

So far my two men are symptom-free. They are self-quarantined, and the three of us are practicing that new phrase that already feels tired: social distancing. I even sent our dog to his groomer because I was afraid his fluffy white fur (oh how I miss him) could be a vector. Vector! Also a word I’ve never used. Amazing the way language springs up around catastrophe. I long to wrap my son in my arms. I long to kiss my husband, to lean my head against his shoulder. That 4:30 a. m. feeling? It’s grief, I realize. Grief, because our world is changing. Grief, because chaos rules. Grief, because the world is vibrating with pain.

And still, outside my window, it is very beautiful at the moment. I wish you could see it. The tree branches are stark against an off-white sky. The picnic table and benches are covered with two inches of snow that will be melted by morning. The ice has formed intricate patterns on the window panes. This too, the great meditation teacher Jack Kornfield often says. A mantra for our times: this too, this too, this too. 

 

Stay safe,

Dani

January 3, 2019

How a DNA Testing Kit Revealed a Family Secret Hidden for 54 Years

One evening in the winter of 2016, my husband mentioned that he was sending away for one of those commercial DNA-testing kits. He asked if I wanted him to order me one as well. I could easily have said no. I wasn’t curious about my ancestry. I knew where I came from–Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews on both my parents’ sides. Instead, I said yes. Why not? It seemed like a game–like those personality tests people often take online.

The results, when I received them a few months later, changed everything I had ever understood about myself. I was only half Eastern European Ashkenazi, as it turned out. A person I had never heard of was identified as a first cousin. The truth was unavoidable. My beloved father, who died in a car accident when I was 23, had not been my biological father.

This discovery led me deep into a world I had known nothing about: the history, science and psychological underpinnings of assisted reproduction. I have spent the past few years piecing together the story of how I came to be, the truth of where (and who) I come from–and the ways in which my identity was scrupulously hidden from me.

See more about the instant New York Times Best Seller, Inheritance

In 1961, my parents, Orthodox Jews who married later in life, were having trouble conceiving. My father was part of a large family that took seriously the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. My mother, nearing 40, was desperate to have a child. They went to the now long-defunct Farris Institute for Parenthood near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. There, they were told that a “treatment” was available to help solve my dad’s infertility. A practice of the day was to mix donor sperm with the intended father’s sperm, in order to keep alive the possibility that the child was biologically his. There was a commonly used term for this: confused artificial insemination.

Confused is right. Back then, the medical establishment took great pains to allow couples to believe what they wanted about what they were doing. Couples were told to have sex before and after the procedure to further the sense that the (often completely sterile) husband could be the father. Once a woman had become pregnant, the couple might be told that her blood levels showed she must have already been pregnant when she first came to the institute, furthering the possibility that two otherwise rational people could bury the truth from their family, their friends and themselves.

The trauma and shame surrounding infertility was intense. In 1954, a court ruled that donor insemination constituted adultery on the part of the woman, whether or not the husband had granted consent. Nine years earlier, TIME ran a story about the legal status of donor-conceived children with the lacerating title Artificial Bastards? Records were heavily coded, then destroyed. Sperm donors were guaranteed anonymity. It seemed fail-safe that the procedure would remain forever secret. The idea of a future in which DNA results would become easily accessible through a popular test would have been unimaginable.

Now advances in the field of assisted reproduction are also far beyond what could have been imagined at the time of my birth. In vitro fertilization, surrogacy, donor eggs, cryogenic technology and the capacity to test embryos for genetic markers have allowed many more of us–straight or gay, married or single–to make families. And that’s a great thing, but it isn’t a simple thing. Though science has evolved at a stunning rate, the human capacity to understand and wisely use those advances has limped along.

The secret that was kept from me for 54 years had practical effects that were both staggering and dangerous: I gave incorrect medical history to doctors all my life. It’s one matter to have an awareness of a lack of knowledge–as many adoptees do–but another altogether not to know that you don’t know. When my son was an infant, he was stricken with a rare and often fatal seizure disorder. There was a possibility it was genetic. I confidently told his pediatric neurologist that there was no family history of seizures.

More difficult to quantify are the profound psychological effects of such nondisclosure and secrecy. I grew up feeling “other”–different from my family in ways I didn’t understand. I looked nothing like my dad and was constantly told that I didn’t “look” Jewish. I was filled with longing, but for what I did not know. The air in my childhood home was thick with the unsaid. I felt it, picked up on it, but had no name for it. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has called this “the unthought known”–what we absolutely know but cannot allow ourselves to think.

We find ourselves in an interesting sliver of time. Secrets surrounding identity have existed since the start of humanity. The Old Testament is threaded through with them. People lived and died without ever knowing the truth of themselves. But now–because of the potent combination of DNA testing and the Internet–those secrets are tumbling out. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the very idea that such secrets of identity were ever kept will seem ludicrous.

The U.S. has no laws limiting the number of offspring a sperm donor may produce, nor does it regulate anonymity. Numerous countries do restrict a donor’s number of offspring, ranging from one (Taiwan) to 25 (the Netherlands). But the U.S. and Canada have sidestepped this ethically thorny territory, allowing for the possibility that half-siblings may inadvertently marry and have children.

And then there is the matter of anonymity. People donating sperm or egg (and while we’re at it, donate is a misnomer, as the transaction usually involves payment) must now know that they cannot–they will not–remain anonymous forever. If the donor’s brother, niece, cousin or granddaughter has submitted DNA to one of the testing sites, it makes it that much easier for him or her to be findable.

It took just 36 hours from the time I learned that my dad was not my biological father until I found the man who was. He was 78–a retired physician and medical ethicist–and I can imagine how stunned he must have been to receive my email with the subject line Important letter. But men and women donating their reproductive material today–listed in catalogs with cute handles (“Tall, Dark, and Handsome,” “Positive Vibes,” “Fit and Fun”)–need to think about the living consequences of their donation.

Donating sperm or eggs is not the same as donating a kidney, a retina, a liver, a heart. It carries with it something that all the science in the world can’t make sense of: I’ll call it the soul. I share many physical traits with my biological father–his blue eyes, fair hair, pale skin, tendency to blush; his small hands and high forehead. This would be expected. But we also share the same favorite novel: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. We have a similar sense of humor and natural reserve. When I met him, I understood, for the first time, where aspects of my very personhood had come from.

If the desire to procreate is one of the most powerful of human urges, so too is the desire to know our own identity. In the complex calculus of reproductive medicine, the achievement of a baby is considered the end–a success–when in fact it’s just the beginning. Long-term scientifically controlled studies on the psychological and emotional effects of donor conception have not been conducted.

In the three years since my discovery about my father, I have come to think of the question of disclosure like this: if a genetic connection to a child is so important, so valued, and this is the reason hopeful parents choose the donor route rather than adoption, then the child, too, has a right to know her own origins. It’s either important–in which case it’s important to all concerned–or it isn’t.

It’s difficult to be born. It’s challenging for any of us to grow up, to be a human being. Just think about middle school! The challenges only increase when we’re donor-conceived. The issue is in pretending otherwise. Too often, parents of donor-conceived kids and the reproductive-medicine industry would prefer to think of the donor as necessary but inconsequential. The rights of the parents and donor are weighed and carefully considered–but not those of the person the existential transaction will produce.

And there is the fear, too, that regulation will be an impediment to a portion of the reproductive industry’s booming success. What will happen if sperm and egg donors are no longer permitted to be anonymous? Fewer parents may feel comfortable choosing this route, and fewer men and women may donate. If my biological father had known that a child of his would come knocking one day, he never would have donated, and I wouldn’t be here at all.

There are some signs of change–with children’s books on the subject and online support groups for offspring of prolific donors–but they don’t go nearly far enough. While these evolving social attitudes are a positive development, they don’t stand in for needed concrete policies. The children born of these technologies must be the first priority as science pushes us further into a future we can barely imagine.

August 10, 2016

When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do

0703-BKS-AuthorsNote-master315I once knew a woman who had been famously kidnapped as a child. She confessed to me that she longed to talk about her kidnapping, but no one ever brought it up. “Why?” she wondered. The story had been in print, after all, the subject of national headlines; it preceded her into every room. She was left with an acute sense of apartness, her unspoken story roiling inside her. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked me. “Pick up the phone and call Patty Hearst?”

Though I have never been the victim of a famous kidnapping or any kidnapping at all, for most of my adult life, I have been preceded by my own stories — not so much ones that have been written about me, but ones I have written. I am the author of three, going on four, memoirs. I have captured my 20s, my early midlife, my years as a writer and now my long marriage between hard covers like insects trapped forever in amber. Those of us who have written multiple memoirs feel surprisingly alone. (What am I supposed to do? Pick up the phone and call St. Augustine?)

People who have read my work feel as if they know me. And while certainly there is a powerful intimacy inherent in the experience of reading memoir, readers who meet me seem a bit embarrassed by this intimacy, as if, rather than having read my books, they have seen me naked without my consent. They seem to think of memoirs as more personal than any other literary form, as if the word “memoir” necessarily signals confession, testimony, diary and strip tease all in one.

At a dinner party in Connecticut, I watched as a woman turned to Frank McCourt, who was seated next to her. “You must feel like I know everything about you!” Her tone was challenging, slightly accusatory, as if it was his fault for making her uncomfortable. “Darling,” he responded dryly. “It’s just a book.”

Shortly after the publication of my second memoir, I was startled to realize that I had become lonely. I had been speaking a great deal: in bookstores, behind podiums, on stages. I could weave articulate, compelling answers in discussion about my books. But when it came to my life — to that soft, pulsing, internal backbeat — people had stopped asking me questions, because they thought they already had the answers.

“I’m heading to Boston to visit my aunt,” I might say. “Oh, that must be Shirley,” a friend would respond, then change the subject. “My mother died of lung cancer,” I might say. “I know. I read all about it in your book.”

In “Essays After Eighty,” the poet Donald Hall writes, “For 70-odd years I have been writing about myself, which has led to a familiar scene: I meet someone, we chat, something stirs my memory, I begin to tell an anecdote — and the head in front of me nods up and down and smiles. She knows this story because I have put it in print, possibly three times.”

But there is a profound difference between what a writer does alone in her room — the honing, crafting, shaping, transcending of her own personal history in order to carve out a story that is ultimately a public performance — and the human need to quietly share in the most intimate possible way, to confess, to stutter out thoughts and feelings, to be heard and understood. Annie Dillard once admonished writers: “You may not let rip.” I keep her words close to me when I write from my own life. I think perhaps it should be emblazoned on T-shirts and given to first-year M.F.A. students. There is no art in letting it rip. When I write a book, I have no interest in telling all, the way I absolutely do long to while talking to a close friend. My interest is in telling

October 23, 2015

Begin Again: How Yoga Unlocks the Writer Within

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Photo by Annie Ling

From The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2015

As I write these words, I am stretched out on a chaise lounge in my small office in my house in Connecticut. I purchased the chaise because I had stopped working well at my desk. That was four years ago. The chaise has been good to me. In fact, I wrote most of my last book, Still Writing, on the chaise—within sight of the stale desk—and was so grateful to it that, when it came time to discuss book jackets with my publisher, I enthusiastically suggested that artwork depicting a chaise adorn the cover. (This turned out to be a terrible idea. The chaise covers, rejected before printing, made the book look like it was about psychoanalysis.)

But the chaise is now slowly losing its magic, just as the desk did years ago. I have been in denial about it, but I’ve begun to feel it happening. That mysterious juju—the magic allowed by the superstitious sense, shared by just about every writer I know, that something will help us, that it is possible to help us, that we are not, in fact, desperately, hopelessly, beyond help—that juju is leaking from the chaise as if it were a punctured raft at sea.

The painful truth is that our talismans have a shelf life. We cart them home with us from our travels, or extract them from the dusty attics of our ancestors, accompanied by the compelling fantasy that they will make real and tangible, make available, make possible this line of words that we summon from thin air each time we sit down to work.

A walk from my chaise over to the desk where I don’t write reveals the following sad assortment: three rose quartz crystals from various meditation retreats; a bowl of smooth gray wishing stones from a favorite beach in Italy; an oxidized brass heart from Peru, sent by a young writer as a thank-you; a Buddha head from God-knows-where; a random sea shell. These all once meant something to me. Alone in my small room, they were portals, entryways to the world out there. I have never—through the writing of eight books—had a desk that faced a window with a view.  But these amulets were my view. I wouldn’t dream of discarding them. They are like the names of dead people I won’t delete from my address book: sacred artifacts.

Here is what works for me. Like most things that work, it requires actual work. My office connects to my bedroom via a bathroom. At some point during a writing day—most often the point at which my head feels like it’s about to explode—I walk through that bathroom and into my bedroom. I strike a match and light a fire in the small fireplace. I put on some music that’s queued up to go—one of a series of playlists—and as, perhaps, Patti Smith’s cover of “When Doves Cry” fills the room, I unroll my tattered green yoga mat.

On my fireplace mantle, I keep a neat row of seven small brown spray bottles filled with essential oils, each corresponding to one of the chakras: grounding, nourishing, intention, emotion, expression, insight, wisdom. I spray a mist from the first bottle and step to the front of the mat. This may well be the first moment in my day I become aware of my feet. They seem to grow roots into the earth.Grounding. As I move through my practice, I become aware of my body—my interior—and the stories housed inside of me. Emotion. I twist into a reverse triangle and a bit of language unleashes itself. Insight. I stand on my head and solve a problem that has been plaguing me for weeks. The title for my most recent memoir—in fact the wholly unwelcome idea for the project itself—came to me while standing in tree pose. Most of the time when I’m writing, I feel like one giant bobble head, but as I move through the poses that have become second nature, my mind—that monkey swinging from branch to branch—settles down.

When I was a little girl, I used to watch my father each morning as he set about his morning prayers. He was a religious Jew, and his devotion began with a physical act. He enveloped himself in his tallis, a prayer shawl, then removed his tefillin, small black boxes—phylacteries— from a blue velvet pouch embroidered with silver thread. He would attach the first boxto his left bicep, winding it around seven times with a long leather strap. Then he would attach the second box to the middle of his forehead. Thus prepared, he would begin to pray. The ritual itself—I came to understand as a grown woman—was the gateway. It made the prayer possible, especially, I would imagine, during days when my father simply didn’t feel like praying.

In fifteen years of practicing yoga, I have never reached the point of unrolling my yoga mat only to give up, say, Forget it, and roll it back up again. Once I’ve begun the process by lighting the fire, an inexorable momentum carries me. I keep going until an hour has passed. By the end, I am filled with a quiet, spacious sense of possibility that comes to me in no other way. “How I am harassed by the strife and jar and uncertainty without. This morning the inside of my head feels cool and smooth instead of strained and turbulent,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary.

Strained and turbulent is my usual state of mind. And there are plenty of days when I forget to unroll my mat. It’s right there—only twenty paces from where I sit, struggling—but if I were someone who simply did what I knew was good for me, I probably would never have become a writer. I am driven by what the choreographer Martha Graham once called “a queer divine dissatisfaction.” That dissatisfaction dances each day with its remedy. I teeter and fall. I become self-conscious or overly ambitious. I lose my way. I regain my balance. I discover flexibility where I thought I had none. Just as in a yoga pose.

A cool and smooth mind, such as Woolf’s that day, is attainable for me only through the body. When I am able to take my yoga practice off the mat and return to my desk (or chaise) and write from some activated space—from the solar plexus, say, or the heart, or the hips—I have some hope of making something happen on the page. The words arise from a place of wordlessness. This would have made no sense to me as a younger writer. I hunched over my desk, my jaw clenched, teeth gritted, shoulders up around my ears. I grasped for language, for ideas, searching instead of waiting to be found.

There are many times I wish for a less solitary ritual. The writing life is, after all, solitary enough. When I lived in the city, I used to roll up my mat and take myself to crowded yoga classes where I felt buoyed and energized by the presence of others. This was great for my mood—but sadly, not so good for my work. Walking home from yoga class in Brooklyn on a beautiful day, I would find myself—cheerful, engaged with the rest of humanity—stopping for coffee. I would linger at a sidewalk café, drift into a store and try on a pretty dress, or impulsively call a friend. Before I knew it, I had squandered the day.


By moving to the country well over a decade ago—the nearest yoga class nearly an hour away—I was forced to find ways to design my own practice. I had to learn to unroll my own mat, to be powered entirely by my own drive and desire. And though I wasn’t conscious of it, I’m sure I was deeply impacted by those years of watching my father become enlivened by the rituals of his morning prayer. There was the simplicity of the custom, and the progression of small steps leading to the place where he was invariably transported. And so: the fireplace, the playlists, the small brown bottles of scented oil. It never fails me. I can only fail myself by abandoning what I know to be true. “Begin again,” the Buddhists say. When caught up in our own thoughts, when stuck—mired in the small, the petty, the wasteful—we can always simply begin again. Yoga has taught me this. Each time I press my palms together over my heart in namaste, coming back to center at the end of each pose or sequence, I am offering myself the opportunity to begin again. Lost? Begin again. Sad? Begin again. Caught up in the past? Daydreaming about the future? Begin again and again. The writing life is painstakingly slow. We toil invisibly, tearing our hair out, steam escaping from our ears, our hearts frozen in fear, our poor small selves so full of the tension of what we hope to express and the impossibility of ever getting it exactly right. It’s just about unbearable, which is why we look to our totems to help us along the way. But perhaps the wisdom we crave isn’t to be found inside those objects we imbue with magic and meaning. Perhaps—just perhaps—to quote Woolf once more, “We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

September 19, 2015

Stitches

To read the essay go to Narrative.

April 30, 2015

AWP: A Convention For the Bookish

“He is, at heart, a formalist.”

“They often say when you get stuck in a story, throw an alligator in.”

“Omigod. I just saw Alice McDermott in the hall.”

To walk any part of the eight miles of skyway that connect much of downtown Minneapolis this past weekend was to hear snatches of dialogue endemic to writers. The forty-eighth annual Associated Writing Programs Conference—the largest gathering of poets, writers, writing students, creative-writing-program faculty, literary-journal editors, arts organizations, small presses, and literary entrepreneurs in the country—was under way, and it was snowing. Outside the glass walls of the cavernous Minneapolis Convention Center, big, fluffy, wet flakes were floating down.

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But the fourteen thousand literary folks in attendance weren’t paying much attention to the weather. As a whole, they did not seem to be outdoorsy people. They spend most of their days, after all, staring into the blue glow of their computer screens, or sitting around workshop tables beneath florescent lights, or poring over piles and piles of manuscripts in windowless rooms. Their work, whether writing or reading, necessitates solitude, and they had travelled from all over the country to participate, to network, to party. They were here to be with their people, weather be damned. In the weeks leading up to the four-day conference, the literary community on Twitter swelled with excitement, and #AWP15 began to trend. It did not trend in a Kanye and Kardashian kind of way, obviously. It trended the way literary writers and poets trend, which is to say not very much.

But tell that to the throngs walking the wide aisles of the convention center, filling their tote bags with conference swag: pencils from The London Review of Books, Lindt chocolates from Blue Flower Arts, sunglasses from the Otis College of Art and Design. The Duotrope booth offered a “What Author Are You?” quiz. My first night in town, I attended a party thrown by Grove Atlantic, which was celebrating Literary Hub, a new online venture. To mark the occasion, the company had produced a sturdy tote bag bearing an iconic photograph of a young Joan Didion. “We asked her a year and a half ago—before Céline,” said the editor Morgan Entrekin.

If every industry has its trade show, and if writing can possibly be described as an industry, A.W.P. has become a thriving nexus of all things literary. Founded in 1967, its first conference was held in 1972, at the Library of Congress, with six events and sixteen presenters including George Garrett, Wallace Stegner, and Ralph Ellison. This year’s conference was host to five hundred and fifty events, two thousand presenters, and over seven hundred small presses, journals, and literary organizations. If Book Expo America, or B.E.A., which is held each spring, is the convention for book publishing, then A.W.P. is the convention for the bookish.

The panel offerings ranged from the pedagogical (“Teaching Experimentation: The Freedom in Constraints”) to the political (“Making Diversity Happen: Editors Can Change the Literary Landscape”) to the practical (“But I Need My Day Job: Creating a Kick-Ass Writing Education in Your Own Community”). At a well-attended panel on handling rejection, the crowd hungrily took notes as the novelist Heidi Durrow spoke self-deprecatingly about becoming an overnight success after her first novel was rejected forty-eight times. The novelist Tod Goldberg described his writing process as “terror management.”

In an age-old literary method for managing terror—though arguably one with diminishing returns—the parties around A.W.P. were booze-fests. (A Monday morning tweet: “Are you a writer? My truck driving husband/AWP escort: No, but I drink like one.”) On Friday afternoon, Electric Literature, The Paris Review, and the National Book Foundation hosted an invitation-only liquid lunch—one martini per guest. One Story magazine held a superhero-themed party, at the Walker Museum, where the editors wore colorful Lone Ranger-style masks emblazoned with lightning bolts and the wine flowed freely. At the Sarabande Books booth, every purchase was accompanied by a shot of Jim Beam. Each night during the conference, the bar at the Hilton was packed three-deep with poets, writers, and those who love them. At breakfast, these same writers wore sunglasses and croaked out orders for lattes and dry scrambled eggs before heading off to a morning panel on, say, “The Bump and Grind of Meaning: Intuition and Formal Play in Hybrid Nonfiction.”

It’s a familiar lament that books are dying—that the fast-paced and attention-starved digital age is killing our impulse to read and write the old-fashioned way—but it was impossible to feel anything but buoyant optimism about the future of letters when traversing the streets and skyways of Minneapolis. Small presses and literary journals are multiplying. Arts organizations are working hard to support them. A couple of entrepreneurs from Detroit raised $342,471 on Kickstarter to create the Hemingwrite, a minimalist digital typewriter designed for distraction-free composition—no e-mail, Facebook, browser, or menus—and were taking pre-orders. The Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press offered a panel with four of its star authors—Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, and Claudia Rankine—in an auditorium so packed with a standing-room-only crowd that security guards were stationed outside the doors. No one’s making much money, but at least for the four-day stretch of A.W.P., no one seemed to care.

By the conference’s end, the wheels were starting to come off the bus. After all, fourteen thousand solitary, introverted people can only keep up an investment-banker-style social pace for so long. The head of one M.F.A. program confessed his fantasy of getting on a Segway and mowing down all the poets in his path. The moderator at a large featured reading fumbled his introduction and forgot the title of the presenter’s book, turning to her onstage: “What was it called, again?”

Exhibitors broke down their displays in the conference hall, and attendees collected their packed and bulging roller bags from the coat check. Late-afternoon sunlight poured into the convention center’s lobby, illuminating a large poster announcing A.W.P. 2016, which will be held in Los Angeles. Claudia Rankine will be the keynote speaker, and the deadline for panel submissions is fast approaching. An after-party melancholy filtered through the crowd. Again and again, I heard the refrain: “Next year in Los Angeles.”

April 30, 2015

What Do You Do When the Internet Hates You?

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Back in my early twenties, during a brief and soul-deadening stint of auditioning for television commercials, soap operas, and the occasional feature film, each morning I climbed wearily out of bed and tried to gear myself up for the day. This was my routine: I sweated through two back-to-back aerobics classes (this was the ’80s) and then came home and weighed myself to be sure I hadn’t gained a pound overnight. Then I did my hair using hot rollers and hairspray; I spent a half hour applying makeup; and, finally, I assembled an outfit appropriate for whatever role I was up for, which might call for anything from a power suit to a bathing suit. I knew I’d be facing people whose job it was to judge me from the shadows. I stated my name into the camera as cheerfully as I could manage. Even my name was a mask, one I’d been advised by my agent to invent, since Shapiro was too ethnic. I did whatever I was asked: a few lines of Mamet, Wasserstein, or Dr Pepper.

 “Thanks for coming in, honey,” they’d say. “We’ll be in touch.”

Of course, they rarely got in touch. I’d hear from my agent that they were going in a different direction. Someone taller. Or they wanted a redhead. Or whatever. All I ever heard, thrumming beneath the ostensible reasons, was that I wasn’t good enough, or talented enough—not even to smile fetchingly and hold up a can of soda. Look,they just didn’t find you appealing, my agent once told me. I lived in a debilitating state of chronic insecurity, which I dealt with by exercising more, starving myself further, and making myself blonder. I was operating under the dangerous delusion that if only I could burnish myself into some sort of perfection, I’d be chosen. Truth be told, I was a lousy actress. I was self-conscious, tongue-tied, prone to blushing and stammering in front of the camera. It would have been merciful for someone to take me by the hand and tell it to me straight, put me out of my misery. I was careening down the wrong path, trying with all my might to squeeze myself into somebody else’s life.

But the cliché was true: One of my all-time favorite book titles is Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron, and when I made the improbable leap from wannabe starlet to novelist, the rejection and criticism indeed turned out to be useful. Around the workshop table in the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence, students often broke down in tears when their work was criticized. But I expected it. I welcomed it. As an actress, I’d been rejected for who I was—my “appeal,” or lack thereof. As a writer, it was my work that was found wanting. I could live with that. When I sent my stories to literary magazines and received form rejection letters in reply, I didn’t take it personally. I took it as a sign that I needed to hone my craft.

Which was fortunate, because I didn’t begin my writing career anointed by the literary world as a star in the making. I collected a file cabinet full of rejections and published three novels that didn’t get much attention before writing a memoir that caught fire—and suddenly everybody seemed to be writing not just about my book, but about me. That book, Slow Motion, was a coming-of-age story about my Orthodox Jewish upbringing and ensuing rebellion, which involved a long relationship with an older, powerful, married man, one that ended only when I was shocked to my senses by a car accident that killed my father.

It may sound quaint now, but in those days you’d actually have to go to a newsstand to pick up a magazine or newspaper. I was living in New York City, and I would haunt the newsstand on the corner of 82nd Street and Broadway, because that vendor got his shipment first. There were lovely surprises, like opening up the new Vogue to see a glowing review of my book written by a heroine of mine. But the negative attention was swift and vicious. The word bimbo was used as a caption beneath my photo in the New York Observer. A male writer I admired wrote a highly personal character assassination of me in New York magazine—I’d quote it for you, but I didn’t keep a copy (and I can’t find it online, I swear). I cried for three days in my apartment. Once again I felt I was being judged not for what I wrote, but for who I was. My life, reviewed.

Of course, you might say I asked for it. To be a writer—to do anything that involves putting oneself out there—is to invite criticism. And if you write about personal stuff, well, what do you expect? I’ve now spent nearly two decades writing about my family, my history, my fears, my anxieties, my spiritual crises, my sorrows, and my joys. I’ve tried to carve out of my own experience books that will resonate with others.

In part because of this, and in part thanks to the clamor of voices on social media and the Internet, people feel entitled to say whatever they want. And why shouldn’t they? Opinions of others—even opinions of opinions—are instantly available. We have thoughts to share about everything from Renée Zellweger’s new face to Malia Obama’s T-shirt. We tend not to stop and ask ourselves if we’re being kind—especially when celebrities are involved, but even when our targets are civilians. Those days of walking to the newsstand to read one’s reviews are long gone, and now—for a solitary writer sitting at her desk, stuck in her work, procrastinating, nursing simmering insecurities—all it takes is one impulsive click and she can become instantly privy to a soaring chorus of contrapuntal voices. You’re awesome! No, you suck! You’re brilliant! You’re the scum of the earth! And if she gives the voices too much credence, she won’t be able to write another word.

So I’m going to conduct an experiment, perhaps a dangerous one, right in the middle of this essay. I mean, what the hell. I’m talking about criticism, right? So I have an excuse: My editor made me do it. I go straight to Salon.com, where I recently published what turned out to be a somewhat inflammatory essay on the meaning of memoir. At the time I didn’t check out the responses—Salon is known for its vicious, voluble comments section. Self-serving, patronizing, sarcastic, agonizingly long…One way to plug a silly little self-indulgent book no one is reading…At least I now know I never have to read any Dani Shapiro.

Whoa. The level of invective makes the bimbo reference seem like a sweet missive from another era. These people aren’t just nursing a mild dislike of me. They hate me. I am reviled. Now I’m in full-on masochistic mode—this self-punitive stuff tends to create a pile-on effect—so I click on the Amazon reviews for my last couple of books. There are plenty of five-star comments, but my eyes glide right over them and hone in on only the poisonous ones. Absolutely ridiculous…Reeking of insincerity…Whiny, spoiled, pretentious crybaby.

I feel nauseated—momentarily. But I notice something surprising in my reaction: This toxic binge-surfing feels a little like eating too much junk food. There’s a weird, sort of icky rush, and then…then it’s gone. These are people who don’t know me, don’t like me. Nor are they criticizing me in incisive ways I might learn from. This realization is followed by a minor epiphany: And I don’t have to make them like me. I’m no longer that starving girl in a swimsuit, hopelessly pirouetting. I’m just a writer sitting alone in a room, struggling to make words line up on the page in a way that may communicate something true.

A friend recently posted this on Instagram: I’d rather be someone’s shot of whiskey than everyone’s cup of tea. I spent a whole lot of energy trying to be everybody’s cup of tea and a) it wasn’t fun, and b) it didn’t work. I’d wager that we all do this at some point—contort ourselves into people-pleasing pretzels—and I’d also wager that the roots of this often can be found somewhere in our early lives. Who was it that first made us believe something was wrong with us, that something needed fixing? I have a now-teenaged son, and I remember one early morning dropping him off at kindergarten. In the parking lot, he saw a boy he was close friends with, and he ran over to him to say hello. The boy turned his back on my son—physically dismissed him with the kind of innocent cruelty children can display—and my heart broke a little. Those injuries, small or large, are what form our early sense of ourselves. And a sense of our own value is the only way we can parse criticism and rejection—take what’s useful and shrug off the rest.

For me, that injury can be best summed up by a picture I keep buried deep in a family photo album—quite possibly the only existing image of my older half sister, Susie, and me. I look to be around 11, so Susie must be 26. My hair is cut into a dorky shag, I have a mouthful of braces, and I’m wearing a white Danskin top, through which my tiny breasts are visible. Susie is in some sort of batik thing, her long wavy hair reaches her waist, and she’s wearing granny glasses. I remember the moment: I’m over the moon to be with my big sister. She’s the coolest person I know—she lives in the city! She’s a psychoanalyst! I want to grow up to be just like her: She plays the piano, so I play the piano. She reads Freud, so I read Freud. In the photograph, I’m smiling a huge, painfully goofy smile at whoever is snapping the picture. And Susie is staring at me. Her lips are tight, her eyes narrowed, her forehead creased. If a thought bubble appeared over her head, it would read something like: Silly, stupid girl.

I spent years trying to change Susie’s mind about me. It was hopeless, though I had no way of knowing this. She wished my mother had never married our father, hence that I had never been born. Psychoanalyze that. Growing up with a sister who was profoundly critical of me created a pattern that quite possibly led me all the way to those dim television studios where I strained to be accepted: For much of my adult life, I looked for versions of Susie everywhere. At parties, on dates, in classrooms where I taught, in auditoriums where I delivered speeches, I sought out the Susie-face. I looked for the person—woman or man—who just wasn’t into me. On some level, I believed they had X-ray vision; that they saw deeper into me than others, to my true essence. And so I engaged in an endless and exhausting effort to win them over.

I can pin down the precise moment when I realized this had changed. As is true of many seemingly seismic psychic shifts, it had been happening slowly all along, but I became aware of it one recent evening in Connecticut at a crowded holiday party. The host introduced me to another guest and then left us alone to chat. As we exchanged the perfunctory pleasantries—How do you know Lisa? Do you live nearby?—I saw her scanning me. Her forehead creased. Her lips tightened. It was Susie-face. I was about to start the tap dance when just as abruptly, I stopped.

“I’m going to get a drink,” I said. I wheeled around and headed to the bar. I wasn’t worried about being rude. I was done. I felt it right there—the freedom of not caring whether this person who didn’t know me had disdain for me. I felt Susie-face’s eyes on my back as I walked away. It was all I could do not to fist-bump the people around me. I’d won a hard-fought battle with my 11-year-old self who longed for her big sister’s approval and felt deformed and weakened when it was withheld.

There is a beautiful Hindu prayer in which people ask to be led from the unreal to the real. It seems to me that when we inhabit ourselves— when we say, This is who I am in all my flawed humanity—we are taking a step toward being most real. And when we buy into the opinions of perfect strangers whose feelings about us may be based on random data ranging from something they read to what we’re wearing and even to their own projections, we are being assaulted and governed by the unreal. As I’ve written this essay, I haven’t once thought about how it will be received in the world. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to write it—I’m revealing quite a lot about myself, some of it is quite painful and unflattering. But as I come to the end, now I can imagine some possible reactions: Humblebrag…Who the hell does she think she is?…How dare she dismiss all those online reviews just because she doesn’t like them? The ugly comments from the past may even be flung back at me. You are a spoiled, pretentious crybaby. But that’s okay. I’m no longer dancing for the shadows. I’m just a shot of whiskey—not for everybody.

And so I close the door. I write these words. I don’t click over to Google to see what people think. In the silence—in the absence of all those voices—here is where I discover who I am.

April 8, 2015

Tweet, Memory

I am a private person. Given that three of the eight books I’ve written are memoirs, this may come as a surprise. When people ask if I feel exposed writing about my life, it always slightly baffles me—and it baffles them that I would be baffled. “But I feel like I know everything about you,” they’ll say. My only response is to put my head down and keep writing. It may simply be denial, my own way of dealing with the peculiar public life of the memoirist, but my words, hundreds of thousands of them by now, feel somehow like the opposite of self-revelation. They are, at the very least, aShapiro-on-Lisa-Adams-320n attempt to push past my own singularity—chaos, randomness, loss, grief, failure, and love—and connect to the rest of humanity using the only tools I have been given.

When my husband first introduced me to Twitter, in 2009, I didn’t know what to think. Silly, mean, angry, poetic, self-promotional, inane, profound—it fascinated me even as it repelled me. I would consider tweeting something, and my fingers would hover over the keyboard, frozen. I could see that some people were developing voices particular to the medium—Susan Orlean, Gary Shteyngart, and Colson Whitehead, to name a few—and one stood out in particular: @AdamsLisa. I gleaned that she was a wife and a mom in her early forties who lived in Darien, Connecticut. Her avatar showed her to be strikingly attractive, with a shock of black hair and an easy smile. She wasn’t a published writer. She didn’t identify herself as a writer at all. But she seemed to be friends (or at least “Twitter friends”) with many writers I knew. Her style was a winning blend of directness, intelligence, humor, humility, and moxie.

Every once in a while, I’d overcome my Twitter block and post something: a quote I liked, a mention of an upcoming reading. It felt like tossing a tiny pebble on the beach into a vast, churning ocean of bon mots. As a memoirist, my work was all about control; I spent years honing each book I sent out into the world, creating, in a sense, a public persona. A me-but-not-me. Twitter seemed to require the opposite of this kind of control. Tweeters unconsciously revealed themselves to be empathetic or self-absorbed, generous or faux-generous (a quality endemic to Twitter). The speed of Twitter seemed dangerous to me; I wanted to remain in charge of what I revealed about myself, after all. But at some point during that year of reticence—the same natural reserve that had kept me on the outside looking in since kindergarten circle time—@AdamsLisa reached out to me in a direct message: “I’ll be in your part of CT to take my son to camp. Coffee?”

Lisa Bonchek Adams and I sat for hours at a small café near my home, covering intimate ground the way women sometimes can do when we find a kindred soul. It was my first experience of an online acquaintanceship morphing into a friendship. Lisa was in remission from breast cancer, nearing the all-important five-year mark. She was fiercely devoted to her husband and her kids, and was interested in honing her writing. Her blog and her Twitter feed were mostly about health advocacy, from the standpoint of a relatively young cancer survivor.

In the next eighteen months, Lisa attended workshops and retreats of mine, and I became her teacher. During the same period, she received the terrible news that her cancer had returned and metastasized, and that her diagnosis was now terminal. At a retreat in Connecticut, we sat together in front of a roaring fireplace in a high-ceilinged living room as she read aloud a series of letters saying goodbye to her husband and her children. On another occasion, we gathered around a workshop table inside a grand hotel in the Berkshires, where she shared essays about her deteriorating condition. She was incandescent that week—glowing in a way that seemed to radiate good health—but no one knew better than she how sick she was. When she read her work, her voice was steady, unwavering. Her eyes were dry. Around her, the rest of us wept.

As Lisa’s cancer continued its rampage, she amped up her Twitter presence, writing from her bed, the car, and while receiving chemo at Sloan Kettering. Her messages were an education, and their own kind of art form. She had no time for luxuries such as shape and craft. (“I get emails every day asking if there’s going to be a book,” she wrote me in a direct message. “Prob don’t have time to do traditional route.”) What she wrote wasn’t always easy or comfortable to read. Sometimes, her tweets were raw and ugly, a howl from a world full of pain. Other times, she posted an Instagram image of a flower from her garden or a cute photograph of her beloved corgi. “This, too,” she seemed to be saying. “This, too.”

Inevitably, not everyone was a fan of Lisa’s blunt accounts of dealing with illness. Emma Gilbey Keller, a journalist, wrote a piece for the Guardian last January questioning the ethics of dying out loud. Her husband, Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the Times, followed up with an op-ed of his own. These bizarre missives caused an outcry online (Meghan O’Rourke wrote insightfully about the controversy), and Emma Keller’s piece was removed from the Guardians Web site.

Lisa Adams died two weeks ago, at the age of forty-five, leaving a husband, three kids, her parents, many friends, and a legion of Twitter followers. Just about every obituary and tribute included reference to Kellergate. It frustrates me that this is a part of Lisa’s story. But as a memoirist, I know well the projections and insults that go with the territory, and Lisa was ultimately a memoirist. Twitter was her tool, and the aggregate of her tweets formed a kind of literature. Her fast, loose style of storytelling revealed far more than fleeting exchanges or witticisms; she allowed herself to be vulnerable, to be seen, and she made use of the material of her life to build a body of work that will have a lasting impact.

On the final night of the conference in the Berkshires, a farewell dinner was held for the twenty students, the teachers, and a few honored guests. A long table had been covered with pale-pink linen and set with silver and fine china. During a round of toasts, Lisa rose to speak. She explained how much it meant to her to tell this story that she had never wanted to tell—the story of her own leave-taking. She told us that she knew she would not be returning to the conference the following year. Lisa became my teacher that night. There wasn’t a drop of self-consciousness in her, no iota of doubt holding her back. In the face of her certain and imminent death, exposing her deepest self was no risk.

As I listened, I wondered how many years I had left. Ten? Twenty? Thirty? I thought of all the times my hands had hovered—over the page, over the keyboard, carefully crafting my stories. They are hovering even now. But I pause and think about the courage it takes to reveal oneself fearlessly, to hurl oneself out there without reservation. I think of Lisa’s hand raising her glass. “Here,” she seemed to be saying. “Learn this hard lesson. It is everything I have.”

August 27, 2014

A Memoir is not a Status Update

Shapiro-Memoir-Social-Media-690(You can also read this on The New Yorker website.)

In the middle of my writing day, I sometimes take a Facebook break. I know I shouldn’t do this. I counsel my writing students not to do this. But writing is a solitary business, and—well, let’s face it, Facebook is tempting. It’s right there. A lonely writer can be connected with a whole range of humanity without ever leaving her desk chair. A Russian novel’s worth of tragedy and comedy is on display. A friend posts, “As I write this, my mother’s light is going out.” Another friend announces his divorce simply by switching his status from married to single. Still another friend anxiously awaits biopsy results. There are engagements, marriages, anniversaries, illnesses, college graduations, retirements, vacations, and endless photographs of cute dogs. All of these accompanied by responses, some numbering in the hundreds. Condolences and congratulations. Prayers and emoticons of hearts and hands pressed together in namaste. There’s something beautiful and absolutely genuine about it—Facebook is, after all, a way of staying connected in an increasingly busy and disconnected world—but it can also feel thin and undigested, a skimming over of data rather than a deep sink into the specificity and emotional reality of human experience. Death? Check. Divorce? Check. A namaste sign instead of a condolence note. A heart rather than a phone call.

 

I wonder what would have become of me if I had come of age as a writer during these years of living out loud. My parents were in a car crash in 1986 that killed my father and badly injured my mother. If social media had been available to me at the time, would I have posted the news on Facebook? Tweeted it to my followers as I stood on line to board the flight home? Instead of sitting numbly on the plane, with the help of several little bottles of vodka, would I have purchased a few hours of air time with Boingo Wi-Fi and monitored the response—the outpouring of kindness, a deluge of “likes,” mostly from strangers? And ten years later, would I have been compelled to write a memoir about that time in my life? Or would I have felt that I’d already told the story by posting it as my status update?

In an essay on Emily Dickinson, the poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment—that explodes in poetry.” We live in a time in which little is concealed, and that pressure valve—the one that every writer is intimate with—rarely has a chance to fill and fill to the point of explosion. Literary memoir is born of this explosion. It is born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s greatest satisfactions—both for writer and reader—is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain. In the inimitable words of Annie Dillard, “You may not let it rip.”

I’m a bit of an accidental memoirist. I’ve written five novels and three memoirs. I never planned to write memoir at all, and if you had told me, at the beginning of my writing life, that I would write three, I would have laughed. But we don’t choose the forms our work takes. We feel the pressure, wait for the explosion, then stand back, stunned and speechless at the shape that emerges. My first memoir centered on my parents’ accident and its aftermath. The accident itself wasn’t the story. As I often tell my writing students, just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting. In the years that I wrote that memoir, “Slow Motion,” I dove deep into my Orthodox Jewish upbringing, my parents’ contentious marriage, my own powerful rebellion, my lack of any sense of identity or self-worth, and the way that my family’s tragedy turned out to be my unlikely salvation. I’m grateful that I wasn’t a young writer with a blog or a massive following on social media. The years of silence were deepening ones. My story burrowed its way deeper and deeper into my being until it became a story I could turn inside out, hold to the light like a prism, craft into a story that was bigger than its small, sorry details.

I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself. I can’t tell you how many times people have thanked me for “sharing my story,” as if the books I’ve written are not chiseled and honed out of the hard and unforgiving material of a life but, rather, have been dashed off, as if a status update, a response to the question at the top of every Facebook feed: “What’s on your mind?” I haven’t shared my story, I want to tell them. I haven’t unburdened myself, or softly and earnestly confessed. Quite the opposite. In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited—sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair—for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that our feelings—that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it—are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters. There is no immediate gratification in this. No great digital crowd is “liking” what we do. We don’t experience the Pavlovian, addictive click and response of posting something that momentarily relieves the pressure inside of us, then being showered with emoticons. The gratification we memoirists do experience is infinitely deeper and more bittersweet. It is the complicated, abiding pleasure, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, of finding the universal thread that connects us to the rest of humanity, and, by doing so, turns our small, personal sorrows and individual tragedies into art.

This story originally appeared in The New Yorker online