Dani Shapiro
January 9, 2014

Dear Disillusioned Reader who Contacted me on Facebook

Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook,

Let me begin by saying that I’m flattered that your response to finishing my first memoir was to immediately search for more information about me on Google. I can only take this level of curiosity as a form of compliment, whether or not you intend it as such. It means you became involved in the story I told. It means that I left you wanting more. I’m sorry that your Google search for more led to your disillusionment, and, as you say, to your need to reexamine my whole book in light of what you discovered.

Dear Disillusioned Reader, I think it may be time for a literary education about what memoir is, and what it isn’t. Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir “Slow Motion” because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense. You wanted to read a memoir. 

Not my memoirs.

Not a memoire.

And most definitely not an autobiography.

I’m sorry that the facts of my life as outlined by Google did not line up in perfect synchronicity with the narrative of my memoir. I apologize, too, for not including what you insist is salient personal information – information to which you feel entitled. I’m sorrier still that this prompted you to compare me to James Frey who wrote fiction and called it memoir, which is something else entirely. That fellow who pretended to have had a love affair at Buchenwald? That young woman who lied about having been part of a Los Angeles girl gang? These are writers who had fictional impulses and – for reasons I can only think of as pathological – chose to break the sacred pact between writer and reader.

And what is this sacred pact, you ask, dear disillusioned reader? What, when clearly I have broken my side of what you consider to be yours? Let me begin by sharing with you what this sacred pact is not. When a writer sits down to write memoir, she is not sharing her diary. She is not confessing. She is not doing some sort of public striptease. Her whole entire life is not up for grabs. Can I tell you how many times I have been the recipient of precisely the gotcha! moment you so furiously leveled at me on Facebook? I’ve had readers angry with me for not writing about certain members of my family. Other readers have been angry that I’ve written too much about certain members of my family. I’ve had readers inquire as to why I haven’t written much about my husband. Or my ex-husband. Or my other ex-husband. (What can I say? Memoirists! We have complicated lives!) Then, I’ve had readers approach me with tears in their eyes, telling me that we are soul sisters. Separated at birth. You told my story, they sometimes say.

Here is what I consider to be my side of the pact, oh Disillusioned One. Each day, I sit alone in my little room. Sometimes I write fiction, and sometimes I write memoir. When I write fiction, I make things up. I enter the world of my imagination, where pretty much anything can happen. But when I am working on memoir, I burrow deep into a small, dark place inside me, no larger than the head of a pin. This dark place contains within it all the sorrows and confusion of my life: the death of my parents, the loss of most of my family, the harrowing illness of my infant son. When I burrow into that place, it expands and becomes oceanic. It fills and fills the room in which I write until it is the air I breathe, the water in which I swim. It becomes everything. I live inside the memory of whatever it is I still need to know. I try to shape a story – the only redemption available to me – from memory. In doing so, I attempt to make my life coherent. Are any of our lives truly coherent? Of course they are not. Screenwriters call this “the second act problem.” Our lives are composed of one damned thing after another. We live in a random, merciless jumble, and those of us who write memoir – along with those of us who read memoir – are looking to make music out of that jumble. This is why we have in our canon magnificent memoirs that are about only one aspect of a writer’s life. Say, William Styron’s depression. Vivian Gornick’s relationship with her mother. Tobias Wolff’s boyhood. The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we?  We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records. I’m sure it will make for scintillating reading.

In closing, Dear Reader, I am moved to tell you about the boxes and boxes of diaries that are on a shelf in my office closet. In them, every thought I’ve ever had, no matter how shriekingly boring or mundane, is documented on thousands of typewritten pages. I shudder to think of anyone ever reading them. Over the years, they have served their purpose, which has been to keep me very clear about what material belongs in my life, and what belongs in my work. One of these days, I’ll light a bonfire and send all those words up in flames. Had you read them, I am quite certain you would not have searched for me on Google. Why, you ask? Because – after weeping from boredom – you would have fallen asleep.

Yours truly,

Dani Shapiro

 

From Salon

 

January 1, 2014

Lost & Found: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights

It is impossible to write about Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights without writing about Elizabeth Hardwick.  The novel –– if it can be called a novel –– is the story –– if it can be called a story –– of a woman named Elizabeth.  She is a writer, a Southerner, born and bred in Kentucky, as was Hardwick.  She spends much of her adult life living in an artist’s studio on West Sixty-Seventh Street, and summers in Maine, as did Hardwick.  She is divorced –– “I am alone here in New York, and no longer a we” (51)–– as was Hardwick, who was famously married to, then not married to, then reunited with the poet Robert Lowell just prior to his death.  Before her marriage, she shares quarters and a tempestuous friendship –– a “mariage blanc” –– in New York City’s Schuyler Hotel with a young homosexual man from Kentucky, as did Hardwick. “He was quite handsome, but also soft and rounded and as determined against sports as if he had been born with a handicap.  But one year he began the recreation of himself in a daily horrible contest with barbells, push-ups and excruciating exercises.  And slowly the neck thickened, the chest expanded, the muscles of the arms were visible…by enormous effort, he finally succeeded in looking like the others.”  (38)   Hardwick and her friend spend time with Billie Holiday –– a time she describes in a 1976 essay in The New York Review of Books that contains many descriptions and details, sentences (“One winter she wore a great lynx coat and in it she moved, menacing and handsome as a Cossack, pacing about in the trap of her vitality”) that are identical to the corresponding scene (p 33) that she later wrote as fiction in Sleepless Nights.

Why does this matter?  Gotcha?  Hardly.  Hardwick, one of the great critics and intellectuals of her time, and a founder, along with Lowell, and Jason and Barbara Epstein, of The New York Review of Books, openly defied genre.  As a critic, she was less interested in theory than in what the critic Denis Donoghue called a “working psychology” and this psychology –– the shape of a mind, thinking –– is what shapes Sleepless Nights.   Incandescent, elliptical, challenging, her language itself is the story, and question of what is true and what is invented, what is fiction and what is memoir –– arguably one of the more tiresome literary questions of our current day –– pale against the excitement of watching Hardwick’s formidable (and at times hilarious) mind at work.  Reading Sleepless Nights, we are absorbed, not by the momentum and velocity of story, but rather, by the fascinations of inner life.

Action, Aristotle once wrote, is not plot, but merely the result of pathos.  And pathos itself is what forms Sleepless Nights.  Pathos does not exist in a temporal realty.  Nor is it linear.  It moves along a poetic circuitry that creates itself, much the way consciousness creates itself.   “If I want a plot,” Hardwick once commented in a Paris Review interview, “I’d watch Dallas.”

And so these layers, transparencies, of the fictional Elizabeth laid atop the real Elizabeth are like the layers of time and place that make up Sleepless Nights.  We are led into a fretting, sleepless mind occupied by its agitated turning, a life expanding and collapsing upon itself so that it’s all playing out at once.  Hardwick’s mind is a bit like her beloved New York, which she describes in terms at once acerbic and nostalgic:  “The Hotel Schuyler is gone now.  Uncertain elevators, dusty ‘penthouse’ suites, the greasy, smoking ovens of ‘housekeeping units,’ the lumpy armchairs –– a distracted life, near the Harvard Club, The New York Times, the old Hotel Astor, the Algonquin, Brentano’s.  In the halls you would sometimes hear a baby crying –– child of a transient –– and it was a sound from another world.  The irregular tenants were most pitiful when they received visits from relatives, from their ex-wives, their grown children.  They walked about sheepishly then, as if they had met with an accident.  Soon the disappointed sons and daughters left, wives went back home, and at the Schuyler, free once again, our people returned to their debaucheries, their bills, and that stain of life-giving paranoia –– limited, intact –– each one wore like a tattoo.”

Aside from the sheer joy of reading a writer who nails character the way Hardwick repeatedly does (I confess several times, while reading, I found myself grateful that she never had the opportunity to turn her gimlet gaze on me) it’s striking too, that the vanishing city of which she writes has since been painted over by several generations of ever-vanishing cities. Brentano’s has been shuttered for years, not to mention Scribner’s, B. Dalton, and The Doubleday Bookshop –– all within a few blocks that now teem with tourists getting good deals at Prada.  The old Hotel Astor has faded from memory.  Even The New York Times has moved to a soaring tower a few long blocks west.  Institutions.  You can’t count on them.  And yet, Hardwick’s city –– “New York, with its graves next to its banks” (50) –– is at once a ghost, and alive as it ever once was.  “A brilliant night outside in New York City.  It is Saturday and people with debts are going to restaurants, jumping in taxicabs, careening from West to East by way of the underpass through the park.”  (108)

It is only fitting that this literary excavation of the pathos of interior life should contain, near its end, the phrase “the battered calendar of the past.”  Indeed, the entire slim volume is a battered calendar, its pages flipping back and forth as if by a gusty wind.  The experience of reading Sleepless Nights is a profoundly intimate one.  Hardwick will never read these words, but I wanted to do her proud.  I hoped to apply my “working psychology” to hers, and in so doing, add a layer to the ongoing, ever-evolving, edifice of transparencies, as soaring and beautiful somehow as real as her New York––or mine––or the cities still to come.  No matter.  “In truth,” she writes “moments, months, even years were magical.  Pages turned, answering prayers, and persons called out, Are you there?  The moon changed the field to the silvery lavender of daybreak.”

December 9, 2013

My Avatar, My Self

On a recent evening I rode up the elevator to a party in New York with the writer Kati Marton, who had just published a memoir about the untimely death of her husband, diplomat and UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke. She looked shaken, and though I know her only slightly, I felt compelled to ask if she was all right. She’d just come from giving a reading, she told me, where the audience was full of other grief-stricken people who had come to hear her, not because of the literary quality of her work, the stellar reviews, her vaunted reputation, but rather because she had become a “figure”—someone who was “sharing” about her loss, and with whom they, too, wanted to share.

In the last five years or so, writers have started to juggle three realities, and it isn’t graceful, or easy—in fact, it’s complicated, and many of us are awkward about it. We have our “real” selves, of course—the ones who put dinner on the table and drive the kids to school and go out for a few beers with friends; then we have our creative selves, which require the solitude, the space to access the private, internal place which we write from; and then we have this whole other self, one that threatens to encroach on the other two: our “avatar” selves—the pixelated, haiku version that tweets and maintains a Facebook page and goes on the road in carefully planned outfits (these could be ripped jeans and a T-shirt, but believe me they’ve been thought through) and this—this avatar version—becomes how we’re seen, how we’re responded to, and if we are not careful, we are at risk of it becoming who we are.

After my last book—a memoir called Devotion—came out, I spent eighteen months on the road. Not a week went by in which I wasn’t in front of an audience, somewhere. I learned the intricacies of packing a carry-on, got to know the TSA people at my local airport by first name. At the same time, I was maintaining my Facebook page, which was growing by the day, and I was learning to tweet. Oh, and blog. Each week, I wrote a blog post. I received dozens of e-mails a day from readers who had connected with my story of a complex and rocky path that led me away from the strict religious observance of my childhood to a place, in midlife, of needing to figure out what I believed and how I might create an inclusive, eclectic and meaningful daily existence for myself and my family. These readers thanked me for sharing, and then told me their own stories—often in great detail—painful, wrenching stories that by their very natures demanded a response.

I spent my time—for that year and a half—in full-on public engagement. I developed a certain comfort level and skill for public speaking. When I began my book tour, I was asked by an organization interested in booking me as a speaker to describe my “message.” I was confounded. I was a novelist and memoirist, I said. I didn’t have a message. Wrong answer. I quickly learned that if I wanted the opportunity to speak in front of audiences larger than the dozen or so who frequent bookstore readings, I would have to reverse-engineer my book in order to unearth some sound bites. As I traveled the country disguised as something of a motivational speaker, I was away from my husband, my young son, my home, my dogs, my desk. At a certain point, I began to see that I was away from my self—the very self that had written the book.

It’s a noisy, noisy world. Writers have navigated public appearances and book tours for years, but our presence on social media and its concomitant daily engagement with ourselves as “figures” is something relatively new—and we’re only at the beginning. Without a doubt, all that I’ve done in the last several years—the speaking gigs, the social media presence (I have more than 6,000 friends and “likes” on Facebook and nearly that many Twitter followers, and regularly get notes from other writers and even editors asking how to build their “platforms,” which is a word I despise and an idea I had never even considered)—all that work has helped me enormously in the “business” of writing. The impression is that I have a very successful career. And while I do have a successful career, the success of my avatar has outpaced me. My avatar has an endless stream of fun and engaging experiences, and never has a bad day. My avatar is awesome. I almost kind of envy her.

I live on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Now that my book tour is over, I write in a silent house when my family is gone for the day. I don’t answer the phone, and use a software program called “Freedom” that shuts down the Internet on my computer during the hours I write. I find myself getting more and more militant about protecting my time—the time devoted to my creative self—in the hope that the work that self does, during those hours, will be able to speak for itself.

But my guess is that when my next book comes out (a book, ironically enough, that I sold based on the success of my blog) I will once again be packing my carry-on, once again getting to know the new crop of TSA agents at the airport. I will up my tweeting and Facebook presence, and I will be accessible to my readers. Because I want to be read. I want that private, intimate, high-wire act that takes place in the quiet of my empty house to find its voice in the world—and these days, the only way that’s going to happen is if I help it along—all the while finding a way to stay very clear and honest and self-aware, so that I don’t ever mistake myself for my avatar. I check in with her on a daily basis, I tweet cleverly for her, and post photographs on Facebook of her speaking to audiences, or walking down streets in far-flung cities. I announce her appearances, and even sometimes where she’s having dinner. But I remember that she’s not me. Not exactly. Because the minute I forget, the writing will turn to dust.

October 9, 2013

Supernova (a short story)

 

Shenkman pushes back with his legs, smooth and hard. Thinks of his old coach’s word: fluid. Hinges his upper body, then slides forward, arms extended. The briefest pause of recovery as the flywheel spins. Drive, recovery. Drive, recovery. He counts. One, two. Full lungs at the catch, empty at the finish. He gives the RowPro a quick glance. Fuck. 6K into this race and two sculls are ahead of him. On the wall, the flat screen displays the deep twilight blue of a lake. He is there, gliding along Lake Winnipesaukee, the ripples cast by his blades cutting down into the depths.

Alice is on the other side of the house, and Shenkman knows she’s lonely and slightly pissed off. These are the hours of the day when she expects him to be with her. To endlessly go over the only two or three subjects they ever seem to talk about any more: there’s her father’s macular degeneration and the question of who among her siblings will take on the job of getting his driver’s license revoked before he kills someone. Then there’s the onset of Shenkman’s mother’s dementia and its likely effect on their plans to travel over spring break. And finally, always, there’s Waldo, and the indecipherable results of one full day and three-grand worth of psychiatric testing to determine whether their son has a) the same strain of ADHD which seems to be going around the fourth grade like a virulent flu, or b) something else, something more, something for which Shenkman does not yet know the acronym, and for which he is unprepared.

You can purchase an audio recording of Supernova here for $2.09.

 

Continued on the Electric Literature site:

September 1, 2013

Evil Tongue

 

1. According to the Talmud, only three sins in Jewish law are so serious they are forbidden under any circumstances, even to save a life. These are murder, idol worship, and adultery. But in many interpretations, there is a fourth sin, equal to, if not worse than, these: lashon hara—literally, “evil tongue.” It is said of one who is guilty of lashon hara that God declares, “He and I cannot exist in the same world.”

2. Here are notes I keep in the back of my old-fashioned Filofax. They are scribbled in an unlikely bright neon pink, in handwriting that looks youthful, moving across the page in buoyantly large loops. I wrote them fifteen years ago, while on the phone with my mother’s therapist. Olga. I underlined the name twice at the top of the page, as if to express my disbelief that my mother’s therapist was calling me. I read it in one sitting. Gripping, wonderful. I don’t think there’s anything in there to upset your mother. I think you were not unkind to her. Not at all. In fact, I think you were generous.

3. Olga was a therapist well known for her work with families. She’s probably dead now. She was old, even then. I’ll have to look her up. It feels suddenly important to know if she’s still out there. Olga had a thick Hungarian accent, and when she said the word generous, it sounded rich, mellifluous, comforting. If my mother’s therapist was calling to tell me that my memoir—one I had sneaked to her, in galleys, so that she could prepare my mother for its imminent arrival in bookstores—was not unkind, was in fact generous, not to mention gripping and wonderful, I should take her word for it. Shouldn’t I?

4. In Memoriam. It’s the second listing that comes up in a Google search of Olga’s name. She died last year.

5. Olga, even Olga, who is peripheral to this story, a secondary character, and not one who haunts me, is completely identifiable here. If you type Olga and family therapist into any search engine, there she’ll be. The unusual first name. The Hungarian origins. The vaunted reputation in her field. You might come across a video clip in which she described her process as “intuitive,” that she believed “the less intervention the better,” and that “people should be in charge of their own lives.” In truth, I don’t think Olga was a good therapist. She was way off-base in her assessment of my mother, who was not a mildly depressed and self-absorbed housewife, one of the “worried well,” but rather, had a borderline personality disorder with narcissistic features, which any therapist will tell you is just about the most difficult kind of patient to treat.

Olga was also wrong about my memoir, which, though not cruel, was neither kind nor generous toward my mother. Nor was she remotely on target in her prediction of my mother’s response upon reading it. Olga: “I think she’ll be fine with it.” My mother: “You’ve ruined my life.”

Does my characterization of Olga constitute lashon hara? Would it be more or less so if she were still among us? And have you noticed that I just gave my mother a very unflattering diagnosis? Narcissistic. Borderline. Who am I? Who the hell am I? The daughter. The writer. The one who remains to tell the tale. If she could, my mother would rise from her own grave to tell you these pages are full of lies. I can feel her all around me as I write, the air in my study electric with her silent protest. But in fact, I’m trying to tell the truth here. My version of it, anyway. Trying to tell the truth used to feel like enough.

6. “You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people.” Leviticus 19:16. The Hebrew word for “tale-bearer” is rakhil, which has its roots in a word meaning trader or merchant. And when it comes to lashon hara, this bearing of tales is not confined, as you might think, to slander or defamation of character. Truth, lies—it makes no difference. The Talmud tells us that the tongue itself is so dangerous that it must be hidden away behind the protective chamber of the mouth and the teeth, so that it will do no harm.

7. My mother has been dead eight years. My father has been dead twenty-five, more than half my life. There are stories buried with each of them, stories that I can’t leave alone. Like a grave-robber, I dig for the bones. Who were my parents? What worlds existed inside them? It’s not just simply that I want to know. Or rather, the act of knowing itself is not enough. I assemble the pieces, I fill in the missing ones. I research, extract, remember, imagine. The closest I can ever get to them is by writing. When my pen moves across the page, I am building an edifice, a structure where, before, there was only dust. I am erecting a monument of words, trying to breathe life back into the people I have lost.

8. Rav Yisrael Meir HaKohen—known as the Chafetz Chaim—was a sage considered by Orthodox Jews to be among the thirty-six saints who saved the world. He made a lifelong study of lashon hara, in which he expanded on the idea that death and life are in the power of the tongue. He believed that a pure and sacred tongue—the gift of responsible speech—can elevate the soul, and an irresponsible, wagging tongue can drag a person down to the lowest depths.

9. A few years ago, I received an e-mail from a man I didn’t know. He had read my memoir. He had been a close friend of my uncle’s and had known my father. He had a story to tell me, a painful, difficult story, he said. He described it as the most shocking thing he’d ever witnessed. Did I want to hear it?

10. The Talmud teaches that “a man should always incite the Good Inclination to battle the evil one” (Berachot 8). According to the Chafetz Chaim, this means that we must always be at war against the Evil Inclination. The Evil Inclination will convince a person that as long as she’s telling the truth, it’s OK. Perhaps someone deserves to be spoken of maliciously. Maybe it’s even a mitzvah to reveal a person’s misdeeds. But this is lashon hara in its most devious form.

11. Did I want to hear it? Did I? My fingers flew over the keyboard in response. Of course, I wrote to the gentleman who had appeared in my inbox, an emissary from the world of the dead, I always long to know more about my father. Please, tell me more.

12. The story, the man told me, began in 1962, the year I was born, when my father and his younger brother set out to open a brokerage firm together. My father owned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, which my grandfather had loaned him the money to buy. They weren’t kids, my father and my uncle. My father would have been forty-one, my uncle a few years younger. My uncle, Harvey, found a third partner to join them, a man named Schiffman. The firm was to be called Shapiro Brothers and Schiffman. They rented office space in the Fabrikant Building on West Forty-Seventh Street in Manhattan, in the Diamond District.

13. I feel compelled here to say: I don’t know Schiffman. I don’t even know if I’m spelling his name correctly. Quite possibly it’s Shiffman, or Shiftman. In all likelihood, Schiffman/Shiffman/Shiftman is dead. My father is dead. My Uncle Harvey is dead. Just recently, I wrote again to the man who sent me the e-mail and haven’t heard back from him. I fear he may be dead too. The Fabrikants are still a well-known name in the Diamond District, and as far as I know, their only connection to this story is that they rented office space to my father and uncle. Has this yet reached proportions of lashon hara?

14. The day before the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange was scheduled to ring, announcing the opening of Shapiro Brothers and Schiffman, it was discovered that Schiffman had misrepresented himself and couldn’t come through with the investment he had promised. Word on the street was that he’d been shady in his business dealings. The bell never rang for Shapiro Brothers and Schiffman. The firm was D.O.A. The rented furniture was hauled away from the office building on Forty-Seventh Street, the assistants fired before their first day on the job. And my grandfather summoned my father and uncle to his apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of The Majestic, on Seventy-Second and Central Park West.

15. I never knew my grandfather. He died when I was nine months old. On a wall in my writing study hangs a black-and-white photograph of him, taken when he was in his fifties. He wears a crisp suit and tie, a yarmulke covering most of his bald head. A pince-nez is clipped to the bridge of his formidable nose. He has a cleft in his chin. It’s hard to tell if he’s smiling. His gaze is intense. My grandfather was a figure in his world, which is to say the moneyed, Orthodox Jewish world of Manhattan and its environs, which included Israel. He was a textiles magnate, a self-made millionaire, a philanthropist with political ties, a man of influence. When he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1963, the yeshivas in downtown Manhattan and in Brooklyn closed for his funeral. According to a front page obituary in a yellowed, tattered copy of the Jewish Press, the block of East Broadway between Allen and Essex was roped off and loudspeakers were placed outside the synagogue so that the assembled crowds could hear the eulogies by the vice-mayor of Tel Aviv, among others, who compared the loss of my grandfather to all of Jewry to that of a Godel B’Yisroel—one of the greats of Israel.

16. The man accompanied my father and Uncle Harvey, he told me in his e-mail, to the apartment at The Majestic, where my grandfather was waiting for them. He described the grand formal living room with its sweeping view of Central Park, the trees, horses, and carriages, pedestrians reduced to the size of Monopoly pieces. A room I know well. My grandmother had a stroke at my grandfather’s funeral, from which she never recovered, and she lived in that apartment on Central Park West, cared for by two aides, for all the years of my childhood. When I was in college, I used to crash there when I was in the city with my friends, after partying too much.

On the day of the summons, my grandmother stood silently next to my grandfather, who began screaming at his two sons the moment they walked through the door and into the marble foyer. They did not remove their coats, but stood in the entrance to the living room with their hats in their hands. My father was pale. My uncle shook violently. For half an hour, my grandfather tore into them relentlessly in a manner—so said the now-probably-dead man—that was the most vicious display of emotional violence he had ever seen in his life. At the end of it, they turned—my father, my uncle, their friend—and left the apartment without having uttered a word.

17. Recently, at a dentist appointment, my dentist peered into my mouth with great interest. “You have something there called linea alba,” he said. “It’s a white line on either side of your tongue. It’s unusual, but not a cause for concern—you must be biting your tongue in your sleep.”

18. I have kept the yellowed newspaper clippings about my grandfather, the tributes, the letters of praise. The outpouring of sorrow over his death. I have felt, somehow, that being his granddaughter accorded me a certain safety. Unlike my mother’s father, an immigrant chicken farmer who died many years before I was born, my paternal grandfather was someone who had carved a permanent place for himself on the sides of buildings, on plaques in auditoriums. A great man. Everybody said so. The Yiddish word yichus means “pedigree,” “good blood,” or “well born.” But dig deeper, and the more subtle meaning emerges: to have yichus, one must live up to the promise of one’s family’s stature.

19. According to Rabbi Moses M. Yoshor, whose seminal biography of the Chafetz Chaim was first published in Yiddish in 1937, there is a basic principle in medicine that a discolored, unclean tongue is a symptom of some abnormal, disturbed condition of the body—the physical state. This is also true in spiritual dimensions. A tongue that is “discolored” and unclean is an indication that the internal system of the person’s spirit is not functioning properly.

20. Uncle Harvey and his wife divorced when I was thirteen, but she remained in my life, and shortly after hearing the story of Shapiro Brothers and Schiffman from my e-mail interlocutor, I met her for coffee in New York. Ruth is in her late seventies and very hard of hearing. Once we settled into a quiet corner table of a café on the Upper West Side, not far from where my grandparents had lived, I told her about the unexpected e-mail and my discovery of the story I assumed she already knew: the deceit, the closing of the firm before it ever opened, my grandfather’s fury. But when I got to the part about my father and Harvey being summoned to a meeting in my grandparents’ apartment, she stopped me, mystified. Her sound amplifier rested on the table between us, as if it were a translating device. “What meeting? I don’t know anything about a meeting.”

21. When my first memoir (indeed, I have written more than one) was published, an aunt and a few cousins never really spoke to me again. An uncle called to let me know that I had misspelled his third wife’s name and asked if it was possible to insert errata. Many relatives politely averted their gaze, as if having stumbled into an occupied bathroom by mistake. Still others were gracious and unerringly kind. But my mother? As has already been established, Olga, my mother’s therapist, thought my mother would find my book generous and—what was it? Oh, yes. Gripping and wonderful. Olga did not foresee that my memoir would become, for many of the people in my mother’s life, a Cliff’s Notes of sorts. I couldn’t have imagined it myself. Oh, the daughter has written a memoir? Everyone in her world—from her doorman to her accountant—read my book in an attempt to figure her out.

22. A famous Chasidic fable illustrates the gravity of lashon hara: a man went around his village gossiping and telling all manner of stories, with no concern about the impact of his behavior. But in time, he began to realize that his stories had hurt people, and he felt remorseful. He paid a visit to his rabbi, and asked how he could make amends. Take a feather pillow, the rabbi told him, cut it open, and spread the feathers to the wind. Simple enough. The man did as the rabbi bade him. He came back for further instructions. Now, said the rabbi, go out and collect all of the feathers and return them to the pillow. Ashamed, and without even a handful of feathers, the man returned to the rabbi once more. Your words are like feathers, the rabbi told him. Once they leave your mouth, you know not where they will go, and you can never retrieve them again.

23. As I told my aunt the story of the meeting—the screaming old man, the silent sons—her eyes filled with tears. Decades peeled away, as if the layers of a fruit, leaving only the exposed and tender core. I could see the young wife and mother she had been. Her sad, unhappy marriage. Her bitter, contentious divorce. Her fragility and shame. Her four children devastated by the shattering of their home. “That makes sense.” Her voice trembled. “I’ve never understood. But finally it makes sense.” “What?” I asked her. Something powerful was happening. I had no idea what was going on. “That night.” The words tumbled out. “Harvey tried to kill himself that night.”

24. I am a tale-bearer among my people. Rakhil—a trader, a merchant. Would it be fair to say that I’m profiting from this tale? Why the words, the endless stream of words? What if I were to tell you that the pieces of my history are jagged and sharp. Those pieces—left alone—will shred me to bits. What if I were to tell you that in assembling them I am traveling backward through time: my mother is not crazy, my father is not depressed, my aunt isn’t fragile, my uncle not suicidal. My grandfather opens his arms in an embrace of his two sons. Everyone is still alive. The story—if it is a story—always contains within it the chance of another ending.

25. That night was Uncle Harvey’s first suicide attempt, though it wouldn’t be his last. “Harvey was never the same after that,” my e-mail correspondent had written to me. “How different it might have been if his father had, instead, comforted him and offered words of support?” My grandfather never told my Aunt Ruth about the events that had taken place earlier that night. If he considered his role in what happened, he kept it to himself. Instead, he blamed her for her husband’s overpowering despair, and told her she’d better figure out how to be a better wife.

26. My grandfather was the man eulogized as a Godel B’Yisroel. The man who never missed a morning minyan. Who recited from the sefer Tehillim every morning of his life. The man whose death inspired a member of Israel’s Parliament to write, in a letter of condolence to my grandmother, that he was heartbroken and completely bewildered, that generations upon generations would be the beneficiaries of his good deeds. Yet he was the man who so violently berated his sons that it had caused one of them to make an attempt on his own life. The man who did not take responsibility for his own actions. Who allowed a fragile woman to spend most of her life believing her own culpability. He was all these things.

27. “What right do you have?” my mother used to yell at me. “How dare you?” She is here now. They all are. In my writing study, they crowd around me. Their photographs hang askew on the walls. “Tell this,” they say. “Don’t tell that.” Who are you—daughter, granddaughter, niece, cousin, wife, mother, friend, witness, bystander—the one who became the writer, the tale-bearer, the one who lays the pieces on the floor like a mosaic, a puzzle, a path through her own wilderness. The one who gets the last word. Who are you to tell our stories?

28. Yizkor—one of the most sacred prayers in the liturgy—means “to remember.” The Jewish people don’t believe in heaven or hell, but we do believe that our souls live on through memory. He of blessed memory. May his memory be a blessing. This is the language most often used about our dead. So perhaps I should leave this story alone, to exist only as a brief e-mail correspondence between an old man and a writer. After all, my grandfather was a true patriarch, Abraham to a tribe of more than forty great-grandchildren, including my own son. I am telling a tale about a dead man, told to me by a dead man. At the same time, I am holding yellowed clippings, so soft with age that the paper may crumble in my hands. Is it possible that this isn’t lashon hara, but my own form of Yizkor, of honoring the dead?

29. I went to see my dentist again. He peered into my mouth with even greater interest. With a piece of gauze, he held my tongue between his fingers, and pulled. He pressed a small mirrored instrument against the insides of both my cheeks, examining the linea alba. He was silent as he removed the instrument and made a note in my chart. “It’s gotten a bit worse, but don’t worry,” he finally said. “We see all sorts of things on the tongue. We’ll keep an eye on it. You have one of those mouths that needs to be watched.”

August 28, 2013

The Me My Child Mustn’t Know

On a recent weekend morning, I set out with my son to do errands. As we drove from the post office to the health food store, he began fiddling around with the radio, looking for NPR. I reached over and turned it off. He turned it back on. I turned it off again. He shot me a look, puzzled. After all, he knew I enjoyed the fact that, at age 12, he was a fan of public radio.

“What’s the problem?” he asked.

“No problem,” I said. “I just don’t feel like listening.”

I couldn’t tell him that later that afternoon, “This American Life” would be rebroadcasting an episode with a reading I did years ago from my first memoir, “Slow Motion.” That I was afraid a promo would come on the air, and that suddenly, improbably, horrifyingly, he might hear his mother’s voice of more than a decade earlier, telling a story of events in her life that had happened more than a decade before that, a story no parent would want her child to hear.

Before I became a mother, I spent many years writing with no thought that some day I might have a child. When I first started the memoir, I hadn’t even yet met the man who would become my husband. And so I wrote with abandon, a kind of take-no-prisoners story about dropping out of college at 20 and, in a booze- and drug-induced haze, becoming involved in a destructive affair with a much older married man, the stepfather of my best friend. My life was turned around by a car accident in which my father was killed and my mother badly injured. I was in my early 30s when I wrote “Slow Motion,” and my focus was on trying to capture that painful and chaotic time. I wasn’t projecting forward to a lifetime later, when, as a Connecticut wife and mother in my 40s, I’d be driving along with an impressionable and curious preteenage son whose access to his mother’s not-so-pretty rebellion would be as close as the push of a button.

Everyone has a past, and it’s a very personal decision to reveal — or not reveal — the more unsavory bits to our children. It’s possible for most people to smooth out the rough edges of their histories, to edit out indiscretions or sanitize their mistakes. After all, some things are none of our kids’ business, right? They don’t need to know every single detail about their parents. On the day our son was born, a friend with teenagers gave my husband the following piece of advice: “If he ever asks you if you did drugs . . . lie.” But for memoirists, the stories we’ve told of our own lives are set in stone. And while certainly some memoirs might whitewash the past, and others might omit unsavory details, the kind of memoir I wanted to write required being hard on myself publicly. I lifted up rocks and peered into the darkness. In my attempt to find the Emersonian thread of the universal in my story, I laid myself bare in the most unflattering light.

I’ve often wondered whether I would have written that memoir — one of seven books to my name, but the only one I would bodily throw myself in front of my son to prevent him from reading — if the timing had been different, if the idea for it had taken root in me only after he had been born. It’s a book I’m proud of, and the artist in me would like to think that I would have written it no matter what. But the mother in me isn’t so sure. I might have stopped myself, for fear of what he might think some day. Certainly, it would have been a very different book, bearing the marks of time, maturity, experience. After all, one can’t write with abandon if one is worrying about the consequences. And to have children is to always, always worry about the consequences.

From the time my son was an infant, I became aware that he hadn’t asked for a mother who is a writer. Up until then, the people in my life — parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, friends — had felt like fair game. If I was going to be hardest on myself, then, well, they were grown-ups; they could handle it. But if I was going to write about my son, I was going to have to be very, very careful. And as any writer will tell you, careful has no place in making art. My atavistic desire to protect my child (against myself!) was at odds with my creative desire to write from an internal landscape that now included him, one which had been forever altered by his birth.

Every memoirist makes her own set of rules to write and to live by, and in these 12 years, the strictest rule to which I have adhered has been this: Before I have written anything about my son, I have asked myself whether I could imagine him turning to me some day, and saying, I wish you hadn’t told that story about me. But of course the boy I know today has not yet grown into the man he will someday become. Right now, he likes the fact that he sometimes appears in my work. He has read my most recent memoir, “Devotion,” though in truth I think he’s skimmed it for his own name. He thinks it’s cool when I mention him in an interview. (He would enjoy being written about in this essay, though I have no intention of showing it to him.) But he may not always feel this way, and so I can’t possibly know; all I can do is try to protect his privacy while not censoring myself to the point of muteness. Certainly I can imagine him saying, I wish you hadn’t told that story about yourself. But as a writer, my inner life is my only instrument. I understand the world only by my attempts to shape my experience on the page. Then, and only then, do I know what I think, feel, believe. Without these attempts (the word essay derives from “attempt”) I am lost.

Later that day, I drove my son to his piano lesson and as I sat waiting in the driveway of his teacher’s house, I tuned in to “This American Life.” I leaned back in the driver’s seat and listened to my younger self quietly, forcefully reading her sad, painful story. In the distance, through an open window, the sound of my son playing the opening strains of “Für Elise.” It was a strange and powerful moment, one in which I felt my past and present fall one on top of the other to form something like a complete picture. I closed my eyes and choked back tears. And I thought what I always think in such a moment: I’ll have to write about this.

Dani Shapiro’s next book, “Still Writing,” will be published in 2013.

August 28, 2013

#amwriting

image

I’m writing this on a laptop using a software program called Freedom. Freedom’s sole function—its raison d’ê tre—is that it disables the internet. How many minutes of freedom would you like? The question popped up in a little window in the middle of my screen. I could request any number of minutes at all. A whole day, for instance. An afternoon. A lifetime! Briefly, I considered forty-five, but that seemed pretty lame. So I typed in sixty. A solid hour, and I’d be able to live with myself. An hour with no internet. No email. Nothing but me, sitting cross-legged in the wing chair in the corner of my office. Silence in the house. My two dogs napping at my feet. An hour seems to have become the most I can handle.

The phone is on the table next to me, but it holds no allure. I wouldn’t dream of picking it up. I remember years ago—so many it seems almost quaint—when the phone was a problem. It would ring. Friends would call. Non-writer friends who didn’t understand why I couldn’t talk in the middle of the day. Writer friends who were procrastinating. To protect my time, I programmed my answering machine to pick up on the first ring. Voices—often my mother’s—would broadcast through the room. Hello? Are you there? Dani? Pick up. I know you’re there. Later, I discovered that I could turn off the ringer. But the answering machine would make a click and whir each time someone called. That click and whir could totally throw me off. Then voice mail came along: a marvelous invention. With voice mail, you never knew anyone had called at all, unless you actually picked up the phone and heard the stuttered dial tone. During writing days, I picked up the phone three, maybe four times a day, tops. I had a sense that, whatever it was, it could wait.

 

In the time it has taken me to write these first two paragraphs, I have had the impulse to check email. I have had the impulse to look up the year that voice mail was invented. I have wanted to double-check the spelling of raison d’ê tre. I have considered taking a quick peek to see how many minutes of freedom I have left.

 

The phone hardly rings any more. When it does, the caller I.D. usually broadcasts private. My mother died eight years ago. We receive calls from the Democrats. Calls from my husband’s alma mater. Or mine. Calls from Planned Parenthood, The Policemen’s Benevolent Association of tk (here I am combatting a strong urge to look up the precise town in which the Policemen’s Benevolent Association is located, because I can’t remember and I need to know now so that I can delete the tk, which offends my anal retentive sensibilities). Now, the phone rings with opportunities: to get new credit cards, to refinance our mortgage, to attend a local fundraiser. This, in part, is why the phone holds no allure. Someone always wants something, on the other end, and this has become known as an opportunity.

 

Except that every once in a while, I find myself caught up in a long conversation with a friend—the kind that happens after an exchange of emails has stretched into paragraphs and paragraphs, and finally talking feels like less effort. When this happens, I’m overcome with the sense that I’m wasting time. Not that I don’t want to talk to my friends. I do. I want to talk to my friends over a glass of good red wine and a cheeseburger in a dimly lit cafe. Instead, I pace my house, receiver pressed to my ear, doing other things while talking. I organize the pantry. Make myself a cappuccino. (Are you in the subway? a friend asked just yesterday while I steamed the milk.) I run a bath, and soundlessly lower myself into the steaming depths so that they have no idea I’m lying there naked. Fretting, all the while. Shouldn’t I be doing something else?

 

 

I have a piercing nostalgia for the places in which I used to write. A small room on the top floor of an old building on the the Upper West Side, which faced the interior courtyard. It was a friend’s room—it didn’t belong to me—but I can still remember the crack in the plaster that ran along the wall to my right, and the guy across the courtyard who smoked through an open window, ashtray balanced on the sill. I smoked too, in those days. When I hit a rough patch in the work, I’d open my own window and light a cigarette. I’d watch the guy across the courtyard, and he’d watch me. We were each other’s witnesses to an otherwise solitary and highly private process.

Next, I lived in the back of a quiet building a few blocks south. The floors were old, herringbone. The building had an antiquated system for distributing the day’s mail to its occupants. One of the doormen went to each apartment’s door and slid the batch of envelopes beneath. The only interruption in my morning was the sound of paper against wood. I waited for that sound—the outside world, sliding in. Later, I rented a house on Henry Street in Sag Harbor where I finished my very difficult third novel one sweltering August afternoon. I can call to mind the quality of the sunlight when I left the house, giddy, on sea legs, like the lone occupant of a sailboat who hadn’t quite believed she’d ever see land again. I just finished my novel, I wanted to tell the lady walking her dog on the street. But instead, I contained myself. Why would she care? I didn’t need to broadcast it to the world. It was my own, private euphoria.

 

 

Freedom has just informed me that my sixty minutes are up. It has done this with a gentle, nearly-inaudible beep. It is the fastest hour I’ve spent in recent memory. I had lost myself. I’m tempted to go on Twitter and tweet about this phenomenon under the popular hashtag #amwriting, or announce it as my status on my Facebook page. Instead, I opt for an hour more.

 

Early this morning—before I discovered freedom—I approximated wakefulness while sleepwalking through my family’s routine. My goal was simple yet elusive: I scrambled the eggs, made the toast, poured the protein shake, assembled the sandwich, juice box, individually-wrapped packet of cookies into the lunchbox which went into the knapsack, all the while attempting to stay in that delicate semi-conscious place from which the day’s work (if there was to be a day’s work) would spring. I was both present and absent. My mind a split screen: tennis racket, sneakers, loose-leaf binder, money for class trip on one side. Characters, scenes, fragments, words, phrases on the other. I knew all too well that a tussle about missing homework, or a brief outburst of misery about the taciturn personality of the after-school tutor, and there goes the day. I waved goodbye to my husband and son. I love you! Drive carefully! The car toodled down the driveway, down, down, down as I made my way up, up, up the stairs and into my office. I had my mug of coffee. The dogs know the drill and plunked themselves down on my office floor, resigned to a morning of torpor. My mind was as quiet and smooth as a lake at dawn.

I’ll check my email, I thought. It will only take a second.

 

On any given day, my in box contains the following: spam (Jetsetter vacation offers go live at noon! See what’s new for you at Net-a-Porter!), friends checking in (when are you next in the city? Drinks? Dinner?), spam from friends checking in (so-and-so thought you might be interested in the Jetsetter vacation . . . ). There are people who need something from me (these invariably begin with Dear Dani, I hope this finds you well), friends who need something from me (I hate to bother you but . . . ) Any of these have the potential to mess up my writing day, but most of all, any email containing the subject line: Bad News. Or when someone’s name is in the subject line. (They’re almost always dead.) An email from a friend entitled Some thoughts. (Uh-oh.)

But even on a day that holds no drama, there are other things that need attending to: someone has tagged you in a photo. Well, then. Don’t you need to see that photo? Someone has DM’d you on Twitter. It would be rude not to write back instantly—the medium virtually demands it. And then—what the hell!—you might as well go on Net-a-Porter to see what is, indeed, new for you this morning. What a pretty handbag! And those Jetsetter vacations sure do look intriguing. Morocco! You’ve always wanted to go to Morocco.

 

When I say you, of course, I mean me. I mean me, this very morning. You may not find yourself lost—a half hour later—on a blog about trekking through Morocco at all. You may not accidentally end up contemplating a handbag. You may tumble out of bed in the morning and go straight to work, do not pass go. You may, as I have come to think of it, pull a Franzen, and have a dedicated computer, stripped down of all bells and whistles until it resembles a Smith Corona in the limited nature of its possible functions. You may put on ear muffs. A blindfold. You may work in a room with blackout shades. A writing studio in the woods with nothing more than a rickety desk, a pad (the old-fashioned paper kind) and a pen.

Well, good for you.

 

For a moment there, I forget about freedom and try to look up the old interview of Jonathan Franzen I once read, I don’t remember where, in which he described in great detail his earmuffs and blindfold. His stripped down computer. Loading . . . Loading . . . I stare at my screen the way my dogs watch me while I’m cooking. Waiting, hoping for the smallest scrap.

 

After finishing this morning’s super-quick email check—at which point a crowd, a stadium of people (3148 on Facebook at last count) had taken up residence in my head—I opened the file on my laptop where my novel lives. I stared at the screen. My novel—so clear to me when I woke up this morning—now looked like nothing so much as black squiggles against a glaring white background.

 

My novel contains a scene in which two characters—a brother and a sister—are seeing each other for the first time in many years. They’re walking up a staircase, and at the top of the staircase, there is a chest of drawers. I’ve been trying to nail the scene down for a while—the characters have been eluding me—but this morning the characters seemed less important than getting the chest of drawers exactly right. I felt that it needed to be an extremely valuable, signifying chest of drawers. Beidermeier, perhaps.

And so I googled Beidermeier. The first thing I discovered is that I was spelling it incorrectly. The i comes before the e. Biedermeier. Next, I found myself on the website of an antiques dealer in Paris. Lovely stuff. Unaffordable. Which reminded me that I hadn’t paid the deposit for my son’s summer camp. I clicked away from the antiques dealer and onto the camp’s website. I filled out all the forms—this took about twenty minutes, and involved going through my iphoto folder to download a recent photograph of my son, which led me to relive this past year, our trips and dinner parties and weekend visitors, our bike rides and hikes and visits with his cousins—until I finally typed in the credit card number and enrolled him in camp for the month of July. Which led me to be worried about how we’re going to afford to send him to camp, to private school, hell, to college, even though he’s only in the sixth grade. I reflexively checked Twitter. I hardly even knew I was doing it. I had forgotten to respond to that person who DM’d me. And while I was on Twitter, I figured I might as well tweet. After all, novelists are supposed to maintain a twitter presence, according to current publishing wisdom. Novelists are supposed to build a platform. But what to tweet? What the hell to tweet? One-hundred-and-forty-characters-or-less is not my strong suit. I’m a novelist. I prefer the long form. Which reminded me.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Back to Beidermeier.

 

The inlaid wood on the chest of drawers . . .
The wooden chest of drawers was inlaid . . .

 

I should mention that I am a disciplined person. I sit down every day to write. I have a work ethic that has, over the years, produced seven books, countless essays, stories, pieces of journalism. I am—some might even say—prolific. I don’t smoke any more, or drink too much, or gamble. My affairs are in order. My sock drawer is organized, and my windows are clean. I know what is and isn’t good for me—and do a pretty decent job of living accordingly. So why does Biedermeier lead to summer camp? And summer camp to Twitter?

 

Often, I leave home in the middle of the day and drive down to the center of the small Connecticut village where we live. In this town gathering place, known as the depot, there is a cafe, dry cleaner, sushi joint, and bookstore. There is also no cellular service. You see people sometimes, city folks, poking at their Blackberrys, or shaking their iphones like stuck pepper mills in disbelief that they’ve been cut off. You’ll see cars parked off the side of the road on the hill leading away from town, the grass worn thin at the precise spot where service—though spotty—can sometimes be available.

I wander through the aisles of the bookstore, sit and read in the cafe. I pick up our cleaning, order sushi. I know that emails are piling up in my in box at home. More vacation offers, flight deals, requests, hellos, bad news. I know that my 2000 twitter followers and 3148 Facebook friends have been busy, and that I will later read status updates involving dogs, kids, in-laws, food, travel, and the occasional, well-placed back-door brag. (Help! Feeling so fat! What to wear to the White House?) My iPhone is in my jacket pocket, but I forget its even there. For a few moments, my mind is smoothed out, like one of those miniature Japanese boxes of sand that comes with its own tiny rake. Doing household errands has become a form of meditation. I’m doing only this: looking at books, carrying the dry cleaning into the car, and the container of tekkamaki.

 

By the time I have finished the very important research on Biedermeier chests of drawers, I have descended, without the slightest shred of self-awareness, to the nadir of the dance that should be between the writer and the page, but has instead become the writer and the screen. The difference between the page and the screen cannot be underestimated. The page is the end. The screen is the beginning. The page is finite. The screen is full of infinite possibilities. The writer—again, okay, me—alone in a room for hour upon hour. Solitary, possibly even lonely, vulnerable to every word, every slight, every voice, real or imagined. There is no guy across the courtyard, watching. No lady walking her dog on Henry Street. No doorman sliding mail slid under the door. And so I wonder: do I even exist?

There’s only one way to find out. The screen flings its shutters wide open. The laptop itself becomes a window into the outside world. I decide—no, it isn’t a decision so much as a Pavlovian reflex—to type my own name into the Google search engine.

 

On this particular day, there are 204,000 entries on Google containing the phrase “Dani Shapiro.” Some of them are duplicates. And a few are for the other Dani Shapiros in the world: an attorney in Los Angeles and a middle school gymnast in Ohio. But most of them are about me. Someone on Wikipedia has dug up my given name, which I never use. Which I despise. Daneile Joyce (Dani) Shapiro was born in . . . It gets stuff wrong. I am no longer, for instance, teaching at Wesleyan University. And most unfortunately, the news that Reese Witherspoon is set to star in the film version of my memoir is ten years out-of-date.

I scroll down, down, down. Past Wikipedia, past my own website, past the most recent reviews of current books, down, down, down, digging. The feeling—if I were to stop to feel it—is a sickening one. I’m vaguely nauseated, tingly with guilt, as if sneaking or prying into a place I don’t belong.

What am I looking for? There are reviews of my books in newspapers, magazines. There are recent ones posted on the Geeky Reader’s Book Blog, Scraps of Life, Reviews from the Heart, and Bloggin’ About Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness. People love me or they hate me. There is very little middle ground. I mean, why bother? On Amazon and Goodreads, books are rated by the star system, like a pre-schooler’s progress chart. Five stars. Or one. (One! That’s what you get for having a pulse!) There are photos from readings, from parties. I’m smiling next to a friend to whom I no longer speak. I’m giving a reading. I’m teaching a workshop.

My eyes burn. My brain buzzes unpleasantly, but I’ve passed the point of no return. I scroll past my wedding announcement. My mother’s obituary. The self-google is my mirror, but is it an accurate reflection? Or is it a fun house mirror in which all the pieces are there, grotesquely out of proportion? These 204,000 items, taken together, make up some sort of approximation of me. Something can be gleaned from it, though I don’t know what. Like a child holding up her own hand to examine it, I am scrolling through Google to see who I am.

 

On the surface of my desk: a Buddha head; a bowl of wishing stones gathered from the beach in Positano; three pieces of rose quartz, one in the shape of a heart; four small vials of aromatherapy oils: focus, inspire, de-stress and equalize. Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary; Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude. A piece of paper upon which I have printed out, in a large font, something the poet Jane Kenyon once said: Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone of the hook. Work regular hours.

Had Jane Kenyon (or Virginia Woolf, for that matter) lived long enough to be told to build a twitter platform, she might have resisted. She might—as many of us do—have found ways to build a fortress around herself, a cathedral of peace and silence. She would have emerged from that cathedral—

 

The soft, nearly-inaudible beep.

 

—only in her own time, and at her own bidding. Or so I like to think. Yet, whether rose quartz, blindfold, earmuffs, spiral-bound notebook, or a small cabin off the grid, still, we all need help, sometimes. The noise in our heads is growing louder, and louder still. We all have good days and bad days, don’t we?

 

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

 

#amwriting

August 28, 2013

Ellen Miller’s “Like Being Killed”

I remember her hands: fingers red, raw, bleeding through layers of skin, all the way from her nails to below her knuckles. A curtain of black hair covered most of her face as she tilted her head forward and lifted her fingers to her mouth.  Chewing, biting, quietly gnawing.  This was something far beyond a nervous habit.  From the moment I saw those hands I wanted to encase them in white cotton so that they—so that she—could heal.   I wanted to believe that healing was possible.

Those hands and the woman attached to them followed me around for years.  From a table in the dingy basement of a YMCA on the Upper West Side, where she was a student in the first writing class I ever taught, to my apartment where those hands rested on the piano bench where she always sat during private workshops, to yet another workshop table high above University Place in the graduate writing program at NYU.  If we see people in impressionistic bits and pieces—eyes, lips, the small of a back—those hands have come to represent everything I ever knew or felt about Ellen Miller.  They were elegant, artistic, with long tapered fingers and delicate wrists.  They spoke of promise, beauty, potential, self-destruction, agony, despair, decay.

Later, in Like Being Killed, the novel Ellen was working on during all of the years I knew her, her narrator Ilyana Meyerovich had this to say: “I folded my fingers into fists to hide them.  From the age of six, I’d had a habit of tearing skin off my fingers.  I didn’t bite my nails.  Nails lacked pain receptors.  Using my teeth or my fingernails from the opposite hand, I’d shred skin off my fingers until they bled.  Then I’d wash  my hands with hot, stinging, soapy water.  I’d pour alcohol on the open cuts, which made the cuts heal faster.  Then, to complete the ritual, I’d rub my mother’s moisturizing hand cream which contained searing menthol, into the cuts I’d made.”

I run the risk of offending many of my former students by what I am about to write here: Ellen Miller was probably the most talented writer I have ever worked with.  She just was.  There are writers who are great storytellers, writers who have lyric gifts, writers who are smart as hell; writers who are fearless, and writers who are wise.  But Ellen had a blazing gift, combining a poet’s ear for language with an encyclopedaic mind, insatiable curiosity and a complete and utter lack of fear.  Her work was a high-wire act. Watching her teeter was its own kind of thrll.

Consider this passage, in which Ilyana—heroin addict grand-daughter of a Lower East Side bagel baking dynasty—wanders that neighborhood ostensibly in search of bagels:  “It was dark.  Shops with signs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish…closed for the night…The paint on the blue-and-white sign for Zelig Guttman’s Paper and Twine—which boasted, “Formerly Isadore Birnbaum’s”—was fading and chipping and flaking…. Birnbaum’s old sign was enduring, holding up, piercing through Guttman’s as if the present was more ephermeral than the past, as if attempts to paint synthetically over the past fade faster than the past fades organically.  Almost pentimento, a word suggesting big mistakes, derived from the Italian for repentance, from the Latin poena, for penaltyPoena had been reconstituted, just as Birnbaum’s old sign had  integrated itself into the bastardized, vulgarized sign for Guttman’s.  Pentimento, via poena, was related early on to penance, to pentinence, to punish, to penal, and in later associations, to pain, and to the infinitive, to pine: to suffer intense yearning, or, in archaic use, to waste away with grief or mourning.  I wanted to leave this place, but I was afraid that if I left, I’d lose the chance of ever wanting to stay.”

This (and trust me when I say I am quoting only a very small piece of it) from a walk to buy bagels.   The whole novel is full of such passages.  References from Aeschylus to Nietzsche, definitions of obscure phobias (catagelophobia: the fear of ridicule, real or imagined), the archaic German adjective for homelessness (obdachlos), scattered like treasures on a treasure hunt through a stark and moving narrative of a friendship between two women.

Ellen got a book deal for Like Being Killed while still a graduate student at NYU.  In my class, envy entered the room.  It swooshed in and took a seat at the table.  Word spread that the advance had been high—very high.  The contract wasn’t for one book, but two.  She had hit the jackpot—or so people thought.  She was well-liked, oh sure, everyone liked her, but in the hothouse environment of an MFA Program, she had somehow broken away from the pack, leaving everyone else behind.  If you sat quietly and listened, the sound you would have heard was that of gnashing teeth.  This was quiet, literary despair.  I had weeping students in my office every single afternoon, envious of the young woman with the bleeding fingers and a voice that had a built-in quaver when she spoke.

Fast-forward past the petty jealousies and literary back-biting that now seems like an eighth-note pause in a piece of music.  The novel was published to the sound of…not very much.  Some reviews were glowing, but there weren’t many of them.  The talent was evident but…unharnessed.  Undisciplined.  The Times didn’t like it.  Like Being Killed moved from the front tables of bookstores to the purgatory of the shelves where one or two copies could be found for a while, spine out.  Finally it disappeared altogether—as did its author.  Everyone moved on.  Several of the students in that NYU class kept at it, and eventually published acclaimed novels and story collections of their own.  Quite a while later, I asked a mutual friend what had ever happened to Ellen’s second novel.  She had never written it.  Her publisher asked for her to return the advance.  She went from being a broke East Village writer to an overnight sensation and back to being an even-broker East Village writer, all in the span of five years.

Last winter, I received an email from someone whose name I didn’t recognize.  The subject line read: ELLEN MILLER: URGENT.  As soon as I saw it, I knew that Ellen was dead.  It had been years since I’d seen her.  She’d fallen out of touch with most of her old friends and colleagues.  At forty, she had collapsed in a bodega in the same East Village neighborhood where she had spent most her life.  Her heart—that enormous heart of hers—had simply given out.

In the first chapter of Like Being Killed, Ilyana and her drug addict friends are sitting around a kitchen table getting high, and discussing how each of them is eventually going to die.  “I already know how I’m going to die,’” Ilyana says… “I’m just going to…disappear.  I’ll dissipate.  I’ll evaporate, in increments, molecule by molecule, until I’m not there.’  Deadness had discrete gradations and was easy to calibrate…everything I did on any given day would desiccate, scatter, like soft cigarette ash, by the end of that day, leaving nothing behind.  Fugere sine vestigio.  The Latin struck me as funny.  The phrases—to flee or disappear without leaving behind a footprint or trace—was impregnanted by its own opposite.  Fugere sine vestigio was its own footprint, a trace of a dead language, pervading the present.  ‘There’s this vanishing point,’ I said, ‘and I can’t see anything ahead of it.’”

Ellen Miller left a footprint.  Just as Isadore Birnbaum’s old sign made itself seen—a pentimento revealing itself, asserting its own relevance—Like Being Killed stands as a testament to a singular young woman’s talent, which burned too fast, too blindingly bright.

August 28, 2013

Frame by Frame

Growing up, Dani Shapiro always felt caught in her mother’s viewfinder-until she found the strength to break free.

When I was six months old, my mother brought me from our suburban New Jersey home to a television studio in Manhattan. I was placed in a high chair, and an actress playing my mother spooned baby food into my mouth. My mother watched nervously from the wings, where two backup babies were waiting in case I spat out the food-but I didn’t. I gurgled and smiled and ate the strained peaches. I was a natural, apparently. When it was over, I had become the Beech-Nut baby. (Here is a video of me in a Beech-Nut orange juice ad.)

The week the commercial was due to air, my grandfather-my father’s father-died suddenly in his home on Central Park West. The following day, at his funeral, my grandmother suffered a massive stroke. As the shocked, grieving family gathered in my grandmother’s room at Beth Israel hospital, my mother arranged for a television to be wheeled to the foot of her bed. The scene, as I imagine it, is in black-and-white: My parents and aunts and uncles, all younger than I am now, turn to watch the last few minutes of the evening news with Walter Cronkite. Then, right on schedule, Cronkite signs off, and I appear. My round baby head fills the screen.

That’s Dani! my mother says loudly into my grandmother’s ear. Look, Mom, there on TV-that’s your granddaughter!

A welcome diversion, no doubt. A small moment of cheer in a grim situation. A baby on television-a widow, hovering near death. My unshaven uncles, my hollow-eyed aunts, my father-the oldest son-pacing the room, wild with grief. And then there is my mother: tall and lovely, her dark hair impeccably coiffed. Almond-shaped eyes, her generous mouth outlined and blotted a deep, dark red. Look, there she is-there’s Dani! She wants everyone to see: the doctors, nurses, orderlies. I am her crowning achievement, her late-in-life only child. This is the first of many times that she will ascribe to me magical powers: Someday she will tell me, in all seriousness, that the glimpse of me on television may have helped to save my grandmother’s life.

The camera formed a bridge between my mother and me. It was a rickety bridge, and crossing it was often fraught with danger, but it was also our deepest, most intoxicating connection. Never did my mother love me more than when she was looking at an image of me. And never did I more powerfully feel her love. As a grown woman, sometimes I would call my mother to tell her about somewhere I had just been. An elegant party, perhaps. How did you look? my mother would ask eagerly. What did you wear? Were there pictures?

My mother didn’t think much of child actors or their stage mothers. She had been an advertising executive before she married my father, and she often told the story of a child who had stamped her foot during an audition and shouted, “Mommy, there’s a spot on my Mary Jane!” As with many of my mother’s stories, it was hard to know what she actually felt. Her words-without exception-seemed rehearsed. She was profoundly composed: The precise way she crossed her legs, or raised an eyebrow, or tilted her head was done with a great deal of awareness. She must have told me the Mary Jane story a dozen times, and yet I was never quite sure what to make of it. She seemed to be implying that she would never let her daughter become a child actor.

How, then, to explain that a few years after the Beech-Nut commercial, I became the symbol for another iconic American brand when I was chosen to be the Kodak Christmas poster child? Just as with the Beech-Nut commercial, my mother acted a bit puzzled, as if she hadn’t been the one carting me around to auditions. She preferred to make it seem as if the advertising world had been banging on our door and it would have been rude and withholding not to answer.

The Kodak billboard stretched across the width of Grand Central station, huge and illuminated, high above the heads of rush-hour commuters: me, age three-no longer a generic baby who might be replaced by another baby. Now I was fully recognizable. I was blonde, blue-eyed, quizzical; an all-American symbol of Yuletide cheer. We were observant Jews, so religious that my father’s colleagues on the New York Stock Exchange had nicknamed him Rabbi. My mother often trotted out the story of the Kodak poster in a way that made me feel oddly ashamed. And there was Dani, wishing the entire world a Merry Christmas!

Reality invariably disappointed my mother. From the time that I was a little girl, I sensed the divide between how she imagined a future occasion-whether an afternoon in the park, an evening at the opera, a dinner party, a walk around the block-and how that occasion turned out. She had a tableau in her mind, a series of images, and anything that deviated from those images was a blot on her good time. But the camera-the camera could capture a moment: evidence that life was really as she fantasized it to be. See? We were happy. We were beautiful and special. We loved each other without fail.

I have a memory of my mother descending the stairs of our home, gliding as regally as a queen, holding her head high. She is dressed to go out for the evening. She is impossibly elegant, a New Jersey housewife who belongs on Fifth Avenue and never lets us forget it. (She could have married the French businessman who ran Chanel, she told me more than once.) On this night she is wearing Bonnie Cashin-a classic American designer who suits my mother’s dark, rangy style. A cloud of Norell perfume drifts around her-I can smell it still. She is on her way to the theater, but before she goes, she finds her camera and hands it to the baby-sitter. “Take our picture,” she commands. She stands next to me, a thin, graceful arm draped across my small shoulders. She smiles a careful, picture-perfect smile. Not too wide, just enough teeth showing. I am in pajamas-fresh-scrubbed, sweet-breathed, ready for bed. I am her pretty girl, her one-and-only. I also produce a camera-ready smile. How I look is desperately important to my mother, and I don’t want to disappoint her.

Over the years of my childhood, my mother’s dreams shifted and changed-perhaps self-protectively. Her vision of herself as a career girl-about-town, a cross between Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore, quickly receded behind the privet hedges of suburbia. She joined committees, did volunteer work. But always she held herself apart. She saw herself as smarter, better educated, more sophisticated than our neighbors. In truth, she may have been all these things. But she had contempt for the other women, and it showed.

She had writerly aspirations and drove into the city regularly to take fiction workshops and television-script-writing courses. She wrote a series of spec scripts for Hawaii Five-O and The Partridge Family-the sound of the keys of her Smith-Corona typewriter pounding well into the night. She sent these scripts by registered mail to Hollywood and waited for replies that never came-not even rejection slips. She didn’t let her disappointment show. Instead, she turned her attention to writing a children’s book, which she titled Yes, Mary Ann, the World Is Round. She hired the famous children’s photographer who had done the Kodak poster to shoot the illustrations, and cast me-age five-as the angelic Mary Ann. The book was never published. The photographs remain. I am in a pale-yellow flannel nightgown, sitting up in bed, playing with dolls. I am lying flat on my back, doing my best imitation of sleep.

Eventually, the sound of the typewriter keys stopped. My mother moved on to other ventures-each more unrealistic than the last. And always, I wound up in front of a camera, posing as everything I was not: a rah-rah cheerleader, a well- adjusted, popular girl. I am standing in our driveway, an awkward adolescent, modeling a necklace from my mother’s latest line of tennis jewelry. A gold ball the size of a gumdrop hangs around my neck. In the center of the ball is a small sapphire in the shape of an eye. keep your eye on the ball is the motto. Next, I am in profile, shot from the back, a small terry-cloth towel embroidered with no sweat, baby! wrapped around my neck. My mother stages an elaborate fashion show in our backyard. Dozens of neighborhood ladies sit on folding chairs in the hot summer sun and politely clap as I parade around the pool, showing off my mother’s latest T-shirt line. I sense that they are all weary of her-and perhaps me, by proxy.

I was embarrassed by my mother’s quixotic dreams, even as I hoped they would somehow come true. I was all knotted up in her aspirations-her vision of us as a mother-daughter winning team-and when her businesses failed, one after another, I felt as if I had failed as well.

The message was this: If reality disappointed my mother, and photographs pleased her, then I needed to make myself as two-dimensional, flat, and picture perfect as I could. Don’t frown, darling. Your face might freeze that way. When I went off to college, I might have finally been able to cast off this way of being like a second skin. I might have become a serious student, found a passion, and stuck with it. Instead, I sought the comfort of what I already knew-and what I had been told I was good at. I started auditioning for television commercials during my freshman year.

Auditions led to advertising work-York Peppermint Patties, Coca-Cola, Scrabble-which led to my dropping out of school. I didn’t have any great desire to be an actress, and in fact had no talent beyond a certain photogenic quality-but I didn’t know what else to do. I was so accustomed to my mother’s idea of me as a glamorous girl, lit up by flashbulbs, it had become the only way I could imagine my future.

A photograph remains of that time. It’s large, poster-size, and it now hangs on a long wall in my house along with other family photos: my husband’s extended family gathered around his grandparents. Distant relatives of mine in their Lithuanian village, with their long beards and peasant garb. And then there is me: I am in my early 20s. It’s the eighties, and it shows. My hair is big, my earrings are enormous, white dangling stars, and I am gazing over my shoulder at the camera. I keep that photograph around because I’m fascinated and disturbed by the blankness in my own eyes. My husband calls it my Star 80 photo. Who is she, that scary, pretty, empty girl?

Another photo of me, a Polaroid, was taken a few months later. This one I keep in a box in my closet. I am leaning over my mother, who is in a hospital bed. Her face is black-and-blue, very thin. Her legs are in casts from her ankles to her thighs, dangling from traction pulleys. I’m trying to smile for the camera, as is my mother-but there is nothing happy about this picture. I’ve been crying; this much is clear from my swollen eyes. My father has recently been killed in the same car accident that broke 80 of my mother’s bones. My mother and I are surrounded by what remains of our family-uncles, aunts, a cousin-as we conduct a makeshift Passover seder at her bedside. This is perhaps the first picture of me and my mother that is not an attempt to be anything other than exactly what it is: horrible and painful and unavoidably real.

It is a strange and uncomfortable fact that my parents’ accident turned me into a writer. It was as if there had always existed a parallel track-an alternate universe in which I hadn’t been the Beech-Nut baby or the Kodak Christmas poster child or my mother’s muse. Begin again, they say in meditation class, the idea being that in each moment we are given an opportunity to start over. Begin again. I turned my gaze inward as if my life depended on it-which, in fact, it did. I spent the next several years caring for my mother as she recovered. I finished college and then went to graduate school, where I wrote my first novel-in which a car accident on a snowy highway figured prominently.

I would have given anything for the publication of my first book to have made my mother proud, but my writing life caused her a great deal of pain. It wasn’t what she had wanted for me. It was what she had wanted for herself. You be the pretty one, she used to tell me, referring to my romantic choices-her wisdom in this regard being that I should always choose men less attractive than myself. You be the pretty one, as if pretty were my only ticket.

My writing flew in the face of pretty; I wanted to examine the difficult, the secret, the unsaid with all the energy of someone who had avoided such matters her whole life. Paradoxically, as I did so, I began to feel lighter, easier in my own skin. It turned out that my natural habitat was a solitary one-that I was most content spending my days alone in a room, exploring ideas in my head. The man I fell in love with and married was as compelled by a quiet, internal life as I was.

The further I distanced myself from my mother’s ideas about me, the more frightened and angry she became. She lashed out at me at every opportunity. She didn’t like my hair, my furniture, my friends, my outfits. She was threatened by the bond I had with my husband. She couldn’t decide whether to brag about my career or demean it, and did each whenever it suited her. (She once called the 92nd Street Y to suggest that she was particularly qualified to spearhead a lecture series on mothers and daughters in literature.) Finally-before my husband and I decided to leave New York City for the countryside, another decision she deplored-I persuaded her to see a therapist with me. She lasted six sessions-unable to bear the scrutiny of a neutral witness. Irene, he said. Irene, you aren’t seeing Dani. During what turned out to be our final session, she arrived with a large manila envelope tucked beneath her arm. I later found out that the envelope contained another kind of photograph entirely: X-rays of her lungs, which showed evidence of metastatic lung cancer.

My mother spent her last days in her bedroom, surrounded by pictures of the two of us: a professionally done photograph of herself as a young mother, head tilted back just so, glossy hair swinging as she held me-an infant-high up in the air; another baby picture of me from the Beech-Nut era. There were photographs of the two of us in coordinated outfits, smiling our careful, camera-ready smiles. And one more-a portrait of me taken for a book by the photographer Jill Krementz. In it, I am smiling widely, grinning really-a genuinely delighted, unself-conscious, ear-to-ear grin.

As I sat with my mother, who drifted in and out of consciousness, her meticulous sense of her own physical presence gone forever, my gaze kept returning to the photographs hanging on her wall. These lovely images-these were her memories, now receding to nothing more than flickers behind her closed eyes. When I had given my mother the Krementz portrait, years earlier, she had cocked her head and let out a small uncomfortable laugh. She’d stared at it for a long moment, as if looking at a stranger. I’ve never seen this expression on your face, she said.

As I held my mother’s hand, I wanted to tell her that I was happy in that picture. I had forgotten all about the camera, and I was free. I wanted to tell her that I was sorry she had never seen me that way.