Dani Shapiro
October 7, 2013

On Small, Seismic Shifts

As I wrote the title for today’s post, I thought back to the title of Grace Paley‘s story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.  One of the great titles ever.  Do enormous changes ever come upon us in any way, other than the last minute?  We apply ourselves each day.  We show up.  We practice our craft.  We love the people we love.  We try to be good friends.  To be kind.  Compassionate.  We soften into life, like velveteen rabbits.  And then one day –– at what feels like the last minute –– we discover that maybe we know a little something.  That we’ve changed.  Altered in some way that will serve us and the people around us.  It has happened so slowly that we hadn’t even known anything was happening at all.  And then it is here.  Seismic.  Something has shifted.

When I say we, I of course mean me.  I mean all of us –– but my experience is all I have.  So yesterday, during a conversation with my fourteen year old son, I had a shock of awareness that maybe, just maybe, I had learned something along the way.  A small but seismic piece of wisdom that I could share with him.  One that I had begun to live –– without ever putting into words.

And.  Not but.

Without getting into details, we were talking about some difficult feelings.  Have you ever met a fourteen year old –– or a human being, for that matter –– who doesn’t experience difficult feelings?  I was trying to console him.   To tell him that things would improve.  That he wouldn’t always feel exactly this way.  And as he responded to me, the first word out of his mouth was but.  But…

And I stopped him.

No, I said.  Don’t say but.  Say and.

Our lives are not comprised of this but that.  But rather, this and that.  We are full of contradictions.  Our joys are bittersweet.  Our sorrows stem from love.  Our growth is painful.  The lessons we learn –– the ones that allow us to move forward in life -– are so often fraught.  This and that.

As I write, I’m sitting in a beautiful hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  There is a siren in the distance.  Somewhere, someone is getting a traffic ticket, or has fallen on the sidewalk, or is robbing a convenience store.  The steeples and domes of Harvard University –– a school I didn’t even dare dream of attending when I was a kid –– are in the distance.  The autumn leaves on the trees in the courtyard below are a riot of color.  As usual, a cappuccino has grown cold at my side.  Across the room, my husband is preparing for the festival release of his beautiful film this weekend.  I’m speaking to some wonderful booksellers tonight, giving a reading on Wednesday night.  Tears are springing to my eyes as I write these words.  And.  Not but.

I spent a lot of years selling myself short.  A lot of years feeling that I didn’t deserve, couldn’t shouldn’t, wouldn’t.  My dreams –– if I had dreams at all –- were shockingly small, as if I had gotten the message, somewhere along the line, that I didn’t deserve much.  That if I was pretty, I couldn’t also be smart.  That if I had made a mess of my romantic life when I was younger, that meant I wouldn’t be allowed to be happily married.  That if I had a difficult mother, that meant I wouldn’t know how to be a mother myself.  And that if somehow I managed to grab a bigger piece of the pie than I deserved –– happiness, success, a bountiful life –– that something terrible would happen.  The other shoe would drop.

This and that, I said to my beautiful son.

Hold it all.  Cup your hands and let the world pour in.  Say yes, not no.  Yes to bounty, to the lessons, the gladness, the pain, the fleeting joy, the opportunities that your life is offering you.  Strike the buts from your very heart.  That smallness, pettiness, stinginess and fear has no place in this life you’re living.  Take this day –– this one, precious day –– and face into the wind.  Remember what the great Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has to say about what it is to be human:  this too, this too, this too….



October 3, 2013

On Beginning Again

Another passage from STILL WRITING, just out this week:


The page is your mirror.  What happens inside you is reflected back.  You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego –– and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude.  No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain.  Isn’t this true for most of us?  A surgeon about to perform a difficult operation is at the bottom of the mountain.  A lawyer delivering a closing argument, an actor waiting in the wings.  A teacher on the first day of school.  Sometimes we may think that we’re in charge, or that we have things figured out.  Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves.  Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure.  We fail better.  We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.

October 1, 2013

On Publication Day

On the occasion of the publication day for my new book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, I thought I’d share a passage from the book: 

As I write these words, I am, of course, alone.  It’s the middle of the day and I have barely stepped outside except to pick up a couple of envelopes full of books and manuscripts that FedEx left on the porch.  I have spoken to no one since seven o’clock this morning.  I’m wearing the ratty T-shirt I slept in last night.  The house is silent.  A crow caws outside my office window.

These solitary days are my lifeline.  They are the lifeline of every writer I know.  We hold on to our solitude, fiercely protect these empty days.  But at the same time, we long for community.  We have no water cooler.  No office gossip.  No Friday night drinks after work.  No weekend softball game.  We’re outcasts and loners, more comfortable being out of step than part of a group.  If pressed, you’d find that most of us had not pledged sororities or fraternities in college.  We don’t tend to be members of clubs. We approach themed parties, baby showers, boy’s night out, with something like dread.  Back when I lived in Brooklyn, our house was in a neighborhood lousy with writers.  A quick trip to the corner bodega meant running into writer friends who were out buying a roll of paper towels, sneaking a cigarette.  And though from my rural hill, it’s easy to feel sentimental about those encounters, at the time, I recall a certain discomfort on both sides, especially if it was in the midst of a writing day.  We liked each other, sure––we might even have a plan to meet later that evening for a drink––but right then we didn’t necessarily want to be reminded of each other’s existence.  We were working.

This prickly, overly sensitive, socially awkward group of people is my tribe.  If you’re a writer, they’re yours as well.  This is why I’ve never really understood competition and envy among writers.  We are competing with ourselves –– not with each other.  And when we do encounter each other, whether at readings, or conferences, or online, hopefully we recognize ourselves and the strange existence we all share.  We realize that we are part of the same species and that we need one another to survive.  Though we write our books alone, ultimately everything we do involves some collaboration.  Every good book you’ll ever read has the thumbprints of other writers all over it.  As we finish a manuscript we may find ourselves thinking of who to turn to, who can help us.  Who will read us with generosity and intelligence and care.  From where I sit, I can see a pile of manuscripts and galleys across my office floor.  They are books by students, former students, teaching colleagues, friends, and strangers –– sent to me for blurbs, or with requests to help them find an agent, or whatever.  I try to help when I can.  When the work is good, I’m eager to be a part of ushering it into the world.  Nothing excites me more than wonderful writing.  It lifts me up.  It shows me what is possible.  And it makes me feel connected to this larger community of writers in the world.

A long time ago, I sent a draft –– actual manuscript pages –– of an early novel to an idol of mine, the writer TIm O’Brien whose The Things They Carried is one of my favorite books.  I got his address from a friend, wrote him a note, and stuffed my manuscript into a manila envelope.  I knew that many writers of his stature had sworn off blurbing, believing the whole process to be corrupted and ennervating (a view I sometimes share).  I had, in fact, recently received a five-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter from a well-known American novelist, explaining to me his policy of not blurbing.  Tim O’Brien and I shared no one in common.  He was not a cousin of my best friend’s best friend from camp.  So I sent off my manuscript with no real hope.  A couple of weeks later, I received a thin letter back.  I stood in the lobby of my apartment building and ripped open the envelope.

Dear Dani Shapiro, it began, It is now three o’clock in the morning––

I began to cry.

––and I have just finished your beautiful book.

I can still see the black ink on the plain white sheet of typing paper, the handwritten scrawl.  I’m happy to offer a comment––

Tim O’Brien had stayed up until three o’clock in the morning reading my manuscript.  He opened the envelope, began to read, kept reading.  He had then felt moved to write me back, along with precious words of support.  These twenty years later, I still have not met Tim O’Brien, but he is part of my community.  I will forever be grateful to him, not only because of his act of generosity to a young writer, but also because he taught me a lesson I have come to live by.  I don’t forget what it was like.  I reach out a hand when I can.  I remind myself every day that it’s about the work.  I am here in Connecticut.  You might be in Missoula, Montana, or Taos, New Mexico, or Portland, Oregon.  You’re in a cafe, or at a writers’ conference, or at your kitchen table.  Your words have come easily to you today, or you feel like your head is about to explode.  You’re a household name, or laboring in obscurity.  I am here, and you are there, and we are in this thing together.