Dani Shapiro
July 6, 2007

Instinct vs. Impulse

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–my mind unleashed like a hungry, mad dog–about the roles of instinct and impulse in my life and how to tell the difference. We are creatures of impulse, all of us, and often impulses become habit. For instance: when I wake up in the morning these days, I go straight to the computer and check my Amazon number, as if, perhaps in the middle of the night Terry Gross or Oprah have interrupted regular programming to praise the virtues of Black & White, and I have shot stunningly and instantly to #1. And so, on these mornings, after I check my (so not #1) Amazon number, I type my name into Google. I check book reviews, blogs, you-name-it, for up-to-the-minute news about the state of my book’s publication. And given that my book’s publication is now three months old, very little news is to be had. There might be a mention of a book club choosing it as their next pick. (Fleeting small surge of pleasure.) Or there might be a blogger tearing it apart into tiny, bite-sized morsels. (Devastation, the certainty that of course this blogger is right and everyone else is wrong.) By the time I have finished this insane sprint through cyber-world, no more than fifteen or twenty minutes have passed, but my mind has become fragmented and buzzy. A cartoon version of me would have my eyes swirling madly and bits of lightning escaping from the top of my head. I know I shouldn’t start my days this way, and yet I do. I do, because after three months of doing very little other than publicizing my book, I am used to a certain pace. A fast, exciting pace full of news and people and nice outfits. I am used to getting up in front of audiences and performing. It was hard to get into that mode–but now it’s even harder to get out of it. I fight against the idea that it’s time to go back into the cave. To start all over again with a single word, a sentence, a page. A glimmer of an idea…so delicate, so easily blown away. So hard to trust or believe in.

When I am following my instincts–rather than my impulses–the inside of my head becomes quiet enough so that I can hear the whispering voice that tells me what to do next. That voice–which of course is my own best self talking–tells me it’s time to read, or take a drive, or practice yoga. It’s the voice that will eventually tell me what my next novel is about, if only I can be still enough to listen. Writing a novel is a devotional act–Annie Dillard describes it as following the line of words. This devotion, this following, cannot be done in a frenzy. And it most certainly cannot be done in the same hyper-self-conscious universe in which Amazon numbers and anonymous bloggers take up valuable, semi-conscious morning time–time time when the mind is at its softest, most open. It has always fascinated me that some of our finest, most lucid writers have also had some of the noisiest, most painfully cluttered, dare I say damaged minds–and I stand in awe at the sheer courage, discipline, determination that it takes to heave all that noise away as if it’s a solid mass, a boulder.

All I know is this: whenever, in my life, I have followed my impulses, it’s never led me anywhere good. And when I have followed my instincts–whether in falling in love at first sight with my husband, or realizing, one summer morning, that it was time to have a baby, or hearing the whispering voice through the fog telling me just enough to begin again, and again, I have been rewarded beyond anything I could ever have imagined.