Dani Shapiro
June 4, 2013

On All of our Selves

On the list of cocktail party questions that flummox me (among which: What are you working on?  How do you do it, you must be so disciplined?  Don’t you feel exposed?  And of course, my personal favorite, Still Writing?) there is one question for which I have never been able to develop a simple response.

What kind of writer are you?

Over the the course of the last two decades, I have written novels, memoirsstories, essays, book reviews.  I have written a play for a drug company (don’t ask), ghost written a novel for a hair stylist, and collaborated on a few bestsellers.  For years, I wrote the back page of Travel+Leisure, for which I interviewed all sorts of fascinating people on the subject of their favorite places.  I have written more blurbs, more letters of recommendations than I can count.  I have written blog posts.  I have taught all over the world: Alaska, Provincetown, Big Sur, Lenox, New York, Positano, and written comments on the backs of students’ manuscripts.  I have given dozens upon dozens of speeches, in auditoriums, hotels, back yards, churches, synagogues, yoga studios.

What kind of writer am I?

We are, each one of us, singular, but our selves are made up of multiple identities.  We live in a culture that would prefer for us to define ourselves in sound bytes, but it is dangerous, soul-deadening, to succumb to that way of thinking.  I am a mother, wife, daughter, and friend.  I am a writer and a teacher.  A Jew.  A former city dweller.  A country girl.  A yogi.  A dog owner.  A Democrat.  I like to dress up in beautiful clothes and go out to elegant dinners, and my preferred state of being is solitary, in ratty yoga gear, with my hair pulled into a clip and warm socks on my feet, as I am right now.  I am most at home when I am following a line of words on the page.  I am a social creature, but I also–in the words of my friend Sylvia –startle easily.  So what does this make me?

If there are advantages to no longer being very young (or young at all) chief among them is this: I am beginning to become comfortable with all of my selves, and all of those selves’ inherent contradictions.  It is possible to be a yogi and like to drink a few glasses of wine.  It is possible to be a solitary writer living in the country, and also obsess about a pair of Jimmy Choo pumps.  It is a fact that I am a literary novelist, and also get up in front of audiences and talk about meditation, and building a spiritual life.  And that spiritual life is not at odds with the murky, doubting, complicated place inside of me that challenges me with its darkness.

What kind of writer am I?

On a good day, I am a writer who writes.  Who gets out of my own way.  Who feels less of a need to define myself with each passing year.  When we create characters on the page, we try to bring them to life in all of their complexity.  Should we really ask anything less of ourselves?