Dani Shapiro
June 14, 2009

On Being Between Things

There is so much I forget about the process of starting a book, writing a book, finishing a book. I tell myself that, if I could remember, I’d save myself a lot of mental trouble. If I could remember, for instance, that beginning is always hard, that middles are soupy and amorphous, that finishing is vaguely depressing, that profound self-doubt is so endemic to the process that to NOT experience it is a warning sign of some sort–if I could remember all that, my writing life would be…easier. Except that it doesn’t work that way. The latest feeling I’m reckoning with–one that is familiar, but which I have also managed to conveniently forget until now–is how I feel when I’m between things.

Having finished DEVOTION — now waiting for the copy-edited manuscript to be sent to me by my publisher, and doing all sorts of busy work like filling out author questionnaires and trying to come up with a one sentence description of my book — I find that my mind enters the unhappy state of being unoccupied. What was it Virginia Woolf once wrote about her own mind when not writing? Pecking and wretched was her term, I believe. Pecking. A perfect word for a mind like a chicken. Aimlessly, but with great energy, pecking at things.

Last week, Pico Iyer wrote a beautiful piece in The New York Times about living a simple life, and in it, he wrote that absorption is the closest he has come to understanding happiness. Absorption is what happens when an athlete trains, when surgeon operates, when a mother cares for a child, when an artist creates–absorption is a kind of loss of self-awareness, self-consciousness, and therefore–of the sense of separateness that plagues us. Absorption is what I have felt for the past two years of my daily work on DEVOTION, and I miss it.

Soon I will take my pecking and wretched mind and train it on something new, and when I do I will try to be grateful for how hard it is. Because that difficulty is the gateway to absorption, and I am always longing for it whether I know it or not.