Dani Shapiro
January 28, 2011

On Being Self-Protective

I’ve often heard it said that writers are born with one less layer of skin than most.  I don’t think this is strictly, or even metaphorically, true — but I do think that our daily lives, spent in solitude, mired in a kind of permanent outsider status, confers upon us a kind of hyper-sensitivity.  I’m reminded of this when I talk to someone who has a regular job, or a “job-job” as I, and my writer friends, refer to it.  Just yesterday I was on the phone for a long time with friend who has a very big job-job, and I realized just how different our inner states are.  She wakes up each morning, girded for battle.  She wears heels and cute jackets, lipstick.  She has power breakfasts, lunches, and dinners–if such meals still exist.  And I–by mid-afternoon–was lying on my office floor with my dogs, staring at the ceiling.  I was in some combination of yoga clothes, long underwear, and a big shawl.  I had spent the day sitting in my reading and writing chair…well…reading and writing.  I hadn’t spoken with a soul.  I hadn’t left the house.  Outside my window, enormous drifts of snow covered fields, hedges groaning from the weight of it.

We might as well have been speaking in two different languages, my friend and I.  She was part of the world out there, and I was part of the world in here.  Quiet, silence, slowness.  It’s the only way I find coherence on the page, one word at a time.  When I’m writing, I never feel lonely.  In fact, I’m more likely to feel lonely, out-of-whack, when I’m not writing.  This solitude is my natural state, and if I don’t have it, I lose my center.  The only hope I have of writing something good is to protect my inner life, to coddle it, to treat it like the sensitive instrument it is.  A violinist cares for her violin.  A singer babies her voice.  A sculptor finds just the right quarry.  As writers, the difference is that our own selves–our internal landscapes–are our instrument.  And so we must protect ourselves from that which throws us off course.

Here are some beautiful words to live by, from one of my favorite poets, Jane Kenyon, in the form of advice to poets and writers:

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 off the hook.  Work regular hours.

Amen to all that.