Dani Shapiro
July 12, 2011

On Being Singular

This morning I was at a loss when I sat down to work, so I did something I haven’t done in a while–something I had been in the practice of doing, but lately had forgotten about: I pulled Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary off my desk, where it is always within arm’s reach.  Then I put on my glasses, held the book for a moment, communing with it, and cracked it open to a random page.  This has never failed me.  When I treat A Writer’s Diary like the I Ching, it always gives me what I need.

“Can we count on another 20 years?” Woolf asks.  “I shall be fifty on the 25th.  Monday week that is: and sometimes feel that I have lived 250 years already, and sometimes that I am still the youngest person in the omnibus…Oh yes, between 50 and 60 I think I shall write out some very singular books, if I live.  I mean I think I am about to embody at last the exact shape my brain holds.  What a long toil to reach this beginning!”

This is what we all want, what we work towards, isn’t it?  To embody (at last!) the exact shape our brains hold?  I have been thinking lately about what it means to come fully in line with one’s own vision.  And by vision I mean nothing grand.  I mean the peculiar alchemy, the blend of obsession, preoccupation, history, psychology, character, constitution, curiosity that makes each of us as individual as a snowflake, and our time here just about as fleeting.  The sculptor Anne Truitt put it this way: “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.”

The juxtaposition of those two ideas: the nerve of most intimate sensitivity, yes — but then that word, steadfastness.  It implies patience, slowness, quietude, gentleness with the self–all the while working along the nerve. This is it.  The whole story.  Everything we need to know about what it is to do this work, to live this life.  And yet, it’s so difficult to achieve.  As in a meditation practice, there are moments we feel it–ah yes, there it is, I am completely inside this moment–but already, as we’re thinking it, the moment has passed.  We have returned to self-consciousness, self-awareness, abstraction, intellectualizing.  We have teetered and fallen off that razor’s edge.

These days, I am exquisitely aware of the days, hours, minutes when I am moving in the right direction–towards embodying the exact shape my brain holds.  It seems to me that only there will it be possible to write anything singular, and as I get older, I want nothing less than this.  I don’t just want a career as a writer, even though that has been a privilege and a gift.  But no–now, as I fully enter what Carl Jung calls “the afternoon of life”, what I want is to create work that is that very snowflake.  I am less and less interested in asserting myself (you know…thinking: damn, that’s a good sentence!) and increasingly my desire is to disappear and have the work itself be the thing.

“For God’s sake, do not write about something,” wrote Emerson.  “Let the writing be the thing itself.  Every sentence should be its own evidence.”