Dani Shapiro
February 24, 2009

On Distance

Question: How is it possible to see one’s own work clearly, while living in the middle of it? Answer: it’s not. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back. But how can a writer distance herself from her work enough to read it with a clear eye? I’ve been living with these questions since I first started writing. We all struggle with this. The other day, in my private workshop, we ended up discussing the idea of distance and clarity. Several students who are working on novels weighed the benefits and the risks of looking through their whole manuscript as a way of getting up and running, before moving forward. My response was that this can be a good–or terrible–idea, depending on the day. Sometimes, going back into my own work leaves me paralyzed. Other times, it’s helpful. This has entirely to do with my mental state, which is hidden even from myself. I can read the exact same pages and think that they “don’t suck” (sadly, this is my highest form of self-praise) or…well, that they do suck. The same pages. Nothing has changed except for my highly volatile consciousness. I have lost whole writing days because suddenly my book feels dead to me. If I were to just sit down and get to work with blinders on, that might be a better way to at least get through a first draft. But then would I just end up with a big mess of pages on my hands? There is no way of knowing.

This is where that elusive thing–distance–is called for. But how to achieve it? How to cast a cold eye on material that is still very much alive? Sometimes, when I need distance from my work, I’m able to play a trick on myself. I imagine that I’m someone else. Someone particular. Someone (this is very important) benign. Inclined to like me and my work, but also capable of incisive criticism. And then I read my own work pretending to be that person. It’s a sleight of hand, really. A suspension of disbelief. But sometimes it works. Other times, I just need to get away from it. Pretty soon, we’re leaving for Europe and I won’t be working on Devotion for three entire weeks. Though right now this sends me into a bit of a panic, in the end I know it’s a good thing. Three weeks may be just long enough for that cold eye to emerge.