Dani Shapiro
February 28, 2012

On Expectations

It isn’t easy, is it?  Let me back up, for the sake of perspective, and point out that obviously there are other ways of living that are a whole lot harder.  That, as I sit in my bathrobe on my chaise lounge in my little study with my two dogs crashed at my feet in my empty, quiet house looking out the window at stone walls winding through vast meadows, trying to come up with just the right words, or even an approximation of the right words, I am not comparing my circumstances to, say, the construction workers who are on lifts right now to the ninety-sixth story of a building site, or, god knows, journalists trying to shed light on the situation in Syria, or the emergency room nurse on the overnight shift.  No.  I’m simply saying that it isn’t easy, this business of creating something out of nothing.

Why do we do it?  I can tell you why I do it.  I write because, if I didn’t, I would likely lose my mind.  I write because, in writing, the world around me begins to assume a shape.  I write because, when I don’t, I feel not-quite-alive, at a remove from everything and everyone I love.  I don’t write because I enjoy it.  I don’t write because it’s fun.  Honestly, it’s so rarely fun.  Other words come to mind: satisfying, intense, engaging, maddening, absorbing, surprising.  But not fun.  Having written is another story.  That spent feeling at the end of a long writing day, a day in which one has wrung out every last bit of what was possible, that feeling, I’d wager, is part of what we writers live for.

Still, even twenty years into this writing life, I sometimes hold on to the expectation that it will be…easier.  Not the work itself, but the life.  How many of us, especially these days, are living under a cloud of anxiety?  We wonder about the future of books.  Of publishers.  Of agents.  All of the old signifiers have vanished.  Book tours?  Not so much.  And even for those who go on them, they’re not what they used to be.  They’re pit stops at hotels overlooking  interstate highways, appearances at bookstores where the audience consists of five people: the bookstore manager,  two of  your local cousins, a young woman inexplicably crying in the third row, and a homeless man who shuffles in and promptly falls asleep.  Publication date, for most, is the tree falling in the forest.  The sound of one hand clapping.

And so.  Why is this not depressing?  (Oops, sorry.  Maybe it is, just a little bit.)  I’ll tell you why.  I just looked up from my screen and once again looked out the window.  Then I glanced around my little office: by my feet, my manuscript of Still Writing, along with The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and a book of drawings made of poems by Mark Strand.  On the table next to me: a cup of coffee rests on top of Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner; The Book of Awakening by the brilliant Mark Nepo, which I have been reading at the start of most days; Daniel Mendelson’s The Lost.  On the wall facing me, a bulletin board covered with index cards, scribbled with notes and ideas.  On this bulletin board, something catches my eye: a quote I don’t remember finding or putting up there:

“The first task, though not the most important task, is to quiet the busyness in your mind.  The second task is to find your song.  And the third task is to sing your song.”

We get the opportunity, every single day, to quiet our minds.  To find our song.  And to sing it.  Once, when I was in graduate school, a mentor of mine put the writing life into perspective: “All we have a right to expect,” she said, “is the chance to do it again.”  This––the singing of the song, the opportunity to wake up in the morning and do it again––is the beginning and the end of what we can hope for.