Dani Shapiro
December 25, 2010

On Gluttony

When I think of gluttony, I think of a beautiful book by Jeanette Winterson that I used to read to my son when he was very small.  In the beginning of the book, the King of Capri–a glutton–wishes that he had two mouths instead of one, so that he could eat even more.  By the end of the tale, a wind has blown the king’s possessions all the way across the bay to Naples, where they end up in the hands of a washerwoman who wants only to help others with her new-found bounty.  This  being a fable, of course in the end the king and the washerwoman fall in love and live happily ever after.

Gluttony: to gulp or swallow.  The over-consumption of anything to the point of waste.  What does this mean for writers?  I suppose for some of us, it could be taken literally, given that many of us live only steps from the refrigerator, and snacking is one of the most time-honored forms of procrastination.  But what about a different form of gluttony?  What about gluttony when it comes to language itself?

I remember, when I was working on the short story that eventually morphed into my first novel, a feeling of being consumed, in love with language to the point of over-indulgence.  If one similie was good, three were better.  Writing a sentence often felt, to me, like catching a wave.  I would surf along a powerful surge of words, piling them on.  I was obsessed with the way they looked, the way they sounded.  What it took me quite a while to understand was that I was creating language that was, at times, obfuscating meaning.  One of my greatest teachers gently told me this: “Dani, you have a lyric gift.  You’d just better be sure that your beautiful sentences are saying something.”

I’ve never forgotten that lesson.  I keep it close to me when I’m working.  And over the years, my sentences have grown leaner.  My imagery less ornate.  I’ve grown to understand that the gulping and swallowing of words, that gluttony, can sometimes create a powerful-seeming edifice–but one that crumbles upon careful examination.

On meditation retreats, participants are often asked to eat in silence.  To dine with a room full of people slowly chewing bite after bite, moving their forks and knives with balletic precision, pausing, savoring, contemplating–is something quite extraordinary.  What if we were to write the same way?  Not in a furious whirl of more, more, more–but rather, with complete and total discernment?