Dani Shapiro
May 4, 2009

On Material

Where do they come from–these stories we write? What takes hold of us, and what doesn’t–and why? I used to be willfully ignorant about my themes until I had written enough books to be informed of what my themes are by critics. Most reviews of my last couple of novels have begun with a variation on: Dani Shapiro writes about family. Or mothers and daughters. Or fractured family relationships. Or family secrets. I’ve read it enough times to know it must be true–but when I sit down to write, I am not thinking at all about theme, or material, or subject matter. I’m being led into the work by my obsessions, by some small incident I can’t let go of, something I’ve seen, or overheard, or felt. In fact, too much awareness of what I purportedly write about is damaging to the writing itself.

Here are some thoughts to avoid when sitting down to write:

1. I need to write a big book (story, whatever)
2. This idea is stupid (before even trying it out on the page)
3. What will so-and-so think?
4. I wonder if it will be published
5. I usually write about X, therefore
6. I should write about X again because it’s been so successful, or
7. I should write about Y, because I’ve already written so much about X
8. Why even bother?

I realized something recently, when looking at a file I keep on my computer of all the essays and stories I’ve written in the past few years. I looked down the list and became aware that every single time I began, it was with the thought: Here goes nothing.

Here goes nothing. It’s not a bad way to think, actually, about beginning a new piece of work. For writers, we have nothing until we have something. And the willingness to play, to try out ideas on the page, to take risks, to quiet the inner censor and just give our material a chance to live and breathe is what it’s all about.