Dani Shapiro
November 8, 2011

On the Private Heart

I’ve been thinking lately about the place inside of us from which we write.  Of course, for each one of us, this place is, de facto, different.  I recently came upon these words from a Paris Review interview of Cynthia Ozick: “What do I mean by “private heart”?  It’s probably impossible to define, but it’s not what the writer does–breakfast, schedule, social outings–but what the writer is.  The secret contemplative self.  An inner recess wherein insights occur.  This writer’s self is perhaps coextensive with one of the writer’s sentences.  It seems to me that more can be found about a writer in any single sentence than in five or ten full-scale biographies.”

The secret contemplative self.  The private heart.  The very phrases bring tears to my eyes.   I don’t know about you, but for most of us, our daily lives take us farther and farther away from that secret self, that private heart.  A paradox central to most writers lives is that so often we spend our days not writing, not reading, not in the silence in which the secret contemplative self thrives, but rather, speaking, tweeting, traveling, facebooking, trolling the internet…doing, rather than being.

It is only in the silence that our voice emerges.  It is only in the movement of the hand across page, one word following the next, in the crafting of sentences that we know ourselves.  We can talk ourselves blue in the face, and we may be telling a certain kind of truth, but it is not the deepest truth, not the truth of our private heart.  When people ask me when I knew I wanted to be a writer, or when I “decided” to become a writer, it is this I think about.  This bittersweet pleasure, this pressure and longing to find myself on the page.  It’s always been this way for me, since I was a child scribbling in my notebook.  A shape emerges.  An image, a fragment, a thought I didn’t know I was thinking.

The more time I spend away from the page, the further that secret self recedes.  I know she is not always available to me.  She is a chimera, elusive, finicky, sly.  She doesn’t always want to be found.  She likes to be treated with the respect she deserves.  And that respect involves sitting down.  Showing up.  Eliminating distraction.  Remembering that the writer’s heart is a private heart, that our sentences are like candles in the darkness, showing us the way.