Dani Shapiro
October 4, 2010

On Thinking

What do you write about? People sometimes ask me.  This cocktail party question is up there with some of my other least favorites, like What are you working on? and How’s the book doing? It’s an innocent question, really.  The person asking it has no way of knowing that he or she has pushed me into a murky swamp of answers from which no good can come.  How do I describe in a few sentences or less what I write about?  I’ve tried, over the years, to come up with a sound bite:

I write novels about dysfunctional families.

I write about family secrets and what we do to each other in the name of love.

I write about mothers and daughters.

And always, I feel kind of sick after I’ve said pretty much anything that amounts to a pithy description.  Because the truth is, I have tried to stay willfully obtuse about what it is I write about.  My subject matter.  My themes.  Once in a while, a critic will tell me what my themes are, and I try (unsuccessfully) to forget what I’ve been told because it isn’t useful.  When I sit down to write, I am not a writer who writes about dysfunctional family, mothers and daughters, secrets.  I’m a writer facing a blank page, and what that ought to mean, if I don’t censor myself or over-think, that anything is possible.

In Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance, I came across this passage, which I have been re-reading nearly every day: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.  Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.  In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Lately I have contemplating the difference–when it comes to writing– between thinking and feeling.  Between leading with the head, or with the heart.  I don’t mean this in a treacly, sentimental way, but rather, in a grounded, physical sense.  My mind, when I am setting a draft down on the page, does not help me.  My mind is not my friend.  My mind will tell me all sorts of things about what kind of writer I am (or am not), what I can and can’t do.  My mind will laugh at me, pause cynically, get in my way.  It will tell me it’s time to check email, or clean my closets.  In other words, my mind will beat me senseless. But if I follow the line of words from a more rooted place, I can short-circuit my mind and see what happens.  A riskier proposition, to be sure.  But in that direction lies the only possibility of surprise.