Dani Shapiro
May 18, 2011

On Writing in the Dark

It happens without fail in every class I teach.  At least one student will come up to me and ask for advice about submitting a partially-completed manuscript of his or her novel, or memoir, or collection of stories to an agent or a publisher.  These students want to get going.  They want to be launched, secure, validated.  They’re desperate to be on their way.  And I understand this.  Oh, I understand it perfectly.  I was once exactly that person: impatient, hungry, with so much to prove to myself, my family, the world.  I wanted a crystal ball.  I wanted to know that it was all going to work out for me, that those solitary years I had spent laying down words on the page, then erasing them, then laying them down again, weaving and unweaving sentences like Penelope on her loom, would not have been spent in vain.  When I was in graduate school, I set for myself an entirely unreasonable goal, which was a book contract for my first novel before graduation.

I achieved that goal.

And though this is going to be hard to believe, if I could re-write my own literary history, I wish I’d waited a while.  The truth (and I can say this now, from the hard wisdom that twenty years of retrospect brings) is that I wasn’t ready.  My manuscript wasn’t ready.  And even though it seemed like wonderful news at the time, the publication of my first novel at the age of twenty-seven was not in fact the best thing that could have happened to me.

I needed more time in the dark.

I envy my students now who are working on first books.  No one has told them who they are or what kind of books they write.  They can’t troll the internet for reviews or commentary about themselves.  In the dark, they are free to grow, blooming like midnight plants.  Even though it’s not always comfortable, that darkness is the best possible place a writer can live.  There are no expectations, no definitions.  No summing up of oeuvres.  Who are you?  What makes you tick?  What are your obsessions?  In what recesses of your psyche will you find your voice?  The line of words on the page, that weaving and unweaving, is your only answer.

Writers spend our lives trying to get back to that dark place.  We have tricks and tools.  We shut down the internet, turn off our phones.  We pack ourselves off to secluded cabins in the woods.  But there is really only one opportunity to write in complete darkness, and it’s a shame to waste it.  Of course we’re all impatient and ambitious and hungry, so hungry.  But for what?  Believe me, the light isn’t all its cracked up to be.  Stay in the dark as long as you can, friends.  You’ll be amazed by what you find there.