The Rumpus Interview with Dani Shapiro
If you’re reading this you’re not writing. That should go without saying, of course, but maybe you need to hear it again. Because chances are you’re susceptible to distraction, victim of the impulse to research before you write. Maybe you—like me, and like Dani Shapiro (author of, most recently, of Still Writing, and the subject of this interview), and like countless other writers—too often find yourself caught up in the chorus of Twitter, or mesmerized by the intricate fractal-like nature of Wikipedia’s ever-deepening links, or sinking into the quicksand of your inbox, essentially doing anything but the writing you set out to do. Maybe, like any writer, you’re a savant of procrastination. But right now, if you do indeed find yourself not writing but instead here at this interview, this time you may have come to the right place.
Wherever you happen to be in your writing life, Dani Shaprio has been there before. She’s done MFA. She’s done NYC. She’s published memoirs, novels, essays, and short stories (including one I had the honor to edit and introduce for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading). She’s a working mother, and a working writer. Her book tours have taken her to indie bookstores and to Oprah’s inner sanctum. And yet she is still subject to the same bewildering and wearying struggle that all writers face: the struggle to write and keep writing.
Her latest book looks at both the practice of living and the practice of writing. It is a generous and insightful book that focuses less on craft and more on the mechanics of being a writer. I met Dani at her home in rural Connecticut, after a drive that took me from city to suburb to exurb to farmland (minutes before reaching her home, I passed a chicken who stood at the side of the road, deep in existential contemplation). Even there, in bucolic Connecticut, distractions from the writing life were in full bloom, but somehow Dani manages to persevere.
Read along, then read Dani’s book, and then, I promise, you’ll be ready to get some writing done.
The Rumpus: As someone who did an MFA, started her writing career in NY, and then moved out here: where do you weigh in on MFA vs. NYC vs. CT?
Dani Shapiro: I spent a whole lot of years in NYC and in MFA. Which undoubtedly gave me a very a big cushion of relationships with writers and editors, and a very social literary life. I spent a lot of those years going to parties, living first in Manhattan, eventually in Brooklyn, going to lunch with magazine editors, knowing all the agents, all that stuff—which I’m of two minds about.
When I think of those years, I have an image of a particular writer/editor—a guy who I saw at every single party. He was always looking at the door to see who was coming in. He was that kind of social creature who wasn’t writing or doing anything interesting anymore. I never wanted to be that guy. Or girl. I am—and I think most writers are—an introvert, but one who has become decent at extrovert behavior. I’m most connected to myself when I’m alone in a room, moving my hand across a page. That’s when I feel most like me.
Moving to the country has been incredibly good for my work, for my sense of perspective. When I lived in the city, I had learned to close my door against a lot of the noise, but when I open my door here, I’m not opening into the possibility that I’m going to run into somebody or be faced with a hundred choices about what I’m going to do, or which cafe I’m going to go to, or which way to distract myself. When I open the door here, the most exciting thing that’s going happen is a fox trotting across the meadow or a UPS truck coming up the driveway.
If I’m having a day here in the country—and I have these days with alarming regularity—when I’m feeling a lot of resistance to the page, I can’t blame anyone but myself. I’m getting in my own way. It’s easier in an urban world to cast the blame outward. So I’ve learned a lot about my own process in that way.
But in terms of the business part of it? If I’m completely honest, I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t spent those years in New York. I have a great foundation of relationships.
Rumpus: You mean from the years you spent in New York, establishing relationships with other writers and connecting with agents and editors?
Shapiro: Yeah. Over the years, I’ve wondered about certain writing lives: Lorrie Moore, Charlie Baxter, and Ethan Canin come to mind. I’m sure they have equally complicated relationships with the page. But I’ve never run into any of them at a book party. These writers are the opposite of a usual suspect. They haven’t spent years at Paris Review parties, or having lunch at Michael’s. It’s a different choice, and one I’ve envied at times.
When I was starting out there was no Internet, there wasn’t this sense that you could be connected to other writers around the world. And that created a kind of innocence, or parochial quality, even in NYC. The literary world felt small and insular. I mean, are you aware of this Binder of Women Writers group on Facebook that just formed? Something like 20,000 writers leapt in, there was such hunger for community for connection. There is a water cooler now—and there are a lot of wonderful things about that, though it does create a hell of a lot of distraction and noise.
Rumpus: But now we also “need” these programs like Freedom to help us escape the digital water coolers, to silence Twitter and keep us from our emails. We struggle to simply find ourselves alone in a room, which is something Michael Ventura values in his essay “The Talent of the Room.” Do you feel that the Internet is a new danger, or is it just an evolution, a digital manifestation of familiar distractions?
Shapiro: I think it’s much worse; the Internet and all its lures are much, much harder than anything I’ve ever encountered. If you’re writing on a computer, the very instrument you’re writing on is already tainted by the world out there in all its permutations.
I’m very disciplined, but the one thing that I have addictive behavior about is the Internet. After my family leaves in the morning, I’ll make my first coffee of the day and then I head upstairs to go to work. At least, that’s my plan. I’m not going to check email. I’m not going on Facebook, or sneaking a glimpse at my Instagram feed. No. I’m not going to down that road. But with multiple devices, by the time I get upstairs [to my study] I may well have heard my iPhone ding and—it’s Pavlovian. I need to know. And if my phone’s not dinging then someone else’s in my household—my husband’s, my son’s—is.
But it’s not just that. I write about this in Still Writing, in a chapter called “Cigarette Break.”
Rumpus: “The Internet is not a cigarette break.” I love that line.
Shapiro: Every time I think about that… I mean look at what I’m doing! [Dani had unconsciously raised two fingers to her lips, as though they were holding a cigarette].
When I was writing my first novel, I smoked cigarettes. And when I think about what it was like to smoke, I remember exactly the feeling of sitting in front of my big old computer in that little room where I wrote my first novel. There was no phone in there. It was just me and this desk and this computer and this window, and stopping to smoke a cigarette when I was stuck. But really stopping and smoking a cigarette. Not doing anything else. When was the last time you did nothing for two waking minutes?
I remember getting my first cell phone in New York, getting into a taxi and thinking “This is the end of solitude in the back of a taxi.” What used to happen in the back of a taxi? You looked out the window. My brain has become less able to spend lengths of time without shifting, and I worry about that.
Rumpus: Everyone (writers, readers, and the rest of the world) faces those same distractions. But do you think writers are more susceptible, that it’s more dangerous due the nature of our work?
Shapiro: I think we’re all susceptible to it. I’ve talked to a lot of people who aren’t writers, and we all have the same problem. Meditation instructors refer to the “monkey mind” or the “puppy mind,” that our minds simply don’t function in some sort of narrative chronology. I think that one of the great gifts of writing fiction is being able to think about that. Where does the mind actually go? How does memory actually work?
When I teach about the way memory works on the page, I will sometimes talk to students about a rookie writer mistake: you have a couple fighting, say, in a story and then one of them goes into this long soliloquy-like memory in a way that would never happen in the midst of a fight. We don’t ruminate during a fight. Maybe in a bath, or driving a car, or as we take a walk. But not right smack in the middle of a dramatic moment. I’ll have my students try to follow their minds during the course of a day, just to see the way their minds work, the way our minds hop from thing to thing to thing. The Internet mirrors that to such a degree you can actually see it. Show me your search history and I’ll show you who you are.
I don’t think writers are more susceptible to this…what to call it…the lure of the Internet, but I do think it’s more dangerous for us. I find myself drawn more and more to puzzle- like narratives, like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. That novel is a gorgeous collage. And a lot of what I’ve been interested in lately are collage-like structures. My last two books have collage-like structures, both Devotion and Still Writing. And I ask myself is that because of the nature of what I’m working on, or is it the nature of this world we find ourselves living in? The way so much seems to happen in the space between moments—and the desire to capture that in the writing. Or is it that I’ve just spent way too much time on the Internet?
Rumpus: Whether it’s the Internet or a cigarette break (you also use meditation and yoga), why do you think writers crave that escape so much?
Shapiro: I really believe it’s internal pressure. It’s a physical and mental feeling of being under so much pressure that it finally explodes into beginning. There is nothing I have ever written that is worthwhile at all that hasn’t been percolating in that place, in that way, for so long, whether I know it or not. And that process is very much like meditation.
Still Writing came out in October, and I began traveling non-stop. I carried a notebook around with me that was going to be the notebook in which I started my next novel. I carried this notebook on planes, in hotels, on trains, on buses, in cars, at home, and I didn’t write a single word. I carried around a blank notebook for six months, because it needed to be the perfect first sentence, even while I traveled around the country telling people to not do that. So finally I started just writing other stuff, because the notebook was cursed, you know? I was very aware of the irony, even as I was carrying around that blank notebook.
I often envy my friends who are visual artists. Visual artists have other things to work with. Other media. I envy my sculptor friends: they have hunks of matter. Marble. Wood. It’s physical, which I find very appealing. What we have is nothing, is just glaringly blank.
Rumpus: At the beginning of Still Writing, you talk about the journals you kept as a kid and how they were your unconscious beginning as a writer. You were writing but you weren’t a writer yet. But what’s the distinction there between a writer and someone who writes? Is it the intention of creating something that will be seen, or is “writer” a title that’s bestowed on you once you’ve been published?
Shapiro: When I started touring for Still Writing, I’d ask the audiences at my readings “How many of you are writers?” Some hands went up but I knew there more writers than hands. So I rephrased the question as “How many of you write?” and many more hands went up. And I started thinking, What is it to call yourself a writer before the world has reflected this back at you? Because there is a very tender time in a writer’s life, where you must define yourself in terms of your intention—the intention being to connect, to tell a story, to find that thread of the universal that Emerson writes about that runs through oneself and all things. You have to believe in yourself before the world has given you any indication that you should believe in yourself as a writer.
When I was growing up, I had no idea that I could possibly become a writer. I wrote endlessly in journals—a practice I maintained for a long time, well into the writing life I had no idea I could ever have. My journals were a clearing house—a garbage can. Once I was writing seriously, I understood that this was the stuff that didn’t belong in my work. It was mostly my own complicated concerns about my daily life, my stuff. I haven’t kept journals like that many years. But I do keep a tiny little journal in which I write passages that I read and want to hold on to. This practice is sort of the opposite of Twitter.
When I teach, I always have these tiny books with me, and recently, one of my students asked “Why such a tiny book? You’ve made it really hard on yourself with these teeny-tiny books.” And that’s when I realized that this is my non-Twitter. Because when the book is that small, and you want to write legibly, you have to write slowly. And in writing slowly, I begin to embed and internalize some of these passages. In a way, these tiny books are memoirs through quotations.
Rumpus: They’re like your analog search history.
Shapiro: Yeah, exactly. Whereas, I’ll be reading something online and think “I’ll tweet that” and that’s whatever, the ephemeral.
Rumpus: Right after college I remember filling out a customs form on a plane. I put down “writer” as my occupation, because that’s what I studied, that’s what I wanted to be, and otherwise my occupation was “unemployed.” But I still felt fraudulent, like the TSA was going to question me. Do you remember the first time you called yourself a writer?
Shapiro: On my tax returns, I still pause about whether to write novelist, memoirist, writer, professor? I’m not sure whether this is truer for women than men, but I think that possibly shame enters into the psychic sphere of people who are doing things that are so out of step with the rest of the world.
We think there are visible goal posts, but actually there aren’t. That if we’re published X number of times, or by a particular publisher, or we win a particular award, we will finally have arrived at that place of… where does it end? With our obituary? What will be the ultimate permission-granting vehicle? I think part of the tension—and I think it’s a human tension, not just a literary one—is that we can never see ourselves the way the world sees us.
I remember, the first time I was asked the dreaded question about what I did, and finally I could respond that I was a writer, that I had a novel coming out, and (this was a taxi driver) he then asked: so would I have read anything of yours? And I was able to say, well I actually just sold my first novel. And I expected that to be a feeling of great relief, and thank god I don’t have to say “Well, I’m in graduate school.” And then the next question was “So is it going to be a bestseller?”
I’ve seen over the years how little it actually matters to be able to say that I have a book coming out or that I have a story in the latest issue of n+1. The fact is the world is not thinking of us in that way. When a writer’s whole being is poured into a piece of work, there is never enough. The feeling of finally getting to the end of a piece of work, of making it as good as you can at that moment, is more of a relief than anything else, and then you wait for reviews. Nervously, nervously. Even if you pretend not to care. And the reviews come, and even if they’re raves, there’s an emptiness. The only thing that fills that emptiness is beginning the next book.
Rumpus: You’ve written eight books, and in Still Writing you talk about how the final the product—the vessel you’ve poured yourself into—is never as weighty as you expect it to feel. So how do you find the drive to begin again if you know the result never lives up to expectation?
Shapiro: Something really shifted for me with the publication and writing of Devotion, because with Devotion I wrote a book that unexpectedly helped a lot of people. I would have readers coming up to me, in a very different way than they had before, telling me how much the book had meant to them and consequently how much I meant to them. Which was very strange, and I had no idea how to process it. If there’s anything weirder than an introverted writer going to lots of social functions, it’s an introverted writer being converted into an accidental guru. Finally, I came to understand that this had happened, whether or not I had intended it, and the only graceful thing to do is recognize and embrace what is actually happening, rather than fight against it.
Rumpus: Or an introvert on Oprah.
Shapiro: Completely! With Devotion I found myself doing so much public speaking, more and more and bigger and bigger. And though the book was the most authentic thing I’d ever written, in certain ways, promoting it felt, at first, inauthentic.
Can a literary novelist be talking about spirituality with Oprah Winfrey? Can a writer spend a year mostly speaking and teaching and being in public, then go back into the cave? That’s what I’m struggling with right now. I think so much about how we read, about the nature of solitude, and of community, is changing in ways that none of us yet understand.
We’re all simultaneously separated and connected by our devices, staring into our little screens, and also hungry for experience and community. Why do 25,000 writers show up at AWP? Why has Binders Full of Women Writers exploded? Why is there a proliferation of MFA programs and writers’ conferences all over the world, at a time when writers are making less and less money and it’s harder and harder to find our readership?
It used to be you’d write a book, you’d pour everything into that book, until there was nothing left, until the well was just empty, and by the time the book came out, nine months or a year had passed. So you were bringing something into the world that in a way was already in the past, creatively speaking. And then you’d go out and promote it for three weeks. And then you’d start something new. In the new model there’s no traditional book tour, but there is no end to the promotion. There is no end to the possibilities. You can continue to promote a book for years, literally. And I’m saying that from a place of things having gone well for my last two books.
Rumpus: So there’s the work of writing and then there’s the work of promotion and all the while we have day jobs. For many writers these days that means teaching. In Still Writing, you talk about attempting to be conscientious, to give your students what they need. How do writers balance that intention with the need to focus on their own work?
Shapiro: I write a lot in the book about creating sacred time, setting a time when you’re not going to answer the knock on the door, when you’re not going to respond to emails from students. Setting boundaries is necessary and appropriate. I’m teaching a couple week-long workshops this summer, and I received an email from a student who I don’t know saying “I’m on the fence about coming. Here’s my number; would you mind calling me?” When I was younger I would’ve thought, I must call him, he needs me! But now, I just passed along his email to the program’s administration, because it felt like it crossed a boundary. As a writer we are our own instruments; we need to protect our instrument, because no one will protect it if we don’t.
Rumpus: There’s a Norman Mailer story called “The Notebook,” where a writer takes notes as his girlfriend breaks up with him because he’s always mining their relationship for material. Similar to teaching and writing, how do you balance your writing life with the rest of your life, your family life?
Shapiro: I think there’s something about a writer’s disposition, that is, even if unaware, always slightly in a witness state. And when we are witnessing, we are de facto slightly at a remove. I’ve always felt like my nose is pressed to glass. I always feel a little bit like an outsider.
In my life as a wife and mother, I’m always conscious of my desire to be present. And yet at the same time my nature is to be recording in some way. Unlike Mailer, I don’t tend to stop and jot it down, but I’m witnessing and I’m taking it in. I’m thinking about the genesis for my story ”Supernova.” Michael was away, we had a bike rack attached to the car, and I needed remove it. I couldn’t figure out how to do it so I called a friend who lives down the road. He’s a big athlete, Princeton guy. When he showed up at my house, he’d just finished working out on his rowing machine, and he told me a story about another Princeton guy who’d rowed crew, and who he was—all these years later—in secret competition with. And as he was telling me the story, it shimmered. I knew I would write about it eventually—though I had no idea when or how, of course. Virginia Woolf explores this in her memoir Moments of Being. She has a thought that she puts away “as being likely to be very useful to me later.” I put away this image of these two rowing guys and knew some day it would be useful to me. One can’t do that if one isn’t witnessing. The witness mind has its moment of gathering, but it’s different from the popular notion of the writer trolling for material. I never troll for material. It simply presents itself, and is always unmistakable. This is why I want to roll my eyes when people interrupt themselves in the middle of some story they’re telling me to say, “You know you can’t write about this.” And I’ll say, “no worries, I was just listening.”
Rumpus: Most of the time, real life just isn’t that interesting.
Shapiro: It’s not!
Featured image © Michael Maren. Journal photograph © Benjamin Samuel.