Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and has been broadcast on “This American Life”
I just scrolled back to the beginning of this blog. It took some doing. I started Moments of Being on February 3, 2007. I had no idea I’ve been at this for more than decade. Like many of the paths I’ve taken in my writing life, it has been meandering, full of unexpected beauty as well as unanticipated challenges. It began accidentally and then I committed to it on purpose. Why did I start a blog, ten years ago? Because my publisher wanted me to. I had a book coming out — my novel Black & White — and a blog was the thing to do. I resisted. My publisher persisted. So I thought and thought about what I could blog about that would continue to feel interesting, both to me and to anyone who might read it. When I began, it was with some words about the creative process. What is it to grapple with the blank page, day after day, month after month, year after year?
My book Still Writing is entirely a result of having begun this blog. Not because I created the blog with the intention of turning it into a book someday. I did not. But people kept writing to thank me for the blog. They told me I was doing something useful. How often is a writer told she’s doing something useful? So I wrote Still Writing — never once looking back at what was on this blog. A blog is a blog, and a book is a book. They are different species, and require very different processes. For instance, when I’m finished writing here today, I will hit publish and be done with it. When I write a book, it takes years, as it should.
Those of you who follow me know that I haven’t really been keeping up Moments of Being. It has been languishing. I love it — but my time and energy have been moving in different directions. I’m not saying I’ll never post here again — but I suppose I’m hitting a pause button. I’ve been writing shorter and much more frequent mini-essays on Instagram, and I’d so love it if you’d follow me there. I find it’s a wonderful, warm community and a way of staying in regular touch. I’ve also created a show on Facebook called Office Hours — and now that I think of it, it’s very much an outgrowth of the ideas I’ve been developing here over the years. Facebook asked me to create a show, and I thought and thought — just as I did a decade ago. What can I talk about on a regular basis that will be exciting and inspiring to me, and to others? Once again I found myself wanting to delve deeper into the creative process. There is doing the work, and then there is thinking about what it takes to do the work. Both interest me enormously. If you follow me on Office Hours, you can ask me questions and I will try to answer the questions that seem to be of interest to the most people.
Publishing has changed enormously over the last decade — anyone who spends her life writing books will tell you this. The world is noisier. More is expected of writers. But ultimately as I write in Still Writing, a writer is someone who writes. I’m grateful to all of you who have been so kind and supportive of my latest memoir, Hourglass. I’m hard at work now on a new book that is taking everything I’ve got. So come say hi on Office Hours and on Instagram, and let’s continue the conversation!
It’s a beautiful day in New England. A cloudless sky, a rustling summer breeze that carries with it just the barest hint of autumn. My guys are downstairs reading (Michael’s reading The Year of Magical Thinking and Jacob’s reading All the Light We Cannot See) and I am taking a few minutes to relish the quiet, the early morning, my family together under one roof. In a little while, we will drive five minutes away to do yoga in a barn at an organic farm with friends and members of this community where we have lived for the past fifteen years. Life — today — I recognize, at this very moment, is beautiful.
And yet. (You knew the “yet” was coming, didn’t you?)
I am a writer trying to tell a story that is banging on my rib cage, coursing through my bloodstream, haunting my dreams. I didn’t choose this story. This story chose me. It’s the story that makes sense of all of my other stories, everything that has come before. It sheds light on both the past as I’ve always understood it, and the future as I step into it. I’ve been writing it for the past year, in corners, in stolen hours, in swaths of time I have carved out for it. I spent all of last fall and winter sitting in a big leather chair in my library staring out the window at the meadows behind my house, tears standing still in my eyes, a growing pile of index cards on the table next to me.
And then I went on tour for Hourglass and spent two months on the road, not thinking about it. I couldn’t think about it and take care of the delicate little book I love so much (if it’s okay for a writer to love her own book, I love Hourglass, I really do). And when I returned home after twenty-six cities, what I discovered was that my new manuscript needs me to take a pickaxe to it. It needs to be broken up — as I have been broken up — and put together in a different way, a new way. It needs — that most daunting and scary thing for a writer — to be restructured. Reconsidered. Rethought. Reimagined. I had been too close to it. The time away was a gift. And now I have the half-step backward, the capacity for perspective that I had previously lacked.
I tell students all the time that there is a kind of despair we feel as writers and artists that is not only useful, but necessary. It’s the second-to-the-last fathom, the murky, dark waters an artist must move through before reaching the very bottom, the place from which she can use all her strength and push up, up, up toward the surface. There’s light up there, but first we have to live in the depths.
“I’m in completely despair,” I told my husband earlier this week. “But I know it’s productive despair.” Knowing this doesn’t change the feeling. Having been here before doesn’t help, not really. All the knowledge in the world is useless to the writer who must, simply must endure the difficulty and recognize that beyond the hopeless lies the only possibility for a powerful work of art.