Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. 2013. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 227 pages.
Genre: Memoir, commentary on writing
Ages: This book is written for adults, but includes numerous passages that can be shared with writers of about age 10 and up.
Shapiro’s book is a down to earth tour of real world writing process. This is not the neatly packaged, plastic version publishers want to sell you so you’ll be ready for the latest test. Here we get authenticity and insight from someone who writes for a living, who writes all the time, who lives to write—and loves it. Oh—and who is very, very good at it. The language is rich and vibrant, the sentences clear and elegant. It’s a refreshingly honest, eminently quotable book, an inside look at how writing really works.
Still Writing is written neither for nor to the classroom writing teacher, which in some respects renders it even more of a treasure because it doesn’t rehash messages we’ve heard before. It’s fresh, written from a new perspective. This book is one hundred percent free of educational jargon. It contains no reconstituted mini-lessons or tips for managing conferences with limited time. Instead, within each chapter you’ll find gems of wisdom about writing, wisdom you can share with students to help them understand that things they have felt—fear, rejection, lack of inspiration, the irresistible impulse to procrastinate (yet again)—are experienced by writers everywhere. And though these things have to be confronted, they’re far from fatal. In fact, they’re normal. But that doesn’t mean you get to ignore them.
Don’t get the idea that this is a maudlin portrait of just how rough a writer’s life can be. Anything but. On the contrary, Shapiro makes the life of a writer sound energizing, satisfying, and filled with surprises—though anything but easy (or, usually, lucrative). She doesn’t sugarcoat the need for hard work and plenty of it. And she offers substantive advice for allowing nothing to get in the way. Get up to make a phone call, do the dishes, check your email, or look out the window, and poof, those thoughts that were just about to reveal themselves in your mind may well take off forever. Shapiro helps us understand that writing takes discipline, courage, perseverance, focus, and sheer will. Above all, it requires curiosity, love of reading, and a knack for noticing the world around us. For those willing to commit, though, writing holds rewards nothing else can offer.
The book has no table of contents. This is a shame, first because the chapter titles are whimsically charming, and second because there are numerous chapters to which I’ll want to return—and a good TOC always makes a book a bit easier to navigate. Most chapters run only a page or two, making it possible to read the whole book in stolen moments here and there, or re-read a whole chapter to begin your own writing day. Here’s a random sample of chapters that are favorites for me: Scars, Inner Censor, A Room of One’s Own, Reading, The Blank Page, Habit, Audience of One, What You Know?, Bad Days, Building the Boat (four short paragraphs etched in my memory), Courage, Structure, Dumb, Character, Next, and the concluding chapter, Still Writing. I could list more, but already someone is saying, “Why doesn’t she just list them all?” I could—easily (the book has no slow parts)—but I’m trying to keep it to those chapters I already plan to return to this week.
Advice on writing is deftly blended with Shapiro’s own personal stories of growing up in a traditional Jewish home as the only child of hovering, Orthodox parents, then losing her father and surviving a complex relationship with her mother. There is no running from who we are, she tells us. This is what it truly means to “write what we know”—to write from our innermost selves and draw from all the wisdom our unique experience has given us. And though we may not always be successful, we will learn to “fail better” (Introduction, p. 4).
The book sits on my desk where it’s easy to reach, and is already well marked with highlighter and pen. It has a few Post-It™ notes poking out the top as well. It already looks well used and loved, and that surely is the sign of a good book. Though I’ve read and re-read extensively, I’d rather buy someone a new copy than lend them mine. How often have you felt like that?
Like a good poem, Shapiro’s book is deceptively tiny. It looks (and feels) small, and you can read it in one night. Yet each time you return to it, it reveals something new, something you didn’t even notice the first time. This book encompasses (and inspires) so many thoughts and connections that in the end, the only sensible thing to say is, “You need to read this for yourself.” To give you a flavor of the book, though, here are a handful of moments that stand out for me, many of which you might share with young writers.
- The list of don’ts. Writers are full of excuses—they’re busy, tired, not feeling up to par. Or it’s too hot, cold, drafty, noisy, quiet, yada, yada. In the chapter called Riding the Wave, Shapiro lists a number of things NOT to do when you sit down to write: “Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go on the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination” (p. 10). Sound familiar? Of course. All writers procrastinate; for some, it’s an art form. You might share this chapter or some portion of it with your students, and brainstorm two lists: things writers do to procrastinate, and things we can do to get ourselves moving again.
- Dispelling your inner critic. Most writers know the voice of that inner critic who is never really pleased with anything we do. Maybe it’s your mother’s voice, or some long-ago teacher—or your editor. In the chapter titled Inner Censor, Shapiro reveals some of the things her critic likes to lay on her: “This is stupid,” “What a waste of time,” “What a dumb idea,” and other equally disparaging comments (p. 13). Discussion of the inner critic is a good one to have with students because few things are more inhibiting than having your work dismissed as fast as you can put it on the page. Shapiro refers to her critic as a “toxic little troll” (p. 14), one she can put in her place only by continually reinforcing belief in her ability to enter “that sacred space from which the work springs” (p. 15). What sorts of things do your students’ critics whisper in their ears? Make a list. It’s surprising how shedding a little light on these nasty criticisms can weaken their power.
- Building one corner of the puzzle. How many times have you heard students say, “I don’t know how to begin”? Try this. Instead of writing one day, pass out jigsaw puzzles and have students work on them in groups—just for a few minutes. They don’t need to finish. Then talk about strategy. What did they do first? Chances are, many started with the corner pieces. In the chapter called Corner, Dani Shapiro suggests that this logical and simple way of solving puzzles has something important in common with writing. As writers, we need to start small, too. The idea is to get one “corner” on the page in recognizable form—then build on it: “One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next” (p. 17).
- The magic of books. Do you read as you write? Before you write? For many writers, this is like saying, “Do you breathe as you write?” Most of our inspiration (save what we get from experience) comes from books. On my own shelf right now I have One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson, The MOST of Nora Ephron, and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. None of these is a book about writing, but every one of them teaches me more about writing than I can get from almost any handbook or textbook out there. Just to offer one tiny example, Bill Bryson is a master of transitions. This probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Bryson (How about humor? Research?), but the way he links ideas together is worth more than a passing look. Writers must read. It’s essential. And think how much is gained by discussions of literature as writing, by looking at the craft of the writer, in addition to theme and content. Shapiro puts it this way: “When I meet someone who wants to be a writer, and yet doesn’t read much, I wonder how that works. What would provide you with nourishment, with inspiration?” (p. 33). Ask your students which writers inspire them. Which ones provide them nourishment? And specifically, what do they learn as writers from their literary mentors?
- Writing to someone. Mem Fox (author of one of my favorite books, Radical Reflections) has long talked about “The Watcher,” that mysterious someone we picture in our minds as we write. I’ve long embraced this idea, and my list of “watchers” rotates to include colleagues like Jeff Hicks and Sally Shore or Darle Fearl, along with my daughter Nikki and my grandson Jack. Rotating is fine, but if we try to write to too many people at once, Shapiro advises, “It can start to feel like a crowded subway during rush hour, no one meeting each other’s eyes, just waiting for the doors to open” (p. 54). She suggests following the advice of Kurt Vonnegut and writing “for an audience of one” (54). Discuss this with students, and give them time to reflect on who their particular “audience of one” might be. It doesn’t always need to be the same person. Fiction and informational writing are very different, and may demand different audiences. The point is to choose someone appreciative. Writing to an audience truly is transformational because it makes the writing personal, almost like a letter. This doesn’t mean for a moment that you cannot write with a formal style. It does, however, make it much harder to be phony or affected, to generalize, to wander off the topic, to use words you don’t know, or to write in a sloppy manner and call it good enough. After all, someone you care about is on the receiving end.
- Breaking the rules. Every good writing teacher I’ve ever known (and it’s a big group) has talked about “breaking the rules.” But most add a caveat—“Be sure you know the rules first!” Well . . . yes. Sure. But that caveat makes rule breaking sound like a plot: Learn the rules so you can plan to break them. That’s not how it works at all. Breaking the rules for the sake of breaking them is no different from following them for the sake of following them. The rule isn’t the point. The point is to be true to yourself and your vision. In What You Know?, Shapiro offers this advice: “You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fall” (p. 71). We have to tread lightly here, though. We don’t want to tell our students to get busy breaking rules and see how that works. A better way of helping them appreciate both the rules and the deviations is to have them look in their favorite literature for examples of when and how our best writers break from tradition. Can they find examples of abandoned punctuation? Missing capitals? Repetition? Fragments? One-sentence or one-word paragraphs? Why do these instances of rule breaking sometimes work so well? And why wouldn’t they work all the time? (Check out the chapter Breaking the Rules, 151ff., for more wisdom on this topic.)
- Sharing our writing. Some students cannot wait to share their writing aloud—with a partner, in a small group, with the whole class. Whatever. They live for the spotlight. But for many, it’s downright terrifying—as indeed it is for countless adult writers, including experienced, published professionals. Sweaty palms, shaking hands, cracking voices, and rapid heartbeats are all part of the misery of taking writing public if it’s not your thing. One of the problems in the classroom is that for the most part, you don’t get to pick your audience. It’s hard to work around this, granted, but maybe we should at least think about it. In her chapter Trust, Shapiro talks about the importance of choosing wisely when we decide to share our writing with someone. Writers are highly vulnerable, she cautions. Damage can be done. We don’t want listeners who are indifferent, rude, hostile, or inattentive (p. 98). She offers this advice: “Ask yourself: Why this person? Will she treat my manuscript with respect? Read it with close attention?” Perhaps we can’t allow students total freedom of choice about their audience, but we can encourage students (and ourselves) to be the most sensitive listeners possible—to offer comments that show we are paying attention and that we care about the writer. Talk with your students about this: What kinds of comments are genuinely helpful to them? What can we do, as listeners, to foster trust in the writers who share their very important work with us?
- Structure. Dani Shapiro is no fan of outlines. This in itself is enough to make her my hero. Outlines, she explains, create an “illusion” of control (p. 114). Precisely. Non-writers (some of whom are sneaky enough to become consultants or assessors of writing) are forever wanting the rest of us to plan our writing in advance, then follow our outlines from first to final sentence as if those outlines now controlled us, rather than the reverse. Who on earth came up with this idea? The most magical part of writing lies in not knowing what will happen. Everything from character to plot to need for further research reveals itself not in advance, but during the act of writing. And so it is with structure. Here is one of my favorite quotations from the book: “Structure may emerge in the middle, may even announce itself once we’re in over our heads, in the thick of it, having relinquished control. Then, then, the architecture begins to whisper to us” (p. 115).
- Taking care of yourself. I think this may be the only book on writing I have read (other than perhaps Anne Lamott’s legendary Bird by Bird) in which the author makes a point of telling writers to be good to themselves—to seek out kind critics, eat right, get enough sleep, be patient with themselves and with the writing as it evolves, find a good and comfortable place in which to compose, and engage in something Shapiro calls “quiet contemplation,” a lovely expression. “Quiet contemplation,” she tells us, “will lead you to riches, so keep good literature on your bedside table and read for a few minutes before you go to sleep instead of, say, passing out during episode five of season three of Mad Men” (p. 208). I think this is some of the most excellent advice on writing I’ve ever come across. I would not, of course, have been able to follow it while watching the final season of Breaking Bad, but still . . .
- Still Writing. This, the title of the book, is also the title of the final chapter. And if I had to pick just one chapter as my favorite, much as I love the others, this would have to be it. The message is so important: that writing, the need to write and the desire to write, is internal and forever. Like most writers, Shapiro is often asked whether she is still writing. Though she admits that she usually nods politely and changes the subject, page 227 contains the response she would like to give. It is passionate—and beautiful. It begins, “Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of my capacity to reason.” Better than anything I have ever read, this page captures how it feels to be a writer. And lucky me—since this book will be on my desk for as long as I have a desk, I can read it every day. Anne Lamott once said (Bird by Bird, p. 15), “My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” I’m grateful for Shapiro’s book in just this way, especially given its encouraging, soul satisfying philosophy: Success sometimes feels out of reach, but “failing better”? Now there’s a standard we can meet.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and fans. We are thankful for you, and we thank you for stopping by. I hope you’ll find time to read Dani Shapiro’s magnificent little book, and that you’ll find many ways to share its inspiration with your students. If you have other writers in your life, this book would make an extraordinary gift.
Coming up after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll look at things you can do in your classroom to prepare for the Common Core writing assessments.
Please don’t forget, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including strengthening the reading-writing connection). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.