Sunday, February 23, 2014

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

by Wendy

There’s a lot to like about Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. For one, its structure is simple. The book is broken into three sections: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, with each section comprised of short (usually one to two pages) musings on writing, the writing life, and strands of autobiography/memoir. Each piece is titled, which makes it easy for readers to put the book down and pick it up several days later, or to simply bounce around from one section or essay to another, without losing the feel and flow. Like most other books on writing, Shapiro covers the positive influence that reading has on writing, the need to develop and stick to a practice or habit of daily writing, and dealing with procrastination, our inner censors, and writer’s block. Although none of these topics is unique, they are so integral to writing that they bear repeating.

It’s also nice to hear a familiar refrain recast in new language. For sometimes it’s not the message that we’re missing, but the way the message is framed that doesn’t resonate. Writers certainly know the importance of diligence, but diligence is tedious. Shapiro’s take on diligence? “I sit down every day at around the same time and put myself in the path of inspiration . . .” If we don’t show up, we miss the inspiration, right? Isn’t this more dynamic and beckoning than reading that we need to write X number of words per day, or sit for X number of hours? She also shares helpful tips, such as how she overcomes the enormity of writing something BIG by starting with something small--just one word, just one sentence, just one detail. Or using the five senses to inhabit a character, asking: At any given moment, what is she wearing? Feeling? Hearing? Seeing?

Shapiro is most successful when she invites us in as her equal, and says you and I are not really that different. It’s reassuring to know that a professional writer describes a typical day much like any other writer would, as a combination of productivity and well, inertia and distractions. For example, Shapiro writes of days where she will “sit, then stand, sit again, decide that I needed more coffee, go downstairs and make the coffee, come back up, sit again, get up, comb my hair, sit again, stare at the screen, check e-mail, stand up, pet the dog, sit again. . . .”

Unfortunately, Shapiro fails at maintaining this sense of community three times in the book. One, in the final section of the book she states: “If beginnings are leaps of faith, and middles are vexing, absorbing, full of trap doors and wrong turns and dead ends, sensing an ending is your reward. It’s better than selling your book.” Really? I think that statement falls in the category of “easy for you to say.” I’m sure there are many unpublished writers who would feel plenty rewarded by a sale!

Two, in “Risk,” she talks about the financial risk of living a life of a writer, but then goes on to relate her trip to Paris to celebrate how well her first memoir was doing on the best seller list. Again, really? I can see celebrating with a fancy meal out, but how much of a risky life are you living when you can celebrate success by going to Paris?

Finally, in “Smith Corona,” she paints a portrait of her mother, a failed writer, who wrote regularly—she had her practice, her habit. So why was she a failure? Although Shapiro points out that her mother didn’t finish anything, she also mentions that her mother sent out scripts. Weren’t they finished? I think a critical essay is missing here: one that focuses on what divides failed writers from successful ones. Diminishing her mother’s desire to become a famous writer as a “romantic daydream” insults the reader. We ask ourselves if we are also romantic daydreamers. We ask ourselves if our dedication will prove pointless.

Apparently, her mother frequently leveled “How dare you?” quite a bit to her daughter. (Surprisingly, Shapiro seems not to know why her mother slung this question at her. In the book, she relates that she never asks her mother: “What was it that I dared? What was so terrible that I had dared to become?” But we can answer on her mother’s behalf: Why, a successful writer, Dani. And one who published a memoir apparently not terribly flattering to her mother—while her mother was still living.) Struggling writers may very well ask the same: How dare you alienate us? We thought we had a bond, a common calling to write, a common struggle to face a blank page and create? Will we feel the same frustration as your mother?

In the introduction, Shapiro states: “It is my hope that—whether you’re a writer or not—this book will help you to discover or rediscover the qualities necessary for a creative life.” Well, it’s one thing to have a creative life and quite another to make a living from it. Surely Shapiro and the publisher weren’t so naïve to think that aspiring writers who read this book are content to have a creative life versus a financially successful creative life. (And aren’t aspiring writers the target market? Surely, published authors don’t need to read this book.) By not answering the question of why one writer makes it and another doesn’t, the book is more of a documentation of one writer’s journey and beliefs about her art as opposed to one successful writer reaching out to mentor other writers, which makes me wonder just what this book is. Is it a guide for aspiring writers? (And, despite the caveat "whether you're a writer or not," the book is addressed to writers.) Is it a reflection on Shapiro's life as a writer? With its anecdotes about her family, especially ones about her mother, is it memoir? Or is it a hybrid of all three?

Note to publisher: There is an error in subject/verb agreement on page 32, with the sentence beginning “We doesn’t ask why." Of course, "doesn't" should be “don’t."

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