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Still Writing

The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

by Dani Shapiro

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The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
Dani Shapiro

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Excerpt: Still Writing


I grew up the only child of older parents. If I were to give you a list of all the facts of my early life that made me a writer, this one would be near the top. Only child. Older parents. It now seems almost like a job requirement??though back then, I wished it to be otherwise. A lonely, isolated childhood isn't a prerequisite for a writing life, but it certainly helped. My parents were observant Jews. We kept a Kosher home, and didn't drive on the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday. We didn't turn on lights, or the radio, or television. I wasn't allowed to ride my bike, or play the piano. Or do homework. This left me with a lot of time to do nothing. (Time to do nothing, by the way, is also very useful though boring training for the life of the writer.) Most Saturday mornings, I walked a half-mile to synagogue with my father while my mother stayed home with a sinus headache.

Our house was silent and spotless. Dirt, smudges, noise??any kind of disarray would have been unthinkably dangerous. Housekeepers were always quitting. No one could keep the house to my mother's standards. Every surface gleamed. Picture frames were dusted daily. Sheets and pillowcases were ironed three times a week. My drawers were color-coordinated, blue Danskin tops perfectly folded next to blue Danskin bottoms. The exterminator came monthly. The toxic mold guy made biannual visits. Summers, the lawn man came with his mower and hedge trimmer, keeping every bit of our suburban New Jersey acre under control.

Control was important. It wasn't really the messiness of life that we were girding ourselves against. Secrets floated through our home like dust motes in the air. Every word spoken by my parents contained within it a hidden hard kernel of what wasn't being said. Though I couldn't have expressed it, I knew with a child's instincts that life itself was seen by both my parents as a teeming, seething, frightful hall of mirrors. Something had made them scared. They tried to protect me from themselves, from their own histories??der kinder, one of them would whisper harshly and they'd stop talking after I entered the room. I loved my parents, but I didn't want to be like them. I didn't want to be afraid of life. The trouble was, it was all I knew.

And so I spent my childhood straining to hear. With no siblings to distract me, I had plenty of time on my hands, and eavesdropped and snooped in every way I could devise. I lurked outside doorways, crouched on staircase landings. I fiddled with the intercom system in our house, attempting to tune into rooms where one or both of my parents might be. I riffled through filing cabinets when my parents were out to dinner and the babysitter was downstairs watching "The Partridge Family". I haunted my mother's closets, the cashmere sweaters in individual plastic garment bags, the shoes and purses in their original boxes. What was I hoping to find? A clue. A reason. We had two telephone lines, and one of them had a little doohicky that you could lift up, preventing anyone from picking up another extension and listening in. I noticed that whenever my mother was on the phone, she used this doohicky. What was she saying that I wasn't meant to hear?

I didn't know that this spying was the beginning of my literary education. That the need to know, to discover, to peel away the surface was actually a good training ground for who and what I would grow up to become. The idea of becoming a writer was more remote to me than becoming an astronaut. I didn't know any writers. Our suburban New Jersey neighborhood wasn't an artistic hotbed. I didn't draw parallels between the books I loved, and read every night under the covers with a flashlight, and the idea that someone??a woman, say, alone in a room, wrestling with words and thoughts and ideas??could actually spend her life writing them.

I slunk around like a detective. I learned to hide on the staircase without making a sound. I was determined to uncover and understand the sources of my parents' pain, though it would be many years??a lifetime??before I would begin to make sense of it. All I knew was this: life seemed sad. It seemed parched, fruitless. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I escaped into my room and began to write. I discovered the world of my imagination where I was free of my father's sadness, my mother's headaches. I was free from the sense that my parents were disappointed in each other, and from my fear that they would be disappointed in me. I was free from der kinder!, and the Sabbath rules. I closed and locked my bedroom door??take that, parents!??and I made up stories. Sometimes I wrote them as letters to friends. Sometimes I pretended every word was true.

Deep down, I wondered if I might be crazy.

I had no idea that I was exhibiting all the signs of becoming a writer.

Riding the Wave

Here's a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don't answer the phone. Don't look at email. Don't go on the internet for any reason, including checking spelling of some obscure word, or what you might think of as research, but is really a fancy form of procrastination. Do you need to know the exact make and year of the car your character is driving? Do you need to know which exit on the Interstate has a rest stop? Can it wait? It can almost always wait. On the list of other, less fancy procrastinations, especially when the urge to leap up from your desk, accompanied by a wild surge of energy, comes just at the moment when you might actually begin writing: laundry, baking, marketing, filling out insurance claims, writing thank you notes, cleaning closets, sorting files, weeding, scrubbing, polishing, arranging, removing stains, bathing the dog.

Sit down. Stay there. It's hard??believe me, I know just how hard it is, and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn't get easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort. Make some kind of peace with it. Several years ago, I decided to learn how to meditate, though I thought, as many do, that I'd be bad at it: I can't stop thinking for more than two seconds. I don't have the patience. I'm too Type A. I can't sit still. But I needed something that would get me away from my desk and, at the same time, bring me peace and clarity. All of my writer friends have a version of this: my friend Jenny runs. John cooks barbecue. Mary swims. Ann knits. These are meditative acts??ones which allow the mind to roam, and ultimately to rest. When I sit down to meditate, I feel much the same way as I do when I sit down to write: resistant, fidgety, anxious, eager, cranky, despairing, hopeful, my mind jammed so full of ideas, my heart so full of feelings that it seems impossible to contain them. And yet?if I do just sit there without checking the clock, without answering the ringing phone, without jumping up to make a note of an all-important task, then slowly the random thoughts pinging around my mind begin to settle. If I allow myself, I begin to see what's really going on. Like a snow globe, that flurry of white floats down.

During the time devoted to your writing, think of the surges of energy coursing through your body as waves. They will come, they will crash over you, and then they will go. You'll still be sitting there. Nothing terrible will have happened. Try not to run from the wave. If, at one moment, you are sitting quietly at your desk, and then??fugue state alert!??you are suddenly on your knees planting tulips, or perusing your favorite online shopping website, and you don't know how you got there, then the wave has won. We don't want the wave to win. We want to recognize it, to accept the wave's power and perhaps even learn to ride it. We want to learn to tolerate those wild feelings, because everything we need to know, everything valuable, is contained within them.

Inner Censor

Sometimes, when I'm teaching, I'll start to talk to my students about the nasty little two-timing frenemy of everyone who struggles to put words down on the page?? and, without even realizing I'm doing it, I'll start gesturing to my left shoulder. Never my right, always my left. That's apparently where my censor sits. She has been in residence on my left shoulder for so many years that it's a wonder I'm not completely lopsided.

Here are some of the things she whispers, or shouts, depending on her mood, whenever I'm beginning something new:

This is stupid.
What a waste of time.
(Condescending laugh)
You really think you can pull that off?
So-and-so did it better.
Are you ready for a nap? I sure am.

My inner censor wants to shut me down. She wants me to close up shop, like the man in one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, who stands in the left frame, staring out a window looking bored, resigned. This frame is titled Writer's Block: Temporary. The right frame shows him standing in the exact same way; nothing has changed, except now he's in front of a fish store bearing his name. The title? Writer's Block: Permanent. My censor wants no less than to turn me into a fish salesman. Not that there's anything wrong with selling fish, except that I don't know anything about selling fish and, quite honestly, am not fond of the way it smells. What I do know?-what I've spent the past couple of decades learning about myself??is that if I'm not writing, I'm not well. If I'm not writing, the world around me is slowly leached of its color. My senses are dulled. I am crabby with my husband, short-tempered with my kid, and more inclined to see small things wrong with my house (the crack in the ceiling, the smudge-prints along the staircase wall) than look out the window at the blazing maple tree, the family of geese making its way across our driveway. If I'm not writing, my heart hardens, rather than lifts.

And so I have learned how get out of my censor's way. It doesn't happen by fighting her. It happens first by recognizing her??oh, hello, it's you again?? and being willing to co-exist. Like those bumper stickers most often seen on the backs of Priuses spelling out co-exist in the symbols of all the world's religions, the writer and her inner censor also need to learn to get along. The I.C., once you're on a nickname basis, should be treated like an annoying, potentially undermining colleague. Try managing her with corporate-speak: Thanks for reaching out, but can I circle back to you later?

The daily discipline of this creates a muscle memory. It becomes ingrained, thereby habit. I try to remember this, each morning, as I make the solitary trek from the kitchen to my desk. My house is quiet. My family is gone. The hours stretch ahead of me. The beds have been made, the dogs have been walked. There is nothing stopping me. Nothing, except for the toxic little troll sitting on my left shoulder. Just when I think I have her beat, she will assume a new disguise. I have to be vigilant, on-the-ready. She will pretend to be well-intentioned. She's telling me for my own good.

Maybe you should try writing something more commercial.

You know, thrillers are hot. Why not write a thriller? Or at least a mystery?

Sweetheart (I hate it when she calls me sweetheart) no one wants to read a book about a depressed old man. Or a dysfunctional mother and daughter. Why not write a book with a strong female protagonist, for a change? You know, a super-heroine. Someone less?I don't know?victimy?

Under the guise of being helpful, or honest, my censor, and, I'm hazarding a guess, yours as well, is like a guided missile aiming at every little nook and cranny where I am at my weakest and most vulnerable. She will stoop and connive. She knows no shame. All she wants to do is stop me from entering that sacred space from which the work springs. She is at her most insidious when I am at the beginning, because she knows that once I have begun, she will lose her power over me. And so I dip my toe into the stream. I feel the rush of words there. Words that are like a thousands silvery minnows, below the surface, rushing by. If I don't capture them, they will be lost.