Brain Pickings

Dani Shapiro on the Pleasures and Perils of Writing & the Creative Life

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“It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive.”

“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace,” Annie Dillard famously observed, adding the quintessential caveat, “It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” And yet, Zadie Smith admonished in her 10 rules of writing, it’s perilous to romanticize the “vocation of writing”: “There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.”

Still, surely there must be more to it than that — whole worlds rise and fall, entire universes blossom and die daily in that enchanted space between the writer’s sensation of writing and the word’s destiny of being written on a page. For all that’s been mulled about the writing life and its perpetual osmosis of everyday triumphs and tragedies, its existential feats and failures, at its heart remains an immutable mystery — how can a calling be at once so transcendent and so soul-crushing, and what is it that enthralls so many souls into its paradoxical grip, into feeling compelled to write “not because they can but because they have to”? That, and oh so much more, is what Dani Shapiro explores in Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (public library) — her magnificent memoir of the writing life, at once disarmingly personal and brimming with widely resonant wisdom on the most universal challenges and joys of writing.

Shapiro opens with the kind of crisp conviction that underpins the entire book:

Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.

Book sculpture by an anonymous artist left at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse. Click image for more.

Far from a lazy aphorism, however, this proclamation comes from her own hard-earned experience — fragments of which resonate deeply with most of us, on one level or another — that Shapiro synthesizes beautifully:

When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. And when I wasn’t writing or reading, I was staring out the window, lost in thought. Life was elsewhere — I was sure of it—and writing was what took me there. In my notebooks, I escaped an unhappy and lonely childhood. I tried to make sense of myself. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible. Still, writing was what saved me. It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.

'Paper Typewriter' by artist Jennifer Collier. Click image for more.

Above all, however, Shapiro’s core point has to do with courage and the creative life:

The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. “Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It requires what the great editor Ted Solotoroff once called endurability.

In other words, it requires grit — that the science of which earned psychologist Angela Duckworth her recent MacArthur “genius” grant and the everyday art of which earns actual geniuses their status.

Writing is also, as Shapiro poetically puts it, a way “to forge a path out of [our] own personal wilderness with words” — a way to both exercise and exorcise our most fundamental insecurities and to practice what Rilke so memorably termed living the questions, the sort of “negative capability” of embracing uncertainty that Keats thought was so fundamental to the creative process. Shapiro echoes that Dillardian insistence on presence as the heart of the creative life:

'Flights of mind' by artist Vita Wells. Click image for more.

We are all unsure of ourselves. Every one of us walking the planet wonders, secretly, if we are getting it wrong. We stumble along. We love and we lose. At times, we find unexpected strength, and at other times, we succumb to our fears. We are impatient. We want to know what’s around the corner, and the writing life won’t offer us this. It forces us into the here and now. There is only this moment, when we put pen to page.

[…]

The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego—and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude. No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. … Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. We fail better. We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.

In fact, it’s hard not to feel Dillard’s influence and the echo of her voice in Shapiro’s own words as she considers the conflicted yet inexorable mesmerism of writing:

What is it about writing that makes it—for some of us — as necessary as breathing? It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. Time slips away. The body becomes irrelevant. We are as close to consciousness itself as we will ever be. This begins in the darkness. Beneath the frozen ground, buried deep below anything we can see, something may be taking root. Stay there, if you can. Don’t resist. Don’t force it, but don’t run away. Endure. Be patient. The rewards cannot be measured. Not now. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part.

These rewards manifest not as grand honors and prizes and bestseller rankings — though hardly any writer would deny the warming pleasure of those, however fleeting — but in the cumulative journey of becoming. As Cheryl Strayed put it in her timelessly revisitable meditation on life, “The useless days will add up to something. . . . These things are your becoming.” Ultimately, Shapiro seconds this sentiment by returning to the notion of presence and the art of looking as the centripetal force that summons the scattered fragments of our daily experience into our cumulative muse — a testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity, reassuring us that no bit of life is “useless” and reminding us of the vital importance of what Stephen King has termed the art of “creative sleep”. Shapiro writes:

If I dismiss the ordinary — waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — I may just miss my life.

[…]

To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing — is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, “When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.” This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring.

Complement Still Writing, which is soul-quenching in its entirety, with famous writers’ advice on the craft, then revisit Annie Dillard on writing.

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