Dani Shapiro

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

“Sit down. Stay there. It's hard - I know just how hard - and I hate to tell you this but it doesn't get easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort.”

The title of this book, The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, explains, elegantly, exactly what it is. (More on that in a second.)

Dani Shapiro
(b. April 10, 1962) is a best-selling memoirist who writes about her own life (and how we form our deepest notions of self) in a non-ironic, non-sentimental way. She is honest and authentic and generously reflects on the most interesting and personal subjects of a creative life: the living, the creating, and the existing. Not the producing or the having had produced.

I have written seven books, and still I have to remind myself this is what I do, this is my vocation, this is what puts food on the table and pays the mortgage. It’s not a hobby or something I spend my days doing for the sheer joy of it.

Shift, 2018 by Anne Butler. Featured in George Orwell's "Why I Write" in The Examined Life Library. Photograph by Anne Butler © Anne Butler
“Shift” 2018. A layered porcelain creation by Irish ceramicist Anne Butler. Photograph by Anne Butler. Learn more.

Shapiro’s collection of thoughts—a collection in which consciousness lives and thrives—she reexamines things that we commonly use and need to repurpose; like poet David Whyte’s Consolations, Shapiro grabs and reimagines words like permission, seeds, distance, and guides.1

On ambition, Shapiro writes not from the lofty mindset of an established author but from the self-doubting position of a beginner. It is refreshing:

There is nothing wrong with ambition. We all want to win Guggenheims and live and write in the south of France, or some version thereof—don’t we? But this can’t be the goal.

Of the numerous things Shapiro shares, my particular favorites are the strength and danger of our inner censor, a need for mentors, collected precious things we keep nearby, the mutual benefits of rest and play, and the difference between rhythm and discipline.

Discipline calls to mind a taskmaster, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least the need to cross something off a list. Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work.

I certainly keep Still Writing book close and open it often. My thinking has been much-inspired by Shapiro’s wisdom and thoughtful organization.

The writing desk of Virginia Woolf. Photograph Duke University.
The writing desk of Virginia Woolf, originator of one of the most enduring space/freedom metaphors. Learn more. From the Duke University Library Collection.

Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censor, our teachers remind us that we’re not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us.

Ah, the beauteous human continuum; Shapiro calls it a “tapestry.” Marilynne Robinson calls it “imagined connections.” Our connection to others and to something larger than all of us echoes in Walt Whitman’s poetry, Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy, and certainly George Saunders’ contemplation of human legacy.2

perils and pleasures of a creative life
Dani Shapiro.

Inspired by Shapiro, I’d like to define a word on my own: elegance. Elegance is completeness plus modesty. Nothing present is unnecessary, and nothing necessary is absent. It’s the economy and deliberateness of Thoreau mixed with the enthusiastic generosity of Anna Deavere Smith’s warm, embracing advice to artists of all sorts.

Shapiro reminds us to write from emotion but not to succumb to it. “Grief, joy, hilarity, rage—all of it becomes the medium in which you work. You can’t be feeling it and shaping it at the same time.” 3

I think my favorite section of a very thoughtfully-written book is this (one that pierces our concept of knowledge and “having had arrived.”

I always think I should know more. That I need more information. That I should outline, perhaps. Or do some research. But really, I need to remind myself that this not-knowing is at the heart of the creative endeavor. Paradoxically, the not-knowing is often what creates the energy, portent, and momentum in the piece of work itself. One of the truest pleasures for the writer alone in a room is when our characters surprise us by doing something unexpected. And so, as we are beginning, the most liberating thing we can do for ourselves is to exist in this state of heightened interest.

To extend a few of the themes from The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life even further—most are worth a deep inhale—grab psychologist Rollo May’s critical read on the effects of fear on creativity, physicist Alan Lightman’s In Praise of Wasting Time on the benefits of rest and play, Dorothea Brande’s wonderful guide to teaching writerly genius, and most of all, Bird by Bird by the inimitable writing teacher Anne Lamott born the same day as Shapiro.

Illustration of Dani Shapiro.