Dani Shapiro writes memoirs and fiction, among other things, including this short new book of miniature essays about “the perils and pleasures of a creative life,” as the subtitle tells us. Shapiro has been writing professionally for over two decades now, and is also a creative writing instructor.
Still Writing takes Shapiro’s own life experiences as the jumping-off point for her main thesis throughout the book—learning how to mine the dark recesses of our personal lives to write ourselves onto the page, into being. Shapiro lets us into her childhood growing up as an only child with older Jewish parents in New Jersey, and also tells us about her experiences as a mother to her son, Jacob, who, at six months, developed infantile spasms, and reiterates that these experiences are the foundations of her writing life. “The page is your mirror,” she writes in the introduction. “What happens inside you is reflected back.” And she doesn’t let you forget this as she leads you through the three sections of her book (“Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Ends”).
Shapiro’s writing is quick, personable, honest, and humorous, my favorite moment being (because I feel the same) when she has to briefly talk about the business of writing, and she says, “Excuse me while I throw up a little,” after having quickly skated over the short list of necessary evils now fundamental to the life of every writer in the twenty-first century: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads—“A presence. A platform.”
I can go on and on ripping perfect little statements from her book, but I hope the writers out there, new, emerging, and professional, will read her book and ride the wave, listening to her, communicating with her, because her thoughts are ones all writers can relate to, because she has been there, and she still is, as she makes you understand, because although having written and published a number of books, she still fights the same demons and the censor each and every day that she sets herself down in front of her blank page, hoping to write something that “allows the greatest consolation of literature, which is to pierce our separateness, to show us that, in this business of being human, we are not alone,” a sentiment I have shared for many years and recently talked about in my latest post, “What’s in a Story?”
Still Writing offers writers advice; advice on being a writer, and even more so, on being human, since, as Shapiro shares with us, to be a writer, to truly convey “the conflict of the human heart,” one must become empathetic, and practiced in this, the most important of human capacities, toward others, both in literature and in life.
What I loved most about the book is that her voice is right there, so clear, honest, and sincere. Reading this book was a comfort and a pleasure because I find myself wanting to engage with other writers and commiserate over the writer’s life, but am too afraid to let go of the fear of my differences as a stylist, which seem to prevent me from being accepted by other writers, and because I am not a “professional” one, but have only followed the calling of a writer, one that will not let me go, though often I want to let it go.
In the end, it was nice to read that as a writer I am not alone in my thoughts, fears, and desires, about the writing life and other things, and, aside from this, the best takeaway from Still Writing is what I can see will haunt me for a while, that, although I seem to do this in deep winter without a second thought, when the cold and darkness penetrate me and leave me raw on the page, I must consciously do it all year long, day in and day out—sit before the blank page and dig deep, mine the experiences of my life, reaching into the emotion and the logic, and let my words be “my pickax, and with them chip away at the rough surface of whatever it is I still need to know.” And with these words, these experiences, I must write a story, create characters and a world that opens up the vein running through all human nature and experience, showing readers that what courses within is the same in all of us, and that appearance is only a fiction masking the truth of our shared humanity.