Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life

By Dani Shapiro

(Grove/Atlantic, $24, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Dani Shapiro has had a wide readership for her memoirs, “Devotion” and ‘Slow Motion,” and her five novels include “Black & White” and “Family History.” She has been a contributor to such choice literary venues as The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review and The Los Angeles Times, and her writing has been widely anthologized. She has taught writing as well, at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University, and she co-founded  the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She also is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure. Shapiro and her husband, filmmaker Michael Maren, and their son live in Litchfield County.

On Feb. 13 at 7 p.m., Shapiro and Maren will give a free program at the Warner Theatre’s Nancy Marine Studio Theatre, 68 Main St., Torrington. Information: or 860-626-6802.

What is this book about?

This book offers advice about writing that also is advice about living a creative life. Shapiro reaches deep into her personal history and her practices as a successful writer and shows how the discipline necessary for success as an author can also benefit non-writerly pursuits.

Or, as she puts it: “Everything I know about life, I learned from the daily practice of sitting down to write.”

And:  “The writer’s life requires courage, patience, empathy, openness. It requires the ability to be alone with oneself. Gentle with oneself. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks.”

Shapiro told Salon: “Writers are outsiders.  Even when we seem like insiders, we’re outsiders. We have to be. Our noses pressed to the glass, we notice everything. We mull and interpret. We store away clues, details that may be useful to us later . . . Now, I grew up in a house full of secrets. My parents kept the urgent and salient details of their histories from me –– and somehow, I knew this. And, knowing this, I became determined to unearth. To excavate. And I do believe that this need to know was the beginning of my becoming a writer — though of course it took many years, and the light of retrospect, to understand this.”

Why you’ll like it:

I had the pleasure of meeting Dani Shapiro a few years ago when I moderated a panel of Connecticut authors at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford. She was poised, soft-spoken, stylish and quite lovely, accompanied by her film director husband and happily discussing their home in Litchfield County, her writing classes in Italy, her beloved son. But there is more to Shapiro’s story: an Orthodox Jewish upbringing that she later abandoned, a difficult childhood with warring parents, an illness that nearly took her son.

She was frank and encouraging in her comments that evening, and those qualities help make “Still Writing” a book that will appeal to aspiring writers as well as to general readers.

As she told Psychology Today:  “I knew I didn’t want to write a craft book. I started thinking of this as a love letter to my tribe, to this group of people all over the world who sit in our rooms, alone, struggling with the page. I wanted to pierce the solitude of the writing life, the way that some of my favorite writing books have done for me. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and The Paris Review interviews. They’re like my friends I go to for inspiration so that I don’t feel alone. Over the years, these writers helped me by sharing their personal stories, and I wanted to do the same thing for other writers.”

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “A best-selling author’s thoughtful examination of her life and the creative process that has defined it. Shapiro  . . . offers an intimate look at why, after the many ups and downs she has experienced in both her life and her career, she is “still writing.” The acts of living and literary inscription are inextricably intertwined for Shapiro. To talk about one, she must necessarily talk about the other. With this in mind, she divides her book into three sections: beginnings, middles and ends. Shapiro credits a “lonely, isolated childhood,” which made reading and writing “as necessary as breathing,” as what set her on the path to authorship. At the same time, she lays out what she sees as the necessary conditions for the work of writing: for example, understanding where and how you create best and giving yourself permission to not know where the act of writing will take you. “Writing, after all, is an act of faith.” The middles are trickier to negotiate. Shapiro was in midlife when she published her first memoir, which dealt with the “mess” of her 20s. Not long after that, her infant developed life-threatening seizures. Finding structure in the midst of chaos, being willing to start again and learning to live with uncertainty were the keys to her personal survival, just as they are key for writers lost in the morass of middledom. Endings are both a reward and a challenge. Shapiro is settled and happy, and she is successful enough to write full time. But she also knows her world is fragile. Despite the difficulties inherent in the writing life, it is still what she would choose not only because it has forced her to transcend herself, but also because it is something she must do. “The only reason to be a writer,” she notes, is because you have to.” Cleareyed, honest and grounded.

Says Booklist: “Novelist and memoirist Shapiro . . . explores the qualities of a creative life while reflecting on the indelible relationship between her own experiences and her writing practice. An accomplished author, Shapiro provides insight into both craft and career, separating the text into three parts: “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Ends.” Each looks at certain literary efforts alongside everyday challenges faced at the different stages of the creative process, from such general pitfalls as procrastination to more unwieldy, internal struggles, such as uncertainty, restlessness, and self-doubt. Shapiro blends her personal thoughts with anecdotes from fellow writers, providing varying perspectives and strategies in navigating the demands of writing. Throughout the text, Shapiro weaves in reflections on the more difficult circumstances of her life, including an isolated childhood, her father’s death, and the complicated relationship with her mother. In these moments, the narrative explores how such events shaped and informed Shapiro’s writing then and now. Honest and conversational, Shapiro provides an introspective look into the creative process and the value of persistence, offering inspiration for writers at any level.”

Author  Beth Kephart blogged:  “As one who teaches as well, who writes about words, who sometimes writes her own stories, I felt so aligned with Dani as I read that I’m afraid I sometimes spoke out loud while reading. I loved many passages. Let me share just one. It’s the sort of advice I’ve tried to share with many writers throughout the years. But Dani says it better:

‘There’s 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. If we are thinking of our work as a ticket to a life of literary glamour, we really ought to consider doing something else.’

Says NPR: Is there any job more tedious than being a writer? Dani Shapiro doesn’t think so. In this revelatory book — part memoir, part how-to — she demystifies the writing life once and for all. Here’s her typical day at the desk: “sit again, get up, comb my hair, sit again, stare at the screen, check e-mail, stand up…” Anger with reviews, disappointment with book sales, jealousy of other writers: all are chronicled, interspersed with the more quotidian difficulties of distraction, discipline and self-doubt. She also recounts her extraordinary, at times tumultuous life, including her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, the death of her parents, her collegiate affair with an older, married man and the nearly terminal illness of her son. For a human being, this material is tragic, but for a writer it’s gold. It’s the hot coal that fuels the slow-chugging machine. “I inch forward,” she tells us, “a sentence at a time. I read a few paragraphs back, then move forward only when I’m satisfied.” It’s a generational condition, handed down by Shapiro’s mother, who never was able to realize her own dream of being a writer.”

When is it available?

“Still Writing” is on the shelves at the Mark Twain branch of the Hartford Public Library.

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