Monday, December 30, 2013

STILL WRITING


Review of STILL WRITING: THE PERILS AND PLEASURES OF A CREATIVE LIFE by DANI SHAPIRO
(based on a review copy)

I subscribe to the idea that writing discussions divide relatively easily into three categories: craft, business, and philosophy. STILL WRITING falls in the latter category: a collection of numerous, very brief essays (1-4 pages each) in which Shapiro muses about her writing philosophies. Though divided into three parts (Beginnings, Middles, and Ends), I found the categories rather arbitrary; most essays could be moved to either of the other labels. In fact, a reader could easily peruse this book at random without losing any necessary context. I’m a front cover to back cover type of reader, but if you like a little more originality try flipping the book open to any page and reading the nearest essay. I read most of STILL WRITING in one day, but in retrospect the essays are probably better absorbed here and there, piece by piece.

I felt a teeny bit skeptical when I first started this book. As a writer, I naturally love books about writing, but the only thing I dislike about writing books is when the author assumes all writers must be the same as him or her. I wouldn’t say Shapiro generalizes about all writers so much as focuses on her experiences (lending a memoir taste). I nodded along, laughed aloud, or even noted the page number of certain essays that resonated, but I also shook my head or mentally grumbled at others, thinking, “Well, I’m not like that.” Of course, I didn’t shake my head very often and, as I kept reading, my opinion of the book rose more with each new essay that had me nodding along.

I’ll only mention one of my disagreements first and then move on to far more examples of essays that I loved. In one piece, Shapiro writes about a friend who published a book about her family’s secrets. The book became very successful, but her family - not to mention many friends, acquaintances, and strangers - resented the author for this perceived betrayal. In an interview, the woman said that we don’t choose our stories, that our stories choose us. Shapiro extrapolates on her friend’s quote with obvious admiration, but I strongly disagree with that sentiment. Now I don’t want to be sidetracked by the particular writer. I’m not standing in judgment on the rightness or wrongness of her decisions, but rather I take issue with that viewpoint. To me, saying stories write themselves is deflecting responsibility. Of course, writers choose their stories. Sure, we don’t choose our inspiration. We might feel inspired to write or publish a particular story, but that hardly means we must. We decide whether or not to turn inspiration into action.

Now on to the positives and, believe me, I have plenty of them. In “Habit,” Shapiro discusses the necessity of making yourself write everyday. A writing career requires discipline and sometimes you won’t feel like writing but once you sit down and write you find that changes. “Being Present,” as it sounds, focuses on being present in the moment and taking in every sensory detail. This is useful as a writer, but especially important as a person. “Next” compares writing a book to having a baby, an inevitable, arguably cliché metaphor, but if it pops up everywhere that’s because it’s so apt. I also like what Shapiro says about paying attention to the senses and individual tics. I, too, count those things as vital in distinguishing characters from people.

“Corner” utilizes another perhaps cliché metaphor to which I relate strongly nonetheless: the jigsaw puzzle metaphor. I like Shapiro’s advice: build a corner. It’s easy to look at all those pieces and feel overwhelmed, but most skilled puzzlers fixate on some trend and work from there. I had just finished a 1500-piece puzzle the day I read this essay, so perhaps that’s part of the reason I hopped aboard with the comparison so readily!

In “A Short Bad Book,” Shapiro emphasizes the importance of writing without, well, overthinking the importance of your writing. She shares a story about a writer friend who declared she would write a short, bad book to pull herself from a slump. Freed from any expectations about that book being great, writing it felt easier…and then it went on to become a bestseller. In contrast, Shapiro recalls a time when The New Yorker invited her to contribute. When she started thinking about how good everyone would expect the piece to be, she felt paralyzed by the expectations. 

I really connected with “Patience,” which exemplifies the virtues of, yes, patience. When a writing student asked Shapiro for career advice, she told her to wait. Her writing was good, but not quite ready yet. The student submitted her work anyway, soon landed an agent, and not long after that snagged a two-book deal. Other students in the class felt awed, overshadowed, bitterly jealous, heartbroken - some all at once. The student’s first book, once released, received minimal attention and an overall “eh” response. Many critics agreed that it’s good…not great and could easily pick out the flaws. That writer has yet to publish her second book many years later. Meanwhile, many of the other students in that class, some once so disheartened by someone else’s apparent fast track to success, have become accomplished writers. I myself am a big believer in patience, especially in relation to a writing career. Publishing takes a lot of determination and time. One question always makes the wait easier, for me at least. I ask myself, “If I knew for a fact that I would never be published, would I still write?” (I’m happy to say that question needs tweaking as I am published now, but it’s still the same concept: “If I knew for a fact that I would never be published again, would I still write?”) The answer is a resounding, don’t-have-to-think-about-it, what-kind-of-question-is-that “YES!” Writers who want to publish their work often feel a desperation to see results ASAP, but it’s all part of the process. At a stage when people are rejecting your work, you can learn from their critiques. As long as you keep writing, you will continue to improve your craft. As Shapiro points out, it’s not a race and there’s no finish line.

I also really enjoyed “Envy.” Shapiro comes right out and acknowledges how hard it is admitted her own envy and how she didn’t even want to write or include this essay because envy is so ugly and shameful. She opens with an anecdote about her agent who had another client on The New York Times bestseller list - number three on the list. At first I assumed this would be an essay about Shapiro’s own envy over her colleague’s accomplishment, but instead we learn how this seemingly successful author obsessed over the writers placing in the two spots above her. This led Shapiro to the realization that envy will never be satisfied. There’s always more to covet. Even if that author earned the number one bestseller spot, perhaps she wouldn’t be there for as long as another author. Or perhaps her book won’t win any awards. Or maybe it wins lots of awards, but not that award. Envy has an insatiable hunger. Best not to feed it.

Quite a few of these essays revolve around quotes from other writers. Three of those jumped out at me. There’s E.L. Doctorow’s classic comparison between writing and driving down a dark road in the fog. You can’t see very far, but if you continue forward slowly and carefully you reach your destination. Shapiro uses this as a reminder that many authors think every other author must have a better idea of where their story is going, but the truth is that most writers don’t know; most writers trudge through some kind, some level of fog.  In “Channel,” Shapiro shares Martha Graham’s insistence that there is no satisfaction ever in writing, that dissatisfaction is a key to creation and growth…though painful for the individual. My favorite, though, is Dorothy Parker’s “I hate writing. I love having written.” Writing is sometimes fun and sometimes challenging. If it’s a hobby, you can only write when it’s fun for you and skip over whatever you don’t enjoy, but if it’s a job you’ll have to face the challenging bits eventually. Sometimes the joy of writing is in the act, but other times it’s in the product: when you struggled and suffered through a problem you doubted you could fix…and finally you did.

I want to end on the core of this discussion: why? In “Ambition,” Shapiro shares an application from a startlingly egotistical student as a lead in to the only reason to become a writer: because you have to. If I had to pick out one piece of advice from all the writing advice out there, it’s that. You need to write because you need to write. A writing career has plenty of negative aspects (despite media portrayals). The only thing that will keep you going is a love of writing. Those who want to publish because they have delusions of money or fame filter out in the literary world. Expounding on this, the essay “Still Writing” addresses that common question writers (and most creative people) dread: “So are you still writing?” I’m sure that, to a degree, we writers are oversensitive about this. Most of these encounters come from people you don’t know too well and who don’t know you too well. Most likely they’re merely trying to grasp how your life might have changed since you last spoke. Oversensitive or not, though, there’s a subtext to that question, an implication that there’s a reason - in their mind, at least - that you might not be writing any longer. On the innocent end, maybe they think your interests or priorities changed. Or perhaps they have opinions they’re projecting: it’s not a sensible “job,” your work isn’t very good, you’re clearly not successful enough, books are boring. Because writing is so important to me, that question “Are you still writing?” is like asking “Are you still breathing? Do you still do that?” If I’m alive, I’m still writing!

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