On Time, Memory and Investigative Journaling of the Self:
A Conversation Between Dani Shapiro & Sarah Cedeño
Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin house, One Story, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and has been broadcast on “This American Life.” Dani was recently Oprah Winfrey’s guest on “Super Soul Sunday.” She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University; she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. A contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, Dani lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Her next book, Hourglass, will be published by Knopf in the spring of 2017. In the summer of 2016, Shapiro was a visiting writer at the Goddard MFAW program in Plainfield, Vermont.
Sarah Cedeño: I’ve just finished Devotion, your memoir about spirituality and faith. How do your experiences with yoga, meditation, and your Jewish faith serve your writing life?
Dani Shapiro: I’ve had a regular yoga practice for twenty-five years, and though for many of those years I would have told you there was little or no connection between my yoga practice and my writing life, I have come to understand that yoga and meditation serve to quiet my mind, and the best work comes from a settled mind. Our creative impulses, our histories, our imaginations, don’t only live in our minds, but in our bodies as well. The closer I am to feeling myself as a physical, sentient being, the more access I have to the stories that are within me and around me. If I’m stuck in a piece of work, the best thing I can do for myself is unroll my mat.
As for my background—a childhood spent steeped in observant Judaism—I have less of a concrete answer. Certainly the music of it all has stayed with me. I do mean, literally, the music of the liturgy. The language of the liturgy has never inspired me. I adored my father and the Judaism of my childhood is intrinsically and powerfully linked to my memory of him. So there’s that too, and all the ways he haunts my work.
SC: You write both novel and memoir, and explore much of the same ground in each genre: mother/daughter relationships, artists as characters, questions of Jewish faith, the loss of parents. What boundaries, if any, do you consider when handling your personal experiences in both fiction and nonfiction?
DS: I don’t think in terms of boundaries while I’m writing because I don’t think it’s helpful. In fact, it can act as a kind of self-censorship to consider boundaries while starting a book, a story, an essay. Art attempts to move beyond this, to say the un-sayable. My memoirs arrive in my consciousness as memoirs, and my novels, as novels. I don’t decide to write a novel rather than a memoir because of concerns about boundaries, or betrayal, or privacy, or exposure. (In my experience that tends to make for tepid fiction.) I do, however, take very seriously the moral responsibility of the writer—particularly the memoirist who is including other people, real, alive, even dead people, in her stories—not to write out of anger, resentment, or really any undigested emotion. As Annie Dillard once wrote, “You may not let it rip.”
SC: Slow Motion (Shapiro’s memoir about a tragic accident that injured her mother and killed her father) has a more linear narrative structure, while Devotion (Shapiro’s memoir that handles questions of spirituality) and Still Writing (Shapiro’s craft-based memoir) are more segmented. How long into the writing of a book does the structure become apparent to you? Do you feel more comfortable in one structure versus another?
DS: I very much understood Slow Motion to be a story as I was writing it. It was a dramatic story that happened to me, and that story dictated a linear, story-telling structure. Years later, when I began to write Devotion, it began to come out in these small, puzzle-like pieces, and I thought to myself: what the hell is this? It frightened and unnerved me—it was not a made-up or intellectually-chosen structure, but again, what the book seemed to want to be. I worried about that structure up until the time that the book was published and readers and critics began responding positively to it. And once I was finished, I understood why the structure had to be puzzle-like. One aspect of Devotion was told in real time, as the journey was unfolding, and as it was a memoir about a spiritual search, it would have been dishonest for it to be structured in a seamless narrative arc. Spiritual journeys—at least mine—are full of stops and starts, doubts, misgivings, setbacks. Though I didn’t understand it as I set out writing, I had arrived at a structure that mirrored that rocky path. As for Still Writing, it was a different kind of book for me—one aimed at writers and artists in particular—and I wanted it to be a book that one could dip into, read just a bit, feel inspired or buoyed, able to go on. That structure was much more conscious from the start.
SC: Still Writing gives a sense of writing companionship. I return to it for fortitude.
DS: I’m glad to hear that!
SC: What are your favorite sources of inspiration and encouragement? Do you ever revisit Still Writing? What do you turn to for writer-ly companionship?
DS: No, I could never revisit my own book seeking inspiration or encouragement. That just isn’t how it works. For that, I turn to mostly to Virginia Woolf—her novels and also her diary—and to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life as well as Anne Truitt’s journals, Turn and Daybook.
SC: This is a broad question, mostly because I’ve found the single most consistent portrait in your writing, both memoir and novel, is the character of mother. Can you talk about the mother figure in your life, in your memoir, in your novels?
DS: For a long time I thought of my own mother as my muse, or perhaps my anti-muse, but an inspiration nonetheless. I had a very difficult relationship with her that I’ve tried to work out in my writing, I suppose, by creating characters (in fiction) that would allow me greater access to her by imagining her internal life. In my memoirs, particularly Slow Motion, she certainly played a big part since the car accident that killed my father and injured her was a central part of the story.
SC: How does the treatment of the mother figure differ in each genre?
DS: A simple answer to that is that when I’m writing fiction I’m really not consciously thinking about my own relationship with my mother. It certainly it finds its way into relationships between mothers and daughters in a sublimated way that then transforms into an imaginative process. So I’m never consciously thinking that I’m writing about my own relationship with my mother, which is where the process of writing memoir and the process of writing fiction really diverge.
I can’t imagine a fiction writer sitting down and thinking I am now going to write fiction about my conflict with X—and in fact, I often will say to my students that when writing fiction there’s almost a willful dumbness in an animalistic sense of just feeling your way through something rather than consciously thinking I’m going to work through this or I’m going to find some way to write about this fictively.
I think it’s one of the reasons why when people talk about wanting to write about a particular person or relationship or conflict but not wanting to be public with it or hurt that person, their solution is to write it as fiction. That never works because there’s so much that goes into the creation of a situation, a story, a character and dynamics between characters in writing fiction that doesn’t have to do with anything as spot-on as something that comes directly out of one’s own personal history.
SC: Writing, like any task, has trials and tribulations. What is your biggest writing challenge?
DS: I get in my own way just like everyone else—even though I wrote a book that has helped many writers avoid that pitfall. Often writers early in their creative lives believe (or perhaps cling to the hope) that it must get easier. I think it gets harder. The bar gets higher. What I hope to achieve becomes more ambitious, at the same time as my knowledge of my own flaws and shortcomings as a writer become more glaringly obvious to me. This is, I think, as it needs to be. I’m never quite satisfied. Satisfaction is death to the artist. But because of all these gnarly difficult feelings, sometimes it’s hard to get to the page. Most of the time I get there but it takes some doing.
SC: You say that writing gets more difficult, and the bar gets higher with each project, but is there one book in which the writing has brought you the most joy?
DS: They all bring their own satisfactions and joys and their own challenges and trouble, but I would go back to my novel Picturing the Wreck, which is not necessarily my best novel, although it is a novel I’m proud of. It was my third novel, and it’s my only out-of-print book that I wish were back in print.
In Picturing the Wreck, the narrator is a 64-year-old man who’s a psychoanalyst and a Holocaust survivor, and he’s made a big mess of his life and is trying to set things right in some way. I just loved him and felt very connected to him. When you write fiction, characters and places become very real to you—and they’d better; you’re inhabiting a world. I set some really substantial challenges for myself in writing that book that I only realized when I was about halfway through it, and I didn’t know if I could pull them off. I had committed, though, and there was nothing I could do but move forward with great trepidation but also courage. There was a moment in the last third of writing that book when I realized what I was hoping to accomplish and understood that I was going to be able to accomplish it. That was a thrilling, creative period of time. It’s like falling in love when that happens: I can remember where I was when I was writing and where I was when I finished the first draft and the quality of the air and the season that it was. It was a very charged and alive feeling.
That was very unusual because I really was petrified—well, I was with Devotion, too, in terms of the structure of that book. I really had no idea whether it was going to work or not. It was more of a feeling that this was the only way it could be written; this was the only structure possible for that book. So at some point I just had to throw up my hands and say, “Well, okay. This is the book and I hope people want to read it.” And when people did, and it turned out that the structure worked for many readers, that was also very gratifying. Not a creative gratification, but more of a massive sense of relief.
SC: The structureof Devotion— asa non-linear, meandering, segmented exploration of memory and spirituality and mind—was important to its content as a spiritual memoir. It could have become abstract, but it didn’t. It kept winding through place and time, and there was a momentum even though it wasn’t a linear narrative. There was a lot of momentum in the segments.
DS: That was certainly what I was hoping. It was so different from the kind of work that I had previously done, and I was removing for myself the ways that I knew how to create narrative momentum and trying something altogether different. Not out of any kind of intellectual decisions, but really because the structure was so strongly announcing itself.
Something I think that emerging writers often don’t realize, when they read interviews or listen to an interview on NPR with writers they admire, and those writers sound so articulate, like they understand what they’ve done, is that that writer has already written the book, already gone through the process of publishing the book, and has become more articulate about the book, inwardly and outwardly. I only now understand why that had to be the structure for Devotion. I can talk about that pretty clearly, but while I was writing it I didn’t understand at all. I was in the woods and had to bushwhack and clear branches and find my way through, I got to the other side and out into the sunlight and stood there for a while and then I could start to explain the journey, but not in the midst of it. I’m always very suspect of writers—myself included—who can speak eloquently about a book that they’re currently working on.
SC: Are there any projects where you’ve felt so mired that you’ve abandoned them?
DS: In the last five years or so, I was probably about a hundred and twenty pages into a novel and, to the point we were just discussing, I could talk about it; I was confident, I could describe to you what I was trying to do, what some of the bigger ideas were. It’s one thing if ideas emerge during the writing, but to approach a book with the big idea as opposed to the big idea emerging from the interior can be a blinding thing to do. And in that case, for me, it was just devastating because I think that some of the writing was among the best prose I’ve ever written, but I had written myself completely into a corner.
SC: Could it ever become anything else?
DS: Actually I rescued two characters and wrote a short story probably about a year and a half or two years later called “Supernova” that was published an Electric Literature. In the novel, there were seven or eight significant characters, but the characters of Shenkman and Waldo in “Supernova” were two of them.
SC: Was there a project you considered the problem child either emotionally or intellectually?
DS: I would say that was probably also Picturing the Wreck, my third novel, because I was so enamored of my narrator that the first draft I wrote was 600 pages long. Every thought he had I thought was really fascinating, and every digression interested me. I’d hoped I was writing some sort of psychological interior novel that also had a plot but when I turned the book in to my editor, she felt like the story had been buried in the meanderings of the narrator—and she was right—and I had to figure out how to break it apart and put it back together again. That was excruciatingly difficult. During that time, I also remember where I was, how I wandered around New York and cried to my friends, but ultimately, the book became a 320-page manuscript.
I don’t think I would ever let that happen again in terms of the way that I wrote that novel. I wrote it without concern about structure. You can’t impose a structure on a book—it has to emerge from the writing—but I think there is a way, as a writer develops more and more in terms of craft, of being conscious and questioning structure and whether the rate of revelation in the story is working in a way that feels right to the story and satisfying in some way, so that one doesn’t get all the way to a 600-page draft.
It wasn’t a matter of cutting or trimming or losing a section. It was really a reimagining. My husband is a screenwriter, and the most dreaded phrase a screenwriter can hear from the director or producer is “page- one rewrite.” It’s fear of God when you hear that.
In the case of Picturing the Wreck, what I came to realize was that the protagonist’s inward meanderings, his interior life, was happening in his memory, and so it was happening in the past. What I finally came to understand was that the past needed its own chapters and the present needed its own chapters. The past had needed to unspool in its own arc, in its own present, so his memories had to be separated out to become narrative.
SC: So the book has alternating chapters.
DS: Yes, it alternates chapters, but also I’m always wary of alternating chapters, whether it’s between points of view or past and present, in a way that would feel to be ping-pongy, like tic-toc-tic-toc. Part of the challenge with that is finding a way to have it not feel like it’s an authorial device but somehow necessary to the storytelling.
SC: I’m curious about your research process. How much research you do, typically? Is there a specific research “assignment” that has stood out during the writing of any of your books?
DS: When I’m writing a first draft I try not to stop and research much, but allow my imagination to create the world and then fact-check my imagination. That’s something that I learned from E.L. Doctorow, who I knew a bit because we taught together at NYU. He wrote historical fiction, and I remember him telling me when I asked about his research project—I think it was around the time that Waterworks was published—he said he’d never researched when he was writing a first draft. He said that he found that it was more fruitful for him to see what his imagination could make of the world and then often and eerily his imagination would have gotten a lot of things that he couldn’t possibly have known, right.
But every writer works differently in this way. My friend the writer Jim Shepard researches his novels and stories for months if not years before he sets pen to paper, and his imagination is sparked out of the research. There’s no right way or wrong way of doing this. I just find that if I spend too much time researching, I tend to hold onto my research and feel like details end up in my work that would not belong in the work because they were so difficult to find. You know, when you’re reading something that’s heavily researched you think, Well, this is a digression or Why is this detail in here? and it’s in there because the writer went to Croatia to find it or at the very least spent twelve hours in the carrels of a library.
An exception to that was when I was writing my first big piece for The New Yorker. It was a personal history piece called “The Secret Wife,” and it was about my father’s second marriage, his marriage before he married my mother. Wanting to write that piece came out of writing Slow Motion because I realized that I was around the age my father had been when he was widowed. By the time he was my age, he’d already had a child, and then divorced and was a single father, and then was tragically widowed. He was still so young and I wanted to know so much more about what had happened. And yet the two people to whom it had happened—my father and his second wife—were both dead and so there was a large amount of research that I had to do to be able to recreate the story of that marriage. I had some lucky breaks and there were some people who knew them who were still alive. It’s a piece I couldn’t write today because the people that I interviewed 15 years ago or whenever it was when I wrote that piece, they’re all dead now. They were in their 80s then, and so I think, on some level, I knew it wasn’t just about writing the piece. I wanted to know the story, and getting the assignment gave me an excuse to pick up the phone and call these people. I never would have done that on my own. I used the fact that I had an assignment to push myself to do something I really wanted to do.
Which has been true of so many things in my writing life. I would never have the nerve just as a human being to explore or think about or delve into some of what I jump into, but the writing gives me the permission to do it.
There was a lot of research that went into “The Secret Wife” because it had to pass muster with The New Yorker’s fact-checkers. I had to know if she was wearing a peach suit if I was going to say she was wearing a peach suit. It had to be corroborated. I couldn’t make anything up. It wasn’t about if my imagination was getting the period details right, it was really about whether that line of dialogue was uttered in 1955. It’s absolutely nonfiction in
that case, but it’s also a piece of personal journalism. There’s a lotof room fora kind of rumination that’s personal, but the facts have to be impeccable.
SC: How much distance did you allow after your parents’ accident before writing your memoir Slow Motion?
DS: Slow Motion is clearly written from a little bit of a distance. It’s 10 years, not a lifetime of distance, but if I hadn’t written it then, I wouldn’t have written it now. I could never have written that book now in the way that I wrote it in that moment—I couldn’t have had the sense of irony or perspective on myself that would have allowed me to be as hard on myself as I was in that book. It’s a book I wouldn’t have written, for example, after having a child myself. I’m very glad I wrote this when I did. I’m glad it exists, but I’m also glad to know my 16-year-old son doesn’t seem very interested in reading it. I know he has friends who have read it and I know that he knows what it’s about. It’s funny, I just talked to him about this the other day. He said to me that people are always saying to him, “How does it feel that your mother’s a writer?” or “How does it feel that your mother’s written about you?” And I said to him, “Well, how does it feel?” And he said, “Fine!” It’s his normal. And also I’ve taken great care to try to never write anything about him that he would find embarrassing or an invasive of his privacy.
SC: And you deal with that issue in your novel Black and White, with parents as artists being aware—or unaware as is the case in the novel— of exploiting their child.
DS: That’s a perfect example of sublimation, and the ways in which the things that are most urgent emotionally and psychologically work their way into novels.
SC: When you were younger and were the Beech-Nut baby or appeared in Kodak ads, that had to have crept in psychologically when you were writing Black and White.
DS: It totally did, but I was so willfully unconscious of that aspect of things that it really wasn’t until I finished the book that I realized it was one of the ways that I was able to understand Clara (Black and White’s lead character) and her feelings.
When I started Black and White, I was most interested, creatively, in the feelings of the child, and I wanted to be inside those moments when those photographs were made. In writing the novel that was some of the greatest pleasure—and those are all harrowing scenes, but also absorbing moments for me in writing and creating the scenes when those photographs were taken. I think I understood something about that. But again this is me being articulate about it in retrospect. I do think I understood something about what it felt to be an object in that situation and that for a child in that situation, it was important to do well, that it mattered.
SC: Are you able to speak about your next memoir, Hourglass?
DS: I know when it’s coming out. Spring of 2017 from Knopf.
When I think about the last seven or eight years of my life as a writer… when I realized that Devotion was my next book, it was not what I wanted to be writing—I was waiting for my next novel to materialize. Instead this other thing materialized that was completely not what I wanted to be writing. I was not a reader of spiritual memoirs. I didn’t want to be writing a spiritual memoir. I don’t even like the term spiritual memoir. It was kind of horrifying. In the interim, I wrote Still Writing, which was an anomaly, a different kind of book. It’s the only time in my life I think I’ll ever write a book that people were, in fact, asking me to write. I always say to my students, “The world is not asking you for what you are creating, which makes it really hard to sit down and do it everyday.” Nothing will happen if you don’t do it.
Then I thought, “Okay, now fiction. Fiction. Then I had an idea for a nonfiction book. It was a good idea, but I stuck my toe in and very quickly I realized it was not the commitment that I wanted to make. If I was going to spend the next couple of years of my life alone in a room ripping my heart out then it needed to be something that I had to do.
So I was away for a period of weeks teaching in a place where I was quite isolated and had a lot of time to myself. I was working on an essay that I’d been struggling with for years, and it had finally come together, and I really understood what the essay was, and I was working very hard on it. I thought, When I leave this three-week teaching gig, I will have this essay and it will be complete and I will send it to wherever I’m going to send it and it will be great. So I finished the essay, and it indeed was really complete, and it was what I hoped it would be. And at the moment that I finished it, I thought, Fuck. This is a book.
And what that meant to me was that I was never going to publish the essay as an essay. It was uncomfortable, unwelcome, unpleasant news that I had been doing everything possible to not write the book that I needed to write. I think that is a sign actually: look at what you don’t want to do, look at what you’re really avoiding. And in the case of Hourglass, it’s a book about time and memory and marriage. It’s about what it is to be in a long-term marriage. At one point somebody said to me as I was writing it, “So what’s the jeopardy? Are you leaving?”
I said, “No. The jeopardy is staying.” The jeopardy is knowing we are in this. And what does that mean? And what does it mean to be with another person through time? And what does it mean to go through time and all of its beauty and all of its sorrow and all of its vicissitudes? And I understood that was the book. I’ve been obsessed with time all of my writing life. As we move through time it becomes more and more of my subject and more and more what I’m really interested in.
Hourglass falls into the “do what scares you” category. This terrified me. And it’s also written from tremendous immediacy, in a way that Slow Motion was not. More and more, there are really wonderful memoirs and lyric essays and creative nonfiction, whether it’s Sarah Manguso or Maggie Nelson or some really wonderful work, that writes straight out of the center and is almost investigative journalism of the self. I find that tremendously exciting and such a high-wire act.
SC: Trying to process something at the same time you’re writing is really difficult.
DS: I would really caution anyone early in a writing life against trying to do that. It requires a kind of doubling of the self, of having spent a long time being both narrator and persona. There are so many levels to it. It’s one thing to shape the story in the light of retrospect or illuminated by time. It is the work of memoir to shape memory into a story, but this is actually shaping it when the clay is still wet.
SC: You aren’t chiseling anything.
DS: You’re forming it.