Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing is about the struggles and joys of writing. She discusses the rare moments of contentment that we find, along with the uncertainty and the persistence that writers need every day. Shapiro divides her book into three sections: Beginning, Middles, and Ends, examining the trials and the joys inherent in each of these stages of writing. Her chapters are short, each one three to four pages and focused on a particular topic. Woven into the writing advice are stories from Shapiro’s past with small glimpses of her childhood and pieces of her life that have heavily influenced her writing.
An idea that Shapiro returns to in the book several times is the idea of beginning again. She writes that, “No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the beginning of the mountain.” Each day you must sit down and start over, no matter how far you think you’ve come. There are numerous things that help you begin again, but you must always start at the beginning.
Having a routine and sticking with it is the most important thing in beginning again. There is so much that can be accomplished even in just one hour of writing, especially if it’s one hour every day. Even within that hour you must begin again though, perhaps more than once, whenever your attention wanders or you find yourself wandering the internet with no idea how you got there. Each time you must bring your mind back to writing and begin again. Shapiro says that we must be strict with ourselves and our routine, “Our work requires us to adhere to certain rules—not because we’re rigid or self-absorbed as frustrated friends and family might secretly think—but because it’s the only way we can do it. If we are deep inside a story, we’re in another world—the world we’ve created—which, for the time being, is where we need to live if we’re going to make it real to ourselves and, ultimately, to others.”
She also says that we must be gentle with ourselves, “We have to remind ourselves to be patient, gentle with our foibles, ruthless with our time, withstanding of our frustrations. We remember what it is that we need. The solitude of an empty home, a walk through the woods, a bath, or half an hour with a good book—the echo of well-formed sentences in our ears. Whatever it takes to begin again.” All of these things help us to stick with our writing and sit down each day to write. Another suggestion she has is to tell yourself that you’re just going to write a short, bad book. It’s very freeing because anyone can write a short, bad book, and it makes the starting so much easier.
Another common thread through the book is that of community. She says, “This prickly, oversensitive, socially awkward group of people is my tribe. If you’re a writer, they’re yours as well.” It helps a writer’s sanity to know that you’re not alone. There are people out there struggling with the same things. This community is strengthened not just through writing classes, conferences, or workshops but through the act of reading. Reading is a communal act, and a connection is formed between the author and the reader. Shapiro says that in reading, “I am here, and you are there, and we are in this thing together.” Reading, an essential habit of a writer, brings us closer together.
Shapiro also explains how major events change not only ourselves but the way that we write. She quotes Emily Dickinson saying, “My life closed twice before its close,” meaning that tragedy closes a piece of our lives and of our person forcing us to look at and interact with the world in a completely different way. She continues saying, “I had been forever altered by our brush with catastrophe. It was written on my body. My instrument had changed. And now I understood it would continue to change. That there would be more befores and afters ahead. Fighting it was futile, impossible. Accepting, even embracing this, was the true work, not only of being a writer, but of being alive.” These events in our lives change who we are, and they change the way that we write. There’s no way they can’t.
Being a writer is not something that we choose. Shapiro writes, “But if he is an artist—if he possesses that fusion of gift, hunger, endurability, and, finally, a willingness to embrace risk—he won’t have much choice in the matter. The life chooses us.” As she was growing up, Shapiro used to lock herself in her room and write letters or stories, pretending that they were true, as a way to deal with all of the struggles in her family. She says, “I wondered if I might be crazy. I had no idea I was becoming a writer.” It’s a difficult life. A life that requires discipline and persistence, and many, many hours spent behind a locked door making up stories.
Shapiro’s book shows the many quirks of living a writer’s life. It was interesting to learn how she has taken the many quirks and struggles of her life and turned them into something beautiful, something relatable. She is honest about the many difficulties inherent in being a writer: the hours alone, the panic and insecurity in starting and in ending. But also the moments of deep contentment, the ones that only come from writing. Shapiro says that writing saved her, “It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.”
Rating: 4 ½ Stars
This book was enlightening about the practical struggles of writing, showing the things that writer’s are giving up and the things that they are gaining.
By Melissa Blakely