Last summer I read Dani Shapiro’s memoir SLOW MOTION and really enjoyed it, and it was then that I discovered Shapiro’s blog about writing and the writing life called “Moments of Being,” which has become one of my favorites. Throughout the blog, Shapiro shares wonderful, intimate stories about her life as a writer. In one of my favorite posts, “Exposure,” she takes on with her signature combination of story and insight the strange experience of writing a memoir and being asked (repeatedly), “Don’t you feel just so exposed?”until, of course, you do. Shapiro’s latest book is DEVOTION, a memoir of her search for spiritual meaning.
Theo: You’ve written two memoirs—Slow Motion and Devotion—-separated by a decade or so. How did the experience of writing Devotion differ from that of writing Slow Motion?
Dani: I never expected to write another memoir after Slow Motion. I figured that I had one dramatic story to tell, and I had told it for once and for all. But I realized a few things over the ensuing years. There is no such thing as “for once and for all” when it comes to the material that consumes us, our obsessions as writers, our themes. And also, Devotion is a very different kind of memoir. It’s less of a classic story/narrative, and more of a puzzle, an exploration, a meditation. Another huge difference between the two books is that Slow Motion was written from a place about ten years after the events covered in the book. I was in my early thirties writing about my early twenties. In Devotion, I do something that I always counsel my students never to do. I wrote from the center of the experience itself. Because Devotion is about a spiritual journey, I felt I had to write it as I lived it.
Theo:You’re the author of five novels and two memoirs. You also publish magazine articles and have a lovely blog about the writing life. I’m curious how that might play out in your weekly work schedule. Do you have long stretches that are devoted to one particular writing task or do you hop between projects?
Dani: I tend only to blog when I really have something to say. This is how my blog first got started. I realized that I always am thinking about the writing life, the writing process. And so when an idea begins to form, I take it to the blog. I aim for once a week or so–and usually fall short! These days, I’m not writing for magazines as much as I have in the past, but am trying to stay focused on the book I’m working on. I’ve been traveling a lot, on tour for Devotion, doing many more speaking engagements than I have in the past, and I would say that’s the biggest challenge, and the biggest change for me. I have always considered my writing life to be a regular job and try to keep regular hours as much as possible. But I can’t count on an endless stretch of writing days, so I’ve had to learn to write through the interruptions. Motherhood, too, has taught me to write through the interruptions.
Theo:How does the task of writing fiction differ from the task of writing memoir for you? I remember reading an interview with Pam Houston who said it was very difficult for her to write fiction and very easy for her to write nonfiction. Do you find one genre easier than the other?
Dani: I don’t find one genre easier than the other, though certainly I do find them to be very different animals. Writing memoir involves accessing memory, writing out of memory. And writing fiction is an act of imagination. The former feels somehow more dense, more solid, weighted to me as a process. The latter is lighter (not in terms of the substance of what’s written, just energetically in terms of now it feels to be doing it) and more open–anything can happen.
Theo: I really enjoy the honesty in which you write about the writer’s life on your blog Moments of Being, and particularly enjoyed the post “On Greed,” in which you described a writer’s continual desire to achieve more success so well. I was wondering if you have times when you feel less in the grip of the need to achieve the next thing and when those times come?
Dani: I’m so glad you enjoy Moments of Being! I really enjoy writing it. Regarding greed (and also its unpleasant cousin Competition) I try to keep in mind the whole idea that what happens–the results of my work–are none of my business. All I can do is my best work, my most focused and clear and big-hearted work, and the rest of it, what happens out there in the world, will or won’t happen. Which is not to say that I don’t think about it–of course I do. And writers have a responsibility to take care of our careers as best we can. But I think that too much greed, competition, comparison, is nothing but toxic, and gets in the way of the work being any good at all.
Theo: You also teach writing. How do you find writing and teaching intersect? Do you find it difficult to maintain a writing routine while teaching?
Dani: I have always taught and consider it a sacred act. I love to teach, but I wouldn’t love it if it got in the way of my work. I’ve been fortunate to be able to teach just enough to feed my process, but not so much that it takes over. These days, I teach a private workshop that meets once a month, and I do a few retreats and long weekends over the course of the year, and my husband and I direct a writers conference each March in Italy. That’s plenty for me, and it adds an immeasurable richness to my life.
Theo: What are you working on now?
Dani: I’m working on a new novel, quite different from anything I’ve done before. At the moment I’m feeling excited about it.
Theo: Thanks so much, Dani!
Thanks for this interview. Eager to read more about her books (I am wondering what they are about!). They sound like good ones to read in our book club.
I love it when smart, grounded writers write about spirituality–and I am going to both order Devotion AND subscribe to Dani’s blog immediately. Thanks, Theo!
Off to check out her blog now. I’ve already read both of her books!
I really loved Devotion, and think Dani’s is an important voice of the moment, as so many of us search for inner meaning in what have begun to feel like externally cataclysmic times. And what she says about focusing on the purity of the work and not projecting ahead to the effect it may have or the success it may achieve is so true. Producing good, honest work is what matters most of all, but the clutter of thoughts about reviews and readers and publicity can be hard to set aside. I’ve started taking just a few minutes to clear my mind before I write, and it makes a big difference in my ability to focus on the work and not be distracted by the background noise. Thanks Dani and Theo for this interview.
Thanks, Hope. I’d love to hear what activity you or other readers do to clear your mind before you write. I like to go for a long walk by myself. I just read another interview with Dani elsewhere in which she made the observation that writers tend to use the internet as a “cigarette break,” but the internet–unlike smoking a cigarette looking out the window–breaks one’s concentration. Here’s a link to that interview: http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/2011/03/12-dozen-for-dani-shapiro.html
What a discovery (both interview and blog). Thank you both so much!
Thanks for reading Writing is My Drink.