Still Writing is Dani Shapiro‘s most recent book, a book she described at AWP as a “love letter to her tribe,” a book I might have bought just for its cover, a book that’s part inspiration, part memoir, part meditation, part craft. … Continue reading
I was going to write a bit more about The Maytrees, but yesterday I read a post by Alexander Chee in which he wrote about, in addition to many other wonderful things including the connection between novels and the news, his pre-writing rituals and the need to adapt. This post was timely. For the last few days I’ve been thinking about changing how I begin my day.
Let me interrupt this logical sequence to say I just now realized yet another possible reason why this post came back to me this morning as I was crossing the border between asleep and awake (as I was leaving my sleep–still playing these CDs constantly). One of the things the novel I finished a year ago (and that I have not sent to very many agents yet and that I keep telling myself I need to make time to do so) is about is the impact the news has on one woman.
Nabokov, in an interview for Playboy in 1964, wrote that in the winter, he would wake up to an Alpine chough (which I thought was a typo for church until I just googled it) alarm clock around seven and then that he would lie “in bed mentally revising and planning things.”
Dani Shapiro wrote, in one of the How We Spend Our Days posts, that as she gets her son off on his morning, she tries to “reserve just a bit of myself in that quiet, dreamy state of just-waking, so that once my family is out the door, I can turn to my work.”
For a little more than a year, my black, rectangular alarm clock has been waking me up at 6:30. I get right on the treadmill and watch Morning Joe for thirty minutes before getting my son off to school. This morning, I lay in bed for that thirty minutes and a thousand things entered my mind and they’re still coming. Maybe, as Chee wrote, “It is time for me to adapt again.”
So sorry for the radio silence but I’m at the Sirenland Writer’s Conference.
I was here for 2 1/2 days before I had a second to log in to the internet, which is the longest I’ve been offline in over a year. And that was just to check email.
I mean, breakfasts, workshops, hikes up the mountain and lingering over lunch and the view. Evening readings.
I’m in Ron Carlson’s workshop. Dani Shapiro is here. Also Jim Shepard, Hannah Tinti, Nam Le and Bruce Machart. And writers, writers everywhere.
And there’s the view.
So much to show and tell. More very soon.
The first one not surprisingly has to do with memory. She writes:
“Why do we remember the particular things we do? …why random, ordinary moments?”
So many moments from my past, I feel as if I can actually see: sitting in French class in third grade with my French name (which I can’t remember) written on a piece of construction paper and folded tent-style on my desk, sneaking out of a window at the Latin Convention, what I wore to the Cat Stevens concert in ninth grade.
And then there are all those forgotten moments. Someone recently mentioned a Rita Coolidge/Kris Kristofferson concert I apparently attended.
The second subject is related to the first yet strikes off in its own direction. It has to do with what Mary Gordon calls “the wick,” what Tim O’Brien describes as “a blade tracing loops on ice,” and what Virginia Woolf writes about in this passage from Mrs. Dalloway. It’s the russian doll aspect of life–that I am in fact now, still, the little girl that sat in that desk with the French name. It’s the through line Dani writes about here:
“I understood feeling like a completely different person…and when I thought back to my teenage self, my twenty-something self, I had a hard time understanding how I had gotten from there to here…Was there–surely there must be–a through line connecting the disparate parts of ourselves?…I knew that each part of me…is linked one to the next, like a fragile chain of paper dolls….These layers of ourselves are always there, waiting for the right moment to emerge…A jumble, perhaps, but nothing is ever missing. Just hidden from view.”
In this section Dani wonders what rises to the surface and why. I wonder about that too. This idea of the surface fascinates me. One of the reasons I love writing is that it pushes all these things to the surface.
“Yogis use a beautiful Sanskrit word samskara, to describe the knots of energy that are locked in the hips, the heart, the jaw, the lungs. Each knot tells a story–a narrative rich with emotional detail. Release a samskara and you release the story. Release your stories, and suddenly there is more room to breathe, to feel, to experience the world.”
Devotion, Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, is a beautiful book both inside and out. Her son Jacob is “the beating heart” of this journey, yet there is something about this book that felt necessary to me, that I’m guessing will feel necessary to each of us.
“To pause. To be still–not leaning forward, not falling back. Steady in the present–not even waiting. Just being.”
And with the stillness, she writes, “I was starting to see what was there.“
In the best book trailer I’ve seen, Dani talks about Devotion:
Dani has described the form of this book as “puzzle-like.” In Devotion, she quotes Virginia Woolf, “Arrange the pieces as they come,” a quote I also have on my desk. “Is there any other way to live than arranging the pieces as they come?” Dani writes. Some of those pieces: her search for meaning, her son’s illness, their post 9/11 move from New York City to Connecticut, her relationship with her mother and her ties to her father.
Yesterday I asked Dani why 102 pieces: “The book ended on 102 simply because that’s where the story ended–and I did like the number, and the roundness, the symmetry, the evenness of it–but really the arc of the story had come to an end.” The story of Devotion may be complete, but on her new website, Dani recently began a Devotion blog, where she continues beyond the book, a concrete manifestation that the journey is never over.
As I read Devotion, it was as Mary Oliver wrote in her poem, “I Want to Write Something So Simply“:
Behind me climbs a tower of papers, each one containing a thought or a quote or an article that I want to write about here. A few minutes ago, I started shuffling through the stack. About midway down, I stopped on a piece of graph paper on which I had scrawled these thoughts from the character Glory in Marilynne Robinson’s Home:
“But oh, the evenings were long. I am thirty-eight years old, she would say to herself, as she tidied up after supper. I have a master’s degree. I taught high school English for thirteen years. I was a good teacher. What have I done with my life? What has become of it? It’s as if I had a dream of adult life and woke up from it, still here in my parents’ house.”
I knew I had written about other characters expressing this same feeling and I wanted to connect them with Glory. In the search rectangle on the blog, I typed in “life.”
I found two posts: one titled “something more,” in which I wrote about Mrs. Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Clara in Black & White by Dani Shapiro; the other entitled “more than this,” in which I wrote about Ursula in Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence.
Here’s the weird thing: one was written on December 9th and the other on December 11th, 2008.
The end of the year pulls me toward reflection. But where’s the time?
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer … Continue reading
I’ve been trying to keep my computer issues out of my blog posts; but anyway, yesterday after I got my computer back, I went to Barnes and Noble, ordered a latte, and sat down to write a post. It had been a while (because of the computer issues).
I wanted to write about Anne Enright’s beautiful sentences, which I did, and her use of repetition in those sentences, which I did. I added a picture of her from the internet. Then I worried about copyright laws. I deleted the picture and added one of my own. I added the links I thought were pertinent. Found the article about the way she writes and added that as the opener. It reminded me of a post I’d read recently by Dani Shapiro. I added that link, read it over, and posted.
Great. Went to the grocery store and then home to cook dinner. Later, I pulled up the post to read it over again. Huge gap.
There was something missing between the beginning of the post and the end. What was missing was the part that had been in my head and that had linked the beginning to the end but had never made it to the page. I couldn’t see it at the time because I was too close to it. I took the next step and the bridge appeared. When I backed away, I could see that the bridge was not really there.
I added it and read it over, satisfied.
Just a few minutes ago, after I checked my email and checked in on Twitter, I reread the post again. In the second sentence I’d used a pronoun that could have been referring either to Shapiro or to Enright. Easy fix.
I’m not going to read the post over anymore.
Nevertheless, revising a post after it’s been up for a while makes me kind of crazy. I would like to be able to send an email to each person who had already read it:
Alert. The post you read has been changed. It makes sense now. How about taking another look ?
Thank goodness I can’t do that. It would be very annoying.
Perhaps I shouldn’t change anything once it’s up. Any thoughts on making revisions after you post?
“I need to write,” Enright said. “I go bonkers a bit if I don’t.”
I do as well. Some days I go bonkers even if I do write.
Looking over The Gathering this morning as a way to begin my writing day, I was again struck by the way Enright uses repetition. Of course, one of the “rules” of writing is to avoid repetition. It’s tedious to readers; it can make them go bonkers.
Not, however,when the repetition is intentional and the sound of the sentence rolling off the tongue makes you want to read it over and over again. Take a look at these two beautiful sentences:
“I close my eyes against the warm sunlight and doze beside the dozing stranger on the Brighton train.”
“I was back to school runs and hoovering and ringing other-mothers for other-mother things…”
Enright writes when she can and where she can, with no set hours and no word or page targets. You can take a look at one of the places she writes here.
In the car yesterday, I was listening to the CD that came with The Writer’s Notebook. On it are two recordings. One was a discussion on character. On the panel were Ron Carlson, Dorothy Allison, and Dennis Johnson. There was no introduction; it just started. Some of it sounded familiar.
When I got home, I looked up my notes from the two summers I went to the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. This recording was from the summer of 2005. I had actually been there.
What was sticking in my brain this time, though, was largely different from what I had taken notes on then. Ah, I thought, I’m in a different place now with my writing–hopefully a further-along place.
Which is an argument for rereading everything. Who knows what you will notice the next time.
Which brings me to my point…This time, the main thing that stood out was Dorothy Allison saying, “I’m a watcher.”
Until I started writing, I was not a watcher or a noticer. Now I am. And that’s a good thing. Being a watcher helps me catch days. It helps make things stick. And character, as well as life, is all there in the details.
“She bought throw pillows, for example, and buying throw pillows is in my experience the single best indicator that a female human being is feeling pretty good.” from Sight Hound by Pam Houston
“A pot simmering on the stove helps my father to believe we are still a family.” from Fugitive Blue by Dani Shapiro
“Travel brings out my need for order.” Picturing the Wreck by Dani Shapiro
Boarding passes, passports, confirmations.
Scarves, coats, coffees, carry-ons.
Phones, laptops, ipods, kindles.
Chargers, adapters, converters.
And then there are the liquids separated from the case that usually holds them, that holds the rest of their little friends. The brusqueness of the plastic ziplock bag.
“Yesterday was a strange, hurried, uncentered day.” Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
The time to be at the airport, the time to board, the time the plane pulls back.
And finally, the time to go home.
From Le Sirenuse, a hotel in Positano, Italy, that, in the dark green leather stationary folder, includes a bookmark. Imagine that. In a place as beautiful as this, that tiny nudge to pick up a book and read. Only after I take in … Continue reading
Starting with the prologue, in which the narrator calls on the spirit of Vladimir Nabokov, time is everywhere present in Dani Shapiro‘s Fugitive Blue. I read the novel in January of last year so time is playing with me and my memory as well.
“Nabokov did not believe in time…But I find it impossible to dismiss time, the very thing which has so intensely failed me.”
Dani Shapiro creates the story in Fugitive Blue using three different time periods:
1) the time from which the narrator is telling the story, which is told in the present tense, in which time is also counted in the number of days since she has stopped drinking;
2) the narrator’s childhood, which is also interestingly told in the present tense, perhaps to show that her childhood is ever present to her, perhaps to make it more immediate to the reader, avoiding the distance the past tense would add; and
3) the narrator’s recent past in NY, which is told in the past tense until the past catches up to the present, and then with a paragraph break, it moves into the present tense, all the while dipping back into the past when the story requires it.
The transitions are flawless. The tenses flow seamlessly one into the other, as do the different time periods of the narrator’s story. An early example from the childhood present:
“I don’t know this now, but in the single motion of removing my white knuckles from the steel handlebars of my bicycle–a feat of which I have been terrified for months–I am entering a lifelong habit of bravado which will end twenty years from now on the steaming pavement of a New York City Street. I don’t have that information. I can’t see the future. I have no way of knowing.”
Even in the present tense, the narrator can see the future and know the end of the story. Time is on her side, so to speak.
This morning, as I found myself wishing for an ordinary day without any of the extra tasks brought on by the holidays, I came across this passage from D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love:
“Ursula often wondered what else she waited for, besides the beginning and end of the school-week, and the beginning and end of the holidays. This was a whole life! Sometimes she had periods of tight horror, when it seemed to her that her life would pass away, and be gone, without having been more than this.”
What makes a life more than this?
There’s a Zen saying, “Magical power, marvelous action! Chopping wood, carrying water.” Is it the state of mind we bring to clearing away the furniture, putting the tree in the stand, wrapping the lights around the branches, retrieving the boxes of ornaments, hanging the sparkly ones, remembering Christmases past? Is it being in the moment, whatever moment you’re in, rather than wishing it away?
Despite appreciating how the sun falls across a vacant lot, how the wind floats a branch high above my car, how fresh it feels to be outside, at the end of a day spent moving from gas station to bank to grocery store to gym without any time to wrestle the inside out, to put words on the page, or to connect to someone else’s words, I feel unsatisfied. As if I have “done nothing.”
We want our lives to catch on something…
David Herbert Richards Lawrence died in France in 1930 at the age of forty-four. He wrote Women in Love in 1916, at the age of thirty-one. It was rejected by publishers. He revised it, and it was published four years later, in 1920.
“Do you remember the lake? she said, in an abrupt voice, under pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her throat stiff, and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said “lake.” For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks between her parents and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, “This is what I have made of it! This!” And what had she made of it? What, indeed? sitting there sewing this morning with Peter.”
This grappling with the fact that we are now the same person we were when we were a child reminds me of the passage that so struck me in Mary Gordon‘s The Rest of Life. With one important difference. Here, the narrator, Mrs. Dalloway, appears to be judging her life and finding it coming up short. This was in 1925.
“…invariably Clara walked away from them feeling that there was a secret club of motherhood, complete with a password no one had ever given her. Why did this all seem so satisfying to them–the cupcake baking, the constant scheduling, the endless games of Candy Land? And what was wrong with Clara, what psychic disease caused her constant yearning for something more?”
Playing with Fire was Dani Shapiro’s first novel. It was published in 1989. It begins, “There are many versions to this story…” And indeed, nine years later, the author published another version–“the true story,” the cover of Slow Motion reads.
Close to the events–fiction. With distance–a look at what really happened. Younger, the story. Older, the truth.
The time frames are slightly different. The phone call that begins the memoir comes on page 262 of the novel (of 304 pages). The real time of the memoir moves forward from that call, with the relationship with Lenny coming in as backstory. The development of the relationship with Ben (neither name the real name) creates the forward movement of the novel, along with the development of the relationship with Carolyn, the you to whom the novel is addressed. And the memoir deposits us a little further down the line, as her first novel is sold to a major publisher and she is receiving her MFA. In the last pages, she writes about writing the novel.
“I see that there might be some way I can take the raw material of my life and transfom it into somethig that transcends my own experience. I can organize the noise in my head into something that has order and structure. I can make sense of what, until now, has been senseless.”
Memoir and fiction. Truth.
Dani Shapiro is one of my all-time favorite writers. She knows how to tell a story–how to slowly release details in order to build tension and lure the reader forward. The first book of hers I read was Family History, published in 2003, but which I did not discover until October of 2005.
How does a writer know what to start with? When to reveal a detail? What is just enough to keep a reader interested but not so much that the reader has no place in the process?
“I lie in bed these days and watch home movies–a useless exercise, to be sure, but I can’t stop myself. Ned’s an amateur filmmaker, and ever since we got our first video camera when Kate was born, he has documented our family’s life, not just birthday parties and anniversaries but smaller, more telling moments.
- Playing With Fire, 1989
- Fugitive Blue, 1993
- Picturing the Wreck, 1996
- Slow Motion, 1998
- Family History, 2003
- Black & White, 2007