How We Spend Our Days: Dani Shapiro

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 Dani Shapiro:

2007-03-12 09-56-10I awake as I do most mornings to the creak of the stairs, the sound of my husband’s footsteps.  Michael brings me a piping hot cappuccino in my favorite blue-and-white striped china cup.  I roll over in bed.  I’m a little jet-lagged–we’ve just returned to our home in Connecticut from a writers conference out west.   I tossed and turned last night, haunted by unusually vivid images of my parents, both gone now.  Why were they visiting me in my half-sleep? “Five more minutes,” I beg.  But it’s nearly eight o’clock, and the mom of one of my son Jacob’s friends is coming over to pick him up.  I open my eyes–the cappuccino helps–and our two dogs Samson and Zeke are by the bed, waiting for attention.  They’re like Mutt and Jeff: a big fluffy white labradoodle and an ornery little Norwich terrier.  The whole family is up except for me.

Downstairs, we’re still in a summer routine.  Jacob eats cereal at the kitchen table.  “Sponge Bob”–bane of my existence–is blaring on the television.  I put together a tote bag for his day: tennis racket, socks, sneakers, shorts, swimsuit, sunscreen, ipod, earphones.  I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.  Mornings are an attempt to be in mommy-mode and at the same time 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.  The mom arrives with kids in tow–the dogs are overjoyed, leaping off our stone walls in greeting.  A sweet sight: a little girl still in pink pajamas stands in our driveway, her hair in braids.  I wave goodbye, still trying to keep that small bit of myself in reserve.

2009-07-04 17-35-54Michael leaves for his office where he will spend the day writing.  The house is quiet.  I spend the morning hours in my study, catching up.  I write a blog post, since I had fallen behind during our time in Sun Valley.  I answer several emails, some of which require careful composition and thought.  I check items off lists–my mind zinging all over the place.  All the while, I am thinking that I must do something that settles me into myself.  Usually, this involves yoga or meditation.  Recently I have begun to play the piano again, after many years away from it.  I have started to take lessons with Jacob’s piano teacher.  I’m starting slowly, with scales, exercises, arpeggios.  A lovely Sonatina.

It’s nearly lunchtime before I manage to peel myself away from my desk, the tasks at hand.  I have a new book coming out–a memoir called Devotion— along with a new paperback edition of my first memoir Slow Motion–and all this necessitates lots of seemingly small bits of writing which actually require enormous effort.  I rewrite the copy for the back of Slow Motion.  At my editor’s request, I shorten my bio.  I feel as if I’ve gotten nothing done, but in fact all of it has to get done somehow.

2009-07-22 18-04-36Downstairs, to the piano.  The light streams through the living room window behind me.  As I practice, my mind begins to clear.  The concentration on a piece of music–the notes, the fingering, the dynamics of it–makes everything else fall away.  It is not unlike the practice of writing.  An hour disappears.  My mind finally quiet enough to read and to think.

At the end of the day, family life resumes.  The three of us have dinner–casserole leftovers from a Moosewood Cookbook recipe for Michael and me, chicken fingers and pasta for Jacob–and at this time of summer, a Red Sox game is almost always on television.  “Mom, did you see that?  Mom, look at that catch!”  I glance up from my iphone, juggling the competing interests.  These years of having a young child at home, of domestic life, of writing books–these years are full and rich and complicated, and even as the hours pass by too fast, I know one day I will look back at them longingly.


2008-03-14 09-38-02

At Sirenland

1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham.  A memoir with an experimental structure–absolutely brilliant and heart-rending.

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • How you feel about your work on any given day is meaningless.  Show up for it no matter how you feel.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • When I feel completely, utterly fried, I climb onto the bathroom counter and soak my feet in the sink while reading Elle or Vogue.

Books by Dani Shapiro:


Playing With Fire


Picturing the Wreck


Fugitive Blue


Slow Motion


Family History


Black & White

17 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Dani Shapiro

  1. Hey, Cindy!
    Thanks for this–I love it that Dani Shapiro is sitting there at her desk with bare feet and a big dog curled up on the floor. And, it’s always so reassuring–and encouraging, actually–to know that even ‘real’ writers spend much of their day feeling they are squeezing out only a paltry amount of work. And then there’s that piano–I don’t play the piano, but I like the idea of playing an instrument as a passage into settling into oneself. Maybe I’ll pull out my old guitar and re-string it!


  2. Loved this post. It’s reassuring to know that even writers who are well published go through this settling-in process to get down to the writing work. I read BLACK AND WHITE earlier this year and was really drawn into the relationship between the mother and daughter characters and how photography affected their interactions — something I’m hoping to write a post about on my own blog in the future.


  3. “How you feel about your work on any given day is meaningless. Show up for it no matter how you feel.”
    Wise words. My painting professor, and first real mentor, spoke to this issue in a conversation we had 30 years ago, and there have been times when it was the only thing that kept me going. Hung on to it like a life line.
    Another wonderful installment , Cynthia.
    Thank you !


  4. It was a delight to catch a glimpse of Dani’s life. She is such a kind and thoughtful person and it really comes through in how she spends her day. It’s nice to see that even a wonderful writer struggles with time. I just wish I had Micheal to bring me coffee in the morning. He’s a keeper


  5. Calliopespen, I loved reading this again this morning too, holding my mug of coffee. Thanks for your comment.

    Peggy, yes, I was thinking the same thing about the piano, but I don’t have a guitar to pull out or any other musical talents for that matter. With the moments going to phone calls and email and pulls this way and that, it seems so important to have something you can do to bring you back to center.

    Sarah, if you haven’t read Family History, I suggest that one next. Nice to hear from you.

    Dory, oh yes, with your interest in the interplay between images and narrative I can see how you were drawn to Black and White.

    Walt, that advice does tend to keep us focused, and going, doesn’t it? Thanks for adding to the conversation.

    Melissa, such fun to hear from you here! If we’d known about this earlier, we could have asked Michael to make the rounds at Sirenland! Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  6. I completely wandered into the words on this post! Was wonderful! I related completely to need to keep part of oneself stashed away, getting the kids ready, needing to keep in that dream like state where the story is. Thanks.


  7. Jennifer, I agree. Only I never realized until I read this that perhaps that’s what I’m doing by barely speaking and generally keeping my head down in the morning. Anyway, it would be nice if this were the reason instead of that I’m just not very nice at that time of day.


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