STILL WRITING: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

A book that knocks other books off my shelves and receives five bookmarks instead of four, is a book that slingshots me back to my own page while I’m reading. The author of this kind of book churns up characters, or reveals truths about their own lives in memoir form that are so sharp, my own images and realizations will not quiet until I can get them down, black on white. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is such a book.

Still Writing is a book about craft imbued with the intimacy of a memoir. Dani Shapiro covers her life as a writer and writes for her life. The latter is the way she inspires those of us in the trenches to carry on.

When I read Slow Motion, I realized the most important element of writing was missing from my manuscript. That element was me. I’d been so worried about my protagonist’s relatability and complexity, so focused on skipping the boring parts, pushing the protagonist to extremes to promote change in order to keep tension on every page, I forgot to fuse myself into the character. Without crawling inside my character and getting in sync with her rhythm, readers found my protagonist tiresome, the quintessential dishrag.

To find my way into the character wasn’t easy. Many days I wrote and scratched through more sentences than I kept in my manuscript. What kept me going was the wisdom of Dani Shapiro’s experiences.

Practice involves discipline. But is more closely related to patience. 

The more I tuned up the channel for patience, the more I was able to lower the channel for gimmicks and purple prose. Within the silence of patience, it was much easier to fall with my character into the abyss of the empty white space and rise up hand in hand with story.

Practice and patience isn’t all Shapiro writes about. Still Writing is an excavation into what she has learned as a writer from the beginning and how she plans to continue.

Everything we write will be flawed […] all we know […] is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. […] All we can hope is that […] we won’t succumb to the fear of the unknown […]not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. 

I don’t believe anyone has taken the pressure off of perfection better than that. I can write freely with that outlook. When I read those words my courage rises and a desire to experiment grows. One of the reasons Still Writing is powerful is because Shapiro is able to articulate our fears and crush them. The fears still exist, I don’t believe fears disappear, but Shapiro shows us how to manage them and keep writing.

And what about those sagging middles? Better than providing steps to take, or outlines to follow, Shapiro challenges us to go to the place we’d much rather run from: the truth and heart of the matter.

Middles challenge us to find our tenacity and our patience, to remind ourselves that it is within this struggle—often just at the height of hopelessness, frustration and despair—that we find the most hidden and valuable gifts of the process. Just as in life. 

Each page of Still Writing offers insights into how one writer found her way. Many of the tidbits of advice Shapiro offers have already found their way into my daily practice. But what I love most about this memoir on writing is how she encourages writers to discover the story that forces them to show up and write.

To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain. To scream to it, with it, from it. To know it—to know it cold […] You are facing your demons because they are there. To be alone in a room and the contents of your mind is, in effect to go to that place whether you intend to or not. 

I didn’t want Still Writing to end. Shapiro’s thoughts feel like mine only sharper and clearer. She feels like my pen pal, best friend and muse. She makes me want to be a better writer. Her story is mine and yours; because Dani Shapiro is Everywriter. Benefit from her experience, embrace it, let it guide you back to the page and let the lineage continue. Then celebrate, for today we’re Still Writing.