Dani Shapiro is the writing mentor I wish I had.
In her memoir – Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life – Shapiro, a writer as well as a teacher of writing, describes the simple act of sitting down to write. How can someone read (let alone write) an entire book about this? Try it, and the simple act of sitting down to write can encompass the entire world.
In chapter-snippets from Reading and Patience to Cigarette Break and Envy, Shapiro explores the formidable space between the desire to write and the repeated act of putting words down on paper.
As a writer-to-be, I have learned many things from her. In this piece, I have shared the three big ones.
Recently, having completed my degree in Creative Writing, having submitted a dissertation of 15,000 words of prose, I had begun to dream big. Publication. My name in print. Interviews. The film adaptation of my masterpiece. I was thinking more about having written a book and less about writing something of value.
Like Shapiro, when she was asked to write a piece for The New Yorker, I was “strangled by my own ego, by my petty desire for what I perceived to be the literary brass ring. I was missing the point, of course. The reward is in the doing.”
It is for this reason, I now realise, that I was stuck. I couldn’t find a path back into my writing. Because I was thinking of the whole book, when it was not yet whole. Far from it.
This brings me to the first lesson:
1. Start small
If you try and capture it all at once – the world you hope to capture on the page, everything you know, every idea you’ve ever had… and the panoply of feelings coursing through you like a river – you’ll be overcome with paralysis.
Yes, that definitely sounded familiar. Because I was thinking of the end first, I was afraid to write. That’s what they call irony. Thinking about writing a book made me unable to write anything that was supposed to go into it.
It’s impossible to evoke an entire world at the start, but it is possible to describe a crack in the sidewalk, the scuffed heel of a shoe. And that sidewalk crack or scuffed heel can be the point of entry, like a pinhole of light, to a story, a character, a universe.
Anchor yourself somewhere – anywhere – on the page. You are committing, yes – but the commitment is to this tiny corner. One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next.
That doesn’t sound so scary. Quite exciting, actually. To see writing as looking for the points of entry, the pinholes of light.
2. Embrace uncertainty. Embrace not knowing.
If you’re sitting down to write something new… if you are thinking: I’m going to write a story about race and class in the American South, told in two voices, and one voice will be the first person, present tense, and the other will be in the third person, past tense, and I will explore themes of longing and regret, oppression and denial, you’re in trouble. These are ideas. They’re the babbling of a writer in the delusional grip of a fantasy that she is in control.
Let go of every should or shouldn’t running through your mind when you start. Be willing to stand at the base of a new mountain, and with humility and grace, bow to it. Allow yourself to understand that it’s bigger than you, or anything you can possibly imagine. You’re not sure of the path. You’re not even sure where the next step will take you. When you begin, whisper to yourself, I don’t know.
This one was hard. It takes humility to admit not knowing. It also takes a fair amount of patience. It means accepting that a lot of what you write may not end up in the finished piece. I don’t know can sound terrifying. But it can also be freeing. I don’t know. There’s only one way to find out.
3. Give yourself permission.
Let’s face it. A writer does not have a regular, or even an acceptable, job. Read about The Strange Rise of the Writers’ Space in the New Yorker, where Evan Hughes describes these writers’ space as “a cocoon that protects its inhabitants from a world where most people regard writing, with some reason, as a peculiar and dubious hobby.”
Accountants go to business school and when they graduate with their degrees, they don’t ask themselves whether they have permission to do people’s taxes. Lawyers pass the bar, medical students become doctors, academics become professors, all without considering whether or not they have a right to be going to work. But nothing and no one gives us permission to wake up and sit at home staring at a computer screen while everybody else sets their alarm clocks, puts on reasonable attire, and boards the train. No one is counting on us, or waiting for whatever we produce.
Ultimately, a writer is someone who writes… There is no magical place of arrival. There is only the solitary self facing the page. It’s strange and challenging, glorious and devastating, this business of being a writer.
We writers are a thin-skinned, anxious lot, and often feel like we’re getting away with something, that we’re going to be revealed, at any moment, for the frauds we really are.
Yes, that’s very true. Since I have found myself writing full-time, free of my 9-5 job, I feel guilty of ‘doing nothing.’ Except, of course, I feel more productive – more alive with ideas and possibilities –than before.
The writing life is a privilege, and not everyone gets to have it.
We writers shape our own days. We sit at our desks in our pajamas. We putter around empty houses, watering plants, making stews in the slow cooker, staring out the window, and we call it “working.” … and at the same time, often we don’t have anything to show for it. we have no guarantee that what we’re doing will amount to anything resembling art.
I try to remember that to sit down and write is a gift. That if I do not seize this day, it will be lost. I think of writers I admire who are no longer living. I’m aware that the simple fact of being here creates a kind of responsibility, even a moral one, to get to work.
Get to work. Yes, like all other jobs, writing is hard work. It is also a skill that requires practice.
“Practice,” Shapiro says, “involves discipline but is more closely related to patience.”
I have this written on a note-card, and have stuck it where I can see it as I sit on my writing desk, so that when I sit down to work, I will remember that writing is both a privilege and responsibility. That what I am doing is worth it. And that with patience, I may write something of value.