Often, reviewing a book occurs only in the small space between book and reviewer. Meeting the author is a bonus but usually comes after the review is published when they are touring to promote the book. I was extremely fortunate, then to meet Dani Shapiro this week, before I finished my review. It is the equivalent of getting the answers to your calculus final before you take it. Especially if you’re an English major (actually, my calculus final is why I became an English major). She was at Elliott Bay Book Company to discuss Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, her jewel box of a book about the creative life. She read from the book, an especially poignant piece, “Permission”
If you’re waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you as a writer, you’d better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you’re going to be waiting for a good long while.
She shared that the meaning of the book’s title is that even after being published numerous times she is asked in conversation, “Still writing?” as if it were an awkward phase to be outgrown and that the book had grown out of a blog she started several years ago. When asked how she gets herself back on track she cited her long-term yoga and meditation practice. She cited the internet as a reflexive time waster for even seasoned writers and gave an example of how she jumped from a writing session to researching Biedermeier furniture to a Paris auction house to overdue bills and finally looking at family photos. There was consolation when she pointed out that often this shying away from the work into mental numbing precedes something valuable (but potentially difficult) in the work. Much in the same way that she writes, Shapiro’s persona is quiet but engaging. She engenders conversation and listens, making the evening well worth the frigid cold and hellish parking.
Still Writing is composed of essays divided into three parts: beginnings, middles, ends. Within each part are writings about writing, from the initial desire and practicalities to when the words come and when they are finished. Interspersed are some of the biographical bits from Shapiro’s life that impacted her as memoirist. With prose that is warm and honest, Still Writing strips away any of the fantastical pretenses that for some writers writing is a magical force that flows unchecked and unbidden from their mind. No, it is a daily practice, hard work and much of the output is dreck.
You don’t need to be a writer or aspiring writer to enjoy this book. Yes, it deals with the craft of writing but much of it applies to anyone who creates. In that way, Still Writing is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates or one of the Tsar’s Faberge eggs—so many wonderful things hidden inside. Its physicality mirrors its content—compact enough that it fits in the hand, but opens the mind far beyond the horizon. A beautiful book to be read again and again.