Dani Shapiro is the author of two remarkable memoirs, Slow Motion and Devotion.
Slow Motion is the story of a twenty-three year old woman’s late awakening to adult responsibilities. When her parents have a terrible car wreck in New Jersey, Shapiro is at a health spa in southern California, a jaunt paid for by her lover, a married man twice her age. Shapiro emerges from her alcohol and drug addled life to discover that the blessing is next to the wound.
Devotion is a “spiritual detective story,” a personal exploration of varieties of seeking and different kinds of devotion — among them, motherhood and daughterhood. With its appropriation of wisdom gleaned from spiritual resources as diverse as Shapiro’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing to yoga shalas and Buddhist meditation retreats, Devotion tracks the dialectical movements from fear to human faith. For her readers, Dani Shapiro’s spiritual journey home is uniquely hers and yet somehow universal in the way it opens a space to let our own lives speak.
With her husband–award-winning author, journalist, and screenwriter, Michael Maren–Shapiro is one of the founders of Sirenland, one of the top rated international writer’s conferences. Set in Positano at Le Sirenuse, a five star hotel on the Amalfi coast of Italy, Sirenland offers thirty lucky writers an opportunity to work with Shapiro, Jim Shepherd, Hannah Tinti, Susan Orlean and other gifted writers in a picturesque setting. Applications for Sirenland 2012 open September 15, 2011, close on October 31, and can be accessed here: http://sirenland.net/
(Disclosure: I attended Sirenland and worked with Dani Shapiro on my own memoir, in March 2011. This interview is dedicated to the other nine members of Dani Shapiro’s workshop, and to the other remarkable writers, teachers, Le Sirenuse owners & staff, and family members who helped make Sirenland 2011 so memorable and magical and –gp.)
Dani Shapiro, welcome to The Nervous Breakdown.
There is something invasive about memoirs. The irony is that the memoirist is the one disturbing the peace. Slow Motion is replete with details about personal conflicts you have known. You describe being conflicted about your looks, your abuse of drugs and alcohol, your Jewishness, your family, (particularly with your mother). You dropped out of college and had a long term affair with a married man, the father of your college roommate—a “famous” and flamboyant attorney in New York named “Lenny Klein” in the book, though readers can do a Google search and quickly discover his true identity. His term of endearment for you is “Fox,” though he keeps several other mistresses, as you discover. There is a scene, late in the novel, where you describe having sex with this man. You’re twenty-three, he’s forty-six. He has “a soft, jowly face and a thick neck.” His stomach “bulges softly through his suspenders.” He drives you to a small inn where you have sex. He’s wearing a black hairweave. His stubble scratches your face, his breath is garlicky, and you turn your head to the side during sex to keep from gagging. The scene is repellent, and is meant to be.
On page 222, after a scene where Lenny’s daughter calls you a whore, you write:
“I head home in a daze, the word whore ringing in my ears. I walk across the park, hating myself. She’s right. I’ll never live this down. No matter what I do, what I accomplish, for the rest of my life, this will never go away.”
Do you still feel this way?
So interesting. Just today, I had long conversation with the filmmaker David Rosenthal, who is adapting Slow Motion—not the first adaptation of Slow Motion over the years, but one I have high hopes for, as I think he’s really gifted. I spent hours on the phone with David this afternoon talking about that time in my life, and at one point I realized that I rarely think about those events. It would be too easy to say that it’s as if they happened to another person. Rather, I would say that we are multiple people over the course of our own lives, we grow and change in ways that we can’t know from where we stand in the present. When I was twenty-three years old, and had that terrible confrontation with Lenny’s step-daughter, I was at a low point (to say the least) and at that moment I likely felt I would never live it down, that it would never go away. By the time I wrote Slow Motion, in my early thirties, I think I knew that I had already lived long and well enough to live it down. That I didn’t want it to go away, but in fact, I wanted it to inform the woman I was growing into becoming. I couldn’t have written Devotion without having written Slow Motion. In many ways, Devotion and Slow Motion are in dialogue for me. My forty-something self reaching out to my twenty-something self. Time becomes very porous and at the same time frozen when one writes memoir. The story itself is encased in amber – this is what I know now about who I was then. That, of course, is mutable. It continues to shift and change with every passing day. I often think that the distance between the teller and the tale is the tale itself.
Why do you write memoir?
I love the form. I began as a novelist, and consider myself a novelist first—though I’m probably better known for my memoirs—but there is (potentially) great dignity in excavating a story out of a life. In creating a coherent narrative where one might not otherwise exist. I didn’t have, in certain respects, an easy childhood or early adulthood, and one of the biggest gifts of my life is that I’ve been able to attempt to transform some of that suffering into story. To attempt to make art out of chaos is a tremendous privilege. To paraphrase the poet Jane Kenyon, the poem (or the memoir, which shares with poetry its confessional aspect) is like one hand reaching out to another and saying, me too. I’ve been there too.
You’ve written two memoirs. They differ greatly in form, and to some extent in content, though Devotion picks up several narrative threads of your first memoir, Slow Motion. What challenges does writing multiple memoirs present, and do you plan to write another?
Several years ago, when I realized that my next book (after my last novel, Black & White) was not going to be another novel, but that I felt compelled to write a second memoir, it was with quite a bit of trepidation. Another memoir? Why another memoir? Slow Motion had been a dramatic story, and in writing it, I was to some degree trying to write the definitive account of that which had been haunting me, which is to say, my parents’ car crash, how lost I was at the time, and how—in a strange, painful way—their accident was the very thing that woke me up, that saved me. The thought that I would ever write another memoir had never entered my mind until…well, until the moment that it did. Devotion quite literally announced itself to me in neon. I saw the word Devotion while in the midst of my yoga practice one day, and realized that I had to write about the spiritual conflict I found myself facing in midlife. Believe me, the thought of another memoir, much less a spiritual memoir, was nothing short of horrifying. But then I found, as I wrote Devotion, that it was wholly different from my first memoir, that it was another kind of animal entirely. And now, I would say that, if I live long enough, I’d like to write a third memoir some day, a completion of a trilogy. I’ve written a memoir of my 20’s, of my 40’s – and it seems I’ll have more to say later. As my friend the Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein said to me when I finished Devotion, “you’ve written a book about what you know now.” We can only know what we know now. Hopefully, I’ll know more, later.
You’ve published novels and short stories, as well as memoirs. How, in the writing, does memoir differ from a novel?
The impetus and the tools and the whole way of approaching the page are quite different. In fiction, the muscle used most is the imagination. I often don’t know where I’m going. I’m in a dark room, arranging the furniture, which I don’t even know is there until I bump into it. But memoir is driven by memory. As a journalist friend of mine once told me as I began to write Slow Motion, “you know what happened”. And if you know what happened, the art of the telling isn’t what happened, but the how and the why. And the associations that memory makes, the connections between present and near-past and distant past. Now, it may seem obvious that memoir is driven by memory, but in many ways I think the contemporary reader forgets this, and thinks that memoir is meant to be a facsimile, rather than the complex, delicate dance of the now and the then, the intricacies of memory. Our memories are fallible, changeable. I’ve often thought that a great oeuvre for a writer might be to write the same memoir every decade or so.
In Devotion you describe your Orthodox Jewish upbringing, and how Buddhist spirituality has been of help to you on your journey of faith. What does it mean to you to be Jewish, and do you identify as a “Jewish writer?” Has this changed since the publication of Devotion? I note that you are frequently invited to give talks to Jewish groups. What is this like for you?
I’ve never thought of myself as a Jewish writer any more than I’ve thought of myself as a female writer, or an east coast writer, or a mother writer, or any of the terms that might define me. I think those terms—when one applies them to oneself—can be very limiting. My Jewishness is woven into the fabric of my being. Hebrew prayer was the music of my childhood. It is what most connects me to my long-dead father, who I adored. Observance (or lack thereof) was a central conflict of my early life. My parents fought constantly, a tug-of-war between my observant father and secular mother. And so of course it’s a part of my work, because I am my only instrument, and that instrument has been shaped by my history. However, to define myself as a writer feels alienating. I don’t want to think of myself as a Jewish writer or a female writer, or a mother writer, and so forth. I fear it potentially creates a self-consciousness that is dangerous to the work itself. Devotion, it turns out, is a very Jewish book. It’s been embraced by a whole generation of young reform Rabbis as a modern story of Jewish seeking. But as I was writing it, I didn’t know that would be the case. In fact, as I was working on Devotion, I worried that no one would read it, because it was such a crazy quilt of everything I was thinking about: Judaism, Buddhism, yoga philosophy, the works of thinkers ranging from Thomas Merton to Thoreau to Abraham Joshua Heschel. But I tried not to think about it. And then the book came out and readers from many different backgrounds embraced it. As for speaking quite regularly to Jewish groups, it’s an interesting and quite moving experience for me. I left my strict Orthodox upbringing, moved far away from it—never to return—but at the same time I’ve written a book that is helpful to a lot of Jewish seekers, and has become a sort of underground text passed from hand to hand in certain communities. Given that, as a young girl, I wasn’t allowed (as no women were allowed) to read from the Torah, or even to be in the immediate presence of the Torah, it was a mighty struggle for me to give myself permission to write about spiritual matters at all. When I look out at a Jewish audience at a speaking engagement, sometimes I wish (or perhaps imagine) that my father is watching me. And I can only hope he’d approve.
Devotion is marked by what I would call “appropriations” from Buddhism and other faith traditions, which are then “re-contextualized” and offered as insight to perplexed Westerners. Jacques Derrida and other philosophers make the point that every act of appropriation may also be an act of violence, as meanings shift in translation. “Everyone reads from somewhere,” and appropriation may be unavoidable, but does it concern you that Westerners, in their haste to appropriate, may not be aware of how things are wrenched out of context? How do your appropriations differ, say, from those like Thich Naht Hanh, who is working in the other direction, from East to West?
I was looking for wisdom that spoke to me. It was liberating not to be concerned—for the first time in my life—about where it came from. I had always secretly held the belief that people who appropriated, who took (stole, wrenched, appropriated) a little bit from here, a little bit from there, were nothing more than spiritual dabblers and dilettantes, not serious, not committed to a path. But the further I explored, I found that the teachers and thinkers who spoke most vividly to me were ones who did appropriate, who felt no confusion or conflict in doing so. Who believed that spiritual paths are built, not prescribed. That was a revelation to me. And one that has altered the way that I think and live. Isn’t it all, ultimately, about living a moral and meaningful life? Or perhaps I should ask: shouldn’t it be?
Did writing Slow Motion open you up to write fiction in a new way?
Very much so. A big part of the impetus to write Slow Motion came from the sneaking suspicion that my history was haunting my fiction, and not in a good way. I started to become aware that in each of my three early novels, there was a “crash” of some kind, a sudden accident. That my own story was somehow in charge, and was leaking into my work. I wasn’t in control of it. And I wanted to feel more of a sense of control, of being the conductor of an orchestra, as it were. So I decided to write that story, for once and for all, as memoir. And that sneaking suspicion of mine turned out to be very true. I think my subsequent novels after Slow Motion—Family History and Black & White—are more mature works of fiction, and that owes a lot to my having written Slow Motion. It was a dividing line. As perhaps Devotion will be too, though that remains to be seen.
In a recent New York Times article, you muse about your twelve your old son, and worry quite publicly about how he will react if and when he reads Slow Motion, and other confessional writing you have done. Ironically, The New York Times, with its huge online circulation, reaches far more readers than Slow Motion ever will. Why did you want to write that article in the Times?
Hah. Of course you’re pointing that out. And yes, I was certainly aware of that as I worked on the essay. After the essay was published in the Times, I actually spent quite a bit of time managing my Facebook page, because what hadn’t occurred to me is that my son, who is on Facebook, would likely see all the lovely people posting congratulatory notes about the piece on my page! And so I kept on deleting those nice comments. The truth is that, had my son read the piece, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Otherwise, I certainly wouldn’t have written it. I know that some day (hopefully a long time from now) he will probably read Slow Motion. He’s not going to read it now, at age twelve. But I wanted to write about the dilemma that faces writers who are parents. To what degree (if at all) do we censor ourselves? It felt important enough, necessary enough.
Are you at work on a new novel? Do you think of yourself as a memoirist or a novelist, or in those terms at all?
I began a new novel and then—one hundred plus pages into it, I realized that I had to put it aside. It was a novel driven by an idea (rather than by its characters) and the idea sort of ran out of gas. I was devastated for a while, and then recovered, which is what happens. Recently I wrote a short story centered on two of the characters from that novel. I’ve been writing quite a bit of non-fiction lately. Essays, book reviews. But my next project is actually a book called Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of the Creative Life. It’s based on the blog I’ve been keeping for the last few years, which has attracted a really nice following of writers and others, because I try to write honestly about process, being stuck, permission, procrastination, the myth of inspiration, betrayal, courage…all the things we writers face in one way or another every day. I never thought about writing a book along those lines, but it kept cropping up. People kept writing to me and asking me if I was going to do a book. So now I am. It should be out in 2013.
How do you account for the success of Sirenland?
Ah, Sirenland. It’s been one of my life’s great, unexpected gifts. I never set out to start a writers’ conference. If you had asked me, ten years ago, if I would ever want to found and direct one, I would have absolutely said no. But the opportunity presented itself about six years ago, to my husband and myself, and it was too wonderful to pass up. As to the success, I would say that my husband, Hannah Tinti and myself have all spent a lot of time over the years teaching at other conferences, and we had a pretty good idea of what we did and didn’t want. Sirenland is all about the teaching. It’s all about the writing. We don’t invite agents or editors, because the presence of the “business” of writing changes the atmosphere. It makes people anxious and competitive. Sirenland is not hierarchical. We bring in the very best writers and teachers we know. It’s a deeply creative endeavor. It helps that the setting itself, and the hotel Le Sirenuse, is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and is itself staffed by the loveliest, most nurturing people. We’ve seen Sirenland change people’s lives. And that’s really what makes us all—Michael, Hannah, Jim and Karen Shepard, and myself—keep coming back year after year. It’s incredibly satisfying.
Did you always want to be a writer? Can you imagine yourself doing anything else?
The only two other professions that have ever entered my mind are: psychoanalyst and rabbi. Make of that what you will.
Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, and has been widely anthologized. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University, and she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.