January 10, 2014
I grew up the only child of older parents. If I were to give you a list of all the facts of my early life that made me a writer, this one would be near the top. Only child. Older parents. It now almost seems like a job requirement—though back then, I wished it to be otherwise. A lonely, isolated childhood isn’t a prerequisite for a writing life, of course, but it certainly helped.
My parents were observant Jews. We kept a kosher home. On the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday, we didn’t drive, we didn’t turn on lights, or the radio, or television, and I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike, or play the piano, or do homework. This left me with a lot of time to do nothing. Most Saturday mornings, I walked a half-mile to synagogue with my father while my mother stayed home with a sinus headache.
Our house was silent and spotless. Dirt, smudges, noise—any kind of disarray would have been unthinkable. Housekeepers were always quitting. No one could keep the house to my mother’s standards. Every surface gleamed. Picture frames were dusted daily. Sheets and pillowcases were ironed three times a week. My drawers were color-coordinated: blue Danskin tops perfectly folded next to blue Danskin bottoms.
The exterminator came monthly. The toxic mold guy made biannual visits. Summers, the lawn man came every few days with his mower and hedge trimmer, clipping our suburban New Jersey acre into shape.
Control was important. It wasn’t the messiness of life that we were girding ourselves against. Secrets floated through our home like dust motes in the air. Every word spoken by my parents contained within it a hidden hard kernel of what wasn’t being said. Though I couldn’t have expressed it, I knew with a child’s instincts that life was seen by both my parents as a teeming, seething, frightful hall of mirrors. Something had made them scared. They tried to protect me from themselves, from their own histories—das kind, one of them would whisper harshly and they’d stop talking after I entered the room. I loved my parents, but I didn’t want to be like them. I didn’t want to be afraid of life. The trouble was, their way was all I knew.
And so I spent my childhood straining to hear. With no siblings to distract me, I had plenty of time, and eavesdropped and snooped in every way I could devise. I lurked outside doorways, crouched on staircase landings. I fiddled with the intercom system in our house, attempting to tune in to rooms where one or both of my parents might be. I riffled through filing cabinets when my parents were out to dinner and the babysitter was downstairs watching “The Partridge Family.” I haunted my mother’s closets—the cashmere sweaters in individual plastic garment bags, the shoes and purses in their original boxes. What was I hoping to find? A clue. A reason. We had telephones in almost every room, but the one in my mother’s office had a little doohickey that you could lift up, preventing anyone from picking up another extension, and listening in. I noticed that whenever my mother was on the phone, she used it. What was she saying that I wasn’t meant to hear?
I didn’t know that this spying was the beginning of my literary education. That the need to know, to discover, to peel away the surface was a training ground for who and what I would grow up to become. The idea of becoming a writer was more remote to me than becoming an astronaut. I didn’t know any writers. Our neighborhood wasn’t an artistic hotbed. I didn’t draw parallels between the books I loved, and read every night under the covers with a flashlight, and the idea that someone—a woman, say, alone in a room, wrestling with words and thoughts and ideas—could in fact spend her life writing them.
I slunk around like a detective. I learned to hide on the staircase without making a sound. I wanted to unearth the sources of my parents’ pain, though it would be many years before I would begin to understand it. All I knew was this: life seemed sad. It seemed parched, fruitless, devoid of joy. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I began to escape into my room and to write. I discovered my imagination, where I was free of my father’s sorrow, my mother’s headaches. I was free from the sense that my parents were disappointed in each other, and from my fear that they would be disappointed in me. I was free from das kind!, and the Sabbath rules. I closed and locked my bedroom door—take that, parents!—and I made up stories. Sometimes I wrote them as letters to friends. Sometimes I pretended every word was true.
I wondered if I might be crazy.
I had no idea that I was becoming a writer.
Riding the Wave
Here’s a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go on the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination. Do you need to know, right this minute, the exact make and year of the car your character is driving? Do you need to know which exit on the interstate has a rest stop? Can it wait? It can almost always wait. On the list of other, less fancy procrastinations, when your wild surge of energy is accompanied by the urge to leap up from your desk, are: laundry, baking, marketing, filling out insurance claims, writing thank-you notes, cleaning closets, sorting files, weeding, scrubbing, polishing, arranging, removing stains, bathing the dog.
Sit down. Stay there. It’s hard—I know just how hard—and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn’t get easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort. Make some kind of peace with it. Several years ago, I decided to learn how to meditate, though I thought, as many do, that I’d be bad at it: I’m too type A. I can’t sit still. But I needed something that, when I did get up from my desk, would bring me peace and clarity. All of my writer friends have rituals: my friend Jenny runs. John cooks barbecue. Mary swims. Ann knits. These are meditative acts—ones that allow the mind to roam, and ultimately to rest. When I sit down to meditate, I feel much the same way I do when I sit down to write: resistant, fidgety, anxious, eager, cranky, despairing, hopeful, my mind jammed so full of ideas, my heart so full of feelings that it seems impossible to contain them. And yet…if I do just sit there without checking the clock, without answering the ringing phone, without jumping up to make a note of an all-important task, then slowly the random thoughts pinging around my mind begin to settle. If I allow myself, I begin to see more clearly what’s going on. Like a snow globe, that flurry of white floats down.
During the time devoted to your writing, think of the surges of energy coursing through your body as waves. They will come, they will crash over you, and then they will go. You’ll still be sitting there. Nothing terrible will have happened. Try not to run from the wave. If, at one moment, you are sitting quietly at your desk, and then—fugue state alert!— you are suddenly on your knees planting tulips, or perusing your favorite online shopping Web site, and you don’t know how you got there, then the wave has won. We don’t want the wave to win. We want to recognize it, accept its power, and even learn to ride it. We want to learn to withstand those wild surges, because everything we need to know, everything valuable, is contained within them.
Sometimes, when I’m teaching, I’ll start to talk to my students about the nasty little two-timing frenemy of everyone who struggles to put words down on the page—and, without even realizing I’m doing it, I’ll start gesturing to my left shoulder. Never my right, always my left. That’s apparently where my censor sits. She has been in residence on my left shoulder for so many years that it’s a wonder I’m not completely lopsided.
Here are some of the things she whispers, or shouts, depending on her mood, whenever I’m beginning something new:
This is stupid.
What a waste of time.
You really think you can pull that off?
So-and-so did it better.
What a dumb idea.
Are you ready for a nap?
My inner censor wants to shut me down. She wants me to close up shop, like the man in one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, who stands in the left frame, staring out a window looking bored, resigned. This frame is titled “Writer’s Block: Temporary.” The right frame shows him standing in the exact same way; nothing has changed, except now he’s in front of a fish store bearing his name. The title? “Writer’s Block: Permanent.” My censor wants no less than to turn me into a fish salesman. Not that there’s anything wrong with selling fish, except that I don’t know anything about selling fish and am not particularly fond of the way it smells. What I do know–-what I’ve spent the past couple of decades learning about myself—is that if I’m not writing, I’m not well. If I’m not writing, the world around me is slowly leached of its color. My senses are dulled. I am crabby with my husband, short-tempered with my kid, and more inclined to see small things wrong with my house (the crack in the ceiling, the smudge prints along the staircase wall) than look out the window at the blazing maple tree, the family of geese making its way across our driveway. If I’m not writing, my heart hardens, rather than lifts.
And so I have learned how to live with my censor. It doesn’t happen by fighting her. It happens first by recognizing her—oh, hello, it’s you again—and accepting our coexistence. Like those bumper stickers most often seen on the backs of Priuses spelling out coexist in the symbols of all the world’s religions, the writer and her inner censor need to learn to get along. The I.C., once you’re on a nickname basis, should be treated like an annoying, potentially undermining colleague. Try managing her with corporate-speak: Thanks for reaching out, but can I circle back to you later?
The daily discipline of this creates a muscle memory. It becomes ingrained, thereby habit. I try to remember this, each morning, as I make the solitary trek from the kitchen to my desk. My house is quiet. My family is gone. The hours stretch ahead of me. The beds have been made, the dogs have been walked. There is nothing stopping me. Nothing, except for the toxic little troll sitting on my left shoulder. Just when I think I have her beat, she will assume a new disguise. I have to be vigilant, on the ready. She will pretend to be well-intentioned. She’s telling me for my own good.
Maybe you should try writing something more commercial.
You know, thrillers are hot. Why not write a thriller? Or at least a mystery?
Sweetheart (I hate it when she calls me sweetheart) no one wants to read a book about a depressed old man. Or a passive-aggressive mother. Why not write a book with a strong female protagonist, for a change? You know, a superheroine. Someone less…I don’t know…victimy?
Under the guise of being helpful, or honest, my censor is like a guided missile aiming at every nook and cranny where I am at my weakest and most vulnerable. She will stoop and connive. All she wants to do is stop me from entering that sacred space from which the work springs. She is at her most insidious when I am at the beginning, because she knows that once I have begun, she will lose her power over me. And so I dip my toe into the stream. I feel the rush of words there. Words that are like a thousand silvery minnows, below the surface, rushing by. If I don’t capture them, they will be lost.
STILL WRITING © 2013 by Dani Shapiro; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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. Her latest book is Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.