Dani Shapiro On How Writing Saved Her Life — & How It Can Save Yours

It may feel like we’re living in times when the written word is both more weaponised and endangered than ever before. But it’s also during such fraught and urgent periods that new, sometimes developing voices have the chance to emerge and be heard. Post election or pre-Revolution, conflict, whether in your home or on your screens, can ultimately crack open the space for discussion and introspection.
Writing needn't always be so heavy, but if it carries a personal role in your life, you might turn to Dani Shapiro for guidance. Having penned five books, including two best-selling memoirs and her latest, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage (out this month in paperback), she’s also devoted much of her writerly life to the development of other emerging voices, teaching at Columbia, Wesleyan, NYU, and at conferences around the world. She also co-founded Sirenland Writers Conference.
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Somehow, amid all that, Shapiro also manages to squeeze in time to review the work and books of other gifted authors and write essays in places like The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. Here, she shares more about Hourglass, her relationship with her mentor, the late Grace Paley, as well as why a so-called cave could be a writer’s greatest asset.
Essay writing, op-eds, memoirs have all become such important mediums these days. They’ve always been important, but why do you think now is such a critical time to tell and hear personal stories, and through such a variety of mediums?
“Personal stories humanise us. They remind us that we are more alike than different. They illuminate the fact that we all experience heartache, love, grief, despair, shame, longing, ambition, joy — you name it. In a world in which so many of us often feel less connected, even disconnected, stories which are brave — by which I mean, stories in which the writer dares to tell the truth of herself — make us feel less alone.”
You wrote Still Writing, a book about writing, which I loved (and follow, as a developing essay writer myself). It's about writing, yes, but also the life that comes along with choosing creativity as a practice. Tell me what your theory is here?
“I’m so glad you loved Still Writing. I began blogging about the creative life about 10 years ago, and the book really grew out of that original blog. As I say in the book, writing saved my life. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. It allowed me to come to know myself, and to develop qualities that are essential to any artist, but also essential to any human being: courage, persistence, the ability to endure, to withstand rejection, to overcome resistance, to persevere in the face of indignity, to make meaning out of difficult situations, to cultivate a compassionate heart — these all deepen and develop when creativity becomes a practice.”
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You’ve written a lot regarding “the cave.” What is the cave all about?
“Ah, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cave recently! You know, our world becomes noisier with each passing day. We’re all deluged by email, the 24-hour work cycle, not to mention the 24-hour news cycle, images on social media, the sense of FOMO forever present — I could go on — and what is the artist, or any creative person, supposed to do with all this noise? How do we quiet down our minds enough to produce work that is clear, deep, and unconfused? I think of this as going into the cave. The work gets done in there. It’s very hard to go in — especially if one has been out in the bright light for a while. So much stimulation! So much excitement and distraction! But the best work happens in the dark. It’s trickier than ever, these days — and I admit I come out of the cave more frequently than I wish. But, as our world evolves, artists are required to evolve as well. So, I learn tricks and methods of keeping my focus deep, and my time sacred, during the hours of quiet. We all need to learn to protect what matters most to us.”

Personal stories humanise us. They remind us that we are more alike than different.

Dani Shapiro
One thing you talk about in this book is guides — people who are mentors or coaches. I believe so deeply in this, but why do you think it's so important to find someone to push you at various points of your writing life, specifically other women?
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“I would be nowhere without the women who came before me — those who were role models, those who mentored me, those who saw my potential before I ever did. I didn’t grow up with role models, and boy did I need them. I still do, even as I am a mentor and teacher to so many. A realisation I’ve had in the last few years is that some of my greatest ‘mentors’ were not women I ever knew. Virginia Woolf, for instance, has been tremendously important to me. I dip into her A Writer's Diary, which I keep on my desk, and often feel I’m in a dialogue with her. I think that, as women, we still continue to undervalue our own worth, to undersell ourselves, and it takes another woman to give us a sense of what’s possible in order to be able to dare, to take a flying leap.”
You write beautifully about one of your mentors in college, the late and very extraordinary Grace Paley. What did you learn from her and why do you think it was important to learn it at that time?
“Well, as I said, I didn’t have role models growing up. I was an only child, and had an extremely difficult mother, and very little family to speak of. When I got to Sarah Lawrence, which was where I met Grace, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. Here was a woman who was a brilliant writer, a social activist, a college professor, a wife, a mother, a citizen, a friend, and she seemed to be able to be all of those things with no contradiction. I don’t know that I could have articulated it at the time, but I think it was the beginning of an understanding, for me, of what was possible in life. I didn’t know it was possible for me, of course — just possible. That was enough.”
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Writing can be a practice, good or bad, of finding yourself. It's not always about the end game: a published story, but more about the process. Tell me, what does “riding the wave” mean to you?
“I actually don’t think writing can ever be about the end game. If a writer sets out with too much ambition — even the ambition to publish a story — she’s already apt to get in her own way. I remember the first time I received an assignment from The New Yorker, to write a memoir piece, I panicked and couldn’t get anything done for months, because I kept imagining my piece in the magazine before I had written a word of it. Riding the wave has to do with giving in to the process. We don’t know where the wave, or the line or words, is going to take us. But, in order to write a first draft of anything, there needs to be a willingness to go where it wants to take you — not where you want to take it.”
Photo: Courtesy of Kwaku Alston.
Your latest book Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage puts into practice (at least from our end!) so much of what you talk about in Still Writing. Why did you want to write a book about your relationship? Is that what you think Hourglass is about?
“When I had the first glimmers of what would eventually become Hourglass, I was most interested in time — in what time does to us, the accretion of it, the speed of it, the sense that all the selves we've ever been are still alive within us. I became very interested in my younger selves, and had all these old diaries — high up on a shelf in my office — that I had kept from the time I was 16 or 17 — and I had wondered again and again why I hadn’t burned them. I certainly didn’t want anyone to read them, and felt squeamish, truthfully ashamed, so disconnected from the girl I had been. I wanted to revisit her, to see if now I could have compassion for her.
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“And while I was exploring some of those ideas, it dawned on me that marriage, or a long relationship, is a fantastic way of exploring time. What is it to walk alongside another person over years, decades, to grow with — or against — that person? My husband and I have been together for more than 20 years, and we each have grown and formed ourselves in relation to one another, in so many ways. Wendell Berry calls this ‘the troubles of duration’ — I wanted to write about the troubles and the beauty of duration.”

In order to write a first draft of anything, there needs to be a willingness to go where it wants to take you — not where you want to take it.

Dani Shapiro
Mary Karr writes very boldly, I think, about how crucial it is to tell your story, regardless of whom it might hurt. We are here to tell the truth about our stories, and occasionally that means other people’s stories by association. Since Hourglass is so personal, did you feel concerned about sharing that intimacy with an audience?
“It’s funny, I started my writing life as a novelist. I had written and published three novels before I wrote my first memoir Slow Motion. And then I returned to fiction. But, in the last decade, I have written non-fiction and memoir almost exclusively. Slow Motion was about my tumultuous twenties. Devotion is about a spiritual crisis and journey. Still Writing is about the writing life, but is still very personal. And then Hourglass, [is] about my marriage, at least in part. So, I guess you could say I’ve become accustomed to writing about very intimate matters. But crafting personal stories into memoir does not make me feel ‘exposed’ as many people think. Quite the opposite. Writing memoir is an act of control; it’s picking and choosing precisely what belongs in a story; it’s shaping order out of chaos, making meaning out of randomness. It’s one of the greatest pleasures I know.”
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What are some of your rituals for writing? Any do's and dont’s?
“I have so many rituals! First, I meditate each morning for 20 minutes, using an app I love called Insight Timer. I have crystals I arrange in a particular way, and essential oils I use, and even an essential oil diffuser in the room where I sit in silence. This sets me up for a writing day, by quieting my mind. I also use an app called Freedom on my laptop when I’m working, which shuts off the internet and email. It’s all about finding a way to deepen the quiet, to cut loose from the overstimulation I mentioned earlier. In terms of don’ts: Don’t make breakfast or lunch dates. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t check your email. Find ways to be alone with your own heart and mind.”
If someone reading this has always wanted to write, but has been afraid or been told they couldn't, or they simply can't because of time restrictions or circumstances, what would you tell them?
“Goethe has a great quote about taking action: 'Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.' Resistance to writing can take so many forms. Usually, at its deepest levels, it has to do with fear. The inner censor, which I explore in depth in Still Writing, takes on many guises. You can’t do it; this is dumb; someone else has already done it; what will people think? It’s useful to know that every writer at work has these same feelings. There isn’t a single piece of writing I’ve ever published that didn’t begin with a sense that, This time, I won’t be able to pull it off. Sit down anyway. Just begin.”
I'm sure you're already working on something next. Can you share anything you have in the works?
“Shortly after I finished Hourglass, in a sequence of time that will forever mystify me, I stumbled upon a truly massive family secret. I had no choice but to begin to explore it in the best way I know how, which is to write a book about it. I’ve never moved from one book to the next so quickly, but I was obsessed and compelled. So, I am now in the revision process, and my new memoir INHERITANCE will be published by Knopf next spring!”
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