Soul Food: Dani Shapiro on the 'Pleasures and Perils' of Reading & Writing

jennyblake_bookshelf What a whirlwind week! I was honored to share the virtual stage with 25 experts last week for the Speak Like a Pro conference, with over 5,500 attendees joining in the fun. If you missed any interviews, check out the show notes here, or grab the entire bundle of transcripts and audio/video files for just $150.

A handful of people commented on my bookshelf and asked what's in each pile—click on the image above to enlarge . . . I tried to capture the stacks as clearly as I could! You can also check out my GoodReads Library where I review my latest reads.

On the subject of reading, writing, and having something interesting to say—I'm only 35 pages in to Dani Shapiro's wonderful book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, and I'm hooked.

I'm not afraid to admit that I'm a shameless, compulsive book buyer and reader . . . but when it comes to writing my next one? I have the attention span of a 3-month old puppy. Can't stay focused to save my life, and that's if I even get started. On most days, the "creative writing" item on my checklist slithers away before I even give myself a chance to complete it.

I have no excuse. Absolutely none. Butt in chair, pick a topic, write. Even just ten minutes a day would be a vast improvement.

To grease the wheels, I've taken to reading a few pages of Shapiro's book each morning for a dose of inspiration and writing motivation. Below are some of my favorite passages . . . and I'm not even past the book's first section. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!

Excerpts from Dani Shapiro's Still Writing

On writing as a metaphor and mirror for life:

The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.

We are all unsure of ourselves. Every one of us walking the planet wonders, secretly, if we are getting it wrong. We stumble along. We love and we lose. At times, we find unexpected strength, and at tother times, we succumb to our fears. We are impatient. We want to know what’s around the corner, and the writing life won’t offer us this. It forces us into the here and now. There is only this moment, when we put pen to page.

The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego—and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude. No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. Isn’t this true for most of us?

On riding the waves of procrastination and resistance:

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.

. . . 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.

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 will 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, the wave has won. We don’t want the wave to win. We want to recognize it, accept it’s 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.

On dealing with your Inner Censor:

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 place 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.

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?

Why it helps to set out to write "a short bad book":

Here goes nothing. It's my version of telling myself that I'm going to write a short, bad book. Here goes nothing. The more we have at stake, the harder it is to make the leap into writing. The more we think about who's going to read it, what they're going to think, how many copies will be printed, whether this magazine or that magazines will accept it for publication, the further away we are from accomplishing anything alive on the page.

Writing as a jigsaw puzzle:

Build a corner. That’s what people who are good at puzzles do. They ignore the heap of colors and shapes and simply look for straight edges. They focus on piecing together one tiny corner.

. . . 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.

Our life is our story—on finding your next great subject:

That knowledge, that ping, the hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note: I'll have to write about this. It can happen in a split second, or as a slow dawning. It happens when our histories collide with the present. When it arrives, it's unmistakable, indelible. It comes with the certainty of its own rightness.

. . . When we stumble upon it, we know. We know because it shimmers. And if you are a writer, you will find that you won’t give up that shimmer for anything. You live for it. Like falling in love, moments that announce themselves as your subject are rare, and there’s a magic to them. Ignore them at your own peril.

Even (perhaps especially) professional writers are a "thin-skinned, anxious lot":

Press many of us—including those you’d think might have moved beyond this—and you will discover that we can quote you the most painful passages from our worst reviews. We can give you a list of critics who are dismissive of our work. On some mornings, these rejections, reviews, enemies seem to stand between us and our work like a mutant army. Who are you to give yourself permission to write? They seem to shout. 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, as the frauds we really are.

On the joys and benefits of reading:

Fill your ears with the music of good sentences, and when you finally approach the page yourself, that music will carry you. It will remind you that you are a part of a vast symphony of writers, that you are not alone in your quest to lay down words, each one bumping against the next until something new is revealed. It will exhort you to do better. To not settle for just good enough. Reading great work is exhilarating. It shows us what’s possible. When I start the morning with any one of the dozens of books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

Thank you for spending some of your precious time here with me. If you liked the excerpts above, grab a copy of Shapiro's Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life.

I'd love to hear from you in the comments:

How do you structure and stay committed to your creative time?