It’s okay to be between things

Dani Shapiro wrote a blog post this week about being between things. Her latest book Devotion (it has my recommendation) hit the shelves recently, and since she’s just starting to write something new, she’s uncomfortable when people ask what she’s working on. She writes:

It’s hard to promote a book and work on a new one at the same time. Hard — but not impossible. Just the other day, I had a glimmer of an idea for a new novel. And a non-fiction book I plan to tackle too… But I also have to allow my interior life to settle. A writer who has finished a book is a bit like a snow globe all shaken up. It needs to float back down again, to allow for the possibility of clarity.

It’s okay to be between things. To rest… To take walks. To read, read, read. To trust that there will be another book, and another, and another. To have faith in the process by which the imagination asserts itself — in its own way, in its own time.

This resonated with me because I’m between things, too. I recently completed my manuscript. I’m far from bored; I’m looking for both a job and a literary agent. But while I have hopes and dreams for the future, I don’t know exactly what will come next.

Being between things is not something I’m good at. For most of my life, I’ve known what would come next. I’ve jumped from college to graduate school, from grad school to a job, from a job to traveling in Africa. I’ve always planned out my next step. Coming home from Africa was the first time I didn’t know what was next, and even then I quickly decided to write my book.

Now, as much as I’ve positioned myself to succeed in this next phase, I don’t know exactly what it will be. And that makes me feel anxious. Like, as Dani says, a globe all shaken up.

I know I’m in the process of floating down again, of waiting to land. When I do, I’ll probably look back at this and think, that wasn’t so bad. Things turned out how I hoped — or perhaps in another way, for good reason. Isn’t that how life always looks in retrospect?

Until then, I need to remind myself that it’s okay to be between things. I’m resting. Resting up for what’s next.

Mark your calendar: Twitter chat with author Dani Shapiro

Are you reading Dani Shapiro‘s new memoir, Devotion?

I am! I am! Had to buy it after interviewing Dani earlier this month. Partly because I wished I had a book club to discuss it with, I asked Dani if she’d be interested in visiting a vitual book club, through a Twitter chat. She agreed!


When: Sunday, February 21

Time: 8 – 9 p.m. EST

Where: Twitter! Use #Devotion to chime in.

How: Never chatted before on Twitter? Check out this post about how to participate in a Twitter chat. I recommend using Tweetchat.

Bring questions for Dani! We’ll introduce her and then open it up to readers. And bring friends, too!

TRANSCRIPT: Miss the chat? Read the transcript!

Discovering how to tell the story

Author Dani Shapiro said something in Monday’s interview that struck a chord with me:

The art of memoir isn’t in discovering what happened, but rather, in how to tell the story.

If she’d told me this before I wrote my memoir, I wouldn’t have believed her. Memoir is largely about recounting what happened during a life span. In my case, my travel memoir recounts my experiences over a six-month period. How many ways are there to write about what happened during those six months?

But as I moved forward with this project, the more I wrote and revised, I watched my book turn into something I didn’t expect. The premise — a woman traveling solo through Africa — hasn’t changed; it’s still what I envisioned from the beginning. But where it begins, how it ends and the parts I decided to leave out — most of that was unexpected. I knew what happened, but I didn’t know how I would write the story. I had to get it down on paper to see where it took me.

I remember walking in the woods with a writer named Andrew during my residency at Hambidge. He told me that he had sat in front of his computer the night before to rewrite a chapter, and his character did something he didn’t expect. The surprise had something to do with death — the character had died one way in the first few drafts, and then, suddenly, it seemed he wanted to die differently.

This was all fine and dandy, but Andrew was writing fiction. That will never happen to me, I thought. I’m writing memoir. I always know where the story’s going.

But the next morning — the very next morning — it happened. I typed on my keyboard, trying to figure out how my second chapter would begin, and out spewed a scene that I’d never considered including in my book. It’s about my sister and I, looking at a map of Africa in her apartment, the first time I told her exactly where I planned to go. “What if you get malaria again?” she asked, reminding me of my bout with the illness during my first trip to Cameroon.

That scene works. It still opens Chapter Two. (Although I can’t promise an editor won’t nix it along the way.) And I had no idea it would be part of my manuscript.

Other things reveal themselves through memoir, too — things that are bigger and more important than a scene. While writing this book, I’ve made connections, had realizations and drawn conclusions about my trip, the people I met and myself, ideas I never would have come up with had I not taken the time to reflect with purpose.

Writing a memoir is a journey of self-discovery. You may already know what happened, but in discovering how to tell the story, you’ll also discover pieces of yourself.

What have you discovered through your writing?

Dani Shapiro on Devotion, memoir & evolving as a writer

Back in July, I read an essay about the making of memoir by an author named Dani Shapiro. She really impressed me, both because she offered insight into the genre and because her piece was so beautifully written.

Author Dani Shapiro

Then I heard she was about to publish another memoir. And I thought, I want to read that as soon as it comes out.

Well, it’s out. Devotion is now available in stores. (Buy it here!) And even better, Dani is with us today to talk about her book, her career as a writer and other tips like how to turn scenes from your book into magazine pieces.

Dani has published seven books: five novels and two memoirs. She also keeps a great blog.

Welcome, Dani! Can you start out by telling us about your new book, Devotion?

Devotion is a memoir about my search for something to believe. I grew up in a very religious (Orthodox Jewish) family, and I found the rules stultifying. My father was the religious one, and my mother reluctantly went along for the ride — my parents fought about religious beliefs all the time, and how to raise me, in particular. It left me feeling very alienated from the whole idea of having a spiritual life.

Dani Shapiro's new book

But then I found myself, in my early forties, feeling a vague, discomfiting sense of longing for… I didn’t know what. Deeper meaning. A way of slowing down and perceiving the world. Also, I had become a mother and my son was asking me the big questions about God, death, afterlife — he wanted to know what I believed, and I didn’t know what to tell him. So I spent a couple of years exploring and living inside of those big questions, but in a very personal way.

Devotion isn’t a book about looking outside of myself, or traveling to faraway lands, in search of answers. It’s about staying very much inside my own life and seeing what it had to teach me. Along the way, I met and became close to a Buddhist, a yogi, and a rabbi, all of whom are extraordinary teachers. I learned so much from each of them, and began to see that the all-or-nothing way I had been raised had led me to exactly that: nothing. And that it is possible to build a spiritual life, to piece it together like patchwork.

(Note from Lexi: Check out Dani’s book trailer for Devotion. It’s one of the best I’ve seen. Her choice of background music and the way she tells the story in her own voice works beautifully.)

You already wrote one memoir, Slow Motion, published ten years ago. Why write another?

Devotion and Slow Motion are such completely different books. Slow Motion is a memoir about my twenties. Devotion is a memoir about my forties. I think each is emblematic, in a certain way, of what those life stages are all about.

You’ve also written a handful of novels. How do you approach memoir differently than fiction?

The art and craft of each form dictates the approach. In memoir, the writer knows what happened. The art of memoir isn’t in discovering what happened, but rather, in how to tell the story. What pieces to leave in, what to leave out, and why — all in service of crafting a story out of memory. In writing fiction, the imagination is the primary tool. The world is wide open. The writer assumedly doesn’t know the story — and part of the great discovery when writing fiction is the way in which the story reveals itself.

You write a lot of essays for magazines. Why? You enjoy it? The income? Book promotion? Have you developed contacts at all these publications over the years, or do you still pitch some of them cold? Got any advice on what sorts of pieces work best in short form? Or on convincing magazines to run book excerpts?

I’ve always written a lot of essays for magazines, because I enjoy the essay form, and it’s also a good source of income which has supplemented my book advances and teaching over the years. And when I have a book coming out, I tend to write for magazines more, because it’s a good way to create more publicity for the book. I haven’t pitched a magazine cold in years — but that’s because I spent many years when I was first starting out meeting lots of editors and I have friends or colleagues at most magazines I want to write for. So if I have an idea, I call them, or my agent does.

I think personal essays that work best in the sort form tend to be scene-based and about one thing — not to be reductive, but sometimes I see writers trying to cram a book’s worth of ideas into a two thousand word essay, and it just doesn’t work. The essay form is like a piece of music. Writers who want to write essays should study the various lengths and deconstruct what works and why. What does a nine hundred word essay look like? A five hundred word essay? Or twenty-five hundred? They’re all different animals. They require different pacing.

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Dani Shapiro: the making of a memoir

If you read this blog regularly, you know I don’t often simply link to an article or blog post. I believe in creating new content. (Or, in the case of Writers’ Roundup, giving you many links to choose from.)

But this Los Angeles Times piece by Dani Shapiro about the making of a memoir was so good I couldn’t resist. Not only is it beautifully written, prompting me to add her book, Slow Motion, to my ever-growing must-read list, Shapiro also offers insight into the art of writing memoir.

A snippet from her column:

I began to sift through my memory to find the shape of the story. This remembering was a delicate alchemy: part archaeology, part forensics and — perhaps the most important part — a powerful creative urge to take that time in my life, those ashes, that sadness and self-destruction, and turn it into something larger and universal. To find the narrative in the tragedy. To make art out of loss.

But what was this art? I discovered that memoir is not a document of fact. It isn’t a linear narrative of what happened so much as a document of the moment in which it is written.

Read the entire article. It’s worth it.