Saturday, March 1, 2014

Still Reading Still Writing

The view from my writing desk
We are adrift in snow.  For the past three days, flakes have fallen steadily, without cessation, turning my driveway into an obstacle course, the streets into amusement-park rides.  Cars parked curbside are no longer recognizable as anything but half-oval bumps in a blank white landscape.  Today's newspaper headline reads "Pummeling to continue," warning us another eight inches could be on the ground here in Butte, Montana by tomorrow morning.

This is what I'd call "reflective weather."  Time to curl into a ball, have a bowl of soup, turn inward, be still within our souls.

For me, that means facing up to the fact that I've been disappointing myself lately.  It's the "same old song," as The Four Tops once told us.  I've been Not-Writing, which leads to disgust and discouragement, which leads to depression.  I'm descending a staircase slicked with butter, spiraling down into a dark basement.

And now it's time to stop on one of the landings, turn around, and start climbing that staircase back to the top.  Of course, it's all up to me to stop the madness, to find the inner fortitude, to reach down and give a sharp yank on those bootstraps (if I wore boots, that is).  I can do this, I tell myself.  Put one word after another, like hesitant toddler steps across the floor.  Just write one sentence--doesn't have to be perfect, doesn't have to be clean--just write one sentence, and then you can call it quits for the day.

Except I never stop at one sentence.  Words beget words and soon I'm tumbling in somersaults across the page--bouncing up that dark, slippery staircase.

To give my energy a little boost--more fuel in the rocket engines--I return to Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, one of the best books I read last year.  In the whole span of my life, I can count the number of books I've re-read on a single hand--ones by Flannery O'Connor, Charles Dickens, Raymond Carver, Agatha Christie.  I'm the kind of reader who is always leaning forward, never circling back.  There are too many unread books in front of me, from here to the horizon, to "waste time" by retracing my steps through a novel's pages.

I will happily make an exception for Still Writing--not just for the beauty of language, but also for its clarity of instruction to me as a writer.  When Oprah Winfrey recently devoted an entire episode of Super Soul Sunday to a conversation with Shapiro, I was a little disappointed because they never once discussed Still Writing.  I understood why Oprah wanted to focus on the earlier memoir Devotion, but I wish they'd also touched on some of the wisdom to be found in her latest book, which is subtitled "The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life."  As I wrote earlier here at the blog, "Most of the book is written in plain-spoken language, as if Shapiro was sitting across the table with a steaming mug of tea, honestly telling me what I need to hear."  Right now, I need to hear passages like this, from the book's Introduction:
      Sitting down to write isn't easy. A few years ago, a local high school asked me if a student who is interested in becoming a writer might come and observe me. Observe me! I had to decline. I couldn't imagine what the poor student would think, watching me sit, then stand, sit again, decide that I needed more coffee, go downstairs and make the coffee, come back up, sit again, get up, comb my hair, sit again, stare at the screen, check e-mail, stand up, pet the dog, sit again...
      You get the picture.
      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. "Ever tried, ever failed," Samuel Beckett once wrote. "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." It requires what the great editor Ted Solotaroff once called endurability. It is this quality, most of all, that I think of when I look around a classroom at a group of aspiring writers. Some of them will be more gifted than others. Some of them will be driven, ambitious for success or fame, rather than by the determination to do their best possible work. But of the students I have taught, it is not necessarily the most gifted, or the ones most focused on imminent literary fame (I think of these as short sprinters), but the ones who endure, who are still writing, decades later.
      It is my hope that— whether you're a writer or not—this book will help you to discover or rediscover the qualities necessary for a creative life. 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 other 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? A surgeon about to perform a difficult operation is at the bottom of the mountain. A lawyer delivering a closing argument. An actor waiting in the wings. A teacher on the first day of school. Sometimes we may think that we're in charge, or that we have things figured out. Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. We fail better. We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.
And so I, too, will begin again. The snow outside the window has turned my world into a blank slate. I'm ready to start filling it with words.


  1. Thanks for this timely and comforting post, David. I've also been Not Writing lately, deeply enmeshed in resistance, and oh-so-relating to your 4th and 5th paragraphs. I haven't found myself bounding up the staircase yet, but you give me hope. Time to revisit my own battered copy of Still Writing...

    Here's to failing again, failing better, and - always - beginning again.

    1. Tele,
      First of all, I love the fact that your copy of "Still Writing" is "battered." Like all good field manuals should be...

      Second, I hear you about being enmeshed in resistance. Personally speaking, I'm my own worst enemy. Once I get out of the way of myself, the writing flows.

  2. What serendipity to come across your blog! And as it happens I live in Bozeman, where even after 16 winters here I am astounded at the piles of snow on March 2nd. After wanting to be a writer most of my life, going into academia instead, quitting academia, and finally allowing myself to write what I want, every day, even if it's only 15 minutes, I can see the mountain I want to scale. I can see it and I know there is a path, and I'm counting that as progress even though I'm still at the foot of the mountain. Because it used to be that I didn't want to look at that mountain that is writing, even though I knew it had to figure in my life whether I wanted it to or not. I can't not write, and when I don't write something feels terribly wrong. I've passed the first cairn on the trail: acknowledging that I need to write and allowing myself to write regularly. The next is to complete and submit something.

    1. Marilyn,

      Nice to (virtually) meet you here. I'm glad the blog spoke to you in its own way. And Godspeed to you on your climb. May you pass many more cairns on your way up in the coming days....