Wednesday, October 23, 2013

‘The Internet is Not a Cigarette Break’ and Other Gems

An Evening with Dani Shapiro

On October 22nd, national bestselling author Dani Shapiro ( spent the evening with an intimate group of us at the Scape Gallery in Corona Del Mar, California, as part of Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s Pen On Fire Speaker Series (

She shared compelling ideas about the writing process in relation to her recent book Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. The book, she said, is about “everything I know about how to live.” Not just about how to write.

At the urging of her publisher, she began a blog some five years ago. The blog started as just that: a blog. She had no initial intention of writing a book about writing. She wrote in the blog about once a week, she said, and started receiving messages from other writers stating, “This is what I needed today,”  which is exactly how I felt after hearing her speak on Tuesday night.

Her blog readers started asking, “When is the book coming out?” She said she didn’t feel this was a book she had to write; it was, rather, a book she was asked to write. (I for one can’t wait to read it. My signed copy is sitting patiently on my shelf.)

She said the book answers the question, “What does it mean to live a creative life?” At some point the rules are made to be broken, she explained. “Break them with impunity,” she said.

In conversation with DeMarco-Barrett, Shapiro shared that taking a break is actually part of the writing process. She said Joan Didion’s “shimmer” or “something coming to life” (the muse?) is not quantifiable and can’t be searched for, but “you have to be ready for it when it comes.

She added that if you love a sentence enough to get up from your chair, walk into the other room, and share it with your husband, it’s probably a sentence you need to cut.

Then, she said something that struck my heart strings. I’d never heard it said quite this way before: “Write for an audience of one.” So often lately I hear about how marketing yourself is just as important as the writing itself, and that publishers are concerned with the number of people in a writer’s audience. Shapiro explained that when you write, you should write for an idealized, or perfect, reader. For Kurt Vonnegut, she said, that reader was his dead sister.

“I can’t think of anything worse than, ‘Who’s your demographic?’” The worst idea ever, she said, is to market the book before you write it. What a miraculous concept. (This is what I needed today.)

Writing, Shapiro said, is “joy deferred. It doesn’t feel great when it’s happening.” There is so much in her Still Writing book about “distraction” and “resistance,” she said. “When walking from my cappuccino maker in the kitchen to the desk [upstairs], so many things can go wrong.” She hasn’t counted the steps, but guessed there are about 75. In the midst of those 75 steps, she can find any number of things to do to avoid writing, like cleaning. However, the “biggest enemy,” she said, “lurks at the desk.”

We all know what that is.

The Internet.

In other words, Shapiro’s biggest enemy is herself because when on the Internet, “You can look like you’re doing the same thing (writing), when you’re really buying shoes.”

Ain’t that the truth?

She said she was on Twitter reading the #amwriting posts, thinking, “No, you’re not.” Touché.

She actually wrote an essay in which she tracked her own mind in relation to the Internet. “It was eye opening because I thought I was doing something useful.”

In her 20s, Shapiro said, when she got stuck while writing her first novel, she took cigarette breaks, which essentially meant doing nothing. (Clearing her head?) “It was not great for my health, but it was great for my novel,” she said, adding, “The Internet is not a cigarette break.”

She talked about a chaise she bought specifically to write and read in because her desk had become “toxic.”

She went on to explain that “confidence is an overrated trait, destructive,” and that it can “be confused with courage.” Confidence “can make you think you don’t have to struggle to get it right.”

Then she said something that I could absolutely relate to: “We are all solitary. We secretly think we’re doing it wrong. Other people know what they’re doing.” This, she said, “is just not true.” (This is what I needed today.)

She asked the audience who had trouble with “middles,” which she addresses in her book. Middles of stories are “one damn thing after another. Things just keep happening.” (I have always thought beginnings and endings are just as hard!)

She said Tobias Wolff recently told her that for every 120 pages he writes, he ends up with about 20 pages of text. “That’s just what it takes,” she said. Painful.

Then an audience member asked about a topic near and dear to me as an editor who has always had trouble with just getting down the words without fixing them. The audience member mentioned Shapiro as a “polish as you go” type, which perked up my ears and made me smile. She said she was the same way and added, “I always thought I was doing it wrong.” I nodded.

Shapiro advised, “It’s so individual. Find your way; hone that way; protect that way.” (This is what I needed today.)

Shapiro said that someone once gave her this advice: “You can write a really beautiful sentence. Just make sure it means something.” She noted that when she wrote her first novel, she was of the mindset that “three similes were better than one.”

Then the subject veered toward something I just can’t get behind because, frankly, I can type much faster than I can write. “I like writing by hand,” she said. “On a computer, it always looks neat and tidy.” When writing by hand, “it looks really messy because it should. It’s wonderful to see the mind making mistakes.”

My inner perfectionist cried out, “Nooooooooooooo!” I see her point, but I just can’t do it. My hand would start to hurt, and I wouldn’t get out what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. Freewrites by hand have always been the death of me.

“For someone who is a polisher, like I am,” she said, “write by hand.” This is sound advice, just not for me.

Her next sentence, however, made me nod and smile again. A spotlight might as well have been shining on me specifically when she said, “When rereading your work too much, it assumes an air of inevitability.” Aptly put. She said that it’s hard to change a sentence when it’s “always been like that.” So true.

“Those are your darlings,” added De-Marco Barrett.


When discussing novels vs. memoirs, Shapiro shared that her first novel was an attempt to write about her parents’ car accident when she “wasn’t ready.” She “needed to tell that story.” Then, “ten years later,” she needed to write it as a memoir” because it “haunted” her.

When writing memoirs, she said, the interesting aspect of the story is the “storytelling itself.” To this, DeMarco-Barrett said Shapiro’s Slow Motion memoir “reads like a novel.” She had to “create narrative velocity and momentum.”

Shapiro added that her memoir was her “attempt to shape chaos, sorrow into art.”

On writing, she said, “I don’t believe it gets easier. I think it gets harder for everybody. The moment you buy into your whatever, you’re sunk.”

Another audience member asked her about the issue of writing a memoir as a novel so as not to hurt your real-life characters, a problem that keeps me up at night and has been one of the biggest roadblocks for me personally. She asked how one makes that decision.

Without missing a beat, Shapiro said with conviction, “It’s not a decision.” It’s about “getting past the fear of telling your story. If you write a novel because you’re afraid to write a memoir, it’s not going to be a very good novel.” In other words, “if you’re writing to protect someone, it’s not going to be very good.”

To this she added, “You have to know what you’re writing when you write it. A book wants to be what it wants to be. We don’t choose stories. Stories choose us. If we don’t tell them,” we are somehow “diminished.” (This is what I needed today.)

“The writer is a servant of a book being what it wants to be.”

She said that so many people tell her that they are waiting for their parents (or someone else) to die before they can write their story. She said that after her mother died, it actually got harder to write about her, not the other way around, because she “had the responsibility of the last word.” It is a “tremendous responsibility,” she said.

Even though a writer may be pulled by a story that wants to be told, “if you have a quality of revenge, you’re not ready to write it. Revenge never creates a good book.”

Her practical advice continued with, “Take out cheap shots. Always do a reading for cheap shots.”

Then Shapiro said, “It’s not going to get into the world without your permission. Censoring your writing while writing is self-defeating.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

But then, writing it like no one is going to read it only lasts so long, sometimes not long at all, and then the words get out into the world, which is something I both want and fear. I’m not quite sure I’m ready for this, but I’ll have to be soon.

Thanks, Dani for the visit and the inspiring words for this writer, who constantly thinks she’s “doing it wrong.”


  1. What a great review of the evening, Chelsey!

  2. Loved reading this! Great advice. Makes me want to write something, too .