Happier Hour: An Evening with Dani Shapiro and Sarah Manguso
“I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.” – Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
On Tuesday, Feb. 10, I had the privilege of attending my third Happier Hour in Los Angeles, a literary event for women originally started in New York by Aidan Donnelley Rowley.
Each Happier Hour features two writers who read from their most recent work. They then have a conversation about craft and process and any themes that reveal themselves, followed by a Q & A.
This Happier Hour was my favorite I’ve attended so far. Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life) and Sarah Manguso (Ongoingness: The End of a Diary) are fascinating, eloquent women.
I previously wrote a blog about seeing Dani speak on Oct. 22, 2013, but this was my first introduction to Sarah.
After the magical evening, I went home and read Ongoingness in one sitting. (It will be released Mar. 3.) Before the tears had dried, I had the inclination to start reading it all over again immediately. The wide expanses of white space in her book surround philosophical, concise vignettes; she says so much in so few words.
Dani and Sarah’s conversation at Happier Hour, what Sarah called “a room full of women who help other women,” centered on the difficulty of classifying a book into one genre; structure; the reliability of memory, and Sarah’s obsessive need to write in her journal until she had her son, a central theme of her new memoir.
First, Dani pulled out her tiny notebook that she carries in her purse; she called it the “anti-Twitter.”
Although, she has a notebook, she said, “I stopped writing in diaries 10 years ago.”
“Stopped cold turkey?” Sarah asked, anxiously.
“I journaled during my honeymoon,” Dani said. “I have no recollection of writing it. I referred to myself in third person. ‘D did this. D did that.’ Our memories morph and change. I thought of my diary as a garbage can. I never wanted to look at them again.”
“Before Slow Motion, (Dani’s first memoir), I started reading my diaries. I passed out on the couch. I was depressed. I thought, ‘That young woman doesn’t deserve a book.’ The 32-year-old me wanted to write [the book] with a filter. I had to find the place where the me now meets the me then (at 23). The last line of my honeymoon diary says, ‘Home. Married.’”
“That’s not a garbage can,” Sarah said.
“Time and memory are a landscape you and I share. Rereading Ongoingness broke me out of a writer slump. I live for language. It’s not story that grips me. The space on the page [in Sarah’s book] gave me room to sit with it,” said Dani.
“[The extra space] was an intuitive decision,” Sarah said.
Speaking about her memoir Devotion, Dani said, “I seem to not be able to write narrative.”
“But you’ve put aside that convention. You’re not telling a story; you’re involving me in a story. I was shocked. It was a magical thing.”
They discussed what genre Devotion should be considered, remarking that it’s a book-length essay made up of smaller essays that tie together.
“In Devotion, the form is inextricable from content. The form, the form, the form,” Sarah said. “Every book works across genres.”
“Any artist is constantly struggling with herself on every level. It’s really, really fucking hard. I thought I was writing a book no one would read. You’re only articulate about your books in retrospect,” Dani said. Writing Devotion was like “death by prose poem,” she added. “I thought I’d lost my mind. With narrative, once you’ve begun, you’ve begun.” But, “I knew this was the only structure for the book from the beginning. We don’t choose our material. We don’t choose our form. The only time I get into trouble is when I force something. Allow structure to reveal itself.”
“I don’t know what to call [my books],” Sarah said. “Book-length essay sounds stuffy. Memoir sounds misleading.”
As an example of a writer whose work is as close to perfect as one can get, Dani pointed out, “Virginia Woolf is so unbelievably artful that she’s beyond art. It’s like looking into a still body of water.”
“It’s the highest degree of ‘madeness,’” Sarah said. “This is what short form is going toward: I want perfect, small things. The answer for me was to go from commercial press to small press. They are rabidly supportive of odd form. Meet someone in the business who really digs you.”
“There is no one path. There’s no choice. That’s the kind of storyteller you are,” Dani said.
An audience member asked if they write their books from their diaries or from memory.
“My editor said, ‘I’d rather have your memory,’” Dani said. “We can’t fact-check memory. The platform of the present and the story being told is the story.”
By way of example, Dani explained her memory of the day her father died. In 1997, she remembered a conversation with a particular person. In 2009, she remembered the same exact dialogue, only now the person she was conversing with had changed.
“Both are emotionally accurate,” she said. “The pact between the memoir and the reader is ‘I’m trying to access my memory.’”
She read a quote from another writer: “I want everything simplified and enlarged.”
“I never consulted my diary,” Sarah said. “I never thought to. I’ve written all my books from memory. After publishing, I start to forget. It’s great. It’s like uploading it somewhere. It’s okay to forget.”
She added as an aside, “I have no idea where fiction comes from. I don’t know how to do it.”
“It’s a complicated thing being a writer,” Dani said. “You wake up and do something the world doesn’t need and didn’t ask for.” Writing about other people, she said, “is very complex, endlessly so. What bothered [my mother], I couldn’t have expected. I have a boundary around my son. I’m very protective of his privacy.”
She asks herself, when her son is 30, will he be upset about something she wants to write about him?
“If the answer is yes, then I don’t write it.”
Note: If you haven’t read Still Writing and you’re a writer, do yourself a favor and order it today; it’s wonderful, one of my favorites.