The first thing to strike me about the book is the feel of it. The thick, smooth cover makes a pleasing scratch as I run my nails against it, and it feels good against my finger tips. The pages are thick, and as I thumb through them, nose close, they smell fantastic.
A bizarre way to begin a book review, I suppose, but since before I could read, my sense of books is nearly as important as the words and message themselves. Indeed, if a font is too tiny or the pages displeasing against my fingers, I won’t make it past the first page. Reading, for me, engages more than the cerebrum (the part of the brain that lets us read books–and recognize friends, and play games); it engages the parietal lobe (the part that makes order of what the five senses pick up).
“Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” by Dani Shapiro, is a slim 230 pages, but it seems shorter. There is a good bit of space between the lines of text, and instead of chapters, Shapiro relies on small 1- to 4-page chunks of text subheaded out–“Tribe,” “Ordinary Life,” “What You Know?”
Because it is such a short text, I mistakenly thought it would be a quick read. Instead, I find myself unable to read more than 10 or 20 pages in a sitting. This is for a number of reasons:
- Without pulling sections of her text out and highlighting them, “HEY! This is a prompt! Take note!” Shapiro packs “Still Writing” full of prompts. In telling the memoir of her writing life, she sneaks in ideas for the reader to take and flea. One in particular has woven itself among the folds of my brain and won’t rest until I tackle it: Shapiro writes that there are events in our lives that change us. They move the earth for us, and we are not the same. Write about that terrible shock. I’ve never written about mine. I feel almost silly admitting what it is; I was so young and bright-eyed and naive. I didn’t know any better. But I’m excited to get myself back inside my 18-year-old head and get it down. Another, perhaps less traumatic prompt I’ve pulled from “Still Writing”: Who do you write for? I didn’t realize it until Shapiro asked, but I do have a very specific audience member in mind when I write. He’s an acquaintance from college. I can’t even say “friend,” we were never that close. But he is smart, intimidatingly so, and he is talented. And in my head when I write, without realizing it, I ask myself, “What would he think?”
- I started keeping a journal in second grade, and it wasn’t long after that when I realized how much I love to copy down good words and bits of advice–as though, by writing in longhand something brilliant that someone else wrote, I can absorb some of that brilliance. With Shapiro, that includes entire lines and poetic phrases:
- “the fickleness of good fortune”
- “pain engraves deeper memory”
- “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.”
- “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” (quoting Martha Graham)
- A writer is one who is “immersed in the work of finding expression for their life.”
- “Still Writing” is full of fantastic reading suggestions. At least once, I put Shapiro’s book down to track down a short story she described, “Getting Closer,” by Steven Millhauser. A quick Google search and I found that the story was a New Yorker story from 2011. Read it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
- Finally, and perhaps most distracting to the reading process, is how much Shapiro makes me excited to write. After flying through three or four small chunks, I can’t keep going, much as I want to; instead, I have to stop, to turn to my lap top, to work on the manuscript I’ve had going for nearly a year. I hadn’t touched it for months, but a new year’s resolution to “write more” assured I would. Shapiro, too, assures I do.
Many how-to books on writing or a creative life are much too flaky for my taste. Shapiro is grounded in tangible things. She doesn’t instruct me to pray or meditate or empty my mind. If those things work for you, wonderful. They don’t for me. Doing it, writing, being creative, works for me.
And so, apparently, does reading Shapiro. The only other book that has ever made me so excited to write is Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
A question to fellow writers out there: What writing books are on your must-read list?