6 Lessons from Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Still Writing

As you may recall, I recently added a Reading category to Untamed Writing, because reading is an integral part of becoming a better writer. My main plan when I created this category was to start a monthly column about the books I’d been reading. But another idea I had was to share insights and takeaways from select books.

And what better place to start than Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro, which I finished a few days ago? I started reading it months ago (I know, the shame), so I didn’t know I was going to write a blog post about the book when I began it. This means most of my observations are from the latter part of the book, because I started taking better notes when I decided I wanted to write about it.

Still Writing is part memoir and part writing/creative living manual, and it is just full of gems. Obviously there’s enough wisdom in there to, well — to fill a book. So I’m going to share the stuff that resonated with me the most. Here are my favourite lessons from the book:

The Story Starts When the Change Occurs

There is the pattern, and then there is the dropped stitch that disrupts the pattern, making it all the more complex and interesting.

Stories are about the dropped stitch. About what happens when the pattern breaks. Though there is a certain poetry in the rhythm of the everyday, it is most often a shift, a moment of not-always-so, that ends up being the story. Why is this moment different? What has changed? And why now? We would do well to ask ourselves these questions when we’re at work.

Most of the things I know about good writing, I know from reading good writing — not from actively seeking to learn about it. This means I’ve absorbed and internalised good storytelling, without necessarily knowing why it’s good — without being able to pin down exactly what makes it so enthralling. So whenever I stumble across something that allows me to put a name to something I knew instinctively, I get excited. This was one of those moments for me. Of course good stories start when the change happens!

Think about your favourite books, TV shows, films — what’s the central premise, the thing that keeps the plot moving forward?

In The Martian, Watney is left behind on Mars because of a freak storm. That is not how things were supposed to go. Watney and his crew were supposed to pootle around on Mars for a bit, and then return to Earth together. Sure, exploring Mars is interesting in its own right. But trying to survive, alone, with limited supplies? That is a story.

In The Walking Dead, everyday life is devastated because a zombie outbreak sweeps the globe. If that hadn’t happened, Shane and Lori could’ve had their affair in hotel rooms and back alleys just like everyone else, and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting. (Nothing like impending death-by-zombie to ignite the mood, am I right, ladies?)

In Attack on Titan, flesh-eating giants bust through the walls of human territory, where people have been living peacefully for 100 years, and start chowing down on the locals. Imagine if it was just about a bunch of people going about their daily lives inside some humongous walls. Pah!

These things — the freak storm, the zombie outbreak, the giants destroying the walls — are the dropped stitches. They are when things start to get interesting. They are when the story truly begins.

Characters (and People) Are Not Clichés

Elderly people are not always craggy, wrinkled, stooped over, forgetful, or wise. Teenagers are not necessarily rebellious, querulous, or pimple-faced. Babies aren’t always angelic, or even cute. Drunks don’t always slur their words. Characters aren’t types. When creating a character, it’s essential to avoid the predictable. Just as in language we must beware of clichés. When it comes to character, we are looking for what is true, what is not always so, what makes a character unique, nuanced, indelible.

Ask of yourself: How does this character walk? How does she smell? What is she wearing? What underwear is she wearing? What are the traces of her accent? Is she hungry? Thirsty? Horny? What’s the last book she read? What did she have for dinner last night? Is she a good dancer? Does she do the crossword puzzle in pen? Did she have a childhood pet? Is she a dog person or a cat person?

We — none of us — are ever clichés. We are the sum total of our stories. We may appear to be a type, a certain kind of person — a man, say, with a ruddy complexion, wearing a navy blue blazer with a silk pocket square, white trousers, no socks, suede loafers, a younger blonde woman on his arm. Click, click, click, your mind makes a snap judgment: rich businessman with a trophy wife. But what if this same man just got the news that he has prostate cancer? And that the young blonde on his arm is his daughter who has come to be with him during his upcoming surgery? That he was recently widowed? That he lost all his money to Bernie Madoff?

Having never written any fiction, writing clichéd characters is not a problem I’ve come up against, but if I ever do I will try to remember this advice. In fact, I’ll try to remember it anyway, because I think it’s valuable not just for writing, but for life.

How often do you make snap judgments about total strangers? It’s all too easy to do, and I think reminding yourself that your immediate judgment of a person is probably not at all accurate is an excellent idea. We can be better, more compassionate people if we do this (and probably better writers, too).

The other day, I bought a tacky little gift pen that says ‘Boss’ on it. The assumption — the cliché — would be that I am an employee buying a present for her boss, and that I have shit taste in gifts, right? No way the shop assistant would have thought, ‘I bet she runs her own successful writing company, and is buying a pocket-sized pen so she can take notes on the run when an idea pops into her head. And she wanted the pen with ‘Boss’ on it, because it made her laugh and because every time she looks at it she will be reminded that she IS the boss, and that she got there herself.’

No. I doubt she’d think that. And because I know people’s assumptions about me are almost certainly 100% wrong, I should assume that mine are of other people, too. As Dani says, it’s ‘our job as writers to look deeper.’

Feel Your Emotions, Then Write Them

Dani posits that you’ve got to work backwards: you’ve got to experience the emotion first, then put it on the page, as opposed to trying to conjure an emotion so you can write about it. For one thing, if you try to conjure an emotion, it probably won’t be all that convincing if you’ve never actually felt it. But for another, ‘You can’t be feeling it and shaping it at the same time.’

On one of those scraps of paper I carry around in my Filofax, I keep the words of playwright Edward Albee: “For the anger and rage to work aesthetically, the writer’s got to distance himself from it and write in what Frank O’Hara referred to in one of his poems as ‘the memory of my feelings.’ Rage is incoherent. Observed rage can be coherent.”

Basically, write from your own emotional experiences, after you’ve had time to let them cool. I bet it’d be pretty hard to write a convincing and emotive tale of heartbreak without having experienced it yourself, and equally as hard to write it while you were still mired in it.

To Have Creative Output, You Need Creative Input

This is something that’s been stepping into my path a lot lately. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron calls it filling the well; she talks about the importance of taking yourself on ‘artist’s dates’ to fill your creative well. Otherwise you’ll just keep depleting the well as you write (or do whatever form your art takes), without ever filling it back up again. Eventually, your creativity will dry up. I read about this concept in a Write to Done article recently, too: Mary Jaksch calls it ‘creative fuel’.

This creative input can come in many forms: reading good books, watching good films or TV shows, going for a walk in nature, visiting a gallery or a museum or a beautiful bit of architecture. Whatever it is that inspires you and sparks ideas in you. And, no matter what you choose for your creative input, you also need to give yourself time to ruminate on it. I love what Dani has to say about this:

Quiet contemplation will lead you to riches, so keep good literature on your bedside table and read for a few minutes before you go to sleep instead of, say, passing out during episode five of season three of Mad Men. Cultivate solitude in your writing space, in the car, at the kitchen table when the house is empty. Get your blood moving. Feel your feet on the earth. Your mind is not floating in space but connected to a body.

I see so much truth in this. When I’m reading, for instance, ideas will often leap into my consciousness, and they won’t leave (or worse, they will leave) before I’ve written them down. I grab my laptop or my notebook, and I capture them. And then I carry on reading… or perhaps I carry on writing, if the idea has truly taken hold.

You Can Only Tell Your Own Story

We don’t get to say, Hey, I really prefer that writer’s life circumstances. I think I’ll take the Southern Gothic childhood, the crazy alcoholic mother, the gunshot in the barn. It doesn’t work that way. Whether or not we are fond of our tiny corner of the universe, it’s all we’ve got. If we try to control it, if our egos get in the way and we decide that we want to be, say, a lyric poet, or a political satirist, or a writer of best-selling mysteries, or whatever it is that we think would be cool or important or fun, well, that is the surest way to a dead end and heartache.

This seems at odds with another valuable piece of writing advice I’ve heard, this time from Ann Patchett. Ann hates the advice ‘write what you know’, and argues that with enough research, you can write about anything. And I agree with that. (Sidenote: you should read Ann’s fantastic essay, ‘The Getaway Car’, which is where I read this.) But I agree with Dani, too. Dani goes on to say, ‘It is the truest lesson I know about writing — and about life — that we must always move in the direction of our own true calling, not anyone else’s.’

I don’t think these pieces of advice are at odds at all. There’s a difference between wishing you were other — lamenting your own path — and pursuing the thing that calls to you, even if you don’t know that much about it yet.

“I believe that we don’t choose our own stories,” she began, leaning forward. “Our stories choose us.” She paused and took a sip of water. Her hand, I noticed, was steady. “And if we don’t tell them, we are somehow diminished.”

If you are open and honest and true, and write what you must write — what only you can write — others will benefit, yes. But so will you.

Why We Write

It is impossible to spend your days writing and not begin to know your own mind.

Why do people write? Where does the urge come from? I’ve always wondered. In particular, I’ve wondered at my own motives. Dani’s book is filled with pearls that help clarify this. It basically comes down to one thing, for me, at least: I write to understand.

I write to understand myself. I write to understand others. I write to understand the world. I write to understand everything. I write to clarify what I think about stuff, and why. I believe writing helps you learn just as much as reading, if not more. Often my thoughts on something won’t be clear until I’ve written them down. That’s why I much prefer to have debates and discussions on topics I’ve written about. If I haven’t written about something and made my views clear to myself, I shan’t be anything other than a garbling chipmunk when I try to argue my point.

When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity. They turn away from the minutiae of their lives — and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by a desire to explore the unfamiliar. They are drawn toward what they don’t understand.

If literature is, to use Updike’s phrase, that “most subtle instrument of self-examination known to man,” it is only thus because the writer has caught and wound herself around the thread of the universal. The truest and most artful self-revelation occurs when the self is subsumed to the art. The self merely becomes the vehicle. The art does not say look at me. If anything, it reflects ourselves back at us, saying: look at yourself.

If you have attended to the formidable task of illuminating the human heart in conflict with yourself [it] will do the opposite of expose you. It will connect you. With others. With the world around you. With yourself.

If we are immersed in the work of finding expression for this life, if we wake up each morning to the possibility for discovery, not only will we have a better shot at getting something worthwhile on the page, we will simply be better.

It’s so obvious now, isn’t it? We write to understand. We write to connect. We write to become fuller and deeper — less empty and shallow. We write to become better.

You can grab your own copy of Still Writing on Amazon UK, Amazon US, or, you know, your very own country’s version of Amazon. Also probably in book stores. Maybe your library. All the usual book places.

REBEL AGAINST BULLSHIT ⤸
What you'll get: The Untamed Lowdown, my private twice-monthly missives; the first part of Start Freelance Writing, my course for newbies; occasional badass subscriber-only deals.
Never more than 1 email a week, because fuck that.