There was a phase shortly after college where my reading centered around biographies, letters and memoirs. Studied everything I could find on Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Eva Le Gallienne, George S. Kaufman, Marcel Duchamp and Joe Papp then moved on to craft books by anyone who did anything with their hands. I guess I was looking for clues to how people made their place in the world doing their own thing.
After a while the craft books began to feel like the same book with the same advice using different metaphors rewritten in a different style again and again. Then one day I was apartment sitting at a friends fancy place – any place in the city with a real balcony that doesn’t double as a fire escape and a roof deck you can’t accidentally step off of qualifies as fancy in my book – and I started reading this series called Harry Potter. Overnight I fell back in love with fiction and stopped seeking out memoirs and craft books.
Every now and then I find a new-to-me bio or craft book on the street or an attractive cover will beg me to take it home from the library. They’re hard to resist. Still Writing is a writing book by memoirist Dani Shapiro. It’s short and small and feels good in your hands. I read it slowly over the course of the summer mostly because I liked the pretty cover and sometimes I crave a conversation on craft. Granted reading these books is a one-sided conversation, but they stimulate just the same.
This is a mixed bag. Sometimes it reads like a series of thoughtful essays on the writing life, sometimes it meanders through Shapiro’s past or little moments in her day to day. The essays were engaging enough, but if the latter wasn’t there I wouldn’t have missed it.
Still, Shapiro makes her living off of her essays and memoirs so maybe there’s something to working from the comfort of a chaise lounge. She begins with the common advice of ignoring your inner critic and encourages readers to find an activity that allows the mind to roam in order to come to a rest – run, swim, knit, meditate – whatever it takes. One of her activities is yoga.
And although those other poses may look more challenging, sometimes it feels as if the mountain pose is the most challenging of all. To be still. To be grounded. To claim one’s place in the world.
It’s impossible to forget this is written by a memoirist. Again and again she puts you in the room with her, what she’s thinking, how her past led her to where she is. It’s good reading if not particularly what I expected of a craft book. She includes a number of quotes and references to other writers’ habits, which led me to pick up Donald Hall’s Life Work so I’m thankful for that recommendation. This passage from the Gnostic Gospels stood out:
If we bring forth what is within us, it will save us. If we do not bring forth what is within us, it will destroy us.
I haven’t read Shapiro’s other books and probably won’t, but I appreciated having this one around for few weeks to read in short bursts. There’s nothing knew to be learned here in the craft department, but I liked her perspective that your life is your story to tell. It’s relevant to memoirists, obviously, but also good to keep in mind whether you’re a blogger, essayist or simply have the urge to tell a story and don’t know where to start. She does address the one question that often comes to mind when I read personal essays that feel surprisingly raw. Writing about your life doesn’t have to leave you feeling exposed because you choose the words, you choose what to tell.
Though not what I was looking for, this isn’t a bad read. Probably a good book for anyone interested in trying to write a memoir or personal essays.