Dani Shapiro: Writers on Writing

"I have learned that my best ideas come when I am patient."
By Gabriel Packard | Published: March 20, 2014

Dani Shapiro credit Kate UhryFilterDani Shapiro is a novelist and memoirist. Her breakthrough book was the bestselling memoir Slow Motion, which details her early life growing up in an affluent, observant-Jewish household, dropping out of Sarah Lawrence College and then, at 20, living as one of several “kept-women” of her best friend’s stepfather – a much older, wealthy, married man who enabled Shapiro to live an opulent and increasingly self-destructive life in Manhattan in the 1980s. He bought her expensive jewelry from Cartier and Bulgari, gave her a Ferrari to drive and a furnished triplex in Greenwich Village to live in. At 23, she was cocaine-addicted, bulimic and alcoholic. She turned her life around, however, when a car accident nearly killed her mother and fatally injured her father. Shapiro’s second memoir, Devotion, details a more stable adulthood, moving to Connecticut and raising children with her husband. Her most recent book is a hybrid memoir and writing-advice book, Still Writing, in which she reflects on her creative life. Shapiro’s work has gained respect across the cultural spectrum. It has earned her an appearance on an Oprah TV show, to discuss Devotion, and she has been published multiple times in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and other literary outlets. She is also the author of five novels and a screenplay for HBO.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

I have learned that my best ideas come when I am patient. And by “ideas,” I don’t mean “big ideas,” but rather little pieces of a puzzle that begin to stick together and illuminate a story I want to tell. I’m not by nature a patient person, but whenever I have forced an idea or pushed hard to start a new book out of a sense of anxiety or ambition or frustration, it never works. I write myself straight into a corner. For me, it’s important to write – and to read – every day. But when I’m between books, this time is only fertile if I allow myself the freedom to not know.

How has that helped you as a writer?

It’s funny, because people think of me as prolific – which I guess is true, in the sense that I’ve written eight books, and lots of other shorter pieces – but the deeper I get into my writing life, the more I am respectful of the in-between times. I always fear that nothing new will materialize – but eventually it does. Whether I grit my teeth and fight my own creative process, or I soften and allow it to take its course – well, that’s entirely up to me. It takes a certain courage to live with uncertainty, but the writer’s life is uncertain. Recognizing this helps me, not only as a writer, but in the rest of life as well.

Gabriel Packard is the associate director of Hunter College’s creative writing MFA program in New York City.