Friday, February 26, 2010

Taking a writing cue from...songwriters

Picture a driver at a stoplight. She's tapping out a rhythm on the dashboard. She's belting out the words to the song on the radio. She doesn't care who notices. She's in the moment. The song is THE thing.

That's what I love about great songs. They're transportive. There are gems of wisdom in the lyrics, which makes listening to the radio a kind of research for a writer. The songwriter has only a few minutes to convey a mood and story. I write down great song lyrics I hear all the time. I think, "I want to write like THAT."

I like this one for its powerful spiritual vibe:

The dust to which this flesh shall return
It is the ancient, dreaming dust of god

John Mellencamp, Human Wheels

I like this one for the sheer sensory images it calls up:

Sweet desert rose
Whose shadow bears the secret promise
This desert flower
No sweet perfume that would torture you more than this

Sting, Desert Rose

Wow, this one pretty much sums it up for me:

I'm so happy now that I'm older
And I've learned what needs to be done
I wish I could've been older back when I was young.
I was dumb in life's springtime
And now I'm smarter in November
How come you lose memory capacity just as you've got so much more to remember?

Garrison Keillor, The Lives of the Cowboys

I like this one for the way it conveys life changes:

Remember when old ones died and new were born
And life was changed, disassembled, rearranged
We came together, fell apart
And broke each other's hearts

Alan Jackson, Remember When

I like this one for its cinematic heft. You can see it as well as hear it:

Well, your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

I like this one because it sounds like something a young man would write about his crush:

She acts like summer and walks like rain

Train, Drops of Jupiter

I like the sheer WHAT factor of this verse (plus the fact that my writing prof said NEVER to write the word "thing' if you can help it):

"There were plants
And birds
And rocks
And things"
--America's 'Horse With No Name'

And apropos of nothing, Do innocent feet have rhythm?

"I'm never gonna
Dance again
Guilty feet have
Got no rhythm"

--Wham's 'Careless Whisper'

So next time you're in your car, belting out that tune (you know who you are), let the lyrics train your writing voice. Feel the poetry as it crosses your lips. Maybe try and write some lyrics of your own to describe a setting, mood or feeling.
K. Harrington
author, Janeology

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Never say never

By Julie

A month ago, you may recall, I blogged about Setting as Character, and talked about starting a new project with a character who'd been haunting me for quite some time.

Since then, I've explored the new story, walking around in the daze that hits me at the beginning and near the end of writing a fiction manuscript. Some days it seems I've done nothing – no work at all.

But I remind myself that at least 50 percent of writing a new story is mental work. The hours I've spent gazing into the middle distance, likely appearing completely vacant to those around me, I've been getting to know my characters – their personalities and their plights, their quirks and their conflicts. I've been imagining them in various settings and observing to see how they act and react. I've been trying out names and hair colors and houses to live in. I even came up with a working title. (ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, rooted in the jazz standard by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein from the 1930s. Perfect both for the era of my story and the theme.)

All these things, I've done before for other stories.

You may also remember how I called myself a "plotser" in my last post. I've typically had a general idea of where I'm going, maybe even as much as a list of ten scenes or so that could happen, and taken off running, going where my thoughts lead me, typing as fast as I can to follow them. I really enjoy this organic approach to writing. And I've had a visceral response to the thought of starting out with more than that – a shudder.

But this time, I've decided to try something new. My story is broader than anything I've attempted before, both in the period of time it covers and in scope. I began to feel a little nervous as I wrote a few sample scenes, worrying the story might get away from me. That I might either chase too many rabbits or forget to chase the important ones.

So, I've written an outline. Put your Craig Ferguson accent on and say it with me:

"I knoooooow!"

I began by writing a short synopsis, using a modified version of Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method
, then expanding it little by little into a longer synopsis.

I decided it was pretty exciting to have a synopsis written before I'm querying. The synopsis for the manuscript I'm querying now was written after the fact, and it wasn't much fun when I was so sick of the story I thought I'd scream before I finished that darn thing. (Not to mention it's apparently a heck of a lot harder to condense 400 pages into just a few than it is to start with a few and go up from there.) I hope I remember to dig out these early documents when it's time to formalize my synopsis.

These last few days, I broke the synopsis down into chapters. The trickiest part came first – combining two separate storylines (one in the present, one in the far past, two different first-person narrators) into a fairly coherent narrative. In fact, I'm still finessing that part, and feel sure I'll be doing it continuously while writing this story. It's almost as if I'd written two separate synopses, and now I'm having to weave them together and check to see if the transitions from past to present and back again make at least a modicum of sense.

So, now, I'm left with a document that lists 44 chapters, each showing which narrator is speaking, each giving a somewhat detailed picture of what happens in that chapter. I suspect, because I do like to allow my characters the freedom to surprise me, that this outline isn't static. I figure it will evolve and grow in some places and shrink in others as I write the story. I might even be required to totally revamp the thing as I go.

In the meantime, I feel strangely in control of my new story – probably more than I've ever felt before when starting a new story.

And it comes as a huge surprise to this pantser turned plotser turned almost a plotter, that I like this feeling. I'm ready to write.

What about you, readers? What have you've said you'll never do when writing a first draft or starting some other creative project? Would you consider ... reconsidering?

Photo courtesy of Flickr's syymza, by Creative Commons License.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dangerous Deadlines

by Pamela

It's been a wild week at work. An abundance of assignments has kept me busy, and I just now feel as though I'm able to exhale without fanning the flames.

Those who know me well will attest that I'm not a hyper person. I don't get easily excited unless I hear someone say, "I think I'm going to throw up." Otherwise, I'm even-keel Jill.

So, whenever I get a new story assigned, I check the deadline, make a note to myself as to how much time I have until then and plan accordingly. I actually like getting an assignment that's due quickly. If there's no time to procrastinate, then well, it has to get done now.

I've signed up to attend the DFWWW Conference coming in April and have used that as my self-imposed deadline for my WIP. Not only do I need to have it completed, it should be polished and pitch-ready.

While I'm realistic in the knowledge that writers don't typically walk away from a conference with an agent drooling on her shoes for their manuscripts, I do know that having signed up for a pitch session has motivated me to have something exciting to present.

So, last night, I opened my manuscript, reread a bit to get grounded and took off. Now, I'm breathing deeply and evenly, fanning the embers, excited to watch the sparks fly.

It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. --Frederick Douglass

to read: The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass

Friday, February 19, 2010

I Love a Good Fight

By Kim

Last week I sent a new chapter of The Oak Lovers to Joan for her critique. In my e-mail I confessed to getting a perverse sort of pleasure from pitting Carl and Madonna, my two main characters (and great-grandparents), against each other. I agonize over tender scenes, but the moment tempers flare, accusations fly and doors slam, my fingers fly over the keyboard. I hear them most clearly when they’re shouting at each other, perhaps because they so often did. They remain with me when Real Life interferes, two volatile souls bickering in my head as I grocery shop or run the kids to school.

Joan replied: “You might have to infuse a few more shouting matches earlier [in the book] then. I remember one or two, but if they fought all the time…”

Those are dangerous words for a compulsive editor. Later, I thought. Move forward, edit later.

Over the next few days, Dallas was hit with the largest snowfall on record and my progress ground to a halt with children unexpectedly home and a 12-hour power outage. During a quiet moment I pulled up an early chapter, intending only to read it and see if I could easily tweak a disagreement into a full fledged argument.

I happened upon a scene I originally wrote as narrative nonfiction and have reworked at least four times since. In it, Carl Ahrens, then married to another, confronts seventeen-year-old Madonna about a rumor he has heard about her accompanying a young man into a notorious alcove during a dance at Roycroft. She quickly deflates his rage by explaining it was all an innocent mistake…

I grinned. What if it wasn’t a mistake? What could have prompted her to do such a thing? How much would she tell Carl, given that she is unaware of his feelings for her? What would tempt him to make them known more than his muse sending him into a full-blown jealous rage?

I mulled it over. Making such a change would involve far more than a tweak here and there. It was a vital scene quickly leading to two pivotal scenes. Each escalates in sexual tension that must be kept in check given their age difference, his marital status and, well, the facts as I know them.

As an experiment, I rewrote the scene in a separate document. 734 words – 300 more than the original. Damn. The last thing I need is more words. I re-read both versions and there’s no question I’ll go with the one where Madonna, like any teenager, first minimizes and then conveniently omits parts of her story. It will most certainly come back to haunt her, setting the stage for a glorious fight. Damn again.

As I scan through the next scene, I’m horrified at all that must go in order to make it work. Some of it I dearly loved, and I doubted I could figure out how to salvage my favorite lines. Unwilling to commit just yet, I opened another new document, writing without any thought of the future consequences to the text. 928 words later I hit save, exhilarated that there had been times Madonna baited Carl so strongly even I didn’t know what he might do. Even better was that I accomplished this in 450 fewer words than the original scene, with more to be chopped in the next.

I’ve yet to decide how to keep them balanced on this knife’s edge until fate intervenes, but one of the greatest pleasures of being an author is that in the end, it’s up to me.

Note: Artwork shown are details from paintings and sketches by Carl Ahrens (1862-1936)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Time, Dirt and Money

by Elizabeth

I first read Olive Ann Burns' Cold Sassy Tree about a dozen years ago, and liked it well enough to dig a bit deeper (or maybe it was just end notes) into the history of the book. Turns out Burns' originally titled it Time, Dirt, and Money. Apparently she, or a character, anyway someone, once said those were the only three things married couples fight about. Just those; all arguments boil down to that. (Burns was a product of the twentieth century, so a potential fourth, which will go unmentioned here as well, surely wasn't up for discussion until around the Summer of Love. Ahem.)

And in the way of The Department of Too Much Information, I'll offer up this: My husband and I don't fight about money. Not ever. Can't think of a single argument we've had about his spending too much--and anyone who knows me for longer than about five minutes will tell you he certainly wouldn't complain about my spending too much. But time and dirt? We've had our scuffles.

I'm thinking about time and dirt today, and without being out of sorts with said spouse. A new-to-us couch is due for delivery tomorrow, and I've been shuffling through tubs of toys and stuff that clutter up the room it's headed for, one eye on the clock for carpool hour. The other eye keeps glancing at the thick sheaf of my WIP, printed this morning to go through today. The plan is to read, reorganize, and write notes on holes to fill, scenes to write to finish up the first draft. So far the printer alone has done any work. In the playroom, I've sorted through a tub of stuffed animals, cleared out some papers, thrown out some broken or never played with toys, and contemplated with bafflement some odds and ends that surely go with...something.

Clutter is my nemesis. I often wonder if the clutter all went away, if new productivity would result. It might be no accident that I write best away from my house. I realize, too, it's just a matter of taking the time to clear through it--well, that and finding the will. I've made great strides in the past year. One long weekend a broken-hearted friend even flew in to help me. Together we sorted through my junk and her heart and found more clarity by the end of the third day. But just as it took longer than that to mend her heart, a few days was not enough to clear out the years of detritus that jam the corners of my house.

But here's the funny thing: All that stuff I was hanging on to because I'd had it forever or someone gave it to me, all the piles of things I kept because I might one day need them--once they were gone, I didn't miss them. At all. None of it. Couldn't tell you what it was, what it meant, why I had it. Out of sight, out of mind. Cliches are cliches for a reason.

Still, it takes time. That weekend was just a start. The sofa is headed for just one room; the kids' bedrooms have too-small clothes and unused toys and books with too few words on a page. Once it is gone, I know it will be forgotten. But getting it gone is a challenge.

Early drafts are like that, too: cluttered. Paragraphs and pages that don't contribute to the story or characters, sentences we labored over and love which might need to go. Words that, once deleted, can and will be forgotten--but the culling is heartbreaking and difficult. Literary clutter, requiring time. But like clearing out the clutter of a house, piece by needless piece, it finally makes for a cleaner and more comfortable place to rest.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Buried Under White Piles

by Joan

I’ve been following news of the east coast blizzards. Born and raised in Maryland, I lived through plenty of storms over the years. I might have mentioned I was born during a terrible snow and an ambulance drove my parents to the hospital because my dad couldn’t get his car out. I've built my share of snowmen and ladies, families of white with pipes and carrots and scarves. I have lots of family and friends there now trying to dig their way out.

One of my sisters emailed a picture of the view from her front yard and across the street to her neighbor’s house. It's level, as though no street threads between the two houses.

Another sister sent a picture of snow level with her front porch, which sits at least three feet from the ground.

A former neighbor’s lawn is decorated with a snow drift sporting a message of 2010’s Olympic rings and my Facebook friends have posted snowy sights eerily similar to those I once lived through.

Right now in Plano I’m looking at piles of white. Layers so thick, the surface below might never be seen again. But it’s not the Texas snow of 2010 I’m looking at. It’s my desk.

In the best of times, I’m not one to keep a clean and tidy desk. Organized for me looks like stacks of plastic folders, each containing a project, whether notes for a short story contest or my latest WIP, and piles of books to be read. Now I’ve added consulting projects, tax return information, college brochures for my junior, and binders outlining my role as one of next season’s football moms. The piles have become messier as the weeks roll past.

Usually it only takes a few Sundays to become so agitated by the sight of it, that I clean it off, get a brisk spurt of energy and rejuvenate whatever writing project I’m committed to. But now I’m having that antsy feeling. That no matter how clean my desk is, I won’t find the right words, the right energy to focus my writing. Maybe it’s the burgeoning pile of rejections I’ve accumulated, maybe it’s the bitter wind outside my window, maybe it’s the germination of files populating my desk.

I remember that feeling in the dead of a Maryland January. When no amount of winter sunshine or memories of cherry blossoms would hurry April along. When the heat and humidity of July and August seemed as remote as Japan. But I do remember what it feels like to be awash in ideas, in the need to get them on paper, to mold them into characters and plot, to march them out like a snow family in the neighborhood. Maybe it was that initial triumph in the snow that gives me courage to dig my way out of storms.

Right now I feel buried in unfinished projects. But I’ll dig my way out. Just like my family in Maryland will dig themselves out of several feet of snow.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Make it yours, but make it new

By Julie

Voice has been a popular subject around the Internet lately, with great posts on the theme from all the Writer Unboxed contributors in January, and a few this week from agent Rachelle Gardner here and here especially coming to mind. (I like Gardner's take on "Write what you know.")

Voice--it's that elusive quality we writers wish we could bottle and keep ready in our writer's pantry. But that would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it? If every writer found her voice easily, without hard work and often great consternation, agents' and publishers' jobs would be either a lot easier or a lot harder, depending on how you look at it. (Not to mention, our job as writers.)

And then there's branding ...

Branding is another term you hear frequently these days in conjunction with fiction and publishing. Authors are encouraged to identify a niche that works and stick with it--to brand themselves as writers so readers and publishers may depend on them to deliver recognizable products of consistent quality. Readers are conditioned to expect this so much, it's darn near impossible to write across genres without using pseudonyms.

I believe these two--voice and branding--go hand-in-hand. But I also think authors (and creatives of any type) fortunate enough to be successful at both have another hurdle beyond that.

Consider this. I recently picked up a book by one of my favorite authors. For years, I've relied on this author to deliver a story I'll enjoy in a voice I've come to love. Only problem is, I only read about fifty pages in this most recent novel before I lost interest. (Don't even try to guess--I've never mentioned this author on the blog, and I'm not sure you'd peg me as a fan.)

The issue? Even though her protagonist had a different name and a newish story, I felt like I'd read this same character too many times already. Echoes of the author's previous protagonists rang too closely in my mind and the hook and setting weren't unique enough to draw me in and keep me. (I'm not a series fan for this very reason. I usually get bored with characters after a maximum of two books, with the exception of old characters making cameo appearances in new books, which I think is kind of fun. I like to wave at them and say hello, then get back to the exciting new folks and story the author has dished up.)

To put it simply, this author has managed to brand herself and fine tune her voice so successfully, her work is cut out in surprising me. Unfortunately, this time, she did not. I'll definitely give her next book a look--every prolific author is probably entitled to a one off--but I'll be holding her to an even higher standard next time.

Sometimes I encounter the same problem with musicians. I love music. I eat it and breathe it. And I'm disappointed to shell out the money for a new recording by a favorite musician only to find the melodies, rhythms, and lyrics are far too reminiscent of the last effort. It's a fine line. I'm disgruntled to find I'm finished listening after once through. I like to keep albums in high rotation, listening to them over and over to capture the nuances and the grace notes, delighted every time I find something new.

The moral of this story ...

Finding your voice and branding yourself as an author or creative person is not enough. We must keep surprising our audience, finding new angles, letting our voices explore and mature. Sometimes we even need to take a few risks.

My mind keeps returning to a mental picture of my foster daughter's little girl singing and dancing along with Jason Mraz's "Make it Mine" video over and over, her Mraz hat perched on her tiny head. Mraz is a musician who found his voice, branded himself without question, yet surprises his fans nearly every step of the way.

Make it Mine /Jason Mraz
Listen to your voice
The one that tells you to taste past the tip of your tongue
Leap and the net will appear

Monday, February 8, 2010

Happy 100!

by Pamela

This post marks the 100th for the What Women Write blog.

We debated about how best to mark this milestone and eventually decided to reflect on what we've covered and ask what you'd like to see for future posts.

Last June we kicked off this venture with one clear goal: Encourage and celebrate women who write.

The six of us who contribute here come from similar walks: We're all wives and moms, most are sisters and each of us write fiction in addition to our other callings in life. But we all have varied writing styles and that helps each of us grow in our writing.

A few years ago, I decided to take the leap from just writing for newspapers and magazines and try my hand at fiction. A recent transplant to North Texas, I visited a few writers' groups before finding the Writers' Guild of Texas. (It was so new at the time, it didn't even have its official name.) I took a seat in the back and happened to be right behind Kim and Joan. I overheard their talking about critiquing each others' works and asked if I could join in. Thankfully they agreed.

Joan and I attended a conference in Oklahoma a couple of years ago, and she brought Elizabeth along. Julie found me online and struck up a connection; Susan ran into Joan, Elizabeth and me last spring at the DFWWW Conference in Grapevine.

Our strongest connection remains frequent emails, but we also try to meet in person once a month. And we successfully completed our inaugral writing retreat this fall.

This blog has allowed us to voice our opinions and share our journeys of the writing life. Along the way we've invited others to share their wisdom and walks as well.

We've interviewed eight authors and one editor/publisher and have had three guest bloggers: Kim's mom, Deborah Downes; Moonrat and Karen Harrington. (We also met Karen, a local author, at WGT.) We have more interviews scheduled and hope you enjoy reading about those who have paved the way for the rest of us.'s your turn. What would you like to see from this blog? Is there an author you'd like to learn more about? An agent you'd like to hear from? We've learned that it never hurts to ask, and so far, no one has turned us down flat. We'd love to hear your input.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Karen Harrington on Writing and Nature vs. Nurture

It's my pleasure to introduce a new contributor to What Women Write. You'll be seeing Karen Harrington around the place once a month or so.

Karen is the author of
Janeology, a book I (Julie) read recently and thoroughly enjoyed, though the subject matter is tough.

Using what I thought was a pretty unique storytelling method, Karen addresses the issue of whether someone can be genetically predisposed to committing a crime.

Janeology (Kunati/2008) is available from the usual sites, but Karen also has a certain number of copies available at a great discount by contacting her directly at kharrin2003(at sign) Check out Karen's website, where you can read more about her and her novel and even catch an excerpt.

Karen's a native Texan (our FIRST native here at What Women Write!), stay-at-home mom by day, and novelist by night.

Karen, thanks for joining us and welcome to What Women Write. Now, here's Karen!

Have you ever seen Andy Rooney? He’s a 60 Minutes news commentator. Nobody does curmudgeon better than Andy Rooney. He often launches into his satirical segments about everyday questions with “Do you ever wonder why...”

Lately I’ve been channeling my inner Andy Rooney over a single question: Do you ever wonder why . . . some writers become minimalists while others are maximalists?

Why do some writers develop the economic style of Hemingway while others write the kind of honeyed prose that helped make Pat Conroy famous?

Since I am captivated by the nature vs. nurture debate, I’ve begun to wonder if a writer’s style is more the result of nature or nurture. Are writers born with a certain stylistic lean? Or are we influenced by our earliest reading and writing experiences?

For myself, I attended the writing program at the University of Texas at Dallas. In its heyday, the UTD program had a proud distinction: 25% of all graduates from the program went on to be published. The reason behind this great result was, in part, the tremendous professors the university attracted. The head of the creative writing program was Dr. Robert Nelsen. Nelsen had a bent toward minimalism and short stories. We read Hemingway, Carver, Amy Hempel and Mary Gaitskill. These were among his favorites. We studied and outlined their stories, unearthing what was and wasn’t in the text. In his teaching and critique, he applied the famous Hemingway quote:

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-ninth of it being above water.”

These lessons stuck. I write in the minimalist style. Some of my early efforts indicated I was successful in this approach. One of my first short stories won an honorable mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Another was optioned for an independent short film.

So you see, the common denominator of these early achievements was developing a minimalist method. But a funny thing happened last year. I developed literary crushes on John Irving and Pat Conroy. To say that their writing is full, descriptive and luminous is an understatement. You’d be hard pressed to find a book by either author that weighs less than one pound. Their words not only describe where the protagonist lives, but also make you wonder if the scent of, say, an oceanside setting has perfumed the page.

Raymond Carver best summed up the difference in these two styles when he said, "Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”

But sometimes I like interior decoration! As much as I WANT to write long, I come up short.

I find it difficult and strained. The writing sounds like I just found a purple crayon and want to use it on everything. Nothing alerted me more to my own purple floweriness than when rereading my last NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) novel, which was an experiment in imitating Irving. I considered giving you an example sentence from said draft, but I’m not that brave.

So I have to wonder: If my early professors had been devotees to Faulkner and I had been trained on an expanded style, would my writing style today reflect the influence of those writers? Or, was I already hardwired with a certain style? Is there a nature/nurture correlation to writing?

Tell me what you think. Do you ever wonder why you write a certain way? Do you think your style is reflective of nature or nurture?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Not a Resolution, but Resolved

Can it really be February already? Just yesterday I dated a school form "2009" and was forced to cross it out and realign my thinking. January often does that to me, sneaks by before I've fully acclimated to the new year, and bam! Here we are in a brand new month, no longer a brand new year.

As a writer, January can be a daunting period. A fresh slate, sure, but that means that it's a time for beginnings. Only this year I didn't really begin anything new in January. Oh, I wrote a short story that was new, a piece that I think might actually be part of a chapter in a future novel, but other than that, as far as writing goes, it wasn't about novelty at all.

But I think that's okay. There's nothing magical about January 1, unless maybe you had a kid that day. We make up the calendar, we make up our deadlines, we make it all up. So now, in February, a mini-month fraught with romantic expectations and an abbreviated calendar, well, it's here, and the only goal I have set is in fact a couple of months away, not in twenty-five days.

I'm all right with that. There's something satisfying about starting the new year without a specific goal, and getting past that month when so many of those goals fall apart is really a bit of a relief. I didn't have any resolutions, nor did I break any. Now that the next holiday is closer than the last, it's fully 2010, no more scratching out dates on checks. And no more wondering if the guy next to me at yoga will be there next week; he's there to stay, just like me, not a resolution but a commitment.

It's February, and come April I'll be attending the DFW Writer's Workshop Conference, and my plan is to have a finished, polished, ready-for-prime-time new manuscript to talk about and pitch. That would be the NaNo book, in case anyone wondered, my 50K words from November, with a bunch of friends tagging along. Which isn't, and wasn't, a resolution. But now that a new month is upon us, it is a commitment. And now a public one. Gulp.

So if you'll excuse me, I've got some work to do. Hope to see you in April. With a new manuscript, perhaps?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dani Shapiro on her newest memoir

Dani Shapiro’s thought-provoking books -- from the bestselling memoir Slow Motion to stirring domestic dramas like my favorite Black and White—illuminate the complexities of everyday family life. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Vogue, Ploughshares, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. Publisher’s Weekly just gave her new book, Devotion, a starred rave:

Shapiro’s newest memoir, a mid-life exploration of spirituality begins with her son’s difficult questions—about God, mortality and the afterlife—and Shapiro’s realization that her answers are lacking, long-avoided in favor of everyday concerns. Determined to find a more satisfying set of answers, Shapiro seeks out the help of a yogi, a Buddhist and a rabbi, and comes away with, if not the answers to life and what comes after, an insightful and penetrating memoir that readers will instantly identify with. Shapiro’s ambivalent relationship with her family, her Jewish heritage and her secularity are as universal as they are personal, and she exposes familiar but hard-to-discuss doubts to real effect: she’s neither showboating nor seeking pat answers, but using honest self-reflection to provoke herself and her readers into taking stock of their own spiritual inventory. Absorbing, intimate, direct and profound, Shapiro’s memoir is a satisfying journey that will touch fans and win her plenty of new ones.

Joan: Congratulations on the release of Devotion. Can you tell us a little about it? (Readers, check out Dani's gorgeous book trailer here.)

Dani: Devotion is a memoir about my search for something to believe. I grew up in a very religious family and fled all organized religion as early as I possibly could. For many years I felt no need to replace it with any other kind of spiritual belief. Which was fine, for a long time—but then I found myself in my forties, with a young son who started asking me questions about what I believed, and I really wanted to be able to answer that question. What do I believe? I had no idea. And as is true with much of my work, I had to write a book in order to find out—in order to even give myself permission to find out.

Joan: How did you decide to return to memoir after fiction?

Dani: My books tend to present themselves to me in the form in which they belong. I suppose I could have written a novel in which a character goes on a spiritual search, but when Devotion flew into my head one morning as I was practicing yoga, it was very much as a memoir. I wanted to use my own self, my own life, as a laboratory, using both my history and my present to ask myself some of the deepest questions I could. For instance, in Devotion I explore my troubled relationship with my own mother, to ask the question: is it possible, truly possible, to ever give up on someone? I write about my son’s life-threatening illness as an infant in order to think about prayer. I mean, I prayed at the time. I prayed like crazy. But if you had asked me to whom or what I was praying, I wouldn’t have had an answer. I just knew I had to cover my bases.

Joan: In addition to your books, you write meaningful essays, which seem very personal, yet universal to many writers (I’m always astounded how much you ‘get’ me, without knowing me). Recently you wrote about betrayal, how we use moments from our life in our writing, in this case about a relative featured in your memoir. Every time I write anything remotely pulled from my own life, I edit it out, unwilling to analyze and present truths. How does one allow for such brutal honesty?

Dani: I think it’s possible to be honest without being brutal. At least I hope it is. I save the brutal part of honesty for my own self in my writing, but not others. When my mother was still living, I took great care not to hurt her. And though she may not have liked some of what I wrote, I was always aware of the ways in which I protected her. When I am writing very personal non-fiction, I always ask myself the question why. Am I writing this piece out of revenge? Because I want so-and-so to read it? Out of anger? Resentment? Good personal non-fiction may read as confessional, at times, but it isn’t a diary entry, and I think a reader can smell a vendetta from a mile away. For the past ten years, I have kept this quote from Edward Albee in my date book: “For the anger and rage to work aesthetically, the writer’s got to distance himself from it and write from 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.”

God I love that quote. Both because it’s a reminder that good writing considers what works aesthetically, and because it comes from powers of observation and recollection—not from the heat of the moment.

Joan: And did you send the copy of Devotion to your relative? If so, what was her reaction?

Dani: I waited to send a copy of Devotion to my relative until I had finished books, because all the way along, I wanted to be sure to soften or remove any bit of language, any description that might inadvertently cause her pain. I should say here that my portrayal of her in my book is incredibly loving and she is absolutely a hero of the story. But our lives are very different, and I wanted to take great care. In the end, she called me while reading the book, in tears, to tell me how beautiful she thought it is, and described it as “a form of Kaddish,” the Jewish prayer for mourning. It was a profound compliment.

Joan: Another of your recent posts cites this Colette quote: “The writer who loses her self-doubt, who gives way as she grows old to a sudden euphoria, to prolixity, should stop writing immediately: the time has come for her to lay aside her pen.” There is a fine balance then, isn’t there, between self-doubt and having the confidence to put your manuscript out there?

Dani: I don’t know any confident writers. I really don’t. That’s one of the most illuminating things about having been around for a while—the realization that it doesn’t get easier, that no writer gets up in the morning and looks at herself in the mirror while brushing her teeth, thinking: you’re published in The New Yorker, or You’ve won the Pulitzer, or whatever. We’re always doing that day’s work. Putting a manuscript out there is the result of a long string of days at the end of which, there is hopefully something to show for it, something that feels like maybe, just maybe, other people will respond. But confidence? I don’t trust confidence in writers. Now, if I were going to a surgeon, I’d want confidence.

Joan: Whether in memoir or fiction, you write about the painful and surprising acts we sometimes inflict on one another, survival of the soul and forgiveness. Coming from such emotionally charged writing sessions, how do you disconnect from your writing to join your everyday life? What makes you laugh?

Dani: Oh, that’s such a good question. Balancing a contented and joyous family life with the places I go internally to do my work – that’s one of the greatest challenges of all. I try to leave some space in between the time I finish work, and the time I pick my son up from school at the end of the day. And I don’t tend to write on weekends. And I don’t check email in the morning until he’s left for the day. These self-imposed rules do help. But it isn’t easy. Obviously, my inner life has some darkness to it, and some pain. I feel enormously lucky have a happy family, a wonderful soul-mate husband and a delicious ten year old boy who is the light of my life. As for what makes me laugh, lots of things make me laugh—my husband and son, my friends, my dogs… but I always have to remind myself to keep that space open and light and unoccluded. In fact, that’s very much what Devotion is about. I didn’t want to wake up one day and realize that this time in my life had zoomed by without my taking it in.

Joan: Which authors have influenced your writing? What are you reading now?

Dani: Virginia Woolf is my primary influence, both as a writer and as a thinker. There is a lucidity to her prose that I admire enormously. Contemporary writers I love include a couple of friends of mine—Amy Bloom and Jennifer Egan—as well as Ian McEwan, Richard Ford, the stories of Lorrie Moore. I just finished Rebecca Goldstein’s new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which I loved. I read a great deal of religious and spiritual thinkers while writing Devotion and wish I could still spend all day, every day, reading them: Buddhists like Sylvia Boorstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield. Thomas Merton, the great Catholic Monk. A brilliant book called Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope.

Joan: You’ve been involved with Sirenland Writers’ Conference in Positano, Italy, which I hope to one day attend. How did you pick that location? How much writing really gets done?

Dani: The location picked us! My husband and I were having dinner at a friend’s house in the country one evening, and the other guests were owners of a magnificent five star hotel in Positano. They asked if we’d like to bring some writers over, and it began from there. This March will be Sirenland’s fourth conference, and to answer your question, a huge amount of writing gets done. It’s truly all about the writing. We invite phenomenal writers and teachers like Jim Shepard, John Burnham Schwartz, Peter Cameron, Ron Carlson, and our partner-in-crime is Hannah Tinti, a wonderful novelist and editor of One Story Magazine. Students leave Positano in a daze of literary joy. I’m not kidding.

Joan: In this age of Facebook and Twitter, through which avenues do you feel most comfortable promoting your book?

Dani: I’ve been learning how very important social media is, and have grown more comfortable being a part of it. But one of the main things I’ve discovered is that people can’t just appear on Facebook and Twitter to promote their stuff. These are communities, and it’s important to be a real part of the community. I’m also going to be doing a lot of appearances around the country, readings and talks and panels, to promote Devotion. The travel and time away from home is a bit daunting, but the opportunity to connect with readers, particularly for this book which seems to create such an intense dialogue, is very exciting.

Joan: Many of our readers (and my fellow blog writers) have at least one book in the drawer. You didn’t come up against quite so much rejection when you were originally published. Can you share your story and perhaps offer some advice to aspiring authors?

Dani: I always tell my students that my story isn’t an instructive one – but lately I’ve been changing my tune about that. My first manuscript, which I finished while in the MFA Program at Sarah Lawrence, was sold while I was still in graduate school. So certainly that appeared to be a very good beginning—and in lots of ways it was, but looking back now, I don’t think I was ready. Certainly my manuscript wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t change a thing because it all led me to where I am today, and I’m pretty pleased with where I am today—but my first two books really were about learning to write in public. They’re both out of print and I’m happy for them to remain that way. It wasn’t until my third novel, Picturing the Wreck, that I started having a true feel for how to write a novel. Slow Motion, my memoir, was my fourth book – though many people think of it as my first because it was a bestseller and got a lot of media attention. Since then, my career has very much moved in a good direction. My books are beautifully published. If all that had happened in today’s publishing world, I probably wouldn’t have had that third chance, or fourth, or fifth. I’ve been lucky in that I truly know that I have grown as a writer with each book, and I’ve been able to do that.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Dani. My copy of Devotion will arrive on my porch this week. Readers, stop by my other blog for my thoughts sometime soon.
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