Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Although I have three creative writing degrees under my belt, I still enjoy picking up the random book about writing, especially the advice-memoir. Sometimes, I simply need reminded what’s so great about writing, and to be reassured that my struggles are not uncommon. Everyone knows about Stephen King’s On Writing, and I advocate for Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. In fact, I’ve used both books in a fiction writing class I taught at the University of Notre Dame.

Dani Shapiro is new to me. Her name is around — she’s famous — but I’d never read her work. Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life is wee, only 227 pages in a petite book, so it goes by fast. Loosely, the structure is broken into beginnings, middles, and ends. Each “chapter” within the three larger sections is also quite small (a page or two). Although “chapter” is likely correct, I found each to be more like a bit of advice than a fleshed out chunk.

Some of the advice felt too abstract for me to completely follow, and this is where King and Lamott have the upper hand: their advice is practice and doable without being a step-by-step “how to write your novel in one month” sort of money-grabbing scheme. Shapiro describes getting distracted while attempting to write being akin to a wave. Instead of checking your email or re-plating all your shrubs, ride the wave. Okay, but I’m not totally sure what that means. Most writers aren’t distracted, they’re paralyzed by fear or a sense of worthlessness, so they change activities to protect themselves. Thus, how does one simply ride out the wave?

That’s not to say some advice isn’t clearer. Likening writing to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, Shapiro notes how smart people pull out the border pieces of the puzzle to assemble first. Once you have parameters and a sense of what the puzzle may look like, it’s a bit easier to finish (the comparison falls apart when you remember the puzzle has its picture on the box). Find the pieces, one at a time, and connect them. This is like story writing: have a sense of the image, and then describe one thing at a time, attaching it to something else. Maybe a character’s article of clothing, a dog on the street, a tree bearing fruit, etc. Here, the metaphor comes together for me in an applicable way — when stuck, describe something small, and before you know it, you’re putting one word in front of another until you have a sentence.

While all writers have their preferences, it’s common for these advice-memoirs to suggest one way is better while acknowledging that there are different ways to approach. Shapiro insists that handwriting early on is best because early drafts are messy, and the computer, with the copy/paste and backspace options, don’t mirror the mess on the screen. She also edits as she goes, getting each paragraph “right” before she moves on, even though she acknowledges that after the first draft, those paragraphs may be deleted anyway. Depending on your feelings, you may appreciate a look into one writer’s process, or you may get frustrated that there aren’t options. To me, getting insight on one person gives me something to consider and try, so I wasn’t bothered.

I did find more helpful advice in King’s and Lamott’s memoirs, but I recognize that perhaps I read Still Writing too fast. It’s possible that those tiny chapters, those bits of advice, were meant to be read one a day, so the impact of it wasn’t as great on me. Overall, I feel neutral about any recommendation.

27 comments

  1. I didn’t realize you had 3 creative writing degrees. That’s really awesome!

    I enjoy creative writing too (no degrees. Just lots of practice) but strictly as a hobby. It’s a lot of very hard work!

    This does sound a little abstract (I don’t understand the wave metaphor at all). The only thing I can think is the advice is similar to just putting it down, even if it’s garbage, and going back to fix it later. Great review!

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    • The three degrees all happened…well, almost accidentally. And the strange thing is that going through a creative writing program doesn’t necessarily mean that you learn about writing. It’s more like you workshop a lot with people who have very different opinions, and that can be deeply unhelpful. If anything, my education helped me network, and for that I am grateful.

      What kind of writing do you like to do? I used to write very Serious Works, but then I started writing satire of romance novels and choose-your-own adventure stories, and I have way more fun with it.

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      • Omg that does sound like so much fun!! I love that.

        My writing is definitely not very serious work- it’s a lot of fantasy and historical fiction. Sometimes dystopian. I sort of just write whatever inspires me at that moment.

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  2. I’m a Anne Lamott fan. And you can only buy/read so many advice books on writing. Ultimately, advice or no advice, access to wisdom from the famous, and many other resource You simply have to write a word on the page, and continue. Or put fingers on keyboard and start writing. To quote an old Zen maxim: Just do it.

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  3. I really need to get around to reading Bird by Bird. I read a long excerpt in college and have been meaning to pick up the rest ever since, but haven’t gotten around to it. I loved On Writing and found it very helpful, so seeing them compared like this is motivating. Shapiro’s book doesn’t sound awful, but I’m definitely more interested in Lamott!

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    • Shaprio’s book is averaged slightly above four stars on Goodreads, so I know folks found it helpful. I found it more abstract and general instead of practical and useful. I hope you read Lamott’s book; there is this infamous passage about school lunches that gets cited all the time.

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  4. As a blogger I knock out about 2,000 words a week. I used to believe hand writing first got down what I wanted to say, especially when I was a student, but now I think it’s just a waste of time. These days, I start typing into a device from the get-go and the good bits I keep and the bad bits I can delete or cut up or push to the bottom of the page from whence I might later retrieve something of value.

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    • I get what she’s saying about seeing the mess of a draft, but I don’t know that it has been helpful to me as a writer. I usually think I’m going too slowly or that I have no space to add in several sentences where I want. Instead, I tend to write a first draft of a short story on the computer, print it, and then edit it my hand with a pen. I can still see the mess, but I gave myself more space in the first place. One thing I think we need to be careful about with saving digital files is that we find everything “worth” keeping — what if it’s a nugget of something good later? As a result, I’ve often had to wade through old files every five years or so and remind myself, “Oh, yes. This is garbage and should have deleted it. But maybe it will be a nugget later…” and end up keeping the dang file.

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  5. I would have read the book the same way-shorter chapters encourage me to read faster I find. I’m just in the process of beginning to see myself as a ‘writer’ in a way. I’ll never write fiction, which to me, has it’s own set of challenges, but because I write my blog, and now, I’m starting to write more book reviews and bookish articles, I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea of becoming a writer. I’m starting an online course next week with the University of British Columbia on freelance writing-wish me luck 🙂

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  6. I’ve never read a writing memoir, though I have heard of the other two you mention. I did some writing when I was in high school, but I mostly journaled (hey Deadjournal, I see you there), so I never picked up any of the writing memoirs. While I imagine they might be interesting, at this point I’m afraid they would just make me judge David’s writing process! XD

    How did you find this writing memoir in the first place if you haven’t read any of Shapiro’s works before?

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    • Ha! David might be more of an imaginer than a writer, but that’s fine, too. I can’t remember where I first noticed Still Writing! I don’t have it marked as recommended by anyone. Perhaps it was one I picked up while wandering the shelves at the library, but I can’t remember the last time I did that.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This definitely sounds like it falls more in the “memoir” category than the “writing advice” one. I’m not familiar with this book at all, but On Writing is one of my favorite Stephen King books:-)

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    • Yesterday, the final question on Jeopardy! was about which popular author writes 20-22 hours per day. The answer was Danielle Steel, so I had to know more. I went to her blog and read about how she writes a book, the process, that is, but she also noted that she would never pen a writing book. She felt that the only advice was to sit in the seat and do it. I think some folks have good advice for when your stuck (such as Lamott’s words of wisdom to write small, one bird at a time or get into a conversation about which everyone has something to say, like what you ate for lunch in elementary school). However, Shapiro’s book felt so dreamy, abstract, like reading into a crystal ball that also had ideas about writing? I’m not sure. It wasn’t my favorite. I hope you check out Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, though!

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  8. Bird by Bird is one of my favourites too. But I did enjoy this one far more than I expected to (I think I had low expectations because of the cover — although I know that shouldn’t put me off). I ended up jotting down quite a few snippets – tidy little packets of advice (not necessarily earth-shattering). It reminded me of my experience reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on creativity – another that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy – although they come at things rather differently. I usually have a writing book in my stack. Even when the advice doesn’t apply to me personally, I enjoy stepping into that writer’s POV for awhile, and sometimes it helps me clarify what does work for me, in contrast.

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    • I agree: in fact, the final question on Jeopardy! the other day asked which writer composes for 20-22 hours per day. The answer was Danielle Steel. Turns out, the question isn’t quite accurate. Steel only works those wild hours near the end of a book, but her dedication is impressive throughout her writing process. It’s not one I would want to have, personally, even if I was a professional writer. She sounds lonely to me. Here was her blog post about her work habits: https://www.daniellesteel.net/its-always-the-first-time-for-me/

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      • That question is so misleading! It’s like asking video game developers about their work life when they’re in the crunch before release! (Inhumane.) Her thought about it always being like the first time (and after 107 novels – wow!) rings true though. Some things just do not get easier – you just get more comfortable moving through them.

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        • I thought it was misleading like the way students are given those teacher evaluations at the end of the college semester, and one question is “how many hours of work per week did you put into this class?” One student replied that she is never not working on homework, so she couldn’t even accurately answer the question. I totally understood and agreed with her. I mean, if you ask before finals week, the answer would be ALL THE HOURS.

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