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.