Still Writing

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Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life has plenty of advice for writers, but because it’s more of a memoir than a book on writing, I think anyone could read it and get something out of it. I haven’t read any of Shapiro’s other books (and she’s got many) or essays, but a friend recommended this one to me so I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did because Still Writing turned out to be just the inspiration I was looking for at the time. The book is full of great advice and is well worth reading, especially if you’re a writer. Here are a few of my favourite passages from Still Writing.

Just sit there.
“Sit down. Stay there. It’s hard—I know just how hard—and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn’t get easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort. Make some kind of peace with it.”

Get a room of your own.
“We writers spend our days making something out of nothing. There is the blank page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on that page. There is no shape, no blueprint until one emerges from the page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can’t know. And so we need a sense of structure around us. These four walls. This cup. The wheels of the train beneath us. This borrowed room. The weight of this particular pen. Whatever it is that makes us feel secure in our physical space allows us to make the leap, hoping that the page will catch us. Writing, after all, is an act of faith. We must believe, without the slightest evidence that believing will get us anywhere.”

Be kind to yourself.

“We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. What we’re doing isn’t easy. We have chosen to spend the better part of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts and obsessions and concerns. We unleash the beast of memory; we peer into  Pandora’s box. We do all this in the spirit of faith and exploration, with no guarantee that what we produce will be worthwhile.”

“And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of the Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she’s a child she loves very much. Sweetheart, she’ll say. Darling. Honey. That’s all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You’ll try again tomorrow.”

Create characters, not character types.
“Elderly people are not always craggy, wrinkled, stooped over, forgetful, or wise. Teenagers are not necessarily rebellious, querulous, or pimple-faced. Babies aren’t always angelic, or even cute. Drunks don’t always slur their words. Characters aren’t types, When creating a character, it’s essential to avoid the predictable. Just as in language we must beware of cliches. When it comes to character, we are looking for what is true, what is not always so, what makes a character unique, nuanced, indelible.”

“They don’t exist simply to advance our protagonist from point A to point B. They are not filler—you know, simply there to supply some local colour. There is no such thing as filler or local colour in life, nor can there be on the page.”

Risk it all.
“The writing life is full of risk. There is the creative risk—the willingness to fall flat on our face again and again—but there is also practical risk. As in, it may not work out. We don’t get brownie points for trying really hard. When we set our hopes on this life, we are staking our future on the contents of our own minds. On our ability to create and continue to create. We have nothing but this.”

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