Still Writing

What a lovely, inspirational book! I really appreciated its honesty, and its gentle, helpful tone. The way it’s divided in readable, short segments. The non-sentimental way it blends memoir with advice. Its direct confrontation of relevant 21st-century struggles (the internet! Self-hatred! Monday mornings! Self-scheduling! How to make routines, form habits!). It’s definitely something I’m going to pass from hand to hand among my graduate school cohorts. I love writing-themed non-fiction, I love self-help written in incredibly kind, compassionate voices, and this book combines the best of both worlds.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Here’s a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go to the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination. Do you need to know, right this minute, the exact make and year of the car your character is driving? … Can it wait? It can almost always wait. 

Sit down. Stay there. It’s hard–I know just how hard–and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn’t get any easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort. Make some kind of peace with it. (10-11)

What I do know–what I’ve spent the past couple of decades learning about myself–is that if I’m not writing, I’m not well. If I’m not writing, the world around me is slowly leached of its color. My senses are dulled. I am crabby with my husband, short-tempered with my kid, and more inclined to see small things wrong with my house… If I’m not writing, my heart hardens, rather than lifts. (13-14)

We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. What we’re doing isn’t easy. We have chosen to spend the better parts of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts and obsessions and concerns… 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. (81)

This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you: The Internet is nothing like a cigarette break. If anything, it’s the opposite. One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in this age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which most of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer was like writing in an amusement park. Stuck for a nanosecond? Why feel it? With the single click of a key we can remove ourselves and take a ride on a log flume instead. (159)

The agony! The nagging sense of what might have been! There is always someone who, at this very moment, has more. More acclaim, more money, more access, more respect… I see this even when I watch my son with his middle school friends. There are girls in full bloom–girls who are the envy of their classmates, girls who are at this moment as pretty and popular as they will ever be. Boys who’ve had growth spurts and are practically shaving, who are envied by the smaller boys and wonder when–and if–they will ever grow. Observing them, from the sidelines of ball games and dances, I want to jump up and shout: This isn’t it! You think this is it, but it isn’t! your whole lives are ahead of you with ten thousand joys and sorrows. Of course I say nothing. My son would kill me. But I think about this–about myself and every adult, writer or not, who makes the all-too-human mistake of comparing one life to another. (216-217)

When I first learned of Buddhism’s eight vissictudes–pain and pleasure, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute–I was taught that it is unskillful–that gentle Buddhist word for fucked up–to compare. We will never know what’s coming. We cannot peer around the bend. It is our job to pursue our own dharma and covet no one else’s. (217)

I also liked this list by the poet Jane Kenyon that she quotes at one point (207-208):

Be a good steward to your gifts.

Protect your time.

Feed your inner life.

Avoid too much noise.

Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.

Be by yourself as often as you can.

Walk.

Take the phone off the hook.

Work regular hours.

Disable the Internet [Shapiro’s addition]

I also liked her quotes from the Gnostic Gospels (If we bring forth what is within us, it will save us. If we do not bring forth what is within us, it will destroy us) and the Bhagavad Gita (Better is one’s own dharma through imperfectly carried out than the dharma of another carried out perfectly). (201)

Oh, and this oft-quoted quote by Martha Graham also makes a lovely appearance (118):

It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even need to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. 

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