still doing that brain surgery thing?

I rarely need to purchase books these days—one of the delicious perks of being a radio host. But I still embrace the meditative state of browsing bookstore shelves, trailing my fingers along the neatly aligned spines of multicolored book jackets, hoping to discover a new treasure, a new author, a new idea, a book written just for me.

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. I pick it up, glance at front and back covers. I let the book fall open to the page of its choice. I start reading. I look for a chair and read some more. I read as I wait in line to pay for the book. And when I get home, I lean against the kitchen counter and read as the electric kettle heats up.

I pour boiling water into my ‘special moments’ teapot, stirring lemon and ginger tealeaves, and leave them to steep while I curl up on the sofa to get lost in the mind of this exquisite writer.

Hours later, I Tweet Dani Shapiro and tell her Still Writing just made it to my ‘favorites’ bookshelf.  I invite her on the show and we exchange PR connections.  Booking confirmed, show notes prepared, here’s a little of our conversation.


Dani Shapiro, Author of Still Writing

Vicki: It’s an interesting title, Dani. I thought, “Why Still Writing?” Then of course, when I got to the end of the book I realized why you called it Still Writing. Let’s start there.

You have a friend, a sculptor whose name is Mark. People always go up to him and say, “Are you still doing that sculpting thing?”  You hear the same thing. “Are you still writing?”

Dani: Exactly. I remember the time that Mark came up to me, it was at a party in Connecticut where we both live. This is a guy who he’s 6’5”. He’s this strapping guy who works in enormous hunks of marble and granite. His work is in museums and the best art collections all over the world and on the campuses of great universities.

Somebody came up to him at this party and said, “Are you still doing that sculpture thing?” He came up to me sort of befuddled, crest fallen, that feeling of, “Really? Are you really asking if this is what I do with my life?”

There have been so many times I’ve been asked that. No matter how many books I’ve written, no matter what I’ve “achieved” as a writer or an artist in my life, I’m always asked, “Are you still writing?”

So many times I’ve wanted to respond “Yes! Are you still doing that brain surgery thing? Is that still working out for you?”

When I realized I wanted to do this book, the title was so clear to me.  I remember the moment it came to me.

There’s also the double entendre, which is the stillness required to do this work that we do … it’s very real. You can’t do it in a frenetic and noisy environment. There needs to be a quiet and solitude.

Vicki: Do you think it’s because it’s creative that people think it’s not sustainable, it’s not real work? As you say in the book, when is enough, enough? What do I have to do to prove myself?

Dani: It’s funny, because I’ve actually taken an informal poll of some of my very successful friends in various creative fields. My husband is a filmmaker and he just made a film with an actress who has been around a long time and has won Tony Awards and been nominated for Emmys and all sorts of stuff, practically a household name and I said to her, “Does anybody ever say to you, ‘Are you still acting?’” She just laughed and said, “All the time.”

I think the person asking it means no ill will, no harm. I think it comes from the feeling of … what can it possibly be to sit down on a daily basis try to make something out of nothing? It sort of flies in the face of the way that most people spend their daily lives. Yet for anyone who creates, for artists and writers, it’s the only thing we can do.

Vicki: I could relate to this book on so many levels. I love that you call it a companion to writers. It’s not easy. People joke all the time, “It’s okay for you guys in your PJs all day.” I certainly don’t work in my PJs even though I work from my own studio, but it’s not always easy to get yourself sat down in that chair. There is no real pressure on you unless you have a looming deadline. You talk about this a lot in the book.

Dani: Right, there is so much to distract … the longest walk of my day is from the cappuccino maker in my kitchen to my desk.

Vicki: I know Monday mornings are particularly difficult for you so I appreciate you being with us today.

Dani: Mondays are brutal. I’ve always kept very regular hours as a writer. It’s whatever works for you. Some writers can write in the middle of the night or don’t keep regular hours at all. Some work 7 days a week. I have always, from the very beginning of my writer’s life, worked Monday through Friday, when the rest of the world is working. I think it’s been my hedge against feeling too solitary or out of step or lonely.

That feeling of having to crack the code of this thing in your head … how to articulate it on the page. How to take this chaos, this longing and this vision, these bits and pieces, and create something that has coherence and integrity on the page. It’s so challenging to get your butt into the chair. Someone once said, “It’s not the writing [that’s hard]. It’s the sitting down to write.”

Much of what I really wanted to explore in the book is the way that I think so many of us get in our own way.

Often, some of my worst writing days are the ones that start out completely free of any other distractions or disturbances. Full day open to me, empty house, quiet, phone’s not ringing, no appointment, everything is just as it should be. Sometimes the pressure of that is just too much.

If left with nothing else getting in the way between me and my work, I can get between me and my work. I think that’s true of so many of us. It’s a struggle.

Vicki: I agree and it’s nice to know we’re not alone. I love that you have a sense of humor about this. In the introduction you wrote that a high school student had asked if he could come and observe you because he was interested in becoming a writer. You wrote, “Observe me? I had to decline. I couldn’t imagine what the poor student would think watching me sit, then stand. Sit again. Decide I needed more coffee. Go downstairs and make the coffee. Go back upstairs and sit again. Get up. Comb my hair. Sit again.” I thought, “Yeah, I can definitely relate to that sometimes.”

*2013 Interview excerpt with writer Dani Shapiro. Edited for clarity, length, and readability. Conversations LIVE with Vicki St. Clair.