Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and has been broadcast on “This American Life”. Dani was recently Oprah Winfrey’s guest on”Super Soul Sunday,” and was chosen by Arianna Huffington to speak at the New York City “Thrive” conference. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University; she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. A contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, Dani lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Her latest book is, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.
I Am Driven By | What drives me has changed quite a bit over the years. I think, at the beginning of my life as a writer, I was driven by a need to prove myself. In my early 20’s I had really made a mess of my life. I had dropped out of college, was a bit of a party girl, and was involved in a very destructive relationship with an older man. That all skidded to a halt when my parents were in a terrible car accident that killed my father and badly injured my mother. I went back to college, then entered graduate school, and I was hell-bent on proving to myself and to anyone around me who was paying attention that I was going to amount to something after all. While that drive was helpful fuel, ultimately – to continue the fuel analogy – it’s kind of cheap fuel. Because that kind of proving of oneself can create a lot of impatience, and not a lot of depth. As I moved deeper into my adult life, and into my work, I began to be in competition only with myself. I’ve always wanted to get better – to be better. To have each book I write be stronger, more ambitious, more well-crafted than the last.
My Highlights | I’ve published eight books and have taught in universities since I was twenty-nine years old. But I would say that my last two books –– Devotion and Still Writing – make me proud in a particular way that involves helping people. I had no idea when I embarked on writing Devotion that readers would find it healing or helpful. I was trying to explore certain aspects of spiritual life myself, and while I was writing that book, I actually wondered if anyone at all would read it – it felt so utterly specific to me. But when it was published, I had literally thousands of readers tell me that I had told their story. That was a huge highlight – because it created in me an understanding of the ways in which we’re all more alike than different. And when I got the call that Oprah wanted me to be her guest on her show “Super Soul Sunday” that was a staggering highlight. But more than the invitation, more than the resulting book sales and so forth, was the conversation itself. I was aware of having an opportunity to be in conversation with an extraordinary human being – and what was most important to me was actually being present for it. Not nervous, not self-conscious, but fully alive to that moment.
A Key Talent | I think that, as an artist, I have managed to be fairly practical about how to go about making my art. I somehow understood from the time I started writing novels that there was daily habit and discipline involved. I have always written five days a week, during regular business hours. I think I’ve needed to feel in-step with the rest of the world, and not overly isolated, even though the life of the writer is somewhat isolating since we must do what we do alone in a room. I’ve created conditions for myself in which I could get my work done. I’ve learned a lot about what is helpful, and what is detrimental, to the kind of openness I need to approach the page with courage. So I would say – aside from talent, which I cannot judge in myself – I’ve had a persistence and a doggedness about getting the work done. I have not waited for inspiration to strike. It’s essential to put oneself in the path of inspiration by sitting down and showing up.
How I Use My Mind | What comes to mind in answer to this question has to do with my relationship with being overstimulated. We’re living in a very over stimulating time, generally speaking, and the Internet makes it very tempting for us to constantly exist in a buzzy, excitable state. One of the greatest challenges, for me, has been in regulating this technology so that I am the master of it, not the servant. Otherwise, I could spend all day, every day, going down the rabbit hole. This is particularly true for people who work primarily on a computer, and on their own – whether writers, entrepreneurs, graphic designers, you name it. I find that my mindset is much clearer and stronger when I limit my screen time. I read actual paper books. I meditate regularly – even if only for a few minutes. I try to slow down, and incorporate as much stillness and quiet into my days as possible. A clear and unconfused mind allows me to focus on my goals.
Lessons I Have Learnt | I have learned to recognize my teachers when they cross my path. By “teachers” I mean those human beings in whom I recognize a quality that I want to know more about – a quality I want to cultivate in myself. I have been very fortunate to have always had this ability to find and recognize my teachers, ever since I was a young girl. This was tremendously important to me early in my life because I didn’t come from a family who taught me how to make my way in the world, or how to discover my passion, or just simply how to be. And as I’ve moved through life I’ve tried to remember to keep my eyes open. Our teachers always appear, as long as we’re awake to the possibility that they exist.
Dealing With Doubt | I face self-doubt, fear and negativity on very nearly a daily basis. I think we all do. The difference is that I’ve come to accept these traits as part of my own nature. To recognize them and not be ruled by them. Whenever I face the blank page, I am consumed with self-doubt. How will I ever write another word – much less another book – again? Who will care what I have to say? But – back to the idea of habit, of practice – I see those fears arise and I move past them because I know they’re not real. They’re arising from my consciousness the same way everything else does. They’re chimerical. Once I make the leap, they vanish. But I cannot stress enough, this is a daily struggle, a daily practice. Some people labor under the misapprehension that, at a certain point in a life, these self-doubts of fears vanish. They certainly haven’t in me – and I’ve asked around to some of my highly-successful friends, and they face those same demons every single day.
Performing At My Peak | I try to take care of myself, body and soul. To get enough sleep. To practice yoga as often as possible. To meditate as often as possible. To read for pleasure. To spend time with my husband and son. To play with my dogs. To take baths. To allow down time to really be down time, and not be eroded by a to-do list five thousand items long. Otherwise, I think we all could be working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Which does not put anyone at their peak.
Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | Despite everything I’ve said about the Internet, my single favorite resource is on the Internet: a glorious website called Brainpickings, curated by a brilliant woman named Maria Popova. It’s a treasure trove. I listen to NPR and podcasts in my car – and I am in my car quite a bit. And I keep Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary” on my desk and open it each day to a random page to receive some tidbit of wisdom from a writer who feels like a soul sister. I find that what I listen to and what I read impact me more than what I see – I have no retention of movies, despite the fact that my husband is a filmmaker!
The Best Advice I’ve Received | Before I went on Oprah’s show, a very wise friend told me to be curious. I was worried about being nervous or self-conscious, and she said: “if you’re curious, you won’t be self-conscious. Curiosity and self-consciousness cannot occupy the same space.”