Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
By Dani Shapiro
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013
I love this book. I’ve just finished reading it and I plan to keep it by my desk and re-read its short chapters as part of my own daily writing routine. I don’t think non-writers, even fans of Dani Shapiro’s work (novels and memoirs), can really appreciate the book. But writers will. Are you a writer? You should read this book.
Although Shapiro’s childhood was very different from mine and her path to writing was also very different, and although she’s been far more successful than I have, I can relate to just about everything she says in this book. More importantly, I am comforted by it and I can learn from it.
The book, which is short, is divided into three sections: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. That pretty much covers it, right? As writers, we struggle with getting started. We struggle with keeping the momentum going. We struggle with the endings. (We also struggle with what happens after the ending, and that third section deals with that, too.)
While writing about her own life and her own experience, Shapiro shares valuable tips for writers. On my next read through, I’m going to underline my favorites, but I’ll give you a sample:
“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 on 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.” Okay, I knew this already, but I need someone to tell me, to force me to admit that I do this. All the time. And it’s a problem.
“Start small. If you try to think about all of it at once—the world you hope to capture on the page, everything you know, every idea you’ve ever had, each person you’ve met, and the panoply of feelings coursing through you like a river—you’ll be overcome with paralysis.” Yes. Absolutely. She goes on to use the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle. Build a corner first, then move on from there. “Every book, story, and essay begins with a single word. Then a sentence. Then a paragraph.”
And there’s much more. Some of it is obvious. Some of it is not. But all of it is helpful. It’s helpful just to have had a successful author say it.
I’m not going to lend you my copy of this book. Get your own.
Now, having said how much I love this book, I was shocked—shocked, I tell you!—by typos. When you spend $24 for a book, you ought to get something that’s pretty close to perfect. I took an informal poll of my Facebook friends to find out how bothered they were by typos in a printed book, and most—almost all who responded—were very bothered. (10 or more on a scale of 1 to 10.) A few didn’t care, but they were in the clear minority.
I care. I didn’t stop reading because of the typos, because I was really enjoying the book, but what good is having a big-time publisher if they’re going to let mistakes like this slip by. I actually doubt that these errors were Dani Shapiro’s. She strikes me as too careful for that. But somehow in production these mistakes slipped into the text.
I counted five in a small-format 230 page book. And I can’t be sure I spotted them all, especially because I read the last third of the book rather quickly. On my next reading—I’m serious about reading it again, despite the typos—I may find more. But here’s what I found so far, in case the author or publisher might be interested:
- p. 32: “We doesn’t ask why that particular slant of sunlight, snipped of dialogue, old couple walking along the road hand-in-hand seems to evoke an entire world.” [Someone changed the subject and forgot to change the verb?]
- P. 116: “You don’t know—you can’t know—whether the bricks you’ve layed on top will be supported by the brinks at the bottom.” [I even checked to see if there’s some technical think about brick-laying that would justify this spelling, but I found none.]
- P. 119: “There is tremendous creative freedom to be found in letting go of our opinions of our work, in considering the possibility that we may not be not our own best critic.” [I tried to imagine a meaning in which this crazy double negative might make sense, but . . . no.]
- P. 126: “If it were possible to trace the roots of any writing life back to it’s very inception, to the seeds, to the tender shoots deep within the fertile ground, we would inevitably find ourselves in the territory of childhood.” [Cringe.]
- P. 155: “But somehow—though the whole thing was embarrassing and didn’t feel exactly good—I had the sense that what I was doing was—as my writer friends and I sometimes say, good for the work.” [Dashes can be tricky, and this mistake is probably the result of trying to avoid two parentheticals in the same sentence, but the fix was incomplete.]
Too picky? Maybe. But if this is what we get from a real publisher, what sets the work apart from the messes we sometimes see in self-published books? Each one of these mistakes made me stop. That’s not what an author wants to have happen.
Typos aside, this is a fine book, and I recommend it highly to my writer friends.
Thanks for this review, Cliff–I’m always interested in good books by writers on writing; her comment about starting small reminded me of something I read just yesterday by Raymond Carver, who said he felt anxious and vaguely ashamed that he routinely started writing a story knowing almost nothing about it, until one of his teachers at Iowa (?) said he worked in much the same way. I always use the metaphor of pulling on a string, like William Blake’s golden one:
“I GIVE you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.…”
But I am appalled by the typos you cite here; I didn’t respond to your informal query because even though I do find typos irritating, I’m trying not to let small things irritate me so much. But holy cow! This is one of the most egregious examples of poor proofreading I’ve ever seen. In a couple of instances they’re worse than typos; they are grammatical errors, and serious ones. As somebody once observed, a good piece of writing with an error is like an elegant woman with spinach in her teeth.
Thanks, Christina. Yeah, some of these are bad. She tweeted to thank me for the review and the list, so they can get corrected in the paperback.
I’ve been reading “Still Writing”, slowly, savoring each page as part of my writing practice. It’s like I’m having a conversation with the author, and I’m buoyed that an accomplished writer still struggles like me, a novice. I’ll have the good fortune of attending Dani’s class in Taos this summer.
Nice to see that you like this book as much as I do. Also, nice to see you posting again, Cliff. I’ve missed your reviews, tips, and observations.
Thanks, Laretta. It was a busy winter!
I loved Shapiro’s book. Like you, I found it relevant to my own writing life and comforting. It’s one I’ll reread. As for the typos: they—and other editing “mistakes”—are bothersome. Even the most careful of us can let something slip past; it’s easy to do when we look at our own words over and over. But it seems proofreading is a lost art, and some of the mistakes I see are even bigger and more disturbing (like the repetition of certain words and phrases in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch that seem, well, accidental and should have been caught by a good editor). You’d think the big publishers could do better. I expect small presses may do a better job of this than the large ones. What it comes down to is that we all have to be our own best editors, I guess.
We do expect more, I agree. I’m reading a new hardcover now and while I haven’t found typos, I have found some clumsy prose–such as the unintentional repetitions you spotted in The Goldfinch–that a real editor should have worked with the author to fix.