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Hey, what’s up there? It’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. And I am so excited about today’s guest. So if you’re a writer or you want to be, this is the episode for you. Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, Slow Motion, and five novels including Black and White and Family History. She’s appeared on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and in the New Yorker, Elle, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and This American Life, among others. She’s taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School, and Wesleyan University, and is the cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. Dani lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
Thank you so much for being here.
It’s such a pleasure and an honor. Thrilled to be with you.
Well, we’ve wanted to do this for a while. We’re finally doing it. Take me back, because we’re both Jersey girls. I mean, you’ve written 9 books, you’ve had this incredible career. Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer since you were little?
I always wrote and I always — I was one of those kids who read under the covers with a flashlight. But Jersey girl that I was, I love that we’re sitting here, too. Can you imagine to yourself when you were like, you know, 7 years old in New Jersey? I couldn’t have. I didn’t grow up knowing writers. I didn’t grow up knowing — I grew up loving books, but the idea that there were people who actually wrote them somehow eluded me. And so it really wasn’t until I got to college and I met for the first time working writers who — I went to Sarah Lawrence College, which is in Westchester. It’s a quick, you know, half hour train ride from the city. So there were working writers, like the writer — the Great American Short Story writer Grace Paley was teaching there. And I looked at Grace and I thought, “My God. This is a person who writes books, teaches, has kids, you know, is a social activist.” Classes used to be cancelled and there’d be like a note on the door saying, “Class is cancelled. Grace is in jail.” For, you know, for protesting. And she was just this amazing person. So it was role models like her where I began to see that maybe it was possible. Even though at first what I felt was this may be possible for somebody, but I don’t know if it’s possible for me.
Even though you had always been writing. Like, did you have a feeling were you in your teens or late teens or perhaps in college? When did you really know like this is my path, or did that not happen until later?
It happened really because of a tragedy in my family. I was writing. I constantly wrote short stories. I wrote letters to people when I was a kid that were often full of just like made up things. I secretly wondered whether I was maybe like a little not okay in the head. You know? Because I was constantly inventing things. But I was confusing imagination and reality in a way that I think — not confusing them, but living in my imagination the way that a lot of writers do. So I was — let’s see. I was 23 years old, I had dropped out of college, I hadn’t finished. In fact, I didn’t have a high school degree either, because I left high school a year early to go to college. So my terminal degree at that moment was from the 6th grade.
Of my elementary school in Union, New Jersey. So on paper this doesn’t look very good for an aspiring writer. So I was 23 years old and my parents were in a terrible car accident. And my father was killed, and my mother was very badly injured. And in the wake of my father’s death — and I was an only child, so taking care of my mother, nursing her back to health, grieving my father, it was such a sort of do or die moment for me. I should also mention I had a — like the worst possible kind of married boyfriend, you know, sociopath. I mean, just like look up in the dictionary like what you really ought not to do as a young woman, and I was doing it. And I broke up with the boyfriend and I went back to college. And when I went back to college, and I was taking care of my mother who was in rehab for about a year. And when I want back to college, it was with a story to tell. I had this burning need to tell this story. I wasn’t ready to, which is something that we can get into, but I needed to. And so I began writing as if my life depending on it, which in many ways it really did. And that’s how it started. So I went back and I finished my senior year in high school. I mean, I’m sorry. I finished my senior year in college. And then they pretty much said to me, “Sweetheart, you’re a writer. Over there is the graduate writing program. Just open that door. They’ll know what to do with you. You stay here.” I mean, I don’t know that that could happen today, but that’s what happened then. And so I stayed in my — in that graduate writing program, I wrote my first novel.
And it was with this steely determination. I had so much to prove. I had so much to prove to myself. I had so much to prove to my family. I had screwed up so much. I mean, one of the really amazing things about life, I think, is that I could go from having my terminal degree having been the 6th grade, you know, elementary school in Union, New Jersey to just a few years later when my first novel was published being referred to as, you know, like a wunderkind or a prodigy, because at like 26 or 27 years old my first novel was coming out. So that just — I think there’s such a lesson in that.
And was that a lot of pressure? Like, after that first one came out and it’s like getting called a wunderkind, especially at that age, how do you follow that up? You know? At least for me in my own kind of my DNA set. Woah. I would feel this tremendous amount of, you know, that anxiety that comes. Like, oh, now I really have to do it again.
Oh, yeah. No, I think somebody at a cocktail party after that first book had come out said to me, “You know, everybody has one book in them.” And that’s like classically the kind of thing that I don’t know why the nice things that people say to us tend not to be what stick. You know, it’s always like that like little jab or that thing that’s haunting.
Oh, it’s negativity bias. It’s how our brains are wired. It’s evolutionary.
But it sucks.
No, completely sucks. And so the entire time I was writing my second novel I had that stranger’s voice in my head saying, “Everybody has one book in them. Everybody has one book.” I think it’s true for a lot of writers, and maybe other fields as well, that the second act, the second book, the second thing, it’s — in terms of books, often second books, second novels, are often the real — sometimes not as good as either the first or then books that the writer will later write once they’ve gotten over that sense of, you know, just terror about being able to do it. I remember when I turned my second book in to my agent, actually handed it to her in actual paper in a box, and I put it in her lap. And I said, “Well, the good news is I never have to write a second novel again.” That’s really how I felt. I felt like I could begin to believe that I could trust my imagination with that book, because it was a story that I imagined. It was a story that I invented. Whereas the first novel was really a kind of fictionalized version of what had happened to me and my family.
Speaking of that, yeah. Not to interrupt you, but this is something I have been asked so many times, and we have tens of thousands of B-Schoolers and usually they’ll ask in the context of my About page or if they’re telling their story on stage or they’re out and about maybe giving a talk somewhere. And they’re wrestling with how much of my story am I allowed to tell when it involves my family, my loved ones? And I think, you know, so much of your career you have talked about these really intimate subjects. Your marriage, your son, your parents. Some really difficult situations. What do you say? Because I know you also teach writing. What do you say to your students, and od you come across that a lot? People wrestling with how much can I tell? I don’t want to violate someone’s trust. How do I navigate this?
I think that that’s up there with the top questions that people ask me and that they struggle with.
I’m gonna quote a friend of mine, the writer Andre Dubus III. I was with him on a panel in Aspen a couple of years ago, and somebody asked him that exact question. Because he wrote this memoir called Townie about his very difficult childhood and his brother was being sexually abused by a teacher of his. And the parents were nowhere to be found. And Andre said — and this person was asking him, “How can you feel okay about that? What right do you have to tell your brother’s story?” And Andre said, “When I would come home to my empty house with no parents and I would hear the sounds coming from the closed door to my brother’s bedroom, what I heard on my side of that closed door was my story to tell. And what was happening to him on his side of that closed door is his story to tell.” And I thought that was a beautiful evocation of that, because we don’t live in a vacuum. We don’t live, you know, our lives without being touched and touching other people. And so in order for me, for example, my memoir Slow Motion. When I finally really was ready to write the story of what had happened to me and my family not in a fictionalized version, which was what my first novel was, but as the true story that it needed to be, my mother was still living. I worried that some of what I was writing would hurt her. I wrote it as if no one would ever read it, even though I had a book contract. And I told myself that I could change my mind, which was not really true. I mean, I’d spent the money. I wasn’t gonna give the money back to my publisher. I — but I had to feel like I could give myself permission to write whatever I needed to write. Because until — the writing is a process of discovery. And until you discover what it is that the story really is, what it is that you need to put down on the page, you’re short changing yourself because you don’t even know what it’s gonna be. And you’re censoring yourself before you’ve even begun.
That’s so interesting, because, you know, you and I have talked, and we had coffee. And I was telling you how I’m working on my book now, which is gonna come out when it comes out. But I — everything you’re saying right now, I am so experiencing a level of internal censorship and internal kind of paralyzation like almost nothing I’ve ever experienced. You know, I write and produce the show, our straight to camera MarieTV’s, I do — you know, I do these crazy ass skits. And we script that, because that’s how you do comedy. Some — one of the ways that you do comedy. So it’s like my reality is I write like this when I have to crank out all of this kind of content. But there’s this whole other psychological beast of what is the book? And even though I know somewhat of it, it does. It feels like facing this huge uncertainty. It’s like one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Yeah, because you’re now suddenly writing a capital B book.
You know, and you’re capital W writing. And the self consciousness kind of, you know, the list of things that the inner sensor whispers in the ear of anybody who’s setting out to write is fairly endless. And the thing is, also continues to morph. Right? It never — I mean, if it didn’t morph it wouldn’t be an inner sensor. If it just said the same thing every day, “You’re stupid. You’re stupid. You’re stupid,” then you would get used to it and you would recognize it and you would think like shut up, inner sensor. Instead one day it’s you’re stupid. The next day it’s the world doesn’t need this. The next day it’s what will my mother think? The next day it’s somebody did this better. The next day is, you know, what right do I have? And on and on and back, you know, through the circle of this. And I think one of the things that’s very helpful, and I think one of the reasons why writers and artists like to hang out with each other from time to time is because it helps to demystify that. Because everybody goes through it, but because also it’s a solitary process. You don’t write with a team. You write alone in your room. And so when you’re alone in the room, those demons are what start to emerge, and you completely lose sight of the fact that that is in fact part of it. It’s part of the process.
Yes. Okay. This is important. I can hear my audience already circling back to where we were before. Because I know they’re like, “But wait! What’s the answer?” even though we had a quote. In terms of writing about stories, again, I’m asking this more for my audience because I don’t necessarily have that many things to uncover in that realm. With your mom, with your son, with your husband, did you, and I know this is just your experience and not necessarily what you’d prescribe, but did you ask for permission? To like, you know, let’s say you uncovered a story and it’s about your marriage. And it involves your husband and you’re like, wow. Okay, I’ve given myself permission to get this on the page. But now we’re about to cross this chasm between when I’m potentially going to my publisher going, “We want to include this in the book.”
Right. It’s really been case by case.
In the case of my most recent book, Hourglass, which is about my marriage, before I wrote one word, I was actually away when I finally realized. And it was kind of with horror that I thought, “This is actually the thing that I really want to write about. I want to write about what it is to walk alongside another person over time. And the way that I can do that is by writing about my marriage.” That’s — as a memoirist, that’s — I’ve used my own life almost as a laboratory. I called my husband and I said, “I’m thinking about this. How do you feel about this?” And my husband is also a writer, and he just said go for it. He completely gave me permission. And during the course of writing that book, part of my process is that I share work with him every day. I read aloud to him at night. I’ve done that with novels, I’ve done that with memoirs. Over the course of 20 years, that’s what I’ve done. It was no different. With Hourglass, I sat and read to him every night. And I really feel like he had veto power. I completely felt like he had veto power. If there was a sentence in there, a scene in there, anything like that, and if he was uncomfortable with it, I would’ve taken it out. That didn’t happen. In fact, there were times where he was encouraging me to be harder on us and harder on him. So I think that that really gave me a lot of freedom and permission.
Okay, great. That said…
People going, “Well, my husband,” or, “My mom is not that person.”
Absolutely. So my mom, and I want to say something about my kid as well. But my mom, with whom I had a very charged and difficult relationship, I didn’t ask her permission. When I was writing the story of my parents’ accident and sort of my recovery in a way, I had to include elements of, you know, my mother’s life in there. I gave her a galley. So I gave — I didn’t let her see a manuscript. I gave her a galley, which is an early copy where things can still be changed. But not a manuscript, which just looks like wet clay. It’s like dig into this. I really, I was worried — and this was very instructive, and I think it’ll be very instructive for your audience, because I was worried about certain elements in that book hurting my mother. Not one of those is what she registered. It was the things that I never even considered. I couldn’t have imagined that she would care about.
Or that had nothing to do with anything that was even — I mean, I remember one of her friends who read an early copy saying to me, “You know, I think your mother is gonna be very upset and disturbed to read about everything that you were going through during that time in your life.” And I was like, “Nuh uh. That’s not what that’s gonna be about. What it’s gonna be about is the portrayal of her.” And, oh, also — I can’t believe I was gonna forget to say this. I gave it to a writer friend of mine, a manuscript of Slow Motion, for a mother read. Before I turned it in to my publisher, certainly before I gave it to my mother. I gave it to a friend who was a mother of a teenage daughter who I knew was gonna be very sensitive to those issues and was gonna be hard on me, was not gonna yes me or tell me it was gonna be okay or it wasn’t hurtful or whatever.
And there was things that she said I think that this is — this is gonna be really hard for your mother. And I took them out. One of the things I would say about that kind of writing is that cleverness — the writer showing off at someone else’s expense, the pot shot, as I would refer to it, that’s never okay. I am always hardest on myself. I begin with just really taking a very good, hard look at, you know, my culpability, my demons, my internal life, all of that. And that doesn’t mean I think it’s okay to like rake anybody over the coals ever.
One of the ways I think a writer can know whether — because there’s what I would refer to as the revenge memoir. They’re never good. Let’s just start with it doesn’t make for a good book. But also, how does a writer know that that’s what’s motivating her? The writer knows because she’s sitting there working on the book and thinking, “I can’t wait for so-and-so to read this book. Oh, this is gonna really stick it to them. They’re really gonna see themselves for who they really are.” Those kinds of thoughts? Those kinds of thoughts mean that a writer has not reached that place of distance or perspective or compassion or the ability to be ironic that makes for a really good book. So I think that’s always a really good question to ask. Because when it’s coming from a place, like as the Buddhists say, is it true and is it useful?
Yes. I use that in online groups all the time. We kind of extend it out, but that’s — those are two good questions to ask before we open our mouths or write things down for the world to see.
Right, exactly. Because that’s — it’s there. It’s there forever. And we’re not here forever, but when you write a book and you put it out in the world, presumably it’s gonna be around for a long time. And it becomes in some way a record of that moment. It doesn’t become the whole story. I mean, as someone who now has written multiple memoirs, I can say that for sure. A book is a record of what the writer knows at that moment and what the writer can glean from that moment and the wisdom that the writer has at that moment. Live another few years and — I’ve always thought it would be a great thing for a writer to once every 10 years attempt to write the same book.
Because it wouldn’t be the same book.
It wouldn’t be the same book. I can see that from my own career and everything. Sometimes I look back at my work and I’m like, “Really, Marie? Really?” But that’s another subject. Okay. So you’ve shared something I love. You said, “You have to believe in yourself before the world believes in you as a writer.” And then you and I had this epic coffee talk. Which, by the way, everyone listening, if you hear a little something in the background, we’re in New York City and they all do construction in New York City. So don’t worry about it. But back to our epic coffee talk. This distinction between confidence and courage, we’ve gotta talk about this. Because so many people feel like they need to have this ultimate confidence in themselves as a writer or as an artist before they do anything meaningful.
Yeah. I think the permission to refer yourself as a writer before the world has gotten on board is one of the most challenging things I think for writers starting out. I remember when I was a young writer writing my first novel living in New York City, and I would constantly be asked, “So, what do you do?” And I would say, “I’m a writer.” “Oh, have I read anything you’ve written?” “Well, not yet.” And then a couple of years later, you know, and I just dread that question.
And then a couple of years later I had this first novel, it was coming out from Double Day, and I was looking forward to that question. Like, “Oh, what do you do?” “I’m a writer.” “Have I read anything you’ve written?” “Well, actually, I have a first novel that’s just come out from Double Day.” “Is it a bestseller? Is it gonna be a movie?” So one aspect of this is that like if, you know, the goalposts continue to change and change and change. So the idea of ever waiting for the world to grant you permission in some way is just — it’s a waste of energy and it’s a waste of emotion and of time.
Because one of the things about setting down words on the blank page is the world is never waiting for whatever it is that you’re gonna produce. The world is not saying, “We need this book. That doesn’t happen. So you — so it requires this sense of urgency about something that has to come from an internal place. But I think in terms of confidence and courage, you know, we’re talking quite a bit about like, you know, honesty on the page and fear of betraying others or betraying trust or all of that. There is a kind of — I think people mistake confidence and this idea of what that’s supposed to look like. What that looks like on social media, what that looks like on television, what that looks like in our culture, with what it really takes to do the work, which is courage. It’s not the same thing. Courage is facing your fear and doing it anyway. Confidence can really be this kind of like overrated mask for insecurity.
Yes. I feel that all the time. People will sometimes ask like, “How are you so confident?” I’m like, “I’m really not. At all.”
I just keep showing up.
You’re able to navigate your own like — yeah, it’s scary. Yeah.
You just kinda go like, “Oh, that’s scary.” And then almost the — I’ve developed this feeling of when — with my work when I know, like when I started Hourglass. It’s like this scares the living daylights out of me. This must be a good idea. You know, or my memoir Devotion. Same thing. I mean, I saw the word Devotion kind of appear in my vision almost in neon when I was in the middle of my yoga practice one day, and I literally like saw it and I out loud said, “Oh, shit.” I was like, “This is not what I want to be doing. I do not want to write a spiritual memoir. I don’t even like reading spiritual memoirs. What is this? This is scary.” And then all of those same like who me, why me, I’m not a guru, I’m not a — what do I know about this, I’m just a seeker who wants to live in the questions. You know, why is anybody gonna care about this? So there has to be a way of overriding that. Like overriding it every single day.
Yes. Which brings me right to something else you said that was brilliant. So you shared the gift is useless if the writer doesn’t have the muscles of persistence, patience, and the ability to withstand the indignities and rejection inherent in the life of any artist. Gifts are nothing without endurability.
I love that I said that.
I love that you said it too.
I really believe it.
Yeah. It’s the truth.
Tell me more.
I have had very talented students who are not writing anymore. Because they got scared, they gave up, and they didn’t — that feeling of, you know, in my book that I’m still writing there’s a line somewhere in there that I often read when I give readings, which is “Every day a new indignity.” And I want to have t-shirts made. Every day a new indignity.
Like, if you do not want to experience the indignities of just what it is to make something out of nothing, put yourself out there, you know, be an artist in the world. I mean, I was actually just this morning reading to my husband some comment that appeared on my Facebook page of — from an anthology that was written in — that I had an essay in in 1998 of someone saying, “You know, I didn’t much like the essay, that essay of yours in that anthology. In fact, I didn’t really like any of them. They were all puerile and silly and, you know, and there was really only one I liked, and that was this other writer’s. I’d be happy to send it to you if you’d like.” I was like — and it rolls right — it actually genuinely rolls right off of me. But I — and I was reading it mostly because it was like wow. Like, what is the mindset of someone who thinks that maybe I — now you’ve insulted me and maybe I would like to see the essay that you preferred? But that’s like, if you don’t have the stomach for that.
Or I’ve had spectacular reviews and I’ve had eviscerating reviews. I’ve given readings to thousands of people, and I gave one memorable reading where it was in San Francisco where there were five people in the audience, and two of them were my cousins. That’s what was really unfortunate. You know, there was one homeless guy in the front row, the bookstore manager, one other person, and my cousins, who I’m sure were sitting there thinking, “She makes a living out of this?” But so the feeling of sitting down, getting up every day, and saying, you know, time to make the donuts.
I love that. It’s like #timetomakethedonuts.
#timetomakethedonuts because it’s, you know, a local high school once wanted to send an intern to sort of observe me. You know, like a high school intern. And I was like what are you gonna — you’re gonna observe a lady in a bathrobe with her hair on end. You know, I hate it when the UPS truck shows up because it’s like I don’t — like I don’t want to be seen. Like I’m just there in my isolation doing my best every day to chip away at this vision that I have for something or this idea that I have. And that is — that requires a kind of — I mean, it requires courage, but it also requires that kind of endurance.
Yes. And it leads right into this idea of productive despair. And this is, I think, a really interesting topic. Because there’s some folks that I’ve encountered in the world, and they’ll talk to me about the process of creation. You have to find a way, you know, to make it enjoyable. And I agree to that to an extent. There’s some things that, yes, you can kind of generate joy, you can bring a sense of presence, you can really be there and be open. But there’s a lot of times when it’s like — it’s miserable. And I love that you shared, you know, “I tell students all the time, there’s this kind of despair we feel as writers and artists that is not only useful, but necessary.” What do you mean by that?
Well, I mean, to start with, there’s this misunderstanding of the idea of inspiration. Right? I’m only gonna waltz over to my desk and sit down when I am in a highly inspired state. And the words are gonna fly from my fingertips and I’m gonna sit there, you know, laughing and crying at my own creation. And I’m only going to write when I’m in that state of inspiration.
I can tell you that if I only wrote over these last 25 years that I’ve been writing books, if I only wrote when I was inspired, I wouldn’t have 9 books. I might have like one very slim chapbook to my name. Because inspiration, the feeling — I mean, inspiration is a real thing. But the feeling of having it is kind of a myth. And I have many days sat down and thought, “I’ve got nothing today. I have nothing, I’m tired, my brain isn’t working right, I’m not feeling it.” Those are often the days that the best work gets done.
And then I’ve had days where I’m just like, “This is awesome.” It goes back to confidence. Very often for me when I’ve had that feeling of like this is it, this is it. I have this big idea. I’m gonna tell you all about this big idea I have. That is often when I’m like sort of sinking or writing myself right into a corner. Because that kind of, you know, blustering confidence kind of ideas that are kind of, you know, that are out there, that are intellectually driven rather than really coming from — you know, there’s this great Yiddish word, the kishka. It’s like the guts. Like the inside place. That’s where the best work comes from.
And so productive despair has to do with — when I wrote that fairly recently, I had just put aside 200 pages. I put it to the side. Same book, wrong attempt. Horrifying. But it was what had to happen. I mean, I — it’s very difficult to read your own work clearly. And I think that’s one of the things for anybody who writes, it’s a huge challenge. And that’s why we have to have readers. We have to have people who have our backs.
But that feeling that I had when I reread those 200 pages after some time away, they had grown cold, you know, they had become something that I could see clearly. Because I had been on book tour for Hourglass, so I had two months of not looking at them at all. When I came back to look at them, my heart just thudded and I thought, “This isn’t — this is not the way into this book.” And I said to my husband that night, “I am in a state of despair, but I know it’s productive despair.”
It was a better feeling to be confidently working forward in those pages, but they weren’t gonna lead to a good book. The productive despair was that place where you get almost — and the image I always have is it’s like if you’re a deep sea diver. You’re almost at the bottom of the ocean floor, and then when you hit that place you can push up from there. But you have to go there. It’s the penultimate place. The productive despair isn’t the place where it’s — where you’re right before that take no prisoners, I am gonna hurl myself at the page, I don’t care what anybody thinks, inner sensor go away. You know, and it’s that kind of — it’s almost a recklessness, a creative recklessness, that is a very good and very important feeling to get to because it cuts through all of the noise.
I love it. So let’s go into process a little bit. You know, you’re a mom, you’re a wife, you have a life outside of your work. What are some of the things you do to set the boundaries for that sacred time to put words down on the page? Like has it morphed over the years? What’s it look like now?
Yeah. It certainly has morphed, and partly it’s morphed because of motherhood. So my son is 18 now. And he pretty well takes care of himself. But for all the years that he was a little kid, I had been used to rolling out of bed and getting to work. Just cup of coffee, silent apartment, silent house. Just, I mean, I — it was such a luxury I didn’t even understand what a luxury it was.
And then when my son, Jacob, was born, I understood instantly a couple of things. And one was that he came first. Two, and this actually goes back to something we were talking about earlier about when he was born I looked at him and I thought, “You did not ask to be born to a mother who is a writer. And I have to respect your privacy always.” And I think I really have. I never wanted him to be 30 years old and turning to me and saying, “I wish you hadn’t written that.” That was my kind of…
That was my litmus test for myself. But so, you know, he’s a baby, he’s in nursery school, he’s in kindergarten all the way through elementary school. I drove him to school every day. I made him breakfast every day. I packed his lunch every day. And I didn’t wanna do it with divided attention. And so I had to learn how to actually compartmentalize my work in a way that I never had before. I had to be able to say I can re-enter this dreamy state after he is safely ensconced in the classroom. I can go back home and I can start my day over.
And that was a huge lesson for me. And something that I would often say to him was he was a kid is, you know, just if something happened, something was difficult, there was a little tiff or whatever, you can start your day over any time during the course of the day. It can be hard to do, and it’s easier to just be — but, you know, people have complicated lives. I’ve had so many students who have full time jobs, are getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to write a book. I’ve had students with a number of kids who learned how to write really late at night when the house was finally quiet and the house was theirs. So it’s doable. It’s possible.
But what it really involves is making the time sacred, whatever that time is, however that’s possible. And whether that takes rituals. I mean, I have a friend who lights a candle, I have a friend who burns incense. I need my special mug. And there’s writers are nothing if not superstitious kind of ritual, routine-based people. If I were out of cappuccino, I would have to drive all the way to, you know, the supermarket to get my special brand of cappuccino, because I wouldn’t be able to write without — I mean, both the caffeine but also just that feeling of just this is — I’m set up. I’m setting up. Because I don’t have an office and I don’t have an assistant. You know, there aren’t the parameters of this is what my — this is the way my day is gonna be shaped for me. I have to shape my day.
Yeah, I love that. So for anyone watching right now that perhaps maybe they’re writing sporadically or maybe they feel like they want to start getting back to the page, putting out a book, putting out an essay, starting to write a blog. If they want to do some type of creative writing exercise, what’s a good prompt that you would give them to get started?
Well, my favorite prompt is based on a book that was published a long ago by a writer named Joe Brainard, and the title is I Remember. The title of the book is I Remember. And in the book, every single sentence begins with the phrase “I remember.” And then drop down another sentence, “I remember.” And then another sentence, “I remember.” And when I give that exercise at retreats, I look out from where I’m sitting at a sea of people, and not one of them hesitates. Those are extremely evocative words. I mean, try not to finish a sentence that begins with “I remember.”
And so what I suggest to people to do is to just begin — have a special notebook, begin with the words “I remember” and write a sentence. Drop down a line, begin with — not trying to connect memories. If you think about the way memory works, it doesn’t work in a narrative line. It doesn’t connect. We don’t tell ourselves stories in our heads. We have these disparate memories that don’t connect. And when we allow them to be associative and to bounce one off the next, it creates all sorts of interesting material. People almost invariably find memories that they didn’t know that they had, or they make connections that they didn’t know they had. So it’s a good springing off point.
I love it. Anything else that you’d want to end with for someone who is a writer, wanting to be a writer, or embarking on some type of creative life?
I would say going back to both of us being Jersey girls, when I was that sort of, you know, lonely only child growing up in New Jersey, really when I think of just what I could imagine for myself, I — my dreams were so small. And I feel so fortunate that I stumbled along until I began to find the people who could really help me. My teachers, my mentors, I would say notice. Notice who’s around you. Notice who can help you. One of my favorite passages from a sabbath prayer is the days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.
So don’t be sightless. To be an artist is to witness the world around you. Open your ears, open your eyes. Notice the gifts around you, notice the people who might be able to mentor you in some way or help you in some way. And believe that if you write with great specificity your own story, or out of great specificity your own imagination, that that’s what’s gonna connect.
Beautiful. I’m noticing the gift that’s in front of me right now. Dani Shapiro, I adore you. Thank you so much for taking the time to be on our show.
Oh, thanks so much, Marie.
Now Dani and I would love to hear from you. So we talked about a lot of beautiful things in this conversation, but I’m curious, what’s the one insight that meant the most to you? And, most importantly, how can you turn that insight into action for your creative life? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Now, as always, we have the best conversations over at the magical land of MarieForleo.com, so head on over there and leave a comment now. And while you’re there, if you’re not already, you need to become an MF Insider. That means join our email list. You’ll get instant access to an audio called How to Get Anything You Want, plus some exclusive content, some special giveaways, and some updates from me that I just don’t talk about anywhere else.
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Courage is facing your fear and doing it anyway. Confidence can really be this kind of like overrated mask for insecurity.