In her book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life author Dani Shapiro weaves together deeply personal stories from her past and present with insights on the creative process and the trials and triumphs of being a writer.
Shapiro is the author of several memoirs and novels, including: Devotion: A Memoir, Black & White, Slow Motion and Family History: A Novel.
Here are several insights and lessons from Still Writing, which may bolster your own creative process, regardless of your tool of choice, and whether this is your profession or pastime.
1. Learn to live with your inner critic.
It’s comforting to know that best-selling authors like Shapiro also have an inner censor. Shapiro’s inner censor sounds a lot like mine (and probably a lot like yours): “This is stupid.” “You really think you can pull that off?” “So-and-so did it better.”
What’s helped Shapiro in quieting these critical thoughts is learning to live with her inner censor, and treating her like an “annoying, potentially undermining colleague.” For instance, she manages her with corporate-speak: “Thanks for reaching out, but can I circle back to you later?” (I love that.)
2. Don’t wait for permission.
Many of us think that we can only begin to write, dance, draw, photograph or make music after we have permission. After we’ve been published. After we’ve won a competition. After we’ve bought a fancy camera. After we’ve gotten a degree. After we’ve arrived at some destination.
But there’s no such magical place, Shapiro writes. Instead, it’s your job to “act as if.” Act as if you’re a writer, painter, poet, gardener, musician, designer.
As Shapiro says, “Accountants go to business school and when they graduate with their degrees, they don’t ask themselves whether they have permission to do people’s taxes. Lawyers pass the bar, medical students become doctors, academics become professors, all without considering whether or not they have a right to be going to work.”
3. It’s OK to feel lost.
In fact, Shapiro worries when she does know what she’s doing or where she’s headed with a piece. “I’ve discovered that my best work comes from the uncomfortable but fruitful feeling of not having a clue – of being worried, secretly afraid, even convinced that I’m on the wrong track.”
When you’re starting, she suggests relinquishing every should and shouldn’t. Instead, simply start with “I don’t know.”
4. Figure out your “audience of one.”
Kurt Vonnegut used to write for an audience of one: his late sister. Shapiro does the same, though her audience has changed throughout the years.
“In the beginning, it was my dead father. I longed to reach out to him, through time and space, to have him know the woman I was becoming. Then, sometimes, it was my mother. Each sentence I wrote felt like a plea. Please understand me. Later, it became my husband – it still is. And now, my audience of one is also my son, in the hopes that someday, he will find his mother in the pages of her books.”
Who’s your audience? Who do you create for? It doesn’t even have to be anyone you know, according to Shapiro. The key is to create a connection between writer and reader.
5. Focus on action, not opinion.
Shapiro notes that “her job is to do, not to judge” her own work. She stresses the importance of detaching from the end result. In other words, satisfaction, she writes, shouldn’t be the goal.
Shapiro quotes a letter from American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, in which she writes:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable 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 have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware 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.”
For Shapiro, writing is more than a career or a passion. She credits writing with saving her life. She also views writing as a constant teacher. “The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back.”
It is through the page that we confront our ego and our self-doubt and our vision and our strength, she says. I think that can be said of every creative process, no matter the tool or type.