Dani Shapiro reads Still Writing, joined by Darin Strauss and Adam Wilson

By on Friday, October 25th, 2013 at 2:36 am

Dani Shapiro reads from her memoir and writing craft book, Still Writing at the Center for Fiction in Manhattan

The Center for Fiction hosted a panel discussion focusing on process and craft inspired by Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, Still Writing. Along with Shapiro, the panel included Darin Strauss, author of the memoir Half a Life (September 2010) and novel More Than it Hurts (June 2008) and Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen (February 2012) and a forthcoming collection of stories.

To begin the discussion, Shapiro read a passage from Still Writing. She explained that the book began as a blog — and then immediately followed this by saying she never thought she would say that phrase. Her publisher had been insistent she blog, but not for a specific project. She began blogging occasionally thinking little of it. She questioned why anyone would want to know her daily routine until she began receiving emails from readers. They declared that her blog was just what they needed in their day, what they needed to keep going. And so Shapiro calls the memoir the accidental book.

Shapiro reads a passage. She is focused on an idea of permission, as though writers often find themselves defending their identity, or questioning it, and she suggests these anxieties are an obstacle to writing, and thus setting the stage for the panel. Wilson and Strauss join her on stage along with the Center for Fiction’s Noreen Tomassi, who leads the discussion.

In the panel’s view, the writer seeks permission for their identity, and the insecurity of that identity is never satisfied. Darin Strauss explains that the process of coming to that identity is based in the “slow accumulation of work.” But even in a successful career, there is always a need for validation. Prizes and awards, he says, aren’t real in that sense; they aren’t some panacea to that insecurity.

Adam Wilson adds, “its important to keep asking yourself for permission,” meaning that a writer must keep taking risks and keep pushing forward to be a writer. He says it’s helpful to be bad at other occupations, joking that he kept getting fired from other jobs. He had to be persistent as a writer, and persistent with his manuscript. But there is a fine line, he says, between the narcissism necessary for a writer to convince himself that the world and characters he is creating matters, and the humility necessary to revise.

Strauss expands on this by saying a writer must be arrogant enough to finish a first draft and humble enough to revise the second. Too often, he warns, writers never follow through.

“Going back again and again is courage,”

Shapiro sums up the sentiment by explaining there is a difference between confidence and self-deception. “Going back again and again is courage,” she says.

Revision and persistence seem constant themes. The problem many writers face is an unwillingness to commit to the work of revision. Persistence is important. “Its not necessarily the most talented–its the ones who keep at it,” Strauss says.

Shapiro adds to that: “writers are very impatient people.” She elaborates by saying there is a desire to be finish writing, but writing itself is time consuming and slow. Shapiro and Strauss both reiterate the importance of not publishing or attempting to publish too soon. Strauss explains how while he was in graduate school, his then girlfriend, his agent, seemingly everyone around him was publishing stories. He was not. But now he continues publishing books while many of them do not publish anything.

Shapiro too offers as a warning the story of an almost-successful author. The woman had a two book deal that fizzled because her writing, as Shapiro describes, simply wasn’t ready. Still, the implication remaining is that the subject of this story simply failed to sell enough books to justify the costs. Perhaps the real lesson is to not oversell the expectations of a novel the first time around.

Noreen Tomassi leads the discussion towards the act of completing manuscripts, and the idea of still writing–still looking for that validation as an author.

“When I finish a book, I feel I might know how to finish that book,”

The best moments, Shapiro explains, may not be when the book is finished, but instead when it comes together, when the ending seems to fit. But even a finished manuscript isn’t necessarily enough to provide a writer confidence. “When I finish a book, I feel I might know how to finish that book,” she says to suggest that each book’s process is different and unique, and to finish one, offers no more confidence to the writer.

“Everyone keeps asking for your credentials,”

“Everyone keeps asking for your credentials,” Strauss says, saying that a finished manuscript itself isn’t enough to feel validated. It seems even with success, there are more challenges. First, writers face questions about whether they have a book; then, when they have a book, they face questions about whether they have a movie deal. There are always more rungs to climb.

Wilson has a somewhat different point of view. Growing up, his mother was an artist and his father a writer. Writing as a career was not this foreign concept to him, something like law school was odd For him, writing provided a natural career path. While he may not have needed quite as much courage to write, courage is important when it comes to revision. “One of the things that takes courage is deviating from what you thought the book was going to be,” he says, explaining that one of the hardest challenges writers face is throwing away pieces of long manuscripts that don’t work, “people are afraid to change course.”

These answers lead Tomassi to ask the panel about their trusted reader, the person who can influence them to accept necessary changes.

Shapiro lists a few of the qualities of bad readers: competitive, too easy, the kind of reader who you to write the book they would write.

Strauss says his wife is his trusted reader, but adds that one revision technique is to get away from the manuscript, provide some space between the writer and the text, to see the flaws.

“any book would get better being put away for five years.”

Wilson agrees, saying “any book would get better being put away for five years.”

Noreen Tomassi then asked if any of the panelists read the book reviews.

There are different kinds of bad reviews, Shapiro explained, the good-bad reviews and the stupid-bad reviews. She is referring to bad reviews that capture some legitimate failure rather than the kind of review that fails to justify its negativity.

Strauss, who had for a time been a book reviewer, described the reasons he stopped writing them. He had written a book that he gave a mixed review to. But now, so few outlets provide book reviews, he felt the few that are written hold a lot more weight and he didn’t want to be the arbiter of taste. Strauss admits also to having written, under a pseudonym, a letter to a newspaper refuting the book reviewers claim, and the paper even printed a retraction.

“Almost always, whatever the negative thing is, its a flaw I already knew.”

Adam Wilson took a different view of negative reviews. “Almost always, whatever the negative thing is, its a flaw I already knew.”

Tomassi asks about the writers and the books the panel reads when they are feeling stumped.

When Shapiro writes fiction, she stays clear of authors that she really likes because she is afraid of co-opting the voice or style. Strauss suggests that he picks specific books to read based on his goals, but “there are some writers I love but can’t approach,” like Nabokov, because their prose is so good, it makes him feel worse as a writer.

“I read my student’s work because then I’m like, I’m way better than them!” Wilson quips, and then more seriously offers Saul Bellow as his go-to author. WIlson also says he keeps a book of poetry around so that instead of wasting time on the internet, he can read a poem.

Ultimately the discussion wends its way back to committing to writing, the act of providing the writer with permission to write. Writing is always happening, Wilson explains, even when not in front of a computer, a writer is writing. The objective is to come to the computer ready to write.

In the process of a novel, there is a moment all writers look forward to. Shapiro explains this moment as if “its like everything in the universe begins to support you.” It is an ephemeral moment though. Just as the novel begins coming together, all the possibility that had existed dissipates into the writer’s choices.

Noreen Tomassi leads the panel discussion with Darin Strauss, Adam Wilson, and Dani Shapiro at the Center for Fiction

Darin Strauss, Adam Wilson and Dani Shaprio
Center for Fiction
Thursday, October 24, 2013

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