Back in July, I read an essay about the making of memoir by an author named Dani Shapiro. She really impressed me, both because she offered insight into the genre and because her piece was so beautifully written.
Then I heard she was about to publish another memoir. And I thought, I want to read that as soon as it comes out.
Well, it’s out. Devotion is now available in stores. (Buy it here!) And even better, Dani is with us today to talk about her book, her career as a writer and other tips like how to turn scenes from your book into magazine pieces.
Welcome, Dani! Can you start out by telling us about your new book, Devotion?
Devotion is a memoir about my search for something to believe. I grew up in a very religious (Orthodox Jewish) family, and I found the rules stultifying. My father was the religious one, and my mother reluctantly went along for the ride — my parents fought about religious beliefs all the time, and how to raise me, in particular. It left me feeling very alienated from the whole idea of having a spiritual life.
But then I found myself, in my early forties, feeling a vague, discomfiting sense of longing for… I didn’t know what. Deeper meaning. A way of slowing down and perceiving the world. Also, I had become a mother and my son was asking me the big questions about God, death, afterlife — he wanted to know what I believed, and I didn’t know what to tell him. So I spent a couple of years exploring and living inside of those big questions, but in a very personal way.
Devotion isn’t a book about looking outside of myself, or traveling to faraway lands, in search of answers. It’s about staying very much inside my own life and seeing what it had to teach me. Along the way, I met and became close to a Buddhist, a yogi, and a rabbi, all of whom are extraordinary teachers. I learned so much from each of them, and began to see that the all-or-nothing way I had been raised had led me to exactly that: nothing. And that it is possible to build a spiritual life, to piece it together like patchwork.
You already wrote one memoir, Slow Motion, published ten years ago. Why write another?
Devotion and Slow Motion are such completely different books. Slow Motion is a memoir about my twenties. Devotion is a memoir about my forties. I think each is emblematic, in a certain way, of what those life stages are all about.
You've also written a handful of novels. How do you approach memoir differently than fiction?
The art and craft of each form dictates the approach. In memoir, the writer knows what happened. The art of memoir isn’t in discovering what happened, but rather, in how to tell the story. What pieces to leave in, what to leave out, and why — all in service of crafting a story out of memory. In writing fiction, the imagination is the primary tool. The world is wide open. The writer assumedly doesn’t know the story — and part of the great discovery when writing fiction is the way in which the story reveals itself.
You write a lot of essays for magazines. Why? You enjoy it? The income? Book promotion? Have you developed contacts at all these publications over the years, or do you still pitch some of them cold? Got any advice on what sorts of pieces work best in short form? Or on convincing magazines to run book excerpts?
I’ve always written a lot of essays for magazines, because I enjoy the essay form, and it’s also a good source of income which has supplemented my book advances and teaching over the years. And when I have a book coming out, I tend to write for magazines more, because it’s a good way to create more publicity for the book. I haven’t pitched a magazine cold in years — but that’s because I spent many years when I was first starting out meeting lots of editors and I have friends or colleagues at most magazines I want to write for. So if I have an idea, I call them, or my agent does.
I think personal essays that work best in the sort form tend to be scene-based and about one thing — not to be reductive, but sometimes I see writers trying to cram a book’s worth of ideas into a two thousand word essay, and it just doesn’t work. The essay form is like a piece of music. Writers who want to write essays should study the various lengths and deconstruct what works and why. What does a nine hundred word essay look like? A five hundred word essay? Or twenty-five hundred? They’re all different animals. They require different pacing.
As someone who's struggling to come up with a title for my book-in-progress, I appreciate a good title like Devotion. How do you come up with yours?
Devotion is the first title I’ve ever had before starting the book. I was in the midst of my yoga practice when it came to me — the whole thing, the title, the idea for the book, in a crazy mad rush. That has never happened to me before. Slow Motion was a title I didn’t have until after I had finished the book. I remember driving around Vermont with my husband, stopping into bookstores and reading random poetry, searching for a title. Every book is different, and it can’t be forced.
How old were you when your first book came out? What led you to become a writer?
I was twenty-seven when my first novel was published — it was my thesis in the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence, and I sold it while still a student there. I always tell my own students not to pay attention to my story, because it isn’t a typical one.
As for what led me to become a writer, I was one of those kids who read voraciously — under the covers with a flashlight — but I didn’t know that it was possible to actually become a writer, that people spent their lives doing this. It wasn’t until I went to college (also at Sarah Lawrence) that I met working writers who taught, wrote, published. Grace Paley was one of my teachers and studying with her was an amazing gift. I began to look around me and see that it just might be possible to do this with my own life.
Your first book was published in 1990. How have you grown as a writer since then? Has your writing voice — which I love — changed?
That’s an interesting question. I think my writing voice has become pared down and much leaner over the years. When I wrote my first novel, I was in love with language in a different way than I am now. Back then, I was focused on the poetry, the sound of the words strung together. Three similes were better than one. Some of my work had an incantatory quality. I remember a grad school professor who gave me the following advice. He said, “You know how to write a beautiful sentence. You just better be sure it means something.” That advice really stayed with me over the years, and while I am equally concerned with making beautiful sentences, I will toss a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or a hundred pages, if they are not getting to the heart of the matter.
Dani, thanks for your honesty. Devotion should be on its way to my mailbox right now. Can’t wait to read it!