Julie Christine's Reviews > Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
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it was amazing
bookshelves: writing-companions, best-of-2015, bio-autobio-memoir, read-2015

A few weeks ago someone dear to me asked, “Are you still writing? I wondered if you’d decided to get a part-time job.” I’ll admit right now, right here, this crushed me. My first novel is still months away from launch and my second novel is out on submission. I recently finished the first draft of a third and I’ve just returned from a life-altering residency and poetry workshop. Yet in the space of fourteen small words, I felt my entire raison d’etre smashed to smithereens. This didn’t come from an acquaintance or a well-meaning but clueless friend, this came from someone I hope would be a champion for my work. My job. Which is writing.

It wasn’t until I read the final pages of Dani Shapiro’s sublime meditation on the writing life that I realized the universality of my hurt and exasperation. I had to laugh. I’ve been dipping in and out of this book for two months and the title only just dawned on me as I closed the back cover. Still Writing. Jesus.

Still Writing is part memoir, part collection of meditations on what it means to be a writer. I think we gravitate to these books on process and creative endeavor in hopes of finding a few answers, and perhaps a mentor. I found both. Each entry found me nodding in breathless agreement, exclaiming, “Yes!” I reread passages, underlining sentences and paragraphs, dog-earing the pages to remember later until I realized that I would be marring every page with pen or corner fold, and that it would be possible to come back, open any page and find comfort within.

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I need permission to accept I’ve chosen a life inherently insecure and dependent upon the moods, whims, and tastes of others. There is the romantic notion of the artist scribbling away in blissful solitude in her light-filled atelier or in the warm bustle of a café, pouring her soul onto the page, but in reality, if one hopes to make a living writing, the risk and vulnerability are breathtaking and sometimes stupefying. You are dependent upon forces beyond your control: the gatekeepers of the publishing world. All you can do is refine and hone your craft in the small and lonely hours, hoping each day of writing will make you that nebulous and doubtful better writer. It is so refreshing, therefore, to read someone who has found success (i.e. readers), call it like it is:
When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt—spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

And yet those lonely hours in that atelier (or, more accurately, in the dining room, on the living room sofa, tucked in a messy corner of a shared home office, and yes, writing in that bustling café) pulse and burst with all the lives that have written before us, the books we have read, authors we have studied, mentors who guide us, the few encouraging comments we cling to like life rafts to avoid the whirlpool of rejection and doubt.
Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censors, our teachers remind us that we're not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us. And so we must ask ourselves: Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us?
For we have the calling, the responsibility even, to push past the doubt and keep writing. I struggle with this every.single.day. Ironically, the only thing that quiets the demons of doubt is the work.
Donald Hall writes, 'If work is no antidote to death, not a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can." There is this—only this. It would be good keep these words in mind when we wake up each morning. Get done what you can. And then, the rest is gravy.
At this stage of being in my mid-late forties and only just getting started as a writer, it's hard to see the gravy from the smorgasbord crowding my plate. I don’t have the luxury and seeming-invincibility of youth to build a career. I write with a sense of urgency. It took me until the age of forty-one to find my voice and five years later those pent-up words continue to pour out, but I’m still this raw and unformed writer who has years of fundamental learning ahead of her. Who knows that fiction writing alone will not sustain her financially. Yet the world of freelance writing, of speaking engagements, of being asked is a foreign land to which I haven’t yet been approved for residency. But I’ve been granted a visitor's visa and hopefully, I’ll be able to stay. II taught my first writing workshop this weekend and there are more to come in the fall. I started class by reading from Still Writing, specifically the lovely section entitled Shimmer. Here’s part of it:
That knowledge, that ping, that hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note. I'll have to write about this. It happens when our histories collide with the present. It comes with the certainty of its own rightness.
I've returned toShimmer several times since my initial reading, knowing this is, in part, why I write. It is the inevitability of the calling. The endorphin rush of the words, a craving of the soul that must be redeemed on the page. These moments of shimmer that, when I recognize and respond to them, reward me with a sense of wellbeing. Not money, recognition, external approval, guidance or proof of my skill. But a simple, complete peace of heart and mind. It is a privilege to feel this way and I recognize what a privilege it is to call myself a writer.
Unlike other artists—dancers, sculptors, or cellists, say—as long as we hold onto our faculties, writers can continue to grow creatively until we die. The middle of a writing life is much like being in the midst of a book itself. Here we often discover our weaknesses and strengths.
Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, turning you around and pushing you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway."

Yes. Yes. I am Still Writing. In hope. In terror. Sometimes with one eye on that dwindling savings account. Because I can read Rilke’s question: “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?" and respond: Yes. Yes, I must.

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Reading Progress

April 23, 2015 – Shelved
April 23, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
May 1, 2015 – Started Reading
June 1, 2015 – Shelved as: writing-companions
June 9, 2015 –
page 30
12.5% "'That knowledge, that ping, that hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note. I'll have to write about this. It happens when our histories collide with the present. It comes with the certainty of its own rightness.'"
July 14, 2015 –
page 51
21.25% ""When I'm between books, I feel as if I will never have another story to tell. The last book has wiped me out, has taken everything from me . . . There's nothing left. A low-level depression sets in. It has taken me years to realize that this feeling, the one of the well being empty, is as it should be. It means I've spent everything. And so I must begin again." \n \n Aaaahhhh... I am not alone."
July 19, 2015 –
page 74
30.83% ""Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censors, our teachers remind us that we're not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us. And so we must ask ourselves: Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us?""
July 20, 2015 –
page 109
45.42% ""Unlike other artists—dancers, sculptors, or cellists, say—as long as we hold onto our faculties, writers can continue to grow creatively until we die. The middle of a writing life is much like being in the midst of a book itself. Here we often discover our weaknesses and strengths.""
July 21, 2015 –
page 146
60.83% ""Donald Hall writes, 'If work is no antidote to death, not a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can." There is this—only this. It would be good keep these words in mind when we wake up each morning. Get done what you can. And then, the rest is gravy.'"
July 22, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
July 22, 2015 – Shelved as: bio-autobio-memoir
July 22, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
July 22, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-32 of 32 (32 new)

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message 1: by Antigone (new)

Antigone That you're "still writing" is easy to see. And feel. A beautiful expression of your mission statement, Julie!


Julie Christine Antigone wrote: "That you're "still writing" is easy to see. And feel. A beautiful expression of your mission statement, Julie!" Oh Antigone, thank you. What a wonderful comment and compliment. <3


message 3: by Carol (new)

Carol I couldn't have said this any better than Antigone.

A very heartfelt, raw, true, sharing of both the book and your goals.

"I am still writing. In hope. In terror."

Your friends and followers are here, we're patient and wishing you well.


message 4: by Cheryl (new) - added it

Cheryl What breathtaking poignancy and insightful words, Julie. I love Shapiro's blog and has always been a fan of her first memoir, so I'm glad she's still writing. This one has been on my tbr for some time and with your splendid review, it's moving up to the "get soon" category. The writing life is a fearful maze, but at some point, we have to attempt it -- while also smirking at the ones who call this a hobby or jobless affair. I'm glad you're still writing, Julie :)


message 5: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne You certainly have a strong and sincere voice.


message 6: by Marita (new)

Marita Best wishes.


message 7: by RK-ïsme (new)

RK-ïsme Brilliant!


message 8: by Tiffany (new) - added it

Tiffany What my friends say to me is, I see you're still writing. Why don't you try to make some money at it?


message 9: by Debbie (new) - added it

Debbie Inspiring review, Julie. Brilliant and raw and packed with passion about your work. What a great writer you are!


Julie Christine Carol wrote: "I couldn't have said this any better than Antigone.

A very heartfelt, raw, true, sharing of both the book and your goals.

"I am still writing. In hope. In terror."

Your friends and followers ..."

Thank you for this virtual embrace, Carol. I'm so grateful.


Julie Christine Cheryl wrote: "What breathtaking poignancy and insightful words, Julie. I love Shapiro's blog and has always been a fan of her first memoir, so I'm glad she's still writing. This one has been on my tbr for some t..."
I amazes me that I can go through a reading/writing life wholly unfamiliar with an author, and then she arrives in my life at just the right moment. I "discovered" Dani through her blog and loved her voice. Still Writing is pitch perfect and I can't wait to read more. Thank you for the lovely comment, Cheryl.


Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "You certainly have a strong and sincere voice." Thank you, Suzanne!


Julie Christine Marita wrote: "Best wishes."
Thank you, Marita!


Julie Christine RK-ique wrote: "Brilliant!"
Aww, thank you! Dani's book absolutely is- I'm just grateful to have found it :)


message 15: by Julie Christine (last edited Jul 26, 2015 05:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Christine Tiffany wrote: "What my friends say to me is, I see you're still writing. Why don't you try to make some money at it?" LOL, Tiffany. If it were only that easy, right? The other one I get is, "Oh, I love to write, but I've always had to work for a living." I just heard this, again, at a writer's retreat, of all places . . .


Julie Christine Debbie wrote: "Inspiring review, Julie. Brilliant and raw and packed with passion about your work. What a great writer you are!" What a beautiful thing to say, Debbie- thank you!


message 17: by Tiffany (new) - added it

Tiffany About making money--what enrages me is when some dilettante like Madonna sells some frivolous piece of nonsense like "The English Roses" for an ego stroke, which means that some hard-toiling, hungry writer gets bumped from the presses. Publishing houses know there's money to be made from name recognition. I never buy books from celebrities for this very reason. Honestly if you're making a fat living from movies or music let the real writers have a chance to make a living doing what they are trained to do! Do I sound angry?'!?! Just being emphatic.


message 18: by Joyce (new)

Joyce Wow Julie, You can write! From afar, I marvel at your inner strength to pursue not only your dream, but who you are knowing fully that you subject yourself to forces that you cannot control. I admire you. You're on an amazing journey. I'm so anxious to read your book / books when they comes out.


Iris P Julie, during the last few weeks I looked forward to your updates as you made progress reading this book.

I read your final review last night while enjoying a couple of glasses of wine.(I thought of posting a comment then but I don't trust myself writing stuff online after that 2nd glass!).
Creativity and what inspires writers is a fascinating topic for me. So I re-read your review this morning (which was lovely and exquisite to read) and thought of two questions to ask you:

1. Do you look at Writing as more of an art or a craft?
3. Do you think this book could be enjoyed by those of us that are not writers?

Thanks for providing such a beautiful and though-provoking review...


Julie Christine Tiffany wrote: "About making money--what enrages me is when some dilettante like Madonna sells some frivolous piece of nonsense like "The English Roses" for an ego stroke, which means that some hard-toiling, hungr..." I know. I do understand. It has been ever thus. For this writer, I just don't have the energy to get angry about something that is so far out of my realm of control. I can only keep writing to the best of my ability and seek to improve with every word.

And make certain I keep reaching-- reaching out to those who offer support, reaching up to those who offer to help, and reaching down to lift up those below.


Julie Christine Iris wrote: "Julie, during the last few weeks I looked forward to your updates as you made progress reading this book.

I read your final review last night while enjoying a couple of glasses of wine.(I thought ..."


LOL, Iris. I've shaken my head at more than one response I've given after a glass of wine, or three. :) I think I wrote this review in such a state; it's been edited and revised a few times, as I catch another glaring WHAAAA? along the way...

Yes, I absolutely think you would enjoy Dani's book. Funny, I think of you as a writer...

I've been mulling over your question about writing as art or craft. This comes up every so often and it's always fascinating to hear others' answers (so I'd love it if anyone chimed in). I guess the best answer I can give is that the art shows in one's interpretation of craft. I've been reading and thinking a lot about poetic forms in recent weeks and Eavan Boland's beautiful memoir/literary criticism "Object Lessons" really illustrates this for me. She made an assiduous study of poetic forms (craft) and then went and explored her own voice and style (art). Although a skilled poet may not write a single villanelle or sonnet, the study of those forms lives and breathes in their work and informs their verse. A writer may possess some innate ability to hear and create a certain pleasing rhythm with words--what we would call talent-- but I think wrapped up in craft is the development of storytelling skills AND the grit and determination to finish one's work.

I love taking photos. I know I have a natural eye for arrangement and interpretation, and I even have a nice camera, but I have really no idea how to use it. So, I've got the art bit, but I am utterly devoid of craft except what I learn by trial and error. My photos garner me lots of Facebook likes, but they'll never get me anywhere professionally, seriously, because they're full of flaws- I haven't studied the craft.

Yet, I can tell when I read something that is all studied craft and very little art. When the writer is conscious of hitting their markers, but the story is devoid of real empathy, color, or meaning.

We were talking in my workshop over the weekend about the wonderful thing that happens when someone reads your work and says, "I love how you integrated the themes here, or the irony of this bit there, or the power of this scene ending, or," listing the things they found in your writing that you had no conscious intention of doing. You just did it. That's the perfect blend of art and craft to me--when the storytelling becomes natural, when you've absorbed enough, through reading, studying, that the craft becomes one with the art.


message 22: by Sanjay (new)

Sanjay Varma Your thoughts inspire me Julie! For the time you spent to write that, thank you.


Julie Christine Sanjay wrote: "Your thoughts inspire me Julie! For the time you spent to write that, thank you." Oh Sanjay, you made me smile. Thank you.


Iris P Julie wrote: "Iris wrote: "Julie, during the last few weeks I looked forward to your updates as you made progress reading this book.

I read your final review last night while enjoying a couple of glasses of wi..."


Hi Julie, I've been so rude by not replying to the thoughtful answers you gave to my questions some days ago, my only excuse is that my new job with its 50-hour per week schedule barely leaves me time to browse GR and post a few, somehow coherent comments once in a while..

I thought that your perspective on how craft affects art and vice versa is so interesting. You are very generous in saying that you think of me as a writer, but it's easier to apply your concepts to music, which is the art form I had pursued and the one for which I think I have some moderate level of talent.

Studying music theory seems to me to represent the crafty, more utilitarian aspect of becoming a musician. This is the platform that allows you to "speak" the same language other musicians use to communicate with each other, it's what makes music a universal language.
That's not say that people that don't get a formal music training can't develop their talent as well (there are plenty of intuitive, self-taught great musicians out there), but having at least some basic knowledge of language and music notation is in my opinion an advantage.

You wrote "I can tell when I read something that is all studied craft and very little art. When the writer is conscious of hitting their markers, but the story is devoid of real empathy, color, or meaning..."

Growing up, I remember taking music classes with this girl who actually hated music. Most musicians I know think of studying music theory as tedious and boring as hell, but it's a means to an end.

This girl though was really miserable. Her mom had this very 19th century concept that well educated women were supposed to play the piano, so this poor soul had to endure many years of endless hours of practicing scales, learning music notation and piano chords.

The point of my story is that even though she would followed the motions and she eventually learned the theoretical part of playing the piano, her interpretations were totally hollowed and uninspiring, or as you put it "devoid of real empathy, color, or meaning..."

I look forward to reading Ms. Shapiro's memoir, sounds like an wonderful read...


Julie Christine Iris wrote: "Julie wrote: "Iris wrote: "Julie, during the last few weeks I looked forward to your updates as you made progress reading this book.

I read your final review last night while enjoying a couple of..."


Iris, your wonderful reply is well worth the wait.

Your music theory comparison is perfect. I took piano lessons for several years as a child (until my parent's divorce forced sale of piano and end of lessons-I'm still gutted about it, more than three decades later). Mrs, McDaniel, my piano teacher, insisted we learn music theory. I loved it--learning to read music made the playing of it fall into place for me. It was a look behind the curtain. It took none of the magic away; the meeting of my body and the piano still astonished me (the art!), but it meant that I understood what the notes were trying to tell me. How I interpreted them was the art. Where talent comes into play-having a natural ear for rhythm, harmony, timbre, melody, language--oh, now that's another discussion entirely :)

I wish you energy in this time of transition, and the ability to find rest and peace when you need it. Best wishes with the new job! xoxo Julie


Iris P Julie wrote: "Iris wrote: "Julie wrote: "Iris wrote: "Julie, during the last few weeks I looked forward to your updates as you made progress reading this book.

I read your final review last night while enjoyi..."


Thanks so much Julie, and how wonderful to learn that besides books, we also shared a love for music.

Oh yes, understanding talent and how that
"raw material" works, opens up a whole new conversation indeed...

I was never quite able to conquest the piano (to me the most perfect music instrument), instead I settled for the acoustic guitar, a much more humbler,unassuming instrument, but one that I love and has brought infinite hours of enjoyment and entertainment..:)


message 27: by Angela (new)

Angela Thank you so much for this. I look forward to reading your books someday.


Iris P Hi Julie, it took me awhile but I finally finished Dani's memoir.
Wanted to share a link to my review, here it is https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


Julie Christine Iris wrote: "Hi Julie, it took me awhile but I finally finished Dani's memoir.
Wanted to share a link to my review, here it is https://www.goodreads.com/review/show..."


LOVE THIS SO MUCH!!


Julie Christine Angela wrote: "Thank you so much for this. I look forward to reading your books someday."

Angela- thank you (much belated)!!


message 31: by J (new) - added it

J So inspiring. Glad I came across this today :)


Julie Christine Jennie wrote: "So inspiring. Glad I came across this today :)" YAY, Jennie!!


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