An Ancestry.com DNA test would go on to change everything for author Dani Shapiro, in the most profound of ways.

Wheat Field

Dani Shapiro

AUTHOR

2019

AUTHOR / MEMOIR / INHERITANCE / DNA / IDENTITY / ANCESTRY.COM / BESSEL VAN DER KOLK / SARAH LAWRENCE

Novels, blogs, memoirs, articles, short stories, essays—Dani Shapiro is a richly versatile writer. And that versatility could be part of why Shapiro is so often dubbed a Writer’s Writer, an elusive title prone to interpretation, debate and even consternation—yet when it comes down to it, it’s something that seems to simply exist more in a knowing, a feeling.

As we launch this episode of Design Matters, we offer up the following quote collection, perhaps further proof of Shapiro’s status as a Writer’s Writer. Moreover, in the fields of her words, one finds wisdoms not only on the writing life, but cross-disciplinary lessons for creators at large—branding her (with apologies), a Creative’s Creative, an Artist’s Artist.

Here are 28 of our favorite Dani Shapiro quotes. (As always, the original sources are linked on the last word of each one.)

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


“I knew I wanted to be a writer before I knew that being a writer was possible. It’s easier to see in retrospect. I look back now at the girl I was—a voracious reader, the kind who reads beneath the covers with a flashlight, and an avid writer of letters that were full of fantasy and invention—[and] at the time I wondered if there might be something very wrong with me. I secretly feared that I was a pathological liar.”

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“As a child, I couldn’t have defined—and certainly didn’t understand—the strange, witnessing quality that I brought to nearly all my experiences, as if I were taking deep, mental notes, reading a psychological and emotional Braille that seemed present in every situation. All was subtext. I internalized what I witnessed and then have spent my whole life trying to unpack it, to use it as my lens, to make sense of it.”

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“I’ve come to believe that we all—each and every one of us—has a certain, central task of the psyche to perform while we’re here, alive on this earth. After all, it’s so unlikely to be here at all, born into this human body, on this grid, this place, this moment in time. Mine, I’ve come to think, is to become whole. To integrate a lifetime of complexity, challenges, secrets, luck, privilege, the inheritance of pain, of misunderstanding, the recompense of all the gifts I have been given with which to explore. I am a digger. I gnaw. I hope to come to know my own bone.”

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“Writers are outsiders. Even when we seem like insiders, we’re outsiders. We have to be. Our noses pressed to the glass, we notice everything. We mull and interpret. We store away clues, details that may be useful to us later.”

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“Earlier in my writing life, I was in love with language in a way I’m not now. If one simile was good, three was the best thing ever. I just loved riding that wave. Now the impetus is quite different, and it’s about finding just the bone of the story.”

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“When you write fiction, characters and places become very real to you—and they’d better; you’re inhabiting a world.”

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“The image I keep having is of this vast sort of field, where all my life as a writer I’ve been out there with a shovel, like, ‘OK, that spot seems really fertile. I’m going to dig there for a while.’ And there’s just this pile of dirt and this hole, and that’s a book. And then I do it again.”

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“I tell students all the time that there is a kind of despair we feel as writers and artists that is not only useful, but necessary. It’s the second-to-the-last fathom, the murky, dark waters an artist must move through before reaching the very bottom, the place from which she can use all her strength and push up, up, up toward the surface. There’s light up there, but first we have to live in the depths.”

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“I’m not so interested in what things are called anymore—fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, lyric essay—except as they relate to the way that the reader reads the book. The reader picks up the book with certain thoughts: Now I have to suspend my disbelief, or, Now I don’t have to suspend my disbelief, because every word is true. Well, every word is never true. There is artifice and persona in everything.”

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“I reject and am offended by the idea that this kind of work, [memoir], is confessional. There’s nothing confessional about crafting and shaping a story out of a lived life. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—the writer has to be able to transcend the life, to see it as if standing outside of it, in order to be able to make something of it. There’s something enormously satisfying and gratifying about crafting something, taking all that chaos and giving it shape.”

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“Think of a ballet dancer at the barre. Plie, eleve, battement tendu. She is practicing, because she knows that there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art.”

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“When I teach about the way memory works on the page, I will sometimes talk to students about a rookie writer mistake: You have a couple fighting, say, in a story, and then one of them goes into this long soliloquy-like memory in a way that would never happen in the midst of a fight. We don’t ruminate during a fight. Maybe in a bath, or driving a car, or as we take a walk. But not right smack in the middle of a dramatic moment. I’ll have my students try to follow their minds during the course of a day, just to see the way their minds work, the way our minds hop from thing to thing to thing. The internet mirrors that to such a degree you can actually see it. Show me your search history and I’ll show you who you are.”

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“I’m sure I drove my publisher crazy asking to see version after version until the final typeset pages, because any discrepancy in white space would have made me insane. The white space itself is almost a character. It’s where the reader can stand and make certain connections for him- or herself.”

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“Almost everything I’ve ever done in my writing life has been an accident.”

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“I’m not sure self-doubt is an obstacle. It might even be a writer’s best ally. It seems to me that every really good writer I know is plagued by it. Confidence is highly overrated when it comes to creating literature.”

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“I’m never quite satisfied. Satisfaction is death to the artist.”

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“I’ve had a regular yoga practice for 25 years, and though for many of those years I would have told you there was little or no connection between my yoga practice and my writing life, I have come to understand that yoga and meditation serve to quiet my mind, and the best work comes from a settled mind. Our creative impulses, our histories, our imaginations, don’t only live in our minds, but in our bodies as well. The closer I am to feeling myself as a physical, sentient being, the more access I have to the stories that are within me and around me. If I’m stuck in a piece of work, the best thing I can do for myself is unroll my mat.”

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“We are in the center of the stream. Much has already happened, and has formed the shape of our lives as surely as water shapes rock. Much lies ahead of us. We can't see what's coming. We can't know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won't always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge.”

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“Years vanish. Months collapse. Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward. Imagine it: an entire deck of cards soaring like a flock of birds.”

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“I am—and I think most writers are—an introvert, but one who has become decent at extrovert behavior. I’m most connected to myself when I’m alone in a room, moving my hand across a page. That’s when I feel most like me.”

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“When I walk into a bookstore I feel surrounded by my people, my tribe. The booksellers, the customers, and all those books on the shelves—they are my church, my temple, my religion. I never feel alone in a bookstore.”

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“Reading is an exercise in empathy. To read is to enter another world in a way different from any other art form. The reader is actively participating, activating the pages of a book simply by picking it up and beginning. We discover through reading that we are less alone, as the inner lives of characters on the page become accessible to us. No matter how foreign or different a life experience might be, the writer is always saying to the reader, and the reader to the writer,  ‘Me too. I’ve been there too.’” 

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“As a teacher of writing I also tell my students that if you show me a writer’s oeuvre, I will show you that writer’s obsessions. Theme is just a fancy word for obsession. If you read my body of work, you’ll know that I am consumed by questions about secrets in families, the power of the unsaid. And, of course, time and memory.”

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“Writers have a collective purpose. Especially now, with the internet creating so much noise and speed in all of our lives, writers—by the very nature of what we do—are forced to slow down, and perhaps in so doing, we form a counterweight to the culture of instantaneous reaction.”

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“Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.”

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“On my tax returns, I still pause about whether to write novelist, memoirist, writer, professor. I’m not sure whether this is truer for women than men, but I think that possibly shame enters into the psychic sphere of people who are doing things that are so out of step with the rest of the world.”

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“As for the idea of retirement—I don’t know what to think. Writing is hard. So hard. And perhaps after a lifetime of grappling with the page, it might feel good to just … stop. On the other hand, at least at this point in my own life, the thought of not writing fills me with dread, because it is the sole instrument through which I come to know my own mind. Without it, I think I might be babbling somewhere in a corner.”

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“Sometimes I think I have organized the inner crowd. For a brief, breathtaking moment, I feel completely whole. I understand that I am composed of many selves that make up a single chorus. To listen to the music this chorus makes, to recognize it as music, as something noble, varied, patterned, sublime—that is the work of a lifetime.”

 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman