Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dani Shapiro on writing memoir

Dani Shapiro is one of my favorite memoir writers. I loved Slow Motion and Devotion. She's been on the show a bunch (you can access those shows by entering her name in the search box on this page, or here). Here's what she has to say about writing memoir.

Let's talk about structure--again. We've talked about it on the show and in person (when you were here, at the Pen on Fire Salon). The structure of DEVOTION was so compelling with its short chapters spiraling narrative. How did the structure come to you, or did it evolve and surprise you? In other words, had you planned to write a more traditional narrative like SLOW MOTION but it went another way?

When I first started writing DEVOTION I thought the book would have a more traditional structure. I wasn't thinking about SLOW MOTION, per se, but I certainly imagined that that narrative of DEVOTION would unfold in a straightforward manner. But almost immediately, it began breaking up on me. I wrote a small piece, then another, then another. And all the while, I was panicking. I realized that the story was asking to be told in a puzzle-like way, in these pieces, and I didn't know if it could be done. I hadn't read any books that had done it -- which either meant, to my mind, that it couldn't be done, or hadn't been done well. But then, along the way, I read a few books that had had succeeded brilliantly in creating a forceful narrative drive--a compelling story--in these puzzle-like pieces. Annie Dillard's FOR THE TIME BEING was the book that made me think, okay, maybe I can do this. And then, for a while, because I felt I needed more structure within this seemingly loose way of story-telling, I thought I was going to write DEVOTION in seventy-two pieces, because there is a story in the Kabbalah about God having seventy-two names. But this was an intellectual construct rather than an organic idea, and at a certain point, I realized that this self-imposed number, seventy-two, was limiting what I could do. I was writing toward the number seventy-two, holding onto it, rather than simply allowing the narrative to unfold in as many pieces as it needed. And so the book really took off for me when I let go of that artificial construct. It started breaking up into even smaller pieces. I included lists, definitions, brief descriptions that I wouldn't have been able to, otherwise. It was a lesson--one that I learn over and over again--about not imposing ideas from the outside, but rather, allowing structure to develop out of the ideas and narrative of the book, sort of like watching a Polaroid develop. It can only become clear when a writer forges ahead, into the unknown, and then the structure emerges.

Had anyone--an agent, editor--encouraged you to write the memoir using a more traditional structure?

I really didn't show DEVOTION to anyone as I was writing it, other than to my husband, who is my first reader. I find it can be dangerous to get opinions that may have more to do with the marketplace or what people think is selling, while in the midst of the creative process itself. As I said, I was panicking -- but the panic was part of doing the work. I couldn't have written DEVOTION using a more traditional structure, and so I had to go through the struggle of discovering how to tell the story. Outside opinions would have been distracting at best, and quite possibly might have derailed me. That's another thing I've had to learn again and again over the years. To keep the process as internal and private as possible for as long as possible. It's not that the marketplace doesn't matter -- of course it matters, and we all want to sell books! -- but the book can't start there, or there's no hope for it.

In DEVOTION, you found a way to blend your spiritual search, your son's illness, and the struggle with your mother--and more. When you began the book, or prior to beginning, did you know there would be multiple threads weaving throughout?

The multiple threads really ended up emerging from the structure. There was the story of motherhood, of daughterhood, of moving from the city to the country, of my religious upbringing, my spiritual crisis in midlife, my search. I came to think of each of them as a fishing line cast at the beginning of the book, which would then need to be grounded by the end. Each thread needed to have a resolution of sorts. Or to catch a fish, to extend the dubious metaphor even further.

One reason the structure works so well is because each chapter transitions to the next, even if you're writing about a different time and space. How much attention did you pay to transitions?

One of the more challenging but also ultimately very satisfying aspects of working in that way is that I had to wait for the next piece to emerge. I almost never knew where I was going next when I finished a piece. At one point, I referred to the writing of DEVOTION as "death by 102 prose poems." That's what it felt like. The spaces between each piece felt important. I had to breathe, to be patient, to allow the unconscious pattern to emerge. And sometimes I ended up needing to move pieces around so that they fit together more clearly -- but not as often as you'd think. The unconscious has its own coherence, if only we get out of its way.

While memoir is not autobiography, but about a specific time/experience/journey, it can still be difficult knowing what to leave out. Was there a lot you left out? And how did you decide what had to go?

I love this question. What to leave out is at the heart of writing memoir, I think. I'll sometimes meet a writer who is trying to write memoir and is stuck, and that stuckness so often comes out of a feeling that it all needs to go in there, the whole kitchen sink, every story, every year, every memory. And that isn't what memoir is at all. I always try to keep in mind that memoir is an act of story-telling. What is this one story I'm trying to tell? What belongs in this story? I can write other books later about other stories, other aspects of experience or memory. And so what I leave out is dictated by the story I'm trying to tell. There are many aspects of my life that didn't go into DEVOTION, or into SLOW MOTION for that matter, because the books couldn't have supported those other stories. I don't think that's in any way deceitful, or morally questionable, though some readers feel entitled to know everything, and feel somehow cheated if they later find out: oh, she had a half-sister she didn't write about, or, oh, she had a months-long marriage at age eighteen, or whatever. (Those are both real examples.) But I'm not writing autobiography -- I'm writing memoir, and memoir is a story that hews to memory. I never invent anything, ever. But I don't feel like I need to reveal all. It isn't a confession, or a diary.

Dani Shapiro's other recent book's include Black & White (Knopf, 2007) and Family History
(Knopf, 2003). Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and guest editor of Best New American Voices 2010. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

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