DECEMBER 13, 2013
DANI SHAPIRO’s new book, Still Writing, contains a chapter toward the end titled “Envy.” She says envy’s a terrible, destructive force for writers, and I agree. She admits — very generally — to falling prey to the green monster, but ends the chapter talking about Buddhism and sounding very above it all. I am not above it, so I will confess: I am envious of Dani Shapiro and her giant house in the country as photographed by The New York Times. I’m also envious of Ann Patchett and her time at the Hotel Bel-Air in Beverly Hills to get away and write. Envy, envy, envy. I’m not proud of it, but I admit it. And perhaps it is envy, and my subsequent guilt, that makes it so difficult for me to review these new books, by two successful writers, Shapiro’s Still Writing and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.
Both these women are middle-aged, as am I; both started writing young, as did I; both have quite a few books published, as do I; and both have received some excellent reviews, as have I. But our similarities stop there. They are best sellers, they are on many bookshelves, they are asked to speak and teach — and I am virtually unknown. Hence, my envy and my curiosity about these two books. Would they reveal the secrets of their success? I hoped so. Instead, they convinced me only that Shapiro and Patchett aren’t all that special. They are smart and disciplined, but not any more interesting or hardworking or intelligent than many, many obscure writers I know. Why them? After reading these two volumes, I still have no idea.
Before I go on, let me admit something else. I hate advice books of all kinds. I don’t want to read about overcoming anger (or envy) or getting along with my children, my spouse, or my parents. I don’t want advice on meditating or running or dating or achievement of any kind. I can barely follow the directions in a recipe.
And, at the risk of jeopardizing my teaching career, I have never — until now — read an entire book about writing. Neither Bird by Bird nor Writing Down the Bones, although both Anne Lamott’s and Natalie Goldberg’s books sit on my shelf. Beside them are Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Making A Literary Life by Carolyn See, Ernest Hemingway on Writing, and Eudora Welty’s slim volume, One Writer’s Beginnings. All glanced at but unread. I once suggested Stephen King’s On Writing to a student, but never read it myself. I teach a chapter from John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist, and it’s the only chapter of the book I’ve actually read. I figure — based on his novels and that chapter — it must be pretty good, but I really wouldn’t know. I’ve opened all these books many times, and tried, many times, to force myself to sit down and read one or another. But I can’t do it.
Therefore, I am the perfect writer —a tabula rasa — to read and review Still Writing. I swear I did read it beginning to end, every word, but I had to walk around my house as I did, drop the book often on the couch, groan and complain until my family began to mock me. What is it? Why can’t I read someone else’s ideas about writing? I do not think I am better than any of these writers. To the contrary, I’m sure it is my rampant insecurity that keeps me from these kinds of books. If I open randomly and read that one writer circles her desk three times before sitting down, or that someone else starts every morning reading a poem, or that Dani Shapiro says her writing day begins with crystals and a yoga mat, I want to scream and throw the book across the room. I should exercise. I should eat more vegetables. Whatever some writer says I should be doing, I probably should be doing. All true. But I won’t, or I won’t for long, and then I’ll beat myself up about it. I’ll blame my lack of success on the missing coffee mug, the reading I haven’t done, the email I check frequently, and all the lovely adjectives I use. The guilt and self-incrimination will last much longer than any good advice. Worst of all, if I already do what he or she recommends, it’s likely I will become incredibly self-conscious about it and stop. It’s a dangerous thing to give someone else advice about a process that is inexplicable.
Dorothy Parker gave the only suggestion for new writers I can fully get behind:
If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.
We’re all looking for a magic wand, the one little trick that will make it happen for us. If Dani Shapiro leaves the big city and moves to the country and meditates and becomes a Buddhist and does yoga every day, I will too. I will go to Sarah Lawrence (both Shapiro and Patchett did). I will get a dog. I will never have children or only one child or four like Ayelet Waldman. I will wear only gray socks if that’s what it takes.
Sadly, that isn’t what it takes. Or maybe it is. The truth is, there’s no way of knowing.
But Shapiro acts as if there is. She relays her personal observations as if they are gospel. “Analysis won’t help,” “There is beauty in what is,” “The mess is holy.” Every chapter is filled with this pseudo-meaningful babble. “Now you’ve carved the tree. You’ve chiseled the marble. You’ve begun,” for instance, and “To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain,” and “You’re standing in a house that contains other windows. You can look through them another time. But stop here, for a while, at this window. There’s so much to see.”
Look, I know I have a chip on my shoulder. I know my lack of book sales and writerly poverty has made me uncharitable to those more successful. But really, Shapiro? Really? “Do everything you can to protect your instrument — which is to say, yourself. […] Embrace this selfishness.” What advice do you have for the writer who works a day job, who doesn’t have a room of her own, who squeezes in 20 minutes after her children have gone to bed and the dishes are done and the laundry folded? Very few writers face entire days with nothing to do but write. Sounds like Shapiro works hard, but it also sounds like she’s awfully privileged.
Speaking of privileged, hello Ann Patchett. Yes, she was the daughter of a cop, but somewhere between her really interesting, painful childhood and her present rarefied existence, she lost what it means to be a real person. I loved Bel Canto as much as the next person, but her collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, does her no favors. In the essay, “The Sacrament of Divorce,” she writes, “There can be something cruel about people who have had good fortune. They equate it with personal goodness.”
Yes. She’s talking about a guy who spoke flippantly of her divorce, but I think she needs to wear those sentences on a T-shirt. She was 25 years old and had quit a teaching job after getting her MFA from Iowa. “I had published several short stories in Seventeen magazine, and had asked my editor […] if I could have a nonfiction assignment as well.” Of course she could. Of course she could actually support herself — and travel around the world — writing articles and interviews for various magazines. She says it as if it was not rare good fortune, but a boon that came to her because of what, her personal goodness? For those struggling to sell their first short story or article, this is both cruel and ridiculous.
Happy Marriage is not ostensibly a book about writing, but every essay — republished for the most part from previous magazine iterations — is about a writer and what she is writing. In an early tale, “The Getaway Car,” the one most filled with direct writing advice, she says — flippantly — “Four days later, my mother came out to the driveway to meet me. An editor at Houghton Mifflin had bought The Patron Saint of Liars for $45,000.” She sold her first novel in four days! But she is so blasé, so unaware of how lucky she is that what she writes about in the next paragraph is the money. Yes, it’s a lot of money for a 27-year-old. But more importantly, for most people it’s not that easy to sell a novel. She was just so damn good, I guess, and such a good, deserving person (see above T-shirt) that of course it happened like that. Pay no attention to the 24 rejections Janet Fitch received for White Oleander, or the countless more for Harry Potter (or, I may as well say it, my own recent 17).
In “Do Not Disturb,” Patchett has too many houseguests so she flies across the country to Beverly Hills, to the Hotel Bel-Air (rooms $460–$2000/night), to write. How many writers have that kind of money? She laughs snidely about the Best Western she could have stayed in, but most of us have to stay home. And, in classic reverse snobbism, she looks down her nose at the other Bel-Air guests who eschew the toast, the dressing, and the blue cheese, and have a “much flashier manner” than she does. In “On Responsibility” she writes about her lack of responsibility: “I pitch in and help other people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation.” Don’t strain yourself, Ann. In “The Love Between Two Women” she is upset that a group of parents don’t want Clemson College to adopt her memoir, Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with author Lucy Grealy. Toward the end she writes about the “condescending air of moral superiority” of right-wing Christians and then condescendingly ends with “If I am the worst thing the students of Clemson have to fear, then their lives will be very beautiful indeed.” In essay after essay, including the one about that damn bookstore she paid for, Patchett sounds clueless about how most people live their lives.
I can say the book is an easy read. Wendy Lesser, in The New York Times, said it was “fun” and that she was “lured in by her confiding voice.” That confiding voice contained a fair amount of callousness. Unintentional, I’m sure, but there.
And then her dog — her flipping dog, Rose. Perfect of course. Staying quiet while she wrote, going everywhere with her, smart and obedient and sweet. Not like my pain-in-the-ass mongrels who chew my computer cords and are still — well into adulthood — peeing on the living room floor. Rose has even been in her jacket photos. In an early essay, “This Dog’s Life,” Patchett tells us how she rescued poor, abandoned Rose when she was just a puppy. After Rose came into her life, she found a better apartment, changed her whole routine for the dog. “Whatever holes I had in my life, in my character, were suddenly filled.” It’s kind of great, definitely sweet, and funny when people keep assuming what she really wants is a baby. She is adamant that she never wanted children.
We hear about Rose throughout the book. Trips to the vet, walking her in a hurricane, it’s all very nice. But Patchett comes clean in the second-to-last essay, “Dog Without End.” By this time, she must have figured we’d have fallen in love with her, and the true story of her dog won’t bother us. What Patchett actually did was see the dog at a pound, then go off on a lunch date with a boyfriend she just couldn’t miss, only to come back to find that a little deaf child had chosen her puppy. She convinces the young mother to yank the puppy out of the arms of her little girl, lying to her that she had already claimed the dog. Patchett watches as “the woman took the puppy from her daughter, and the girl started to cry. I’m sure there was something I should have said or done.” Yeah! Give the dog back. Patchett “moved quickly […] before anyone changed their mind,” gets in her car, locks the door, and tells her boyfriend to drive.
Actually, it was at this late moment that I finally began to like her a little. She was such an unabashed bitch. She wanted what she wanted, and she was going to get it. I admired that. Problem is, as the essay ends, she doesn’t own it, she justifies it: “love does not have the most honorable beginnings.” I hope she’s paying for that little girl’s therapy. I’m glad she gets everything she wants: dogs, husbands, bookstores, and literary success. But I don’t like the way she talks about it all, with a kind of saccharine superiority. Especially about writing. Especially about how easy it was for her, and what the rest of us should do.
With all my heart I believe writing is magical and ineffable, but it is not religion. There is no reason for reverence, the holy hush when we discuss our favorite authors. Writing is hard, grubby work. There is no advice you can give except to just do it. A couple years ago I heard Denis Johnson speak at USC. A student asked him a good writing question, something about how to create character. Johnson thought for a moment and finally said, “I don’t know.” It was the most refreshing answer I’d ever heard from a famous, accomplished author. I don’t know. My friend thought he was being disingenuous, but I knew exactly what he meant. We don’t know where it comes from, we don’t really, truly have any advice to give. We can’t answer the how-to questions because the how is different for every single writer.
Go out and get The Elements of Style. That’s a book every writer should read. Go wild and buy the illustrated version, Maira Kalman’s drawings are worth it. But don’t listen to anyone except your own inner demon to tell you how to write. Read novels and memoirs, read writers writing, not writing about it. The minute they start, they destroy it — no matter how good they are.
Diana Wagman is the author of the novels Bump, Skin Deep, and Spontaneous, numerous stories, essays, reviews, and screenplays, including Delivering Milo, directed by Nick Castle and starring Bridget Fonda and Albert Finney.