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Transitions: A Tale of Two Writers

Every good story has its strange connections and coincidences, those surprises that you never anticipate, yet, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, feel inevitable. This is one of those stories-the kind you might find in a collection of "true tales." But let’s begin at the beginning.

In the fall of 1981 two young women moved into Andrews. Dani Shapiro, a sophomore, was thrilled to get a single, and Robin Black, a first-year, lived on the third floor. While Robin has a vague recollection of Dani, Dani’s memory is less clear, but what is certain is that the girls probably passed each other dozens of times in the hall and on the stairs during that year of college.

But then things changed for both. At the end of her junior year, Dani’s parents were in a horrific car accident. Her father was killed and her mother seriously injured. Dani left college for a few years to deal with the aftermath, as well as with issues in her own life. Eventually, Dani returned to Sarah Lawrence, studied with Ilja Wachs, and committed herself to a life of writing (all of which she has beautifully narrated in her memoir Slow Motion). She stayed on at Sarah Lawrence in the graduate writing program, and, before she received her MFA, already had a book contract for her first novel.

Meanwhile, Robin was also studying writing, with Allan Gurganus ’72 (“one of the very best things about being at Sarah Lawrence,” she says). But, for personal reasons, she too left the College in her junior year. She also had things in her life to deal with. She lived at home, became a student teacher, and was a visiting student at Yale. Eventually Robin, like Dani, returned to Sarah Lawrence in her senior year and graduated. But Robin’s trajectory was different. Though she came back to school and took amazing classes with Margery Franklin and Michael Davis, Robin didn’t hang around much. She was already engaged to be married, and she commuted to SLC.

It was at this point that Robin and Dani’s paths dramatically diverged. Dani pursued writing and teaching. She published five novels (her most recent is Family History), two memoirs, and many magazine articles. At the same time, Robin married, divorced, and married again, and was soon raising three children. About a decade ago, Robin found she was ready to return to her writing; Dani, now happily married after some turbulent years, was ready to have a child. While Robin was crafting the 10 wonderful stories that make up her first collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Dani had a son, Jacob, and moved with her husband, Michael Maren, to Connecticut, continuing to pursue her writing career and settling into a more domestic life for herself.

Then, a few years ago, Dani and Michael had the opportunity to start a small writers’ conference in Positano, Italy, in conjunction with One Story magazine. Sirenland, as the conference is called, would offer one fellowship per year to a writer in the process of completing a first book. Dani would pick the winner of the fellowship “blind”—that is, she wouldn’t know who the writers were. And in 2009, one of the stories that Dani read just leaped off the page at her. It was by a writer named Robin Black, who was about to publish her first book. Dani headed off to Sirenland with her husband and son, and there she finally met Robin.

Slowly they began to realize that not only had they begun their writing careers at the same college, but they had begun them in the same dorm at the same time. And here they were now-not just student and teacher, but soon colleagues and friends. And, in one more instance of synchronicity, they are both publishing books this spring. As Dani says, “I think our stories-and our different trajectories-really illustrate the fact that there is no one, clear-lit path toward becoming a writer.”

And yet the beauty of this story, as it comes full circle, as good stories should, is that somehow through the quirks of fate, and perhaps a little help from SLC, they both did wind up on the same path.

Extra: Mary Morris talks with Dani Shapiro and Robin Black about their new books.

Find out more about the writers at danishapiro.com and robinblack.net, or learn about the Sirenland conference at sirenland.net.

Mary Morris is the author of fourteen works of fiction and travel literature. A member of the SLC faculty since 1993, she teaches both fiction and non-fiction. Learn more at marymorris.net.

Dani Shapiro ’83 MFA '89 left college, came back, studied writing, published several books, and had a baby

Robin Black ’86 studied writing, left college, came back, had several babies, and published a book