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The Writing Life

Writing faculty member Mary Morris talks with authors Dani Shapiro ’83 (Devotion) and Robin Black ’86 (If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This ) about their new books, nude models, shimmering ideas, and writing first thing in the morning.

Though your books are clearly quite different, there is a sense in which they are the same in that they are both books of stories. Robin, yours is obviously short stories, and wonderfully crafted one at that, and, Dani, yours, a mosaic about meaning and belief, is a also compilation of stories. Could you each talk a bit about where this material came from? And at what point did you begin to see this material as a book?

BLACK: I was thinking recently that all of my stories develop similarly—from a spark, not a narrative. The spark might be a person I meet, or some little odd phenomenon I observe. These starting points come from my life, but the stories that grow from them do not, not directly. To be honest, I doubted these stories were a coherent book until the last was finished, eight years after the first was begun. In part, I kept waiting for something less dark than stories centered on loss to emerge, but that was my preoccupation while writing them. And in part, the idea of having a book, of “going public,” was so unsettling, I protected myself from it.

SHAPIRO: Because Devotion is a memoir, the stories already existed, or happened experientially during the time I was working on the book. I never thought of them as stories per se, but as pieces of a puzzle, or a patchwork quilt. But I relate to what Robin says about sparks. Joan Didion once described this as a “shimmer,” and that is certainly true for me when I’m writing fiction. So much of writing fiction, for me, is the art of waiting for those sparks or shimmers, and recognizing them—and I always do—when they appear. They are rare and unmistakable.

But what Robin said about “going public” is compelling and I think also bears comment, because I’ve only ever been public as a writer. That’s one of the most interesting elements, I think, in each of our differing paths as writers. I wrote my first novel while in the graduate writing program at SLC and sold it to a publisher while I was still in school. My life as a writer has been a public one—and I’ve often longed for that time of just simply writing, that innocence, really, of writing a first book.

In a sense, Robin writes about characters in some kind of crisis (I can’t get the woman whose father commits suicide on the railroad tracks while her daughter is nearly electrocuted in the bathtub), and Dani is writing about resolution to the many crises, both of life and conscience, that confront you. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

SHAPIRO: Devotion very much emerged from a desire—a compulsion, really—to find meaning, really to precisely name the meaning, in my everyday life, as well as in pieces of my childhood. One of the most personally compelling discoveries I made had to do with the idea of making meaning—out of loss, out of grief, out of whatever life hands us. I think this idea of making meaning is something that Robin’s characters do as well, which is why I responded so strongly to her work when I first read it. And to take it a step further, perhaps the life of the writer is about nothing so much as this: the idea of making meaning. After all, isn’t that what storytelling is?

BLACK: I think of my subject matter as the human capacity to invent and reinvent reasons to move forward. I am fascinated and humbled by the way in which people who seem to have been demolished find reasons to hope, to care. I actually see the spiritual exploration Dani describes in Devotion as very closely related—both really are about making meaning, as she says. Maybe this is part of the connection Dani I felt when we met up nearly three decades after crossing paths at Sarah Lawrence—our intense interest in looking at things from as many angles as possible, even when that may be uncomfortable or take us on a circuitous path. I laughed recently when I figured out that it took 13 years, between us, to get through Sarah Lawrence. I’m not really surprised since neither if us is likely to get from point A to point B in a straight line.

Can you talk a little about your process as writers? When is your best writing time? Do you have a routine? Middle of the night? Morning?

SHAPIRO: I have to connect to my work in the morning, otherwise I won’t get traction. If I haven’t gotten anything down on paper by 9 or 10 a.m.—if I take a phone call, or receive an email that requires attention, or have to attend to some minor domestic disaster—my writing day is shot. I require solitude as well. A room of my own has always been essential. Writing in coffee shops has never worked for me.

Before I had a child, I used to roll right out of bed and sit down at the computer for a while. Remaining in that half-awake, half-dream world state helped to bypass the anxiety and insecurity of sitting down to write. Needless to say, I needed to adjust that routine once my son was born. I had to learn how to re-start my day once at my desk. To enter that half-dream world once again. Even our recent acquisition of a puppy disrupted my equilibrium for awhile. It’s a delicate balance—or perhaps balance is a fallacy. I’m constantly learning new ways of finding my way to the page.

BLACK: Morning, morning, morning for me, too. If I have a start on something, I can keep working into the afternoon, but it’s very difficult for me to pick something up late in the day, and by nighttime I’m useless. It’s also difficult for me to work if there are people around the house. I wish I weren’t so fussy about it, but I seem to be, and it isn’t getting better as I get older.

Recently I read an obituary in the Economist for a woman named Charis Wilson, who was Edward Weston’s nude model and muse. It seems that in the late 1930s Wilson was awarded a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence, but her father, who did not see in favor of the education of women, refused to let his daughter attend. I couldn’t help but wonder what Wilson’s life would have been if she had gone to Sarah Lawrence. Can you tell me what drew you to SLC in the first place, and do you feel you are a different person than you might have been without it?

BLACK: What a poignant story—and rich with metaphor too. The nude model, whose internal life has been so readily dismissed. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I didn’t want to go to Sarah Lawrence. I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, as my brothers and most of my friends had, for no good reason beyond prestige. I wasn’t nearly mature enough to consider what school might suit me best, and it took me decades to understand how perfectly Sarah Lawrence suited my idiosyncratic learning style, which unbeknownst to me then included undiagnosed learning disabilities. Nor did I then know that the work I did with the amazing Allan Gurganus would be the bedrock of my work 20-plus years after the fact.

SHAPIRO: How interesting, Robin—once again our trajectories were nearly opposite, but led us to the same place. I left high school a year early to go to college, and did, in fact, get into an Ivy League school, and there was a lot of pressure on me to go there. But I had a very strong instinct—a good one, it turns out, which was rare for my instincts in those days—that I would be much better off at Sarah Lawrence. How true that was! Sarah Lawrence was the perfect school for me, and somehow at the age of just-turned-17, I knew that. I can’t imagine the turns my life would have taken if I had taken the other road. So many of the formative academic relationships of my life happened at SLC. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Ilja Wachs and Jerry Badanes saved my life.

And finally, you two have forged a unique connection that began at Sarah Lawrence, even though you did not know one another at the time, and came full circle at the Sirenland writing conference. How would you characterize that connection? Has Sarah Lawrence played a part in its uniqueness?

SHAPIRO: It strikes me that Sarah Lawrence is one of those rare schools where having shared time at an alma mater actually means something. The intimacy and scale of the place, the intensity of relationships that are forged there—both between students and with faculty—make for an instant bond. Even though Robin and I didn’t know each other while in college, when I first heard that the writer I had selected as the Sirenland Fellow was an SLC grad, I was delighted. And when Robin and I finally met, in magical Positano, Italy, there was an almost instant sense of kinship.

There’s something poetic in the notion that once we were two very young women living in the same small dorm, who probably passed each other in the halls hundreds of times, and that our future selves, our paths as wives and mothers and writers, as the grown-ups we would each eventually become, were so unknown to us—as of course future paths must be. And then, all those years later, to greet each other as two writers in an antique-filled lobby of a hotel on the Amalfi Coast, to sit together in a workshop as we never did when we were in Bronxville—well, I take great satisfaction in the full circle of that.

BLACK: It’s true that we took almost opposite paths. I had my first child at 25, around the age at which Dani had her first book deal. I went back to writing at 39, around when she had her son. Yet at Sirenland, we found endless evidence that we have been working on the same questions all along, and working hard on them. And the fact that we both—I’m sure—would characterize our lives more by the questions we’ve asked than by answers we’ve embraced, is very much a part of the Sarah Lawrence legacy. I certainly feel I was first given permission there to value questioning above answering—which to me is the best of education and the best of writing, too.

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