Photo credit: Kwaku Alston
I want to say a few words about impatience. I often tell my students that writers are the most impatient people on the planet doing the thing that requires more patience than just about anything else. We lay down lines of words like children scratching twigs against wet sand near the shoreline. The waves come and erase what we’ve written — we erase what we’ve written — again and again as we attempt against all odds to get it right.
Think of a writer beginning a book. It’s a bit like going on a blind date and deciding before you even walk into the bar that this is the one — you’re going to marry this one, or at least live with him for a few years and he’s going to break your heart. Sight unseen, in an enormous leap of crazy faith, the writer begins. A word. Two. Five. A paragraph. A page. We have no idea whether it’s going to amount to anything. Still, we sit down. We feel slightly nauseated, maybe a little bit excited, but mostly we feel rather insane. We’re making something out of nothing. The blank page (or screen) is a whole lot of nothing. Unlike Michelangelo’s David
— about which he said that the sculpture was there, all he had to do was remove the marble — we writers do not have marble. We have nothing until we’ve begun, until we’ve tied ourselves to our chair and stayed there, through inner storms of discomfort, mania, terror, resistance, and futility. We stay — for days, weeks, months, years, God help me, decades — until we have our marble, and once we do, only then do we begin to chisel away at it in the hopes of making something beautiful.
If you’re going to spend a couple of years alone in a room tearing your hair out, why play it safe?
When I began my new memoir Hourglass
, it was in a state of teeth-gritting terror. I had been struggling with what was next — the waiting that is inevitable between books, during which time every writer I know thinks I will never be able to do this again
— when I realized what was next and I wasn’t happy about it at all. I had been obsessed with time — with the way time seems to speed up, loop around, slow down, and exist in layers as if everything that has ever happened to us continues to happen — and I was trying to write about time, which led me to a very scary subject: marriage. As in my marriage. My marriage of 18 years. I realized that what I was most interested in, what I wanted to understand, was what it means to be with someone over time. How do we form ourselves toward, against, alongside another human being for the duration? How had my husband and I been doing this for nearly two decades? How had we changed each other? How had we changed ourselves because of each other?
I had never written about my husband before. In fact, when my memoir Devotion
came out, readers often asked me why my husband wasn’t a very big part of the book. Devotion
was about a spiritual crisis, and my easy and quick answer was that my husband was an atheist and didn’t have much to do with my spiritual crisis, other than to support my attempt to understand it. But this — now — a book about our marriage, was something I had never contemplated doing until the moment it became clear to me that it was the only thing I could possibly write. It was a high-wire act, and I guess I feel that if you’re going to spend a couple of years alone in a room tearing your hair out, why play it safe? Why not do the most terrifying thing?
But this kind of delicate, painstaking inquiry — the writing of Hourglass
— required more patience of me than anything I had ever written before. It required all the usual stuff — the chaining myself to the chair, the daily overcoming of resistance, the sense of futility, the fear that I wouldn’t be able to produce anything worthwhile, but now there was a whole other level of equanimity and patience with the process I needed to find. How could I write about my husband, who I love, and be truthful, even ruthless, about the fault lines in our marriage, without in some way betraying him — betraying us?
It was a question I asked myself every single day that I worked on Hourglass
. It helped that my husband is a writer and is my first reader. I shared pages with him as I wrote. Sometimes what I read to him was moving and beautiful and made us both cry. Other times, it was raw and harsh and scary, and I saw him flinch. Once, I waited until we were on a road trip — he was driving — to read him a passage I knew would be hard to hear. When I finished reading it, he paused, looking straight ahead, eyes on the road.
“Did you think that would bother me?” he asked.
“I guess I wondered. I thought it might.”
“But it’s true,” said my husband.
This truth-seeking is one of the things that binds us together. I don’t know that I could have written about my marriage if I was married to someone who had a regular job. A lawyer, say, or a teacher, or a shrink. Someone who might feel as if being written about amounts to an invasion of privacy. But part of what I was writing about in Hourglass
was the very idea of being two artists making a life together, and artists — even private, introverted artists like us — understand the difference between the book and the life. The public and the private. The thing that is made, and the thing that is lived.
And so I made the thing — this book — this delicate, terrifying little piece of work. I’ve never walked a tightrope, but I’m guessing that it helps not to be panicked, not to be anxious, not to be impatient — and above all, not to look down. Balanced, eyes straight ahead, one small step after another, I didn’t stop to think this is the beginning, this is the middle, how far to the end?
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the memoirs Still Writing
, and Slow Motion
and five novels including Black and White
and Family History
is her most recent memoir. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker
, Tin House
, One Story
, The New York Times Book Review
, the op-ed pages of The New York Times
, and the Los Angeles Times
and has been broadcast on This American Life
. Shapiro was recently Oprah Winfrey’s guest on Super Soul Sunday
. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University; she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. Shapiro lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.