I’m Jennifer Pastiloff and this series is designed to introduce the world to someone I find incredible. Someone who is manifesting their dreams on a daily basis. Someone like best-selling author Dani Shapiro.
When I read Dani’s book Devotion, my life changed. Just like that, I was on a plane to Bali to lead a retreat there, and if you told me that the plane had changed courses, I would have believed you. Dani’s latest book Still Writing, which releases on Tuesday, October 1st, is no different. I had the distinct honor to read an advanced copy, which I carried around like a dog-eared Bible of sorts.
Dani Shapiro crystallizes more than 20 years’ worth of lessons learned from teaching and writing into the instructive and inspiring Still Writing ~ Vanity Fair
You know when you find a writer and you think “They are talking to me. They wrote this book for me. They are, in fact, a little piece of me.” That’s Dani.
Perhaps my favorite quote by Dani, “Everything I know about life, I learned from the daily practice of sitting down to write.” I remind myself of that quote every time the resistance comes up to sit down or to be present. It’s the daily practice. It’e the putting one foot in front of the other, or, one letter after the other. It’s the sitting down to do it.
Writers need hope. Writers need help. Thank you, Dani Shapiro. ~Michael Cunningham
It’s a huge honor to have her featured on this series. I have taken a break from it and what better way to make a re-entry than with Dani Shapiro? Please, whatever you do, pick up a book by her and hold it close to your heart. Read it. You won’t ever put it down. It will stay inscribed there on your heart forever. Isn’t that what good writing does?
Lastly, and this just makes me giddy to write, Dani will be on SuperSoul Sunday with Oprah on Sunday October 20th. Talk about manifesting! Without further ado, here is my beloved friend, Dani Shapiro…
Jennifer Pastiloff: I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from this series but I’d like to start with the question I always start with. What are you most proud to have manifested in your life?
Dani Shapiro: I have two immediate and powerful responses to that question. The first is that I’ve manifested a happy family. I’ve been genuinely, deeply, happily married for sixteen years. I have a fourteen-year-old son who I’m very close to. Both of these could so easily––as the poet Jane Kenyon once wrote so beautifully––could have been otherwise. I was married twice before. Once when I was still a teenager (!) and once in my twenties. I made epically lousy choices in my romantic life until I met my husband. And I was terrified to become a mother. I had a very difficult relationship with my own mother, and I didn’t see the attraction. Some women spend their whole lives wanting to become mothers. This wasn’t me. I experienced a single, stark moment of absolute grace when I thought I could become a mother––and I did.
The second response is my life as a writer. I was such a fuck-up. You never would have looked at me, when I was in my early twenties, and thought: oh, yeah, that girl – she’s going to become a bestselling novelist and memoirist and is going to teach in universities. Oh yeah, that girl is going to sit down with Oprah. No… I don’t think so. But I climbed my way out of the dark place I had burrowed myself into, and in a beautiful piece of symmetry, becoming a writer saved my life, a word, a sentence at a time.
Jennifer Pastiloff: How did Devotion come to be? I read the book on a flight to Bali and it was one of those life-changing moments for me, where I bolted up out of my seat and started writing. My copy is now dog-eared and I assign it often to my students at workshops and retreats. Tell us, if you would, how that book was born?
Dani Shapiro: God, I love hearing that so much! Thank you. I was in the middle of my yoga practice when Devotion came to me. I had been in a trough between novels, waiting for the next work of fiction to materialize, and on this particular day I was in tree pose, and suddenly the word “devotion” flashed before my eyes. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. I’ve never had a title before I’ve had a book. I’ve written whole books before I’ve come upon the right title. But as soon as I saw that word –– devotion –– I knew that it was a book, a memoir, an exploration of the spiritual and existential crisis I had found myself in. I had been grappling with questions that I finally wanted to address directly, deeply, and as a writer the only way I know how to address anything is on the page. I discover what I believe through the writing. But this wasn’t particularly welcome news, I must say. I hadn’t planned to write another memoir. Certainly not a spiritual memoir. But when a feeling of rightness accompanies an idea for a writer, you turn away from it at your own peril.
Jennifer Pastiloff: As you know, one of my great dreams has been to be on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah. You, my friend, have had this dream become a reality. We’ve had a couple conversations where you have shared some gorgeous insight about this experience. I know you are planning on writing about it but would you tell my readers just a little about what that was like for you? The process of non-attachment, the letting go and having it return?
Dani Shapiro: I’ve learned so many things about myself, and about life, since I got the call inviting me to be a guest on “Super Soul Sunday” with Oprah. The first revelation is about the nature of shock. I had known for a long time that bad news could be shocking. I’ve been on the receiving end of shocking bad news. But what I hadn’t known is that good news can be shocking. I had no idea that I was being considered for Super Soul. I didn’t have a new book out when I got the call. In fact, when Devotion came out in 2010, of course I had some faint hope that maybe the Oprah folks would come knocking, but who ever really thinks that will happen? I don’t know why this is, but I really believe that things don’t happen when we’re trying to will them into being. They don’t happen when we’re waiting for the phone to ring, or the email to pop up in our in box. They don’t happen when we’re gripping too tightly. They happen –– if they happen at all –– when we’ve fully let go of the results. And, perhaps, when we’re ready. I was much more ready for that phone call than I would have been in 2010. I’d spent three years deepening my practice, thinking about spiritual matters, and living them. I was more grounded and centered. And that was my goal –– when I sat down with Oprah. My goal was to be centered and present. Not to miss the experience. Not to be all self-absorbed and self-conscious and up in my head. I didn’t want to miss the moment. I wanted to truly rise to the occasion.
Jennifer Pastiloff: When will your Super Soul Sunday episode air?
Dani Shapiro: The air date is Sunday, October 20.
Jennifer Pastiloff: Expect to be delighted. I found this in a book years ago and I use it as one of the steps to manifesting in my workshops. Thoughts on this one?
Dani Shapiro: Well, I love that. Too often we expect the worst. I spent a lot of my life being one of those “waiting for the other shoe to drop” people. It doesn’t protect against the other shoe dropping, and all it really does is cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety. But to anticipate delight is, perhaps, to cultivate delight! What a wonderful way to live. And why not? I mean, we’re not in control. We don’t know what will happen next. Why not assume the very, very best?
Jennifer Pastiloff: What is the greatest lesson (or one of them) you have learned from being a mom?
Dani Shapiro: Being a mom has forced me to be more present, because I became aware, when my son was very small, that I didn’t want to look back on what really is a brief window in the span of a lifetime –– of early childhood, of his growing up, of his adolescence –– and feel like I had been elsewhere and missed it. It’s easy to wish the time away. Some of motherhood is boring, though most of us won’t admit it. For instance, I do not like to play games. I’m not a game-playing mom. Not board games, not outdoor games. And so I would find myself wishing those hours away, but I made myself stop living in the past or the future, and come to the awareness, instead, that this time of young motherhood would eventually become something I would feel nostalgia for. I would miss it some day. And so I wanted to be present for the very thing that I would some day miss.
Jennifer Pastiloff: I know your husband is a filmmaker. Can you tell us a bit about what a day in the life of the Shapiro/Maren household is like?
Dani Shapiro: Every day is different! When I’m working on a book, I’m home in my office in my yoga clothes, in a silent house, with just my dogs for company. My husband has an office in a town near our house, and he heads there early in the morning, and that’s where he gets his work done. But we both do a lot of traveling –– he directed his first feature film this year, “A Short History of Decay” and was in North Carolina for two months shooting. That’s by far the longest we’ve been apart. When I have a book out –– as I’m about to –– I’ll be on and off airplanes nearly every week for months at a time. We live in rural Connecticut, which is very good for both of us, I think. It’s a wonderful place to be based, and for our son to be growing up.
Jennifer Pastiloff: Still Writing? I absolutely loved your blog piece about this and how people often ask that question. Still writing? In fact, your latest book is titled Still Writing. Can you tell us a little about the new book? When can we read it?
Dani Shapiro: Still Writing will be in bookstores October 1. I began a blog a number of years ago about writing –– not so much about craft, but rather, what it takes to sit down day after day in solitude and with some sort of blind faith. I was interested in exploring all the things that come up: resistance, fortitude, patience, frustration, the ability to withstand rejection –– all the struggles and challenges, as well as the incredible gifts and privileges, of spending life as a writer. And the blog really caught on. It took me by surprise. I began receiving notes from all sorts of people telling me that they were reading it and getting something they needed out of it. I never even considered writing a book based on the blog, but everyone kept asking –– and eventually it just seemed like something I should do. I never once looked back at the blog, though, as I was writing Still Writing. I wanted it to be a real book – part memoir, part meditation on the creative process. I think of it as my love letter to creative people everywhere. Writing saved my life –– in the book, I say that everything I know about how to live I have learned from the daily practice of struggling with the page. And so I think the book is about those lessons, too.
Jennifer Pastiloff: Yoga. Tell us about how yoga has affected your life, as well as your writing? So many of my readers are a hybrid of yogis and writers and I find the crossover fascinating. One of the reasons I have them all read Devotion.
Dani Shapiro: I love that you have your yoga students read Devotion. That means so much to me! My yoga practice is so woven into my life as a writer that I can’t imagine one without the other. In fact, the reason I work at home, rather than have an office outside of the house (which is sometimes very appealing!) is because I like the freedom of being able to unroll my mat in the middle of the day. When I’m starting to feel stuck, or when my head gets too noisy, the one and only thing I have found that helps me come home to myself, and quiet my mind, is my yoga practice. And while I love nothing more than a great yoga class (and am jealous of my friends who live near great studios all over the country) when I moved to Connecticut there weren’t any studios near my home, and so I built my own home practice, which I now love. I unroll my mat in my bedroom, light a fire in my fireplace unless it’s the middle of summer, and I have these seven chakra sprays that Aveda makes lined up on my fireplace mantle, and a few crystals a healer once gave me –– this is my sanctuary.
Jennifer Pastiloff: On being a Jew. Although you were raised with more structure around religion than I was, I felt I had found my soulmate when I read Devotion. You helped me arrive at the place of accepting that I absolutely did NOT have to put myself in a box or label myself as one thing or the other.
How does being “complicated with Jewishness” fit into your life now? It seems to be that a lot of the great spiritual leaders are Jews and that there is something inherent in Judaism that lends itself to spirituality as a whole. Tell us about being a writer, a yogi, a Jew and a spiritual seeker and a mom. I love this idea of I do not have to be just one thing. Watch me.
Dani Shapiro: Just yesterday, a writer friend who had just read an early copy of Still Writing paid me the ultimate compliment. He told me that Still Writing felt to him like a prayer book. That it felt Rabbinical in some way. He felt the influence, he said, of all those Saturday mornings I spent sitting in synagogue with my father. I tried not to deflect the compliment and really take it in. These last years, since embarking on the journey that led to writing Devotion, have been a continuation of a path that I hope to wander for the rest of my life. I am indeed complicated by my Judaism, in the way I think so many of us are “complicated” by our experiences of childhood religion. Being Jewish is incredibly important to me, but I’m not observant. At the same time, I cared deeply that my son know himself as Jewish –– not just culturally, but be steeped in the traditions and rituals. His Bar Mitzvah last year –– which was completely homegrown, eclectic, held in a church, led by a female Rabbi with whom we’ve become close, with readings from Coleridge and Hannah Senesh, as well as the whole congregation singing Leonard Cohen’s “Broken Hallelujah” –– with my son playing his ukulele and me on the piano –– was one of the highlights of my life. I looked around that church at all of our family and friends gathered and there was such love in that room, such a feeling of being part of something meaningful and real –– and I had built it –– we even made our own prayer books –– by necessity, and by choice, and out of a tremendous amount of focus on finding a way to do something that would truly resonate.
It has been one of the biggest shifts in my life over these past few years, this feeling that I can be this and that. Be Jewish and a great reader of eastern philosophy. A messed up girl who grew up into a thoughtful and (hopefully not too messed up) woman. A yogi who likes a good steak along with a bottle of Barolo. An urbanite living in rural Connecticut. All these things. So what? Why not? I’ve been shrugging off definitions that have limited me. The only person who can place these limiting definitions on us is ourselves.
Jennifer Pastiloff: What would you say to yourself at 25 years old in terms of your career?
Dani Shapiro: Oh, dear girl, be patient. Know that there is no well-lit path. Know that your dreams for yourself at this moment are small and that you have no idea what life has in store for you. Some of your disappointments and setbacks will turn out to be your greatest lessons. More than anything, be in competition only with yourself. You have the opportunity to spend your whole life getting better and better at what you do.
What would you say to yourself 5 years ago?
I would say that worry is a waste of time. That anxiety doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t protect us from anything. All it does is sap us of our creative energy and impede our flow. The things I’ve tended to worry about do not come to pass. The difficulties I’ve had in my life are not ones I’ve anticipated. So why not at least try to let go?
JP: When was the last time you laughed at yourself?
DS: Yesterday. A photographer was at my house, photographing me for a piece for The New York Times. I was all dolled up, makeup, good hair, the whole deal – and they decided they wanted to take a picture of me on my yoga mat. So I changed into my yoga clothes and sat in lotus position “meditating” while he took my picture. Imagine the noise in my head! Absurdity always makes me laugh. All I could think was: “it’s come to this!”
JP: Victor Frankl was able to mentally survive living in a concentration camp by finding beauty in a fish head floating in his soup. In a fish head. Learning this is what inspired me to start the 5mostbeautifulthings Project. What if we walked around looking for beauty instead of looking for things to be stressed about or offended by? What if we trained our eyes and our hearts to tune into that which makes us cock our head to one side and close our eyes gently in an effort to memorize what we were looking at. What if it is all we got? What if all we have is our 5 beautiful things? What’s your fish head? What are your 5 most beautiful things right now, Dani?
DS: Literally right at this moment:
My son’s face.
My two dogs lying curled up in a patch of sunlight.
The changing leaves outside my window. Autumn in New England.
My husband across the kitchen table me, both on our laptops. A team.
The quiet and beauty of our lives. Hard won. Ephemeral. Taking it in.
JP: Tell us about Sirenland. I just visited Positano after my Tuscany retreat and per your recommendation I went to Le Sireneuse, hugged the owners and had pink champagne with them. Le Sireneuse is where you hold Sirenland each March. I can safely say that it took my breath away. It’s a dream come true that you do this. What is Sirenland? How did it come to be? Who is teaching with you this year? Why Positano?
DS: Sirenland was born at a dinner party in Connecticut. I had absolutely no dream of starting a writing conference. My husband and I were at dinner at our friend Nancy Novogrod’s home –– she is the editor in chief of Travel+Leisure –– and she had invited, as she told me, her favorite hotel owners in the world. These would be Antonio and Carla Sersale, owners of Le Sirenuse. We had an incredibly fun evening together, and then a week later, I received an email from Antonio asking if I’d like to bring some writers to Italy. This was eight years ago. Sirenland has grown into one of the best writing conferences in the world. We have thirty students come to Italy for a life-altering week. (By the way, applications are now open at www.sirenland.net) My son has gotten to grow up going each year to this miraculous place. And we’ve made so many incredible friends. I always teach one of the three workshops, and the other faculty rotates. We’ve had Jim Shepard teach for a number of years. Last year, Karen Russell (who just became the youngest person ever to win a MacArthur “genius” Award), this year the wonderful writers Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III will be joining us.
JP: I often ask “what are your rules to live by?” because I think it’s a fun way to hold ourselves accountable. Some of mine are: Don’t take yourself too seriously, sing out loud, write poems (even if only in your head), don’t worry, everyone on Facebook seems like they have happier lives (they don’t.) I ask people of all ages to do this, including children, and to see what people write is a joy. What are some of your rules to live by?
DS: Always tell the truth.
To have a friend you have to be a friend.
Use the Internet –– don’t allow the Internet to use you.
Try to live in the moment.
Love, love, love. Spend it all. Every little bit.
Hold nothing back.
JP: Kripalu. I love that you lead workshops there, as I do. It is one of my favorite places to teach. The beloved Berkshires. Tell us about Kripalu. When will you be there next?
DS: I love Kripalu, and love teaching there too. I’ll be there to teach my first workshop based on Still Writing from November 1-3. And as a special treat, my dear friend, the great yogi, scholar and writer Stephen Cope will be joining me on that Saturday night for an honest, open, deep conversation about writing, creativity, doing and living the work. I’m so excited to be doing an event with Stephen. And next June –– the 6th through the 8th – Stephen and I will co-teach a weekend writing and yoga retreat.
JP: I know you talk about it in Devotion but can you share with us how you met Stephen and how that relationship came to be? Sylvia Boorstein?
DS: That story is such a life-lesson in putting one foot in front of the other. In saying yes, instead of no. I first met Stephen on the page. I was reading his gorgeous book, That story is such a life-lesson in putting one foot in front of the other. In saying yes, instead of no. I first met Stephen on the page. I was reading his gorgeous book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. It was, for me, one of those life-changing books. I carried it around with me, underlining, doodling exclamation points in the margins. And one summer afternoon I found myself at a library fundraiser –– I had promised ages before to attend –– and I was grumbling to myself the whole way there. Didn’t want to go. It was hot, humid, a bad hair day, and I was annoyed at myself for having agreed. It was one of those events where authors sit behind piles of their books, in a sweltering tent, and people in linen jackets and madras shorts walk by carrying plastic cups of white wine. Sound fun? Anyway, I was shown to my table and sat grumpily down. Then the author next to me leaned over to introduce himself. “Hi,” he said. “Steve Cope.”
He and I became immediate, fast friends. I had his book with me in my bag! I just couldn’t believe it. Shortly thereafter, I signed up for a retreat he was teaching at Kripalu –– which was a place I had wanted to visit, but had always felt intimidated and resistant. But now I had a pal there, so I pushed myself to go. That weekend, he was teaching with a Buddhist named Sylvia Boorstein, who I hadn’t known, not being of that world. Attending that retreat at Kripalu changed my life. I made two of my dearest friends, teachers, fellow travelers, guides. And now –– only four or five years later –– I am a part of the Kripalu family as well, and love leading my retreats there. I’m going to be on the West Coast for my Still Writing book tour, and Sylvia and I are doing an event together at Book Passage in Marin County. It will be one of the highlights of my book tour. All because I showed up at a library event in Connecticut. We never know what life has in store for us.
JP: Who have been your greatest teachers?
DS: I had a great high school English teacher, Peter Cowen, who is still in my life. Ditto for my 19th Century Literary Professor at Sarah Lawrence, Ilja Wachs, who taught me the art of close reading. Grace Paley and Jerome Badanes were my teachers when I was in graduate school and I owe a tremendous debt to them both. In recent years, Sylvia Boorstein and Stephen Cope. My friend the great Rabbi Burton Visotzky, who gave me a new lens with which to read the Torah. Then there are the teachers I’ve never met: Virginia Woolf. Thomas Merton.
JP: Advice to new writers reading this?
DS: Read my book! Seriously –– I wrote it for you! And if you don’t read my book, the one piece of advice I have is to read something worthwhile every day –– the poet Jane Kenyon describes this as “keeping good sentences in your ears.” Reading is your best teacher. Also, get used to rejection. Get used to discomfort. Who said it should be easy? Writing well is hard, hard work. Develop the ability to endure. To stay in the chair.
JP: I couldn’t be more excited that you are now writing for Positively Positive, along with Emily Rapp and myself. Writing for this site has definitely changed my life. I am humbled to be in your company there. What is up next for Dani Shapiro?
DS: I love writing for Positively Positive as well! As for what’s next, I will be traveling to teach and give readings from Still Writing for the next bunch of months. I can’t write and travel at the same time –– I need to sink in deeply –– so I will wait for the shimmer. I will try to be patient and keep good sentences in my ears. I will try to take care of myself and my loved ones, body and soul, and endure, so that I can sit down come spring and be…still writing!
JP: G-d willing. We should live and be well. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
DS: Thanks, Jen! You’re a beautiful force for good in the world. I’m proud to know you.