#11: Dani Shapiro & Catherine Wolff 2016
A Small, Dark Place, April 28, 2017
Essayist Catherine Wolff interviews Dani Shapiro, whose novels and memoirs include Devotion and Still Writing. Shapiro describes the importance of ritual both for writing and religious practice, recalling her Orthodox Jewish father’s elaborate process of putting on tefillin and tallit before prayer. Acknowledging her current practices of meditation and yoga as aids in helping her show up and sit down to her writing, Shapiro reflects on memoir as a way to explore dark and difficult places in oneself and make sense of the senseless. Writing, like faith, requires courage in the darkness. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and journalist and essayist Barbara Mahany.
- Dani Shapiro,
- Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of the Creative Life
- Family History
- Slow Motion
- Sylvia Boorstein, That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing
- Anne Truitt, Turn and Daybook
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place where you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we celebrate the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today's episode of Rewrite Radio features Dani Shapiro, interviewed by Catherine Wolff about spirituality and creative practice at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. Dani Shapiro is the author of several books, including Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of the Creative Life. Her most recent memoir, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, was just released on April 11th, and The Boston Globe called it "a gorgeous, poetic stay against loss and confusion. Shapiro has never written anything as raw, dark, or brave as Hourglass." Dani has also written for magazines including The New Yorker, O: the Oprah Magazine, Vogue, and Elle.
Catherine Wolff is the author of Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero and the former director of Arrupe Center for Community-Based Learning at Santa Clara University. To help me introduce the session, I called up Barbara Mahany, a former pediatric oncology nurse who spent nearly three decades as a reporter and writer for the Chicago Tribune. Her two collections of essays include Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door and Mother Prayer: Lessons in Loving, just released this last week.
[music, phone ringing]
Barbara Mahany: [00:01:48] Hello?
Lisa: Hi, it's Lisa Cockrel.
Barbara: Hi Lisa.
Lisa: Thanks Barb so much for joining us today, where did we catch you?
Barbara: Well, I'm sitting here at my kitchen table and my hands are still shaking because about five minutes ago, I just clicked on The New York Times book review website and saw my very first bylines—
Lisa: Oh that's so exciting! [laughing]
Barbara: —in The New York Times, my first bylines in The New York Times Book Review of all places!
Lisa: Of all places.
Barbara: And it happened to be an essay about packing up my beloved first-born's boyhood bookshelf and slipping each one of those books off the shelf and into a box and how hard that was for me to do and how much each of those books evoked tactilely, emotionally, memory, you know just the whole swirl of his boyhood came swarming back to me, and that's the power of words, of story, of picture, of turning pages! These memories are just etched into our souls, and that's why we're here to talk about the power of story and words, so—
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely.
Barbara: —That's what just happened to me.
Lisa: [laughs] Well, congratulations!
Barbara: And it was powerful.
Lisa: That's super exciting!
Barbara: Thank you.
Lisa: Yes! That's so exciting.
Barbara: Thank you.
Lisa: Yeah! So we're gonna talk a little bit about the last Festival of Faith & Writing and a conversation that Dani Shapiro and Catherine Wolff had, and we talked a little bit before this conversation, you just mentioned that you had really enjoyed Dani Shapiro at the Festival.
Barbara: Oh, she was great.
Lisa: Yeah, tell me about—
Barbara: It was a wonderful conversation.
Lisa: Yeah, what did you take away from that, or what really caught you about that conversation?
Barbara: You know, there were a few things that I really loved about it. I loved where Dani and Catherine are talking about the practice, the ritual, and the interweaving between prayerful rituals and the ritual of sitting down to write, and how sometimes just going through the motions, not knowing what's going to happen, sitting down, sometimes feeling like you might have an empty tank, but you know you have this rite, this ritual that you've established and it sort of serves to sink you into the groove, and then all your little synapses, I think, start to open.
And Dani was so beautiful in talking about, as a young girl growing up in a home with an Orthodox Jewish father, who, every morning, she watched him go through the ritual of putting his prayer shawl on and his tefillin, and even though she didn't realize, I think, how deeply that absorbed into her, she drew parallels to her yoga practice and her writing practice and just kind of kindling—she talks about starting the fire in the fireplace and kindling the candles and rolling out her yoga mat, and so she begins the practice of yoga, and she similarly sits herself down and has rituals before she writes. And ten years ago, even though I'd been a newspaper reporter for a quarter of a century at the time, I started a daily writing practice of getting up really early in the morning, and there was just this, it's almost like a muscle memory?
[00:05:32] You know, I got used to pulling the sheets back, putting my feet on the cold bedroom floor, tiptoeing down the stairs in the dark, turning one lamp on at my writing desk and beginning to write, and just the whole preamble process begins the flow of writing. So I just thought that was a really beautiful thing talking about rituals and rites, and the connectedness between prayerful ritual and writing ritual, because I think prayer and writing, for those of us who write and write from a deep place—which certainly Dani does so beautifully—they're so intertwined. So, I loved that part of the conversation.
Lisa: Yeah. Now, thinking about your own practice, you said you were doing newspaper writing for many many years, which is a certain kind of writing, of course, it's very assignment driven. And then you started your own practice about ten years ago or so of coming downstairs, and as some people know, you just had your own book just published a couple days ago, Mother Prayer, that's just come out. I'm wondering what the relationship is between establishing that practice and actually doing your own kind of creative work—it's a different kind of writing—and what you might say about the differences there and the different kinds of practice necessary to a creative practice to do that different kind of work.
Barbara: It was really different, and I think there was probably something really important about the fact that it was at just before daybreak, often; it was in that murky light of predawn and dawn and being the only one awake in the house, so the only sound was my footsteps and the hissing of the furnace noises, and just turning a single lamp on and sitting alone in a room with just me and my computer screen, and I've often remarked on how curious it was that it was a scarier kind of writing than the writing I did for the newspapers.
For the newspapers, even though I would work—I sometimes did like ten-part series and investigative things and spent a long time reporting and writing certain stories—but there was some degree of holding your breath, even when I was writing a newspaper story, but you always knew there were a whole safety net of editors and copyeditors who would catch anything if God forbid you needed catching, and I was always telling other people's stories, so there was something particularly vulnerable and exposed about sitting by myself in the near dark, writing stories from this deep place inside me and just hitting those send or the publish button, with no copy editor, with no editor backing me up, just me, and then shooting it out into the cyber world and knowing it would fall unto the computer screens of people I knew and loved, some people I didn't know at all, my mother-in-law would regularly read it—
[laughter]—and therein is this whole level of scariness. And I was writing just deeply heartfelt, soulful pieces, and writing about your soul and putting it out there in the world is something that I certainly didn't do as a Chicago Tribune newspaper writer, and so it's scarier but ultimately such a deeper connection, and it's worth the risk, I think.
Lisa: [00:09:51] Well, thank you so much for joining us here today and talking both about Dani Shapiro and Catherine Wolff's conversation at the Festival, what you enjoyed about that, but then also about your own creative process and the rituals that you've created in your own life. I really appreciate it.
Barbara: Thank you so much, I love talking to you.
Lisa: [laughs] So great to talk.
Barbara: Okay, take care Lisa! Bye.
Lisa: [00:10:11] And now, Dani Shapiro and Catherine Wolff on Spirituality and Creative Practice at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Catherine Wolff: Well, I'll begin with just a little setup: When I first started reading Dani's work, I kept feeling such a sense of commonality with her, and I was sort of going through all the things that you were feeling about faith and writing, and I thought how interesting it is that someone from a very large, very noisy liberal Catholic family from San Francisco would feel so much in common with someone from a very small, quiet, Orthodox Jewish family in New York! But there really is. And I'm delighted to be here today to be able to speak with you.
One thing I was struck with immediately starting with Still Writing—which is, I think, your latest book?—are the things that you talk about in terms of setting up a sort of writing routine, the frame of mind, you talk about starting small. You talk about being unstintingly attentive and honest with yourself, getting rid of distractions, accepting risk, practice and discipline and patience, just showing up, and I'm thinking, "That sounds exactly like what you have to do to be prayerful."
Dani Shapiro: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Catherine: And so I'd like to hear you expand on that.
Dani: Oh, let me just say it's such a pleasure to have this conversation with you, Catherine. I think I came to understand so much more about practice and ritual and what it meant and what it can do and what my connection to it is in my own life in terms of my childhood and watching my father and his devotion and his practice whether he felt like it or not. I always assumed he did, as a child, but as I grew up, I thought he probably didn't get up in the morning and feel like praying every morning. In Orthodox Judaism, when men pray, it involves a very elaborate ritual of putting on what's called tefillin and a tallit, and it's wrapping leather straps and placing phylacteries in certain spots, and that ritual would be the doorway or the gateway every morning to his practice of morning prayer.
And I think it must've sunk in in some way—even though it was something I grew to feel pretty conflicted about over the years—so that in writing Devotion, the sense of ritual and how ritual can create just the sitting down and doing it whether you feel like it or not. Like, if I unroll my yoga mat and I light a candle—I have a few rituals—and I put on the music that I listen to when I do yoga, I will practice yoga. Once I've unrolled the mat and actually lit a fire in the fireplace, I'm not gonna waste the fire, the mat's already on the floor, so I will practice, whether I feel like it or not.
And I'm not sure which came first, but in my writing life—I'm not sure who it was who said, "It's not the writing, it's the sitting down to write." If my butt is in the chair, I'm probably going to work, and whether I feel inspired that day or not is completely none of my business and beside the point. And I also came to realize that the days in which I felt inspired weren't necessarily the days that I did my best work, and just the practice of showing up and sitting down every day was what ultimately made the work happen.
Catherine: Another thing that you say about the job of a writer in terms of what you're trying to produce for the rest of us and how you get there, you say if we are deep inside a story, we're in another world, the world we've created, which for the time being is where we need to live if we are to make it real to ourselves and ultimately to others. I love that quotation of another world, because it reminded me of a quotation from George Santayana.
He says—he's actually referring to religion, so it sort of wraps up the faith and writing parallel—"Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in, and another world to live in—whether we expect ever to pass wholly into it or not—is what we mean by having a religion." So it just felt very similar to me, that you were talking about going into that court sounds to me like you were going right into your heart.
Dani: [00:15:16] Having written a number of novels and a number of memoirs now—very strange for me to have written any memoirs at all, and now the number of memoirs is catching up to the number of novels like horses in a race—one of the ways... ‘Cause people with memoirs often ask the question of how, they say, “You seem to be, like, a not completely despairing and unhappy person, [audience laughter] and you, you know, have a life, you're not walking around with your hair on fire, so how do you do it, and where do you go?”
And the image that I have of writing a memoir is that there's a very very small, very dark, very dense place inside of me that I can go to where all of those stories lie and that when I go there, it expands, and it becomes the world, and I can breathe the air, and I can swim in its waters, and I can live inside of it in all of its complexity and all of its emotional life, but then when I leave it, it contracts again and becomes tiny again—
Catherine: [speaking softly] Yes.
Dani: —which is completely different from the novelist process, for me, which feels more like there's a world that I create, and then it walks alongside of me all the time when I'm inside of that piece of fiction, and it's as real, at least as real to me, as my world. But I've had the experience often, of—there's a particular corner of Riverside Drive and 89th street, where there's a brownstone and there's Riverside Park and there's the Achieva across the street, and it's where my third novel was set, and I never pass by there without thinking about Solomon Grossman, the narrator of that novel.
He's there for me, he resides there. And in my novel Family History, I set it in a town that was very much based on the town that my in-laws live in, which is Andover, Massachusetts. I needed to have a prep school, and I needed to have a particular kind of town, and I created Andover, I just changed the name, and ever since then, when I visit my in-laws in Andover, I feel like I'm entering the world of my novel at least as much as visiting my in-laws.
Catherine: Let me ask you a question that is always asked of memoirists, but those of us who aren't always want to know the answer anyway, which is: You go into this place in your heart, which is so private, so personal, and which you could keep private and personal, but you make this decision to really plumb the depths of it; not only that, but to expose it in your writing. That seems absolutely terrifying to me, and I'm wondering how do you describe the urge to do that? Rather than just writing another novel, where you can have this nice little world that you set up, that won't bother maybe so much.
Dani: It is terrifying, it's all terrifying, but I think the urge has to do with trying to—it's not that dissimilar an urge, it just has a different avenue—but with trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to make whole something that feels possibly irrevocably broken, trying to piece it back together, in a way. You know, when my 91-year-old aunt, who I'm very close to, when she read Devotion—I was petrified for her to read Devotion, because she's in it, in a very loving way, but still, people sometimes don't like portrayals of themselves even when they're loving; also there's some tough stuff in there just about me and my father's very observant family, and I so did not want to wound her in any way; I didn't think I would, but I was afraid.
And she called me when she was halfway through Devotion, and she was weeping, and she said, “It's like a Kaddish for your father.” And it was the most beautiful—Kaddish, for those of you who don't know, it's like a memorial, it's holding alive the memory of speaking a prayer of memory and grief, and honoring, it's an honoring, and she couldn't have said anything more beautiful to me. And I think in some way some of my memoir writing, even when it's tough, is, in a way, that; it's an elegy in some way for a broken world and the impossibility of trying to put it back together again in some way, which is a little different from...
Catherine: [00:20:08] But the way in which you write about this aunt, Shirley, right? She's just wonderful, she has all these children, she's propagated the earth in an amazing way, [audience laughter] half of them have gone to Israel, she's absolutely loving in the way she cared for her husband in his very infirm old age, and so she's obviously a real light to you.
And I did feel, as you were groping your way, even in Slow Motion, your first memoir, where you don't exactly practice your religion—let's put it that way—but it's there, it's there in a very powerful way when you're at your father's funeral, which is the way you say he would have really wanted it to be, but you weren't necessarily comforted, so you weren't there yet. Could you talk a little bit about how you started, then, to thaw, or to come back to something that had been very embracing, I mean, it was very much part of your life.
Dani: Yeah, well, it's complex, because my father's family was not really a part of my childhood growing up.
Catherine: And they were the very observant—
Dani: They were the very observant family, and they were an enormous and ever-growing family, as you say—
Catherine: Yes. [laughs]
Dani: My Aunt Shirley now has 65 great-grandchildren. [audience laughter]
Catherine: I meant what I said [inaudible].
Dani: ...And counting, maybe more by the end of the day, I don't know. [Catherine and audience laughs]
Dani: But they were this enormous clan that lived near Boston, and we were this tiny family who lived in New Jersey. And my mother, who was not religious, was, I think, very threatened and didn't get along with Shirley. And so I was kind of kept away from her and from all of them for my childhood. And what you speak of, that I wrote about in Slow Motion, was a very difficult time, because when my father died, it was the first funeral I'd ever been to in my life, start with that. My mother was near death in the hospital.
Catherine: The circumstances were so dreadful
Dani: And she couldn't be at the burial.
Catherine: [speaking softly] Yeah.
Dani: The funeral took place in the hospital, because they had both been in a car accident, which had killed him, and the funeral not only was my first funeral, and the burial, but it was foreign to me, not the funeral but—well, it was, because it was in a hospital and it was my father—but the burial was...I saw all of these people snap to into the forms and rituals of mourning that they knew because they had practiced those rituals, and I knew nothing of them. And so it was alienating in various ways, and even sitting shiva, they sat shiva in New York at my grandmother's apartment, and I needed to be with my mother, who was near death in the hospital.
Catherine: [softly] Yeah.
Dani: So there was a lot of complexity around that, and it took me years—Shirley made a promise to my father when he was dying, which was that she would always look out for me, and she kept trying, and I was pretty alienated from her; I was loyal to my mother, and also I really think that what that family did during shiva wasn't very nice to me; they made me choose—
Catherine: [softly] Yeah.
Dani: —either to sit shiva for my father or to take care of my mother. They could have come to New Jersey and sat shiva in the hospital and they didn't.
Catherine: [softly] Yeah.
Dani: So I got thrown under the bus.
Catherine: [softly] Yeah, yeah.
Dani: I understand why. But it took me years to let that go. Not that I walked around angry about it, but I just didn't feel any connection to that part of my family. And so, then, over the years, we began very gradually to establish this beautiful relationship. And when I was writing Devotion, I spent a lot of time with her. One of the things about writing—well, writing anything, but mainly memoir and the kind of creative nonfiction and journalism that I've done—is that it sometimes gives me courage to explore something that I would otherwise not have the courage to explore if I weren't pushing myself to write about it.
It's like the writing allows me to explore it, and I think, in writing Devotion, it allowed me to think more deeply and spend more time with that part of my family and really try to understand how they lived their faith and the differences. The fact that I lived it differently didn't mean I didn't have it, or didn't mean that I didn't get to have it, the fact that it didn't need to be all or nothing, that I didn't need to be an Orthodox Jew or not have God, which was a profound revelation for me.
Catherine: [00:25:12] And it seems to have set you on a path of seeking, in several different directions, it seems. I mean, you have a beautiful scene in Devotion where I think in response to your son having said, "What are we all about? What is Jewish, what am I?" that you do a ceremony, a Rosh Hashanah at the river, you throw these prayers and very simple please, "Please, let me understand, tell me what to do."
Dani: The ceremony is called Tashlich and it happens on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and I remembered doing it with my father—very interesting the way these tactile things from childhood, there's something about a moving body of water, and tossing in bread crumbs or emptying your pockets into this moving body of water was something that stayed with me, because the symbolism of it was something I understood as a child.
Catherine: So you were tapping into something—
Catherine: —that was very, very deep in you, even though it had really not surfaced for a long time.
Dani: Right, and wanting to give that to my son.
Catherine: And then later, there's a wonderful scene where you visit a rabbi that you've been studying with, and he has you put on this whole apparatus, tell me about that.
Dani: [overlapping] That's my father's tallit.
Catherine: I found that so powerful, particularly thinking of you as a woman doing that.
Dani: Yeah. So one of the things that happened in the writing of Devotion was that I kind of opened myself up to the possibility of teachers, and not feel like I had to go find them but maybe recognize them when they appeared. And one of the people who appeared was—a close friend of mine said, "I'm doing Torah study in my apartment in Manhattan once a month, would you like to join?" And at any other time in my life that would have been a radioactive suggestion, [Catherine Wolff and audience laughing] Torah study, I'm done, no, no, no, I've spent a lot of time studying Torah. But this particular friend, this very interesting and unusual gatherer of people, and I thought, "This could be interesting," and I looked up the rabbi, and it was a rabbi named Burt Visotzky, who is at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and is one of the rabbis who travels the world and meets with imams and priests and really creates that beautiful interfaith dialogue.
And so I thought, well, this'll be interesting. So I started to go, and I hit it off with Burt, and we became quite friendly. And at some point, I was having coffee with him one day, and he said, "I say this with some trepidation, and with the knowledge of the baggage that's gonna go along with this, but if you would like me to”—he said, “Do you have your father's tallit and tefillin?” The apparatus that he prayed with all the mornings of my childhood. And I did, they were in a velvet pouch high up on a shelf in a closet, and I said, "I do," and he said, "It would be an honor for me to teach you how to put on your father's tallit and tefillin.
And when he said that it, it felt like a shock running through my body, because it is a tenant, certainly, of Orthodox Judaism that a woman would never lay a tallit or tefillin, as it's called, never. It's a male thing, it's forbidden. But there's this rabbi I respect enormously suggesting this to me, so I say yes, with this feeling of just tremendous both enlivening and trepidation. And I went up to his office and the Jewish Theological Seminary a couple of weeks later, and we spent this time doing this, and it was very powerful, a very powerful experience. I knew even as I was doing it that I would never do it again, it wasn't like, "This is now going to be a practice in my life," it was too far in for me and too much my father's.
And also, I'm not religious in that way, so it didn't feel like a ritual that I wanted to embrace, but I felt enormously close to my father doing it. And the tallit is a huge ceremonial shawl, enormous, and it's mostly white and embroidered with black stripes, and it's yellowed, this particular one, ‘cause it's old, and he had me put it over my head. And some men pray this way, with the tallit over their head, and I never understood why, and the why is that it creates a kind of enclosure of space so that you can have a private moment within this experience to commune with God, or to commune with whatever you're communing with, to have it be unseen. And that was a moment in that office too.
Catherine: [00:30:08] Amazing. But then, you have this whole other Buddhist practice that you engage in, and I'm so curious about how those two weave together, if at all. You did mention at one point, I thought it was so intriguing, that almost all of the people who kind of brought the practice of Buddhism to this country in the last generation are Jewish!
Dani: Are Jewish. Yeah.
Catherine: What's that all about?
Dani: There's a term for it, the Jew-bus.
Catherine: [audience laughter] The Jew-bus? Okay.
Dani: Yeah they are, they are, there's like Jack Kornfield and Sylvia Boorstein and Joseph Goldstein and Norman somebody, it could be like a law firm.
Catherine: [laughing with audience] Yeah, or an accounting firm! [laughing] Boy, it is striking, isn't it! What's that all about?
Dani: [overlapping] Oh, very striking, I thought a lot about it and I've talked to some of them about it, especially Sylvia Boorstein, who was another one of my teachers who materialized and I became quite close to and—through what Sylvia says, about Buddhism and the way—because one of her books, the day that I met her, I thought, I have to understand why this woman is speaking to me so much, and I went to the bookstore at the retreat center where we were, and her books were on the shelves, and one of them was called That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist.
[audience laughter] And the subtitle is something about being an observant Jew and a Buddhist, and I thought wow, how did this woman materialize in my life at this moment? But the way Sylvia talks about Buddhism, or the practices, really, of Buddhism, is as a technology. She uses that term.
Dani: She doesn't think of it in her life—if you were to say to Sylvia Boorstein "What is your religion?" she would say "I'm Jewish." But she's a Buddhist. And you know, I should back up and say, one of the things I felt sort of very secretly and strongly when I started writing Devotion was that you had to pick one, you know, the whole idea of where you can have Buddhist practices in your life and you can read Thomas Merton, who's a Trappist monk, and you can go to synagogue or be culturally Jewish, that that's just smorgasbord-y, not like, kind of spiritually lazy, like, pick one and delve into it. And, you know, people who do that are just kind of... just a lot of mumbo-jumbo, that was my secret judgemental feeling about that.
And I feel so differently now, and I felt so differently about it by the time I had finished Devotion, because I was steeped in just reading whatever drew me in, whether it was Merten, or it was Heschel, or it was B.K.S. Iyengar, who's a great yogi mystic and writer, and I thought, "Why am I leaving these people over there because they're from another faith? Aren't we all grappling with our doubt and uncertainty and stumbling toward a faith that works for us?" So I don't consider myself a Buddhist, I have a practice of meditation that has its roots in Buddhism, and I find a lot of solace, more solace, in reading Buddhist texts than I do in reading Jewish texts. But I consider myself Jewish. I mean, I am Jewish, you don't "consider yourself," that's... [audience laughter]
Catherine: Yes, yes.
Dani: At one point when I was writing Devotion, somebody said, “So are you contemplating Catholicism?” And I was like, [Catherine laughs] contemplating Catholicism, no, I'm Jewish! I'm not, like, looking to convert! I'm looking to understand, I'm looking to have something illuminated.
Catherine: Although at one point, you do describe yourself not only as complicated but as lost, too, as though you were wondering still.
Dani: Which I feel all Jews maybe feel like they're always wandering—
Catherine: [laughing] Yes, they do.
Dani: We're heading into Passover, so.
Catherine: Yeah. [laughs]
Dani: But I think the lost feeling had to do with feeling lost to the Orthodoxy and that part of my family for whom I will always be, like—there's a story that I tell, that I write in Devotion, where, because there are so many great-grandchildren on that part of my family, there also are a lot of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, but mostly it's weddings, and we receive a cream colored envelope in the mail, invariably with my husband's name spelled wrong, always.
Catherine: Yes. [laughs]
Dani: And it would be a wedding, and I would open it with some degree of nervousness to see if it was nearby, which would make us feel like we had to go—
Catherine: [overlapping] You had to go. [Catherine and audience laughs]
Dani: [00:35:09] Because I felt more lost at a wedding in that part of my family, or more alienated, than I would at a ritual of a religion that I was completely not a part of, because they practice it so differently. So men and women are seated separately, so my husband would be carried off into one room by a lot of men in dark suits with long black beards, going, like [high pitched] "Bye!" [audience laughter] And I would be over here with the women and everything would be in Hebrew. And so we went to one of these weddings, you walk into the doors of the reception hall—through separate doors, men and women can't even walk through the same door—and there was a couple there who didn't look like anybody else, as we didn't.
And they had driven up—I'll never forget, it was like they had driven up in a Volvo with Massachusetts plates, it looked like academics. And they came over to us, and the wife said, "Do you know what we're supposed to do, do you know which door we're supposed to walk in?" And I did, and I told her with great pride, well you go here and you go here, and this is what you do, and she said, "I am so glad that there are some other non-Jewish people at this wedding." [audience laughing] And they're my relatives!
Catherine: [overlapping] Yeah, yeah.
Dani: So that's what I mean by lost, I think.
Catherine: Right. Okay. So your Jewishness doesn't really have any kind of creedal element to it, where you can say "I believe in x, y, and z about the Almighty," or—
Catherine: It's really this sense of identification, do I get that right?
Dani: Identity and identification, yeah.
Catherine: [overlapping] Yeah, yeah. It seems—one other thread that I wanted to ask you about, you talk about this Buddhist practice, and Jack Kornfield saying, you know, accepting suffering, mediating, you talk a lot about Merton. And at one point you talk about how that really is the path—but it's a solitary path—to some sort of spiritual fulfillment.
And yet, coming from this Jesuit family, but also from a Catholic tradition, and it's also the Jewish tradition, we have a great imperative to serve others, so that there is that active element as well, there's a great passage in Dostoevsky, I won't try to find it, cause I'll lose everything.
But a lady of little faith comes to Father Zosima, in The Brothers K[aramazov]. And she says, "Oh, I've lost my faith, this is terrible," and Father Zosima says, you know, "Let me tell you, if you love your neighbor tirelessly and serve you, this will heal you, and your faith will become alive," I'm paraphrasing. And this has been proven. And so there is that whole other side to it that I think of as a contemplative in action—
Catherine: —That you talk about. I love your phrase "Faith accomplished." To me, it's gotta have both—
Dani: [overlapping] Yes, yes.
Catherine: —And so I'm curious, do you think about that other dimension?
Dani: Yes, absolutely. And more and more so, I think while I was writing Devotion and while I was just engaged in what I was doing during those years, I was struggling to find my own path to faith, and I looked for community during those years, but we live in the country in northwestern Connecticut; there wasn't much in the way of Jewish community to be found.
Dani: And one of the things that happened toward the end of that particular part of my journey was that I had a moment where I realized, alright, it doesn't exist, I've tried, I've looked for it, so I can either sit here and complain about it, or I can build it.
Catherine: [excitedly] You can make it.
Dani: I can make it. And that was the beginning for me, and really, it happened largely after—Devotion was a book, it's structured in 102 small pieces, and when I finished the book I just wanted to keep writing it, I wanted to write like 103, 104, I just wanted to keep going, ‘cause I had this fear, because I had had the enormous privilege and luxury during the years I was writing that book to do nothing but think about this stuff, and I basically wanted to spend the rest of my life doing nothing but thinking about this stuff, except I couldn't do that, ‘cause I have a family to support and other things to do—
Catherine: [overlapping] Yeah, yeah.
Dani: —And I couldn't, I was getting paid to sit in lotus position in the middle of my bedroom floor and think. [Catherine Wolff laughing] And I was so aware of how amazing that was.
Catherine: [softly] Yeah.
Dani: [00:39:45] But in the aftermath—because the book ended where the book needed to end, and I knew, I could feel where the book needed to end, but the journey was so clearly gonna be ongoing that after I finished the book, if I had written more, or if I had written a sequel, which I will never do, I don't think—although now I should never say never about memoir—but I did build a community around my son and his impending Bar Mitzvah that came to our home, and I brought rabbis into our home and brought every member, I reached out to every member of the community that was Jewish, or where there was some interest in Judaism, or some member of the family who was Jewish, or a grandparent who was Jewish, and they would come, and it became something real and something that is ongoing.
And this doesn't have to do with the social justice or activism piece, but it does have to do with creating something that feels like it has meaning and continuation and resonance. So there are kids who are being Bar Mitzvah-ed now, my son is now sixteen going on seventeen, so his Bar Mitzvah was four years ago. But there are kids who wouldn't have undergone that process, who became involved with that rabbi, who now has moved to another part of the country, who still comes in and works with them.
Catherine: Oh, that's wonderful.
Dani: And just a very, it's such a satisfying thing for me to feel like I was able to create and build something that wasn't there.
Catherine: Yes, you started a congregation. [laughing]
Dani: You know, a teeny little—they call it the Litchfield County Mishpachah Group, which is hilarious to me, [Catherine laughs] because Litchfield county is a, like, Cheever country, [Catherine laughs] it's a bastion of just Anglo-Saxon, you know, deep roots, and ‘mishpachah’ is a Hebrew word that means family, and never have those two words been put together in a phrase. [Catherine and audience laughter]
Catherine: I have to ask you this question, although if I were you, I would probably find it impossible to answer, but it's really the question, I think, that we're curious about today is that you are a writer who has come through the—the course of your writing life also had this parallel, this kind of resurgence, and then maturation of faith. Do you see and can you articulate and are you willing to tell us about any impact that you can actually see, then, on your art? What has this development of your faith done to that which you do in your life? In that?
Dani: That's such a huge question—
Catherine: I'm sorry.
Dani: [reassuring] No! [both laughing]
Catherine: It's the question!
Dani: [overlapping] Mm, it is the question. Well, let me sort of back into the question. If, as writers, we are our own instruments—I mean, what else do we have, we have our consciousness, we have our memory, we have our imagination—then whatever impacts that consciousness, that memory, that imagination, has to invariably be poured into our work in some way, and I think I've become, I continue to become, braver. And I'm thinking of the book that I just finished, which terrified me like no book that I've ever written, because it's written out of a tremendous immediacy.
And I don't think that I could be... I mean, I think all writing is an act of faith, we begin and we don't know where it's gonna go, if we're writing fiction, and there's a way in which that sense of being comfortable, as comfortable as it's possible to be, and not knowing and in believing that the darkness will be illuminated, that—You know, I've often quoted to my students the famous line E.L. Doctorow once said about writing being like driving a car in the fog at night, and you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can get all the way home that way? I mean, if that's not a metaphor for faith, I don't know what is. I also often say to my students, don't confuse confidence and courage.
Confidence is useless to you, it's useless to writers, it's more than useless, it's detrimental to feel confident, I think. But courage is facing the fear and doing it anyway. So I'm never— If people ever say to me I'm fearless, I'm not fearless. And when I use the word brave, it's because I'm quaking in my boots, but I'm doing it anyway. But I think perhaps that sense of rigorous honesty, or rigorous really staring at a thing, really looking at it as deeply as I can, I think, comes from a lot of these explorations over the last ten years.
Catherine: [00:45:30] Yeah, illuminating the darkness.
Catherine: Which is faith.
Catherine: Which is faith. Shall we open the floor to questions?
Catherine: I'm sure many of you would like to ask Dani some questions…
Lisa: [00:45:40] Hey, this is Lisa again. We're about to move into the Q&A portion of this conversation, but it's hard to hear the questions on the recording, so I'm gonna jump in and repeat them. First, a festival-goer asked Dani if she was familiar with the book The Cloud of Unknowing.
Dani: I'm not, Catherine is, right?
Catherine: Yeah, it's a medieval classic—but as you say, it's anonymous, we think it was a monk writing to another—but it's a classic of a kind of spirituality that's called Apophatic, which it means that basically God is what is unknown. So I can say, God is not finite, God is not this, God is not that, which is opposed to a much different sort of spirituality called Cataphatic, which is, I really find God through a sunset, I find God through laying the accoutrements that your father laid on to pray, so you go through. And I think most of us humans go that way. To me, it's a great meal. But it's extraordinary to really teach you how to learn that way, don't you think?
Dani: It reminds me of the Merton that I quote in Devotion of Merton in his dialogue with God, “If I think I know you, I'm mistaken.”
Catherine: Yes, you say you don't want a dialogue with God, I was struck by that. ‘Cause you have that feeling of the unknowable, the ineffable Yahweh we're not supposed to actually be able to speak.
Dani: But it seems to me that Merton does too, but he's having the dialogue about not having the dialogue, in a way.
Catherine: Right. And of course, the danger in that other kind of spirituality is that we, in a sense, can trivialize God. You know, God is a sunset, God's a great meal, God's my great friend, whatever, yeah. Any other questions? Yes?
Lisa: [speaking for audience member] Do you ever have concerns about speaking to audiences comprised of people from faiths other than your own?
Dani: Absolutely not. One of the things that was remarkable to me—I said this yesterday—about publishing Devotion, I’d never said this before, actually, before yesterday, but the experience of publishing Devotion was a healing one. I’ve never had—healing and publishing do not go hand in hand. [audience laughter] Maybe healing and writing, healing and publishing not so much.
But when that book came out and I saw that my very personal, specific, idiosyncratic experience was resonating with people of all faiths and all ages and both genders, and in the months that the book came out, I started—when I was going on a book tour and I had invitations from churches and from synagogues, and from yoga shalas, and I’ve spoke in people’s backyards, and I spoke at a temple in California that was—extraordinary place—that was a halfway house and a synagogue for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.
But it was this complete range of humanity and experience, and what it showed me, what it reminded me of in a way that I think I had never fully really understood, was how deeply that universal thread goes in all of us, and the way that I don’t have any…No, I grew up with an ‘us and them’ and I feel completely differently about that. I mean, I always felt differently, I never felt comfortable with that, but I arrived at an understanding of why I didn’t feel comfortable with that because it’s not true.
Lisa: [speaking for audience member] How does your writing relate to your action on behalf of social justice?
Dani: [00:49:31] In truth, since the publication of Devotion and then Still Writing, which were both books—well, Still Writing was a book I wrote, and I didn’t know I was writing a book that would help anyone. I was trying to help myself. I was trying to understand something for myself. And when the book came out, it turned out that it was helping a lot of people, and I became, in a way that I never had been as a writer, part of lots and lots of dialogues with lots and lots of people who were struggling. And I also started teaching in a way that I had never taught before. My teaching has always been academic and small workshops and entirely about the work on the page. And I found myself, quite unexpectedly, teaching large groups of people, much more in a generative way, and people who very likely weren’t going to become writers but were trying to get something down that was essential in some way, or so that they could illuminate something of their own struggles for themselves and very possibly not for anyone else.
So I wouldn’t call that exactly social justice, but it’s a kind of work that I found myself doing that has surprised me with how much I’ve enjoyed it and how simple, in a way, it is for me to know how to do that. And then when Still Writing came out, that was a book that I knew I was writing to help people. I was writing it specifically for writers, I wasn’t writing it as—well, I was writing it as a teacher, but I really wanted it to be a kind of companion to writers on their journey. So, there hasn’t been much time in recent years for anything beyond that and raising my family, but I also am very aware that I’m at a moment where my son is kind of being launched into the world, and he’ll be out of the house in a couple of years, and that’s a new chapter too.
Lisa: [speaking for audience member] In Still Writing, you talk about that quote "Small, dense place," where you go when you're working on a memoir and you make it sound easy. But I'm struggling with finding that place. Any advice?
Dani: [00:52:03] I did not mean to make it sound easy, [audience laughter] it is so far from anything resembling easy. I have tremendous resistance to it. I fight my resistance most days that I'm writing. I have various tools, including yoga and meditation, that allow me to kind of get quiet enough so that my mind isn't getting in my own way, with all of its noise and all of its chatter, and many different kinds of tools that just involve tricking myself into doing it. But ultimately, I think it has a lot to do with dailyness.
And I think it was John Edgar Wideman—I could be wrong about this, because it was quoted to me by someone else—he described dailyness as a writer as a process of every day that you're writing, you're diving and you're going a little bit deeper into the water every day that you're writing, and with each consecutive day, you're going a little deeper, and a day that you're not, you're not kind of treading water wherever you are, you're heading back up towards the surface, and that it takes 30 consecutive days of that deep dive—which is an arbitrary number, but let's just say 30—before you hit that jet stream, and you're in that place where it's, the Buddhists would call it "the effortless effort," which every writer lives for and longs for, I mean you're there, you just think, "Oh, this, this, this," it's just a fantastically alive feeling.
I'm not gonna say it's a good feeling; it's not necessarily, it can be painful, but it's so alive. But I would say the dailyness is a big part of it. In the same way, I don't like the subway in New York, right? And I've often thought, if someone comes to New York from Nebraska and they get on the subway for the first time, it's a terrifying experience. [Audience laughter] But if you live in New York, you get on the subway everyday, you just get on; you don't think, "I'm getting into this sardine can with all these other people and it's going really fast, it's going underground, it's going underwater, I'm not in control," you don't think those things, you just commute. [Audience and Catherine Wolff laughing] It's your commute. So it's a little like that, it's like you sit down and if you're used to doing it, if you're used to that feeling of profound discomfort and resistance, you're gonna do it because it's your commute.
Lisa: [speaking for audience member] And finally, can you talk more about your practice of yoga and its relationship to your writing?
Dani: [00:54:50] I think I came up with that metaphor of that very small, dark place from my yoga practice. In yoga philosophy, there are the samskaras. There are different interpretations or definitions of them, but it translates as ‘scar,’ and in yoga philosophy, these are the places in the body where our stories are housed—they never go away, they never disappear, they're never healed and there's never closure, but they also are whole, almost like they fully exist in a metaphysical way, like they exist not in time or space but in the body and complete. So when we're practicing yoga—an easy example for this is "grief is stored in the hips" according to yoga philosophy.
So if someone practicing yoga goes into pigeon pose—which is a hip opening pose—and if they stay there long enough, likely they will cry. Really, I've seen it happen, it's happened to me. The body has so much wisdom in that way, and so when I practice, I feel like I'm in a practice of having those stories be more accessible to me. And by stories, I don't necessarily mean stories that have happened to me. I don't mean, necessarily, writing memoir. There's this beautiful passage in a favorite book of mine that's about the creative process, it was by a sculptor named Anne Truitt, do you know Anne Truitt’s work? She was a sculptor and painter, and she wrote two journals. One is called Daybook and the other is called Turn.
And in one of them, she describes being in her studio, and suddenly, in the corner of the studio, she sees a vision of a sculpture. It's shimmering there in the side of her studio. And she decides not to make it, she decides "I'm not gonna make that sculpture." But she sees it very clearly. And a couple of years later, she goes to visit David Smith, the sculptor, and in his studio, he has just made that sculpture, the sculpture that she had seen. And I just love that story, whatever it means. It seems to speak to the collective unconscious and to just the idea that there are these stories.
So yoga brings me closer to that and also, I think, is such a practice of focused concentration. And also metaphor. I mean, if I'm in a balancing pose, and suddenly I think to myself, "Hey, look at me, I'm doing this pose!" I'll fall, right? [Catherine and audience laughter] I mean nobody's watching, and I don't get to be like "I wish somebody could take a picture of this, because I'm in handstand, whoa!" And the creative process is like that too, the minute a writer is thinking, "Look what I just did," it's that old—Grace Paley, who was a teacher of mine, used to say that if she loved a sentence enough to want to go tell her husband the sentence that she just wrote, she knew she should trash the sentence. [Catherine and audience laughter]
Catherine: Well, thank you for your wisdom, it's been delightful.
Dani: Thank you!
Lisa: [00:58:39] Many thanks to Dani Shapiro and Catherine Wolff. You can learn more about Dani Shapiro's work at danishapiro.com. Thanks also to Barbara Mahany, who can be followed at barbaramahany.com. Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Berger, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu, and if you're into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we're doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful. Also, we've got 26 years of festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you've been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you're especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at email@example.com and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.
Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.