The Art of Memoir: A Conversation with Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of five memoirs, Inheritance, Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, Salon, n+1, Tin House, and Elle, and she has appeared on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday. A regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, Dani is a sought-after speaker who teaches writing workshops around the world.
1440: You are (in part) a memoirist—which is a very particular kind of writer, as you put your life on display in your work. How does it feel to reveal yourself in writing?
Dani Shapiro: Writing memoir really comes from an impulse and an instinct to try to shape the material of my life into coherent stories that will connect with others. I certainly am aware that I reveal myself in my writing, but I don’t feel exposed.
Sometimes I’ll joke that I didn’t publish my diary, and if you read my diary, I’d have to kill you. So much of the art of memoir has to do with what goes in and what gets left out—the crafting and shaping of a particular subject. When I sit down to write memoir, I’m not sitting down to write about my life.
I’m sitting down with a question that I want to dig into and try to answer in some way.
The question is always enormously personal—but it must carry the thread of the universal to feel worth writing about. In my first memoir Slow Motion, I was compelled by one of the most difficult and painful episodes of my life—my parents’ car accident when I was 23. Yet that accident also ended up becoming the thing that turned my life around.
And I found myself wrestling with that: how could the worst moment of my life also be the transformative moment?
There was also a literary instinct that led me to memoir. As a fiction writer, I felt like my work up until that point had been completely dogged by my own autobiographical material. I was writing novels and noticed that quite often a tragedy or an accident came out of the blue and impacted the protagonist. I don’t think the novelist is ever really in control of her material, but I was aware that I really wasn’t and I had an instinct that writing memoir would be curative for that.
So, I am an accidental memoirist, and it’s ironic because it is what I’m known for at this point. In my writing, I excavate and dig more so with the tool of memory than with the tools of imagination. And yet I don’t feel unduly revealed. I feel like this is just the art form that I work inside of. And yes, I walk around the world and people know a lot of facts about me—but there’s also a kind of potential intimacy in that.
1440: For whom do you write?
Dani Shapiro: Kurt Vonnegut once said that every writer writes for an audience of one, and in his case his audience of one was his sister who was no longer living. So, the audience of one was not necessarily someone who would even read the book. Rather, it was the feeling of writing for someone singular. My audience of one has changed over the years. For many years, it was my father, who’s never read any of my work because he died before I became a writer.
At times the audience of one has been myself—in that sense of write the book you want to read.
I think that’s some of the best advice about writing books. And at other times, I will imagine a particular reader or even a mentor or someone who was very influential to me as a writer. So, it morphs. I think that’s probably true for a lot of writers.
1440: You have written about the death of your parents, your fractured relationship with your mother, giving birth to a child with a near-fatal illness, and the anxieties and disappointments of marriage. Many would say these topics require enormous bravery to tackle. Do you agree?
Dani Shapiro: I never feel it as bravery. I feel it as necessary. I don’t know how brave it is to do something that’s necessary. On the other hand, I think maybe that is a definition of bravery.
Writing has really saved my life. I need to be writing in order to think clearly. It’s medicinal.
Writing allows me to see the contents of my head and my heart and my being and my soul.
It allows me to have more access to those places than I have otherwise. I don’t walk around all the time with all that access. I have access when I’m quietly with the page. I still often wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t become a writer, if I hadn’t had the gift and the good fortune of being able to do this with my life.
From the time I was small, I had a very powerful need to understand—to understand other people, understand the people I love, understand myself, understand the world around me. And really with everything I’ve ever written, when I look back later—it seems the person writing it has nothing more than a shovel and a flashlight, and the task ahead appears impossible. As I often tell my students, “It should feel impossible.”
Each piece of work is brand-new terrain.
1440: How does writing about family relationships (both what we expect of them and how they actually play out) impact your behavior within those relationships?
Dani Shapiro: I would almost have to divide my answer into two parts because there’s the family that I come from and the family that I have now.
Writing about my father doesn’t impact my relationship with him, but in a way it deepens it because I have learned more and more about him and his history and about the nature of our relationship. My mother lived to see me become a writer, though I’m not sure that she was particularly happy about that development. And I don’t think it affected my relationship with her, which was very fraught.
One of the things I learned after my mom died was that it actually became harder to write about her. When she was alive, she fought back—and she was a formidable force. And in a way, writing was my only tool to understand her or to understand the nature of my relationship with her. And after she died, I felt like I was getting the last word and that it was no longer fair. It’s kind of magical thinking, but it really was how it felt.
In terms of the family that I’ve made, I never think about writing about them.
I’m never taking mental notes—ever, ever, ever. I’m in the moment with my husband, or I’m in the moment with my son.
Later, when it occurs to me that something might be worth exploring, I put it through my own litmus test, especially when it comes to my son. I never want him to feel exposed or embarrassed or that his privacy has been invaded.
My friend Andre Dubus III, a wonderful novelist and memoirist, really said it best. I was once on a panel with Andre, who wrote about his childhood in a book called Townie, and someone in the audience asked him, “How could you write about your siblings? How could you invade their privacy?”
When they were growing up, Andre’s younger brother was sexually abused by a teacher. Andre would come home to his empty house—no parents around, total dysfunction—about which he said, “I would come into the house, and I would walk down the corridor, and I would hear sounds on the other side of my brother’s closed bedroom door. And what happened on his side of the door is his story to tell. But what happened to me, on my side of the door, is mine.”
I really love that story. I think it illustrates this difficult question better than anything I’ve ever heard or thought myself because the door is such a tangible, physical symbol of a boundary.
We each have a right to our story. Where it becomes complicated is the gray area of involving others. How far are we comfortable going?
There’s no easy answer, but I think the exploration keeps the writer honest regarding those kinds of ethical and moral issues. I know writers who won’t tell certain stories of their own because they would never want their children to read them.
And yet, I have learned increasingly with each of my books, that the more willing I am, the more honest, the more specific, the more scared to share in a way—when I allow myself to go there—that is almost always the moment, the sentence, the paragraph, the idea that readers completely connect to. Every time.