Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory & Marriage

In a voice that’s as lucid as it’s restrainedly elegant, critically-acclaimed memoirist Dani Shapiro contemplates the enigma of time, memory and identity: how do the passing of years transform us and our most cherished bonds?  how is it possible to commit to one person for the whole of our lives when the self is so often in flux?  what makes matrimony possible?  and how do we reconcile our past and present selves- the people we wanted to be with the people we’ve become?  Both an intimate look into her eighteen year marriage and a graceful meditation on the ever-shifting fluidity of the self, Hourglass: Time, Memory & Marriage is like no other book on the memoir shelf.

As she reflects on the relationship between time and identity, Shapiro comes to realize the self is a configuration of memory and history- not continuously reborn anew but indissolubly linked to past versions of itself:

“Dig deep enough and everything that has ever happened is alive and whole, a world unto itself — scenes, words, images — unspooling in some other dimension.  I am not referring to memory, but rather, to a galaxy that exists outside the limited reach of memory.  It can be understood, perhaps, as the place where neurobiology ends and physics begins.  The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant — it is said to be conserved over time.”

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Later, in a moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Shapiro recognizes she is not one but many selves:

“All those selves — that inner crowd — clamor inside me.  The girl who believed men would save her.  The young woman who made harsh and quick work of herself — savage obstinacy — and nearly succeeded in her blind, flailing quest for self-ruin.  The one who said I do, and then didn’t.  The one who kept journals despite it all.  The one who turned over the shovelful of earth and heard it hit the plain pine box six feet below — once, twice.  The one who said I do, then did. The one who wrote books as if her life depended on it.  The one who held her baby to her breast and sang Hush little baby don’t you cry.  The one who was going to save him or die trying.  The one who fled the city after the towers fell.  The one who grew up.  The one — now — with her boy on the verge of manhood, her man struggling with his own wounded spirit, who is consumed with a sense of urgency.  From fifty to eighty.”

In much the same way human consciousness is non-linear, Shapiro’s gorgeous memoir is non-sequential, shifting effortlessly from past to present to future.  One moment Shapiro will be reminiscing about her romantic Provence honeymoon with her husband Michael, whom she affectionately refers to only as M., the next, pondering the many ways they’ve- like all couples- inevitably disappointed each other.  

Hourglass is most poignant when it wonders if marriage requires too much compromise of self.  A former war correspondent, Michael is now a screenwriter who, like most in Hollywood, struggles with the unpredictability of his profession.  Months, years can be spent on a script that never sells.  A project can appear promising until the lead actor pulls out.  Wistfully, Shapiro wonders if Michael would have been happier roaming Africa than living a precarious artist’s life in their quiet country house:

“Michael is injured and I can’t fix things for him.  No, it’s more than that.  I am part of his injury, a perpetrator of it.  Sometimes it feels like his leg is caught in a trap.  If he hadn’t left Africa.  If he hadn’t become a filmmaker.  If he hadn’t met me.  I’m sure he wonders every single day whether-in the end-he will have missed the mark.  But the infinitely more troubling question is whether-having missed the mark-he will have also lost himself.”  

“Maybe I should have kept doing it,” M. recently said to me, in a rare moment of looking backward….What would have happened if he had taken the assignment, gone to Baghdad, chosen to write the book?  Instead, he has walked a long way down this road with me.  The house, the yard, the wife, the boy, the dogs, the schools, the quiet countryside.  I believe he doesn’t regret it.  But still, has being with me stopped him from being him?”  

Is their union shattered?  Do they sleep in separate beds?  Are most nights either an explosive argument of hurtful words and smashed dishes or a silence strained with things left unsaid?  No, Hourglass isn’t a dramatic account of a disintegrating marriage, but a raw glimpse into the lives of an ordinary couple, a couple whose relationship has been tested by the simple slings and arrows of time.  The lost mother.  The son diagnosed with a rare, near-fatal seizure disorder.  The non-existent retirement plan and empty savings.  The falling of the Twin Towers.  Shapiro exposes the fissures in their marriage-the regrets, the worries, the disappointments- with tenderness and lyricism.  Most often she ponders questions but refrains from answers.  The effect is a memoir that is at once poetic and insightful.

Barbara Baig on Deliberate Practice & Why Hard Work Is More Important than Talent

Golden child of popular psychology Malcolm Gladwell once noted in his groundbreaking study of success, Outliers, that practice is “focused training with the intent of getting better.”  Barbara Baig, founding writing instructor at The Divinity School at Harvard and author of the superb Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, professes a similar philosophy.  Like a pianist who diligently practices his scales or a spelling bee champ who reliably reviews his vocabulary words, writers must dedicate painstaking hours of practice to their craft.  And here Baig makes a crucial distinction: practice isn’t meandering hours spent writing aimlessly; it’s a deliberate attempt to acquire certain skills:

“Practice demands hard work, but hard work by itself is not enough; you also have to know what to work on.  So deliberate practice, first of all, is highly focused.  As Dr. Ericsson explains, deliberate practice is deliberate because it is ‘specifically designed‘ to improve some aspect of an individual’s target performance.

Second, deliberate practice demands a change of attitude: no lackadaisical, ‘oh-whatever’ approach works here.  People engaged in deliberate practice are giving all their attention and energy-every brain cell, every muscle-to that practice.  As Ericsson points out, ‘For expert performers, there’s always effort.  Improvement is never effortless.’  At the same time, such people are not judging what they do; instead they’re noticing what’s working and what’s not working, and they are attempting to bridge the gap they perceive between what they can do and what they want to do.  They bridge this gap in two ways: by getting a clearer, more detailed understanding of the action, the sound, the kind of word they want; and by taking on even more focused practice.  In other words, they practice, not mindlessly or randomly, but strategically.”

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So what qualifies as practicing strategically?  Practicing strategically is seeking the guidance of “teachers”-our most beloved authors-who can instruct us in the mysterious magic of composition.  Practicing strategically is gathering models to emulate and dissecting stellar sentences to see how they work.  Practicing strategically is possessing a profound respect for how each unit contributes to the whole.  In the same way a mechanic learns how a car functions by examining its component parts, writers deepen their understanding of how a sentence operates by studying its most fundamental units.

The masterful writer, at heart, is nothing more than a diligent craftsman: someone who knows the nuts and bolts of his medium.  Like a medieval pilgrim who travels across many lands to behold an ancient relic, the skilled writer reveres language so much he’ll venture through many pages of Roget’s Thesaurus.  He doesn’t simply sit at his desk, day after day, harboring a vague hope of “getting better”; any time he sits at the page, he has a concrete goal: to write with more specificity and precision, to experiment with different kinds of sentence styles and tones.

For Baig, writing is a skill we learn through application, not a lofty theory confined to the academia of university hall.  In this way, the writer has more in common with the athlete than the philosopher: just as a basketball player refines his long-distance technique by actually shooting 3-pointers, a writer polishes his prose by writing, not much else.  Neither the athlete nor writer is born with exceptional talent: they develop their expertise through love and labor.  In fact, much of what we perceive as “talent” is the product of tireless effort alone.  In this indispensable guide to writing, Baig passionately argues there are no prodigies- just hard workers.

Brenda Ueland on the Qualities of Good Writing, Grammar School & the Necessity of Unlearning Instruction

Twenty years after William Strunk and E.B. White pleaded wordsmiths to write with nouns and verbs, Brenda Ueland made the case for plain, honest writing in If You Want to Write– that timeless trove of wisdom on the beauty of the imagination, the triumphant ecstasy of creation, and the wondrous glory of human potential.  Though many of us have been taught that writing has to be “literary”-ostentatious and pompous, full of words like “thus” and “ultimately”-Ueland affirms good writing is actually simple- poetic words are short words.  To be good writers, we must-in a sense- unlearn all our years of instruction:

“Though everybody is talented and original, often it does not break through for a long time. People are too scared, too self-conscious, too proud, too shy.  They have been taught too many things about construction, plot, unity, mass, coherence.

 My little brother wrote a composition when he was twelve and almost every third sentence was: “But alas, to no avail!”  That is the sort of thing everybody does for many years.  That is because they have been taught that writing is something special and not just talking on paper.

Another trouble with writers in the first twenty years is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people.  They write pretentiously.  It is hard not to do this.  That was my trouble.

For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, lying, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting.  It was a regular horror to read them again.  Of course, they did not sell, not one of them.”

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Don’t end a sentence in a preposition!”  

“Never begin a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’!”  

“Is that a 3 word sentence I see?  Unacceptable!”

For Ueland, too many promising young writers have internalized the nit-picky perfectionism of grade school composition.  While such advice can serve as useful guidelines to writing, most of us glorify these directions as if they were the words of God rather than the outmoded doctrines of too serious English teachers.  Our teacher’s distaste for certain words became our ten commandments.  “Never use ‘said’!” she admonished, “Choose a livelier, more expressive word!”

10 years later and we still hear this rebuke whenever we reach for a plain mode of expression.  “No, no we can’t say ‘said’!  It’s too simple; better say ‘screech’ or ‘mumble’ or ‘whisper’ instead…”  Not that opting for a more specific word is bad advice (often times we over-rely on empty, generic words like ‘said’); just that guidelines that take the form of prohibitive, inflexible rules usually inhibit our creativity.  Whenever we dutifully change a word because of dogma our teachers preached years ago, Ueland believed we were doubting ourselves rather creating in self-trust, the most unforgivable affront to our creative selves.  In her lovely ode to the writer’s life, she implores us to stop buying into the myth of “real” writing and instead write authentically from ourselves.

As a writing teacher, Ueland’s greatest tragedy was witnessing her most talented students hopelessly struggle with self-doubt.  How many would scribble out ‘is’ and rewrite a sentence in the active voice because forms of ‘to be’-they were told-were ‘lifeless’ and ‘dead’!  “No, we can’t use ‘is’,” they’d explain, “‘is’ is on the banned words list!”  Again, not that this idea is wrong in itself: the active voice is generally more engaging than the passive.  What’s so harmful about this rule and so many other restrictive suggestions like it is that it represses joy and curiosity and wonder, not to mention who we are and our deepest truths.  When we can’t silence the stern inner critic, the uptight grammar school teacher within, we end up stifling ourselves because we’re terrified of breaking the rules.

The strict, unbending rules of humorless English teachers convince us “good” writing is a kind of mathematical equation: plug numbers into a formula and produce moving work.  But we can only produce moving work, when we write honestly in self-trust, when we’re not, as Ueland would so unpretentiously say, “putting on airs.”  Over the years, we’ve learned to discount our own voices, our own distinctive way of seeing and experiencing things and instead have become obsessively preoccupied with pleasing others, each of our teacher’s squiggly red marks an assault on our divine creative impulse.  After one too many criticisms, we retreated: settled for following the “rules” and getting a gold star instead of striving to write plainly from a place of authenticity.  But at the core of If You Want to Write lies the conviction that becoming a writer means resurrecting this abandoned self.

Leo Tolstoy on Listlessness, Matrimony & the Need for Novelty

“Nothing,” Chris McCandless once wrote, “is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”  An examination of mankind will reveal security as a fundamental human yearning.  And yet no matter how universal and intense a longing it may be, its attainment often occasions malaise, dissatisfaction and regret.  For Richard Yates, security was represented as the stifling conformity of 1950s suburbia; for scores of women writers, as the restrictive demands of marriage and domesticity.  But nowhere have I encountered a more tragic account of the trade offs of security than in Leo Tolstoy’s masterwork, the 1859 novella Family Happiness — the story of Masha, a beautiful, clever girl who feels constrained by the predictability of her highly regimented existence as wife.  

Since marrying Sergey, Masha finds her world dictated by the seemingly endless humdrum routines of matrimony: breakfast in the mornings, reading in the afternoons, a formal dinner in the evenings with Sergey, his severe, often rigid mother, and their servants, piano practice at sunrise, and maybe a late snack at midnight.  Her life becomes a ceaseless, unvarying stream of schedules and rituals.  No excitement.  No surprise.  No spontaneity.  Eventually Masha begins to yearn for something new, something novel to distinguish each unexceptional day from the next.  She hungers for the thrilling pulse of the city, for each day to unfold before her like the unwrapping of a present, inconceivable and unexpected:

“I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence.  I wanted excitement and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love.  I felt it in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”

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In what I think is one of the saddest endings in all of literature, Masha ultimately resigns to the boredom of domestic life and accepts that her and Sergey’s love has mutated into a more platonic, less fiery understanding of each other.  Rather than view her husband with any ardor, she begins to see him merely as her children’s father: 

“That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness.”

Are we supposed to understand Masha’s resignation to her uninspiring life and loveless marriage as “happiness”?  I think not.  Like Masha, our lives cease when our day to day becomes predictable.  We may need security to feel safe, but-Tolstoy contends-we need novelty if we’re ever going to be transported by rapture.