Thursday, January 14, 2016

How (and how not) to take a "ritualized dreamtime" break when writing

For today's post, we are pleased to share a She Writes author talk with Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion. Here Dani explains how she finds a moment of "ritualized dreamtime" without that once-beloved writer's prop: a cigarette. 

Back when I smoked, whenever I got stuck midsentence, or needed a breather, I reached for my pack of Marlboro Reds.  That pack of cigarettes was never far from me. I kept it near my right elbow on my desk next to a ceramic ashtray swiped from the Hotel Eden Roc in Cap d’Antibes. That ashtray was pretty much always overflowing with butts.

In my borrowed room on West Seventy-Second Street, I wrote and smoked. Smoked and wrote. The two seemed linked together in a way that did not allow for the possibility that I would ever be able to write without the option of smoking. What would I do when I hit a snag? How could I possibly unstick myself without the ritual of tapping a cigarette loose from the pack, placing it between my lips, striking a match, lighting it . . . the tip glowing red? Without blowing out the match, leaning back in my desk chair, inhaling, exhaling, aiming smoke rings at the ceiling?  Even as I write this, more than twenty years after my last cigarette, I can feel the welcome harshness of the smoke in my lungs, the feel of the cigarette between the second and third finger of my right hand.

By the time I had finished a draft of my first novel, I had quit smoking. My father had died, and my mother was in a wheelchair and it wasn’t clear whether she would ever walk again. One afternoon, a tiny Yorkshire Terrier puppy in the window of a pet store on Columbus Avenue caught my eye. I went inside, telling myself I was just going to play with him.  An hour later, I left the pet store with a crate, puppy food, bowls, a leash, a collar, and a puppy. I named him Gus––Gustave, actually, because I was reading a lot of Flaubert at the time––and every morning I took him to Central Park. 

One morning, as I sat on a rock warmed by the sunshine, smoking while Gus romped in the grass, the words I want to live went through my head, and I stubbed out what would turn out to be my last cigarette. I want to live.

But when I went back to work on a second draft of that novel––now no longer a smoker––I was in trouble. I wanted to live, but I also needed to write. Those cigarette breaks had provided me with a ritualized dream time. Smoking was good for the writing. That tapping of the pack, lighting of the match, leaning back and smoking, allowed for a prescribed amount of time––three minutes? Five?––in which I was doing nothing but smoking, gazing out the window at the courtyard below, and allowing my thoughts to sort themselves out.

Writers require that ritualized dream time. We all have our tricks and tools. Some of us still smoke. I have friends who chew on pens. Or doodle. Friends who pop jelly beans from jars on their desks. Or take baths in the middle of the day. My husband and I recently discovered the power of pistachio nuts. The cracking open of those shells is curiously satisfying. Whatever keeps us in the work, engaged, and able to resist the urge to go do something––anything––else. 

As I sit here writing this––at a cafe not far from my house––that urge is part of nearly every minute. Discomfort is kicking my ass on this particular day. I know better––but knowing better sometimes isn't enough. In the past hour,  I have checked email three times. I sent a note to a friend about a magazine piece she's helping me with. I received a photo from my husband with a picture of a car he thought I might like. I have gone on Facebook once. I have received two texts.

Well, that’s okay, you might be thinking to yourself. What's the harm in taking a couple of minutes to check in online?  After all, isn't a quick glance at your emails, Twitter feed, the Facebook status updates of all your friends kind of like a 21st century version of the cigarette break?

This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you: the internet is nothing like a cigarette break. If anything, it’s the opposite. One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in this age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which most of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer is like writing in an amusement park. Stuck for a nanosecond? Why feel it? With the single click of a key, we can remove ourselves, and take a ride on a log flume instead.

By the time we return to our work––if, indeed, we return to our work at all––we will be farther away from our deepest impulses, rather than closer to them. Where were we? Oh, yes. We were stuck. We were feeling uncomfortable and lost. And how are we now? More stuck. More uncomfortable and lost. We have gained nothing in the way of waking-dream time.  Our thoughts have not drifted, but rather have ricocheted from one bright and shiny thing to another.

If the internet had been in wide use during the time I quit smoking, I know what I would have been doing in that small borrowed room. I would have spent my days screwing around online. As it is––even after all the books and a lifetime of some pretty decent habits––I still find it enormously difficult to resist its lure. But on the best days, I imagine myself back to a place free of texts and tweets and Facebook messages. Free of the noise and Pavlovian thrill of an ever-filling in box. I align myself with Donald Hall rising with the dawn on his grandparents’ farm; Virginia Woolf in her Bloomsbury writing room; Proust in his bed; Paul Auster making the morning trek to his monastic Brooklyn brownstone studio. And I am back in that room: the blank walls, the empty courtyard, the thin line of smoke spiraling out the window. The vast, wide open world of the mind drifting, unmoored.