How many memoirs can one person write in a lifetime?
Four, and counting, if the person happens to be bestselling author Dani Shapiro. The self-professed serial memoirist started her career as a fiction writer. She never envisioned writing a memoir, much less several. Then life detoured in unexpected ways.
A family tragedy, the author’s spiritual odyssey and her blog on the creative process led to three separate memoirs. And after each one, she swore she had written her last. Until, of course, her latest book materialized. “Hourglass” is a minimalist study of time and marriage, a meditation that’s intimate, wide-ranging, funny and smart.
“I wanted to write about marriage – my quite contented, happy marriage,” Shapiro says. “But I wanted to inquire: What is it to form oneself alongside and against and with another human being when you really do believe you’re in it for the duration? What is the beauty, the challenge, the inevitable disappointment of that?”
The author spoke recently from her home in Connecticut about Wendell Berry and woodpeckers, privacy and pattern-making. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Your book is so thought-provoking. I wonder if readers may consider it a springboard to examine their own lives.
A: I have been hearing from early readers that it makes people think of their own relationships. As I was finishing writing the book, I realized this is a love story in a lot of ways – a very grown-up love story. Someone just said to me that it should be a book that every mother-of-the-bride gives to her daughter. I loved that anyone would think of it that way – both emotionally instructive and gentle enough, too. It has things in it that are really saying, “It’s not about the bouquet, honey.”
Q: You talk about the writer needing distance from the material, yet writing before the story becomes a “story.”
A: In recent years, that’s what has been most exciting to me as a writer: Finding a way to give shape to something that doesn’t yet have the shape of memory. Memory makes a shape out of things; it’s a story that we tell ourselves. And it’s always different. Memory changes each time we remember.
Q: Talk about fake news!
A: Right. Memory is a version of fake news. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a permanent truth. Our memories and our stories continue to shift as the years go by. All a memoir is doing is capturing this moment. It’s a snapshot of a life from the vantage point of the moment when the writer is telling the story.
Q: You’ve written about readers feeling that they know you better than they do. They assume that your memoirs are interchangeable with the person even though the book is a finished, finite thing.
A: And the book is also crafted. Ultimately it’s really a compliment. “This was so real to me, I feel that I know you, having read it.” And very often their next question is, “Does this make you feel exposed?” And it always strikes me that I don’t. I always sort of feel, well, should I?
Q: In the book, you raise the question about how much of the truth to tell.
A: The way I talk about it with my students is what do you leave in, and what do you leave out. I don’t feel that the writer of memoir owes the reader “the whole story.” It’s not autobiography. You haven’t picked up my book because you’re necessarily interested in me as a memoirist, the way you’d be interested in Barack or Michelle Obama’s book in a couple of years. You’re picking up their books because you’re interested in them – and therefore, everything goes in. Whereas with memoir, ultimately, it is a story – small “s” story – that the memoirist is telling.
So in “Hourglass,” I was very aware that the specific crevasse that I was mining was my younger self through time, my marriage through time. And anything that didn’t illuminate that in some way just didn’t belong.
Q: And where do you draw the line on privacy?
A: You know, I never think about my own privacy when I’m writing memoir. I do think about the privacy of others. I’ve always been extremely conscious of my son’s privacy. With my husband, it’s funny because I’d never really written about him before. I shared every page of “Hourglass” with him as I was writing. If he had, at any point, said to me, “I would really rather you not write this book,” I wouldn’t have written this book.
In the end, my family is more important to me than any single book.
Q: Tell me about the book’s structure.
A: It was more or less written chronologically. I didn’t have an outline. I had pattern-making in mind. With mosaic-style writing, which is a form that I absolutely adore, the writer has to be aware of white space and repetition, and a sense that mosaic ultimately does have a pattern to it. But the pattern isn’t uniform. For example, in “Hourglass,” there’s a woodpecker.
Q: I loved the woodpecker! I know exactly what you’re talking about!
A: Every person I talk to who lives in the country says, “I know the woodpecker! We have a woodpecker.” I love that. But, you know, once the woodpecker appears, he has to appear again. These things that are set in motion – the tidying up of the house, the basement, the woodpecker – have to return, and they don’t return in a narrative arc. They return in a kind of pattern-making. So there’s a math to it, a calculus that’s incredibly complicated.
It feels like the entire equation of the book has to be held in the writer’s head.
Q: As I was reading, I was very aware of the accumulation of pieces, the patchwork. I would think an enormous part of your work was just arranging the sequence of sections.
A: The way the passages lay out on the page, getting them exactly right, was of critical importance in this book. You know, what bumps up against what forms the music of it, in a way.
Q: When you started this project, did you plan to interweave all those phrases and passages from other authors that you’d collected over the years?
A: I think I did. I started very early on with a Wendell Berry quote, and then a quote from Joan Didion. It’s something that I’ve always done. In fact I had to hold back from doing more of it because I love the wisdom of others.
A friend told me that what I was doing for years with these notebooks of quotations was keeping commonplace books. I just hadn’t known what they were called. To me, they were my anti-Twitter. They were where I would go to slow down, and write something thoughtful, and something I wanted to remember and internalize.
But, yes, absolutely, I had wanted “Hourglass” to be almost a commonplace book of marriage.
Q: Using so many quotes from different authors has such an intriguing additive effect. It allows the book to open out more to the world.
A: Memoir, when done well, is an act of generosity. It’s such a misunderstanding of the form when people talk about the writer being overly self-involved or narcissistic. Memoir has to do with the aerial view. To be able to recognize the stories, the symbols, the ideas within one’s life is not to be blind to oneself.
Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.