* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
I like excitement as much as the next person. Perhaps even more than the next person. But I get overstimulated easily, and I can feel my brain shorting out when I have too much going on. And it doesn’t take much: a good piece of news, a nice review, a longed-for assignment, a cool invitation, and suddenly I can’t think straight. The outside world glitters, it gleams like a shiny new toy. Squinting, having lost all sense of myself, I toddle with about as much consciousness as a two-year-old in the direction of that toy. Once I get a little bit of it, I am conditioned to want more, more, more. I lose all sight of whatever I had been doing before.
One of the strangest aspects of a writing life is what I think of as going in and out of the cave. When we are in the middle of a piece of work, the cave is the only place we belong. Yes, there are practical considerations. Eating, for instance. Or helping a child with homework. Or taking out the trash. Whatever. But a writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there. She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go dancing, and then pop back in. The work demands our full attention, our deepest concentration, our best selves. If we’re in the middle – in the boat we’re building – we cannot let ourselves be distracted by the bright and shiny. The bright and shiny is a mirage, an illusion. It is of no use to us.
If there is a time for that brightness, it is at the end: when the book is finished and the revisions have been turned in, when you’ve given everything inside of you and then some. When the cave is empty. Every rock turned over. The walls covered with hieroglyphics that only you understand – notes you’ve written to yourself in the darkness. But it’s possible that something interesting has happened while you’ve toiled amid the moths and millipedes. Once you’ve acclimated to cave life, stumbling toward the light may have lost some of its appeal. What glitters looks shopworn. The sparkle and hum of life outside the cave feels somehow less real than what has taken place deep within its recesses. Savor it – this hermetic joy, this rich unexpected peace. It’s hard-won, and so easy to lose. It contains within it the greatest contentment I have ever known.
Dani Shapiro in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
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