The Art of Writing the Personal: Dani Shapiro comes to Philadelphia (and thoughts on Slow Motion)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Yesterday, New York City beckoned—a chance to talk about some of the young people I've taught before a wonderful audience at Bank Street (thank you, Jennifer Brown), a review of Voice in a mentor workshop (we talked The Book Thief, Two Boys Kissing, Small Damages), a quick run through the wonderful exhibit of children's books at the New York Public Library with special people, lunch with my son and husband, a hurried walk through Hoboken, a drive back home in twilight hours.

Today, I travel to my city, Philadelphia, to spend time with the incredibly talented Dani Shapiro on behalf of the First Person Arts Festival. We'll be at Christ Church Neighborhood House (20 N. American Street) from 4 to 5:30. Tickets can be bought at the door. I hope to see you for many reasons, but mostly because of this: Dani Shapiro has something to say, she says it with profound intelligence, and this is a rare opportunity to see her in person in the City of Brotherly Love.

I've read Dani through the years. I've heard others talk about her generosity toward other writers, about her powers as a teacher, about the choices that she's made; I've watched her in conversation with Oprah. I've read and loved Devotion as well as Still Writing, Dani's newest book on the writing life. I've anticipated this conversation, I'm saying, for a long, good time.

But it was not until this morning that I read Slow Motion, Dani's bestselling memoir about the accident that changed her life. Dani was a young beauty mired inside an unwanted relationship with her good friend's stepfather when Dani's father and mother were involved in a car accident. Dani's father would ultimately, and somewhat mysteriously, pass away. Her mother would heal from 80 fractures—and premature widowhood. The boyfriend would want what such boyfriends want, and Dani—who had left Sarah Lawrence in pursuit of an acting career and of this relationship—would have to make choices about who she was, what she wanted, where her life was going.

I hadn't read Slow Motion because I wanted to know Dani first, to see her as a person first, and not as this defining story. And here is the spectacular thing about having just now read the final page: Slow Motion is one of those books that has earned every accolade it's ever gotten. The story itself is remarkable. But what I believe is even more remarkable is the way that Dani tells it—her use of time, her measures of distance, her patience with the story itself, her silken language. Many may read Slow Motion for the story, but I read for the artistry.

And I was not disappointed by a single page.

Here is Dani, toward the end of the book—re-enrolled in college, emerging, at last, as the writer she must have always been. Dani has musical training in her background. Her sentences are the proof of this:
The professor sits back as the students finally start speaking. Until now, I have been the quiet one in the class, too insecure and frightened to say a word. But today, something begins to shift. I see that there might be some way I can take the raw material of my life and transform it into something that transcends my own experience. I can organize the noise in my head into something that has order and structure. I can make sense of what, until now, has been senseless.


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