“Minding” Dani Shapiro

Dani and me

My good friend Lynn Rosen asked me if I would be a “minder” for author Dani Shapiro during an Open Book event at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA.  Author and fellow podcaster Gretchen Rubin interviewed her about Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love for an episode of Shapiro’s podcast Family Secrets.

As a minder, my job was to take care of the author, making sure no one monopolized her time or approached her when she wasn’t signing books.

For the most part it was an easy job, I just followed her lead. If she was still signing the book, I let the person talk. When she was done, I asked them to let the next person move up. Most readers were respectful of the limitations of her time. She was headed to the airport directly after the event to fly to San Francisco, her next stop on the tour for her paperback release. It was an emotional afternoon. People told her about finding out they were donor-conceived, or they were adopted, or they had been a donor and were concerned about children coming forward. What would they want? I couldn’t help but wonder if Shapiro felt psychically and emotionally drained at the end of each tour date. But she was patient, kind, genuinely curious about their stories, and, when possible, she offered helpful ideas and connections.

I was touched by a few readers, who dropped handwritten letters on the table, saying they understood how busy she was. They wanted to share their stories with her, but also thank her for writing the book, for making them feel not so alone as they dealt with their own family secrets.

After Shapiro finished signing and was getting ready to leave, I, inspired by those other readers, took the opportunity to thank her. Her memoir Devotion, about her spiritual journey, changed my life path. As a result of reading it, I began meditating, pursued mindfulness, and now devote my time to teaching mindful writing. Shapiro literally changed the trajectory of my life. She was the teacher I needed at the time I needed her. She said to me, “You sit alone in a room writing and you don’t know…”

As writers, we rarely know what the impact of our solitary efforts will be. With Inheritance, it is very clear the effect Shapiro has had on readers’ lives. She’s become an advocate for donor limitations. She’s spoken at Stanford, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins about the bioethics of sperm donation. But it was her sitting alone in a room, writing Devotion, that gave me a new way of living, a tool for dealing with the loss of my husband, and inspiration for how I write and teach.

If a writer’s work has touched you, changed you, or thoroughly entertained you, take the time to write them a letter or email. The object is not to start a correspondence. The object is to use your writing to tell them how much their writing has meant to you.

And why not write to all those people in our lives who have made a difference. What are we waiting for? Spread the adoration!

Writing advice for my Lyft driver

Dear Christopher,


Thanks for picking me up Wednesday night after my Building a Mindful Writing Practice class and making polite conversation with me about the weather and asking about my work. At first I thought you were feigning interest, until you asked, “So, do you have any advice for someone who wants to write in the future?” Then, I realized I had a wanna-be fiction writer on my hands.

Here’s the advice I gave you at first:

  • Read a lot. Read the type of book you want to write whether that’s literary fiction, westerns or science fiction. Then, read outside your genre. Be inspired by the different rules and tools they utilize. Take note of what the writers do. How do they get you to turn the page? How do they get you invested in the characters? What makes their sentences so beautiful?
  • Write down those beautiful sentences. Feel those words come out of your own hand.
  • Become a master observer of yourself and others. What are your obsessions? How to people act, talk, love, hate? What’s spring like? Collect details that can help you create your imaginary world.
  • Write a bit everyday to build your writing muscle, keep your form limber. Something little—an observation, a description, a line of overheard conversation. Learn about yourself as a writer.

Then, you revealed you already had characters forming in your mind and talking to you. That’s different. That’s a gift!

  • Don’t squander it. This doesn’t happen to everyone. Write it all down. If you have characters speaking to you, you need to write what they tell you. (This happened to me for my first novel. Up until that point, I was a short story writer. Then one day these sisters started talking to me. I didn’t know who they were or what they were, but I just kept writing down what they told me. The next thing I knew, I had 80 pages of notes. I realized, this was not a short story. This was a novel.)
  • Take notes. Be prepared to record this information at all times. You’re working a full-time job and driving for Lyft, so have pen and paper nearby or a method of recording or taking notes on your phone.
  • Just take notes, Christopher. Do “non-doing writing” writing without judgment or expectation. Just be present to what is arising. You don’t have to know what it is or where it is going yet. As soon as you say “I have to finish this by my next birthday” or “the ending is going to be exactly this,” you’re stopping the flow. Right now, enjoy the process of discovery.
  • Be ready. A time will come when a scene will come into view, a beginning will blossom, and you will find your way in. You will get caught up and you will make the time to write.

What I didn’t have time to say during our brief ride:

At some point, after you’ve gotten a few scenes or chapters together, take a class or join a workshop. For these three reasons:

  • It’s nice to hang out with people who think spending years of your life working hard on something that may never be publicly shared or earn you any money is a fine and honorable (not stupid) endeavor.
  • To learn the craft. Writing is like any other art – painting, architecture – there are tools of the trade, skills to be learned.
  • To see if the story in your head is the story on the page. We can become too familiar with our stories and forget to let readers know about connections between scenes or the history of a character or who else walked into the room or that it’s now Wednesday.

But most importantly, Christopher, write. One word at a time. Day after day. Enjoy the process of creating. It’s a good life.

Marie Kondo teaches people to listen to their bodies

Perhaps you listen to your body when it tells you that you’ve overdone it at the gym or that you shouldn’t have binge watched all of season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel the day it dropped. Maybe there were times you ignored the subtle messages of your body until they got louder, fighting hard to get your attention, and you found yourself with the flu or a pulled muscle in your back. Your body had to shout, take care of me!

But do you listen to your body when it’s not in distress? When it’s happy?

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Taking time to be grateful

This past year I spent much of my time developing mindful writing curriculum and leading workshops and retreats. I love this work, not only because it brings me joy and purpose, but because of the people it has brought into my life. I looked back on how I came to develop this work and found that there were a lot of people to be grateful for.

I am grateful to have discovered mindfulness all those years ago by reading Dani Shapiro’s Devotion.

I am grateful to the Penn Program for Mindfulness. It was there when I needed it after my husband’s death, giving me a way to structure my grief and a new way to live my life moving forward. The MBSR foundational 8-week program really did change my life.

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Facebook is stalking me

I spend a lot of time on Facebook. Too much time. Usually I justify it by saying it’s my main mode of communication. It’s where I post my book reviews, readings, essays, blog posts, and where I advertise my upcoming workshops and retreats.

I justify it by saying this is how I stay engaged with my community. I follow other writers and learn about their upcoming publications. I read their essays and articles and blog posts.

I justify it by saying this is where I get my news. I follow reliable new sources. My friends follow other reliable new sources and share articles. So I am informed about the latest news and the state of our nation.

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First, listen

This week in my Building a Mindful Writing Practice class, we focused on listening in many different ways. Listening to ourselves, to our bodies, to those around us, to the world around us, to the words of writers (both living and dead) and to our own writing, spoken aloud.

As writers, our job is to pay attention. As writers, our job is to be in conversation with the world around us. The first part of that job is to listen. In doing so, connections are made, ideas come forth, and words come to the surface.

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Stop saying you can’t meditate

I keep hearing people say things like “I suck at meditation,” “My mind is all over the place.” “I can’t do it.”

If this is you, you may have the idea that meditation is easy, peaceful, instant nirvana. Well, it’s not, at least not for most people.

For most of us, we sit down to meditate and we don’t like what our mind is doing. We don’t want to spend any time with it. It is not relaxing. Damn it!

The problem isn’t meditation. It’s your belief about meditation and who gets to do it. The thing turning you off to meditation is you. You didn’t like what you found. You realize how little control you have over your thoughts. That can be frightening at first. This may be what stops you from meditating.

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What my character had to tell me

As promised I’m reporting back on last months’ meditation of selecting a word that represents what the story I’m working on is about, in the hope that it would help me move forward in writing my novel. I selected the word anger, because I got the sense my narrator still held a lot of anger about the events that happened during the summer she is recounting. I expected that underneath that anger was sadness, disappointment, confusion and blame. I sat in meditation saying the word anger with my narrator in mind. What came up was truly unexpected.

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Finding truth in fiction

Thoughts are real, but not true

Thoughts are real, but not true

I’m taking the Power of Awareness online course with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield – two of my favorite mindfulness teachers. In her talk “Thoughts are real, but not true,” Brach explains that thoughts are real in the sense that we are  having them and in that our bodies and minds are reacting as if they are happening. For instance, if you are thinking of an argument you had in the past, a messy break up, or a scary walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood, your body will tense up and emotions will arise in you as if you are in that place and time.

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Farewell 2017

Remembering Who We Are

This week I finally got around to watching Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a Netflix documentary directed by Didion’s nephew Griffen Dunne. I highly recommend it whether you are already a fan of Joan Didion or about to become one. In it, she talks about starting out writing for magazines in New York, returning to California, writing her novels and essays, her marriage, adopting her daughter Quintana and  the death of her husband. It takes you up to her latest book, Blue Nights, which is about her daughter’s death. You feel as if you seen her whole story, but I’m certain she still has things to offer.

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