Two days ago I prayed to God to please help me know a way to write my book. I have been trying and trying to figure out what.
Fervently and to no avail.
That same day I found out Dani Shapiro was coming to my little town in the mountains and giving a talk on her memoir “Inheritance.”
I went to instagram to thank her for coming. An author of her caliber does not often make Steamboat Springs, Colorado one of their stops. To my surprise she wrote me back.
“I’ll actually be skyping/zooming in, alas. The travel became too much of a concern. But please come. There will be a Q and A.”
The second I read it I know this is why I’m going.
I need to ask her a question.
I pretend as if I have the option to stay home. Like I don’t really need to ask because I have all the answers I need inside. Nevermind that I could not locate any of these answers this past year. But surely they are there. Surely I’ll find them on my own. Despite the disappointment of her to being there in person, and insisting the answers are already inside me, I am open to the notion that maybe a way to find them is following the nudge to ask?
At Library Hall I am gathered in a room with two hundred people who are all 60-75 years old with the glaring exception of me and a handful of others. Jenny is our MC for the night. She is a middle aged woman with brown hair pulled back into a high braided pony tail. She’s wearing glasses low on her nose, is dressed in earth tones, and says “um” after every other word.
Jenny welcomes Dani and the talk begins. So far nothing has been said that isn’t directly related to Inheritance, the book we are here to learn about. Dani has not said anything about writing. She is instead, talking about what it means to find out you are not who you thought you were. About finding out the truth. What happens then? This is what her book is about, having discovered in her fifties that she had been conceived by sperm donor and unbeknownst to her to that point, is another man’s biological child.
“I’m going to turn the mic over for questions now” Jenny says.
I sit there and my heart pounds as a women sitting a few seats away from me immediately gestures for the microphone.
I was supposed to gesture before her. I sit while she asks something about one of the authors first books and whether or not she thought her main characters quote at the end of the book was foreshadowing for what was to come in the authors own life.
I look to the right and Jenny is already handing the microphone to another woman. Somehow, I’ve lost my chance again.
“You’re not going to be able to ask her your question if you’re not assertive” I hear a voice inside say. “You’d better figure out how to get that microphone.” So I do what I always do when pressure is mounting, and I tell myself it’s not that big of a deal. Maybe I shouldn’t ask my question anyway. Maybe it’s not meant to be. What if it’s not appropriate to ask a question about writing when all we’ve discussed is her book exclusively? No one else is talking about writing. I’m too nervous anyway. What am I nervous about? It’s just a question! What’s wrong with me? I should probably bow out and forget the whole thing.”
Then I remember what my therapist said to me in my EMDR session that morning. After I’d told her I was self conscious about talking about a lump in my throat (again) when I *should* to be talking about my fear of flying, which is why I’m there, she said “should?”
“Yes” I said. “I ‘should’ myself a lot.”
“I noticed that” she said. Which made me question whether my shoulds were actually helpful.
I breathe deep breaths as I try and slow my heart rate and worry about how I’ll ask the question if I do indeed ask. I can’t make it too much about me specifically. I’m surrounded by a bunch of people. This is public. Dani Shapiro is not my personal mentor. I have to be respectful of everyones time.
But you have a question to ask, I hear myself push. ASK IT.
I fix my eyes on Jenny. When her eyes start searching the room my hand shoots up toward her and she walks over and hands me the microphone.
My heart beats wildly and I can hear the blood in my ears and then, it’s my turn.
“Hi Dani, I’m Krysta from Instagram. I know you teach writing and so I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a question about the process?”
“Not at all” she says.
“Oh good. Have you ever written a memoir that, a good part of the way through writing it, you still didn’t know what it was about? And if not—how do you get clarity around themes while in the middle of trying to write?”
Dani doesn’t hesitate. “Trying to think about theme during the writing process is too overwhelming.”She says. “It’s like standing in a house and trying to look out all the windows at the same time. You can’t do it. You can only look out one window at a time and ask yourself the question relevant to that one window. Theme—it turns out to be whatever you’re obsessed with. Theme turns out to be the thing you just keep writing about because you can’t not write about it.”
She took a breath.
“When I was writing “Devotion” which is a memoir I wrote when my son at the time was asking lots of questions like ‘what happens after we die?” and ‘will I go to heaven?’ and all these questions I had not allowed myself to sit with I just thought ‘you know, what would it be like to sit with these questions?’ and that’s what became really interesting to me. And so it was me looking out one window at a time with that question in mind. It’s only later themes emerge. So the only way to figure out clarity of theme is to write and while you’re writing, don’t think about theme. Because if you think about theme, it will sort of manhandle the writing. It will direct it and force it to places it would not have organically gone otherwise.”
She finished talking and I gave her a thumbs up—which I regretted immediately. Then I hurried back to my seat with directions for moving forward.
I smiled to myself because you cannot possibly know what you don’t know until you do. I have so much time invested in trying to look out all the windows at the same time, then wondering what is wrong with me for not being able.
But I never needed to try so hard.
I only ever needed someone to say “here honey. Here is how it’s done.”
And for that, I needed to grab the damn mic.