In Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, bestselling author Dani Shapiro says everything she's learned about life has come from her daily practice of writing—and her best work stems from being completely present. In this excerpt from her new book, see how her lessons on presence can help us all become true witnesses to the world around us.
How many times have you been driving along in your car, or biking, or taking a long walk covering miles, a changing landscape, when you suddenly become aware that you have no recollection of the distance you’ve traveled, the sights you’ve passed without taking them in? Where were you? Oh, you were floating around, ruminating on something that happened yesterday, or five years ago, or about plans for tomorrow, or next summer, or even what to cook for dinner. We’re so rarely in the present. A favorite yoga teacher often has us begin class in child’s pose. As we lie there with our foreheads pressed to the mat, she’ll tell is to drop down. Drop in.

Sometimes when I’m at my desk, I’ll realize that I have contorted myself completely, and I haven’t moved for hours, and that my legs have fallen asleep. I am elsewhere, not in my body, not in the room, not in my house. This may mean that I’m deeply engaged in the story I’m writing—that I have transported myself to the universe of my characters, but ideally, I want to be in both worlds: the one I’ve created in my mind, and also the one that’s all around me. Because if I’m present, I will miss nothing. As writers, it is our job not only to imagine, but to witness. How are we meant to witness if we’re not in the room?

Feel your feet on the ground. Your butt in the chair. Your elbows on the desk. Feel the pen in your hand, or the pads of your fingers against the computer’s keys. Feel the breath moving in and out of your belly. The weight of your head on your neck. Your jaw: Is it clenched? Mine almost always is, unless I remind myself to release it. The further I get into this writing life, the more help I find I need. There are days when I am trapped in what Virginia Woolf called cotton wool: dazed, unfocused states in which the hours collapse, one flattening into the next. Days in which I am not entirely alive. Our minds have a tendency to wander. To duck and feint and keep us at a slight remove from the moment at hand. If we’re writers or artists, we can’t afford to live this way. We have to recognize the cotton wool, and cut through it.

My desk is covered with talismans: pieces of rose quartz, wishing stones from a favorite beach. Essential oils with names like concentration and focus and inspiration—the kind of thing I might have laughed at when I was younger. I could pretty much open up a new age gift shop, if the writing thing ever dries up. But really, all that stuff is there to remind me to stay in the present, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Sometimes I can hardy stand it—that dropping in. It’s scary, boundless, infinite. It can feel like a free fall. But I know it’s where my best work lies.

Each of us finds our own ritual to cut through the cotton wool. We can be gentle or harsh with ourselves. We can go for a run, or drop to the floor for twenty push-ups, or slam our fists down on our desks, or blare music until it’s noisier than the noise inside of us. Hell, we can drink or do drugs—a short-term strategy that almost always ends badly. But whatever the ritual, we are attempting to see and hear and taste and smell and touch life around us. Otherwise, we escape ourselves, leaving our bodies behind like the shells of cicadas. Is it going to snow tomorrow? Was yesterday’s meeting productive? Why did she say that to me? What did he mean by that? Who cares? We can’t know. But is in the present—not in the past, and most certainly not in the future—that we are able to see the landscape, to feel the range of our humanity, to travel every mile.

STILL WRITING © 2013 by Dani Shapiro; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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