It has been a busy week! And a very good one. Herewith, a few highlights. (There was actually one anti-highlight–it has to do with a negative review of my book. But especially in light of all the things that are going so well in my writing life these days, I’m trying not to focus on it. Which is not to say that you won’t hear more about it later!)
Right now, most of my writing time is going toward the drafting and revising of a talk I’ll be delivering next week at my home congregation in New Jersey. The presentation’s title is “Why Is This Jewish-American Writer Different from (Some) Other Jewish-american Writers?” I’m trying to articulate some things that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. And it isn’t easy.
I spent a lot of time last weekend toiling on this talk, and I’ve spent many hours outside my 9-5 workdays this week working on it, as well. I am beginning to see some light at the end of this particular tunnel.
The light began to shine when I realized that if and when I turn this talk into an essay, I’ll be able to revise, cut, and expand, as appropriate. It may sound silly, but this realization somehow lifted a heavy burden.
One of the best things about the surgery that I underwent last month is that–just as we’d hoped–it has corrected a medical problem and therefore vastly improved my quality of life. For instance, for a long time before the surgery, I was often unable to make (or keep) plans with friends and family because I was often too exhausted and/or housebound.
And I missed so many literary events that I would have loved to attend.
Last week, as you’ll remember, I wrote about a Jhumpa Lahiri reading that I’d just attended. This week, I had the privilege of going to a launch event for Boundaries, the latest novel by Elizabeth Nunez. I’ve been lucky to get to know Elizabeth through my work at The City University of New York, where she is a Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College. (And I assigned and edited this profile of her after her novel Anna In-Between was published in 2009.)
Boundaries is a sequel to Anna In-Between, and I’ve just begun reading it. At the Americas Society here in New York on Tuesday evening, Elizabeth was interviewed by literary critic and professor Donette Francis. Toward the end of the evening, audience members were able to pose questions, too.
One young woman asked Elizabeth–a native of Trinidad–why she had chosen not to name the island in which Anna In-Between is set (and from which the protagonist of Boundaries hails). In her response, Elizabeth explained that when she published an earlier novel, in which she specified Trinidad as the setting, a good friend–also from the island–had told her that he couldn’t read past the third page. Why?
Because Elizabeth had gotten a certain island detail wrong. This friend was an experienced sailor, and there was something about the way Elizabeth had written about the local wind patterns that immediately broke his sense of immersion in the story.
Fiction-writers-in-training are often warned about the precariousness of “the fictional dream,” that fragile bond that links the reader to the world evoked within a novel or short story. We’re taught to do whatever we can to avoid disrupting that dream. We’re taught that it’s part of the job, and that it often requires additional research (Elizabeth gave us examples of the lengths to which she has gone in pursuit of getting the details right).
Spend long enough in writing circles, and you hear (and talk) a lot about “reading like a writer.” You might even write a book on the subject.
But we spend far less time discussing “listening as writer.” But after attending a reading this week at Baruch College of The City University of New York, that’s exactly what’s on my mind.
The reading was given by Jhumpa Lahiri, who is this semester’s Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence. The (large) room was packed. I’ve rarely (ever?) encountered readings this large outside AWP or similar conference settings.
And it was free.
Lahiri read from work old and new. She began with an excerpt from “Hell-Heaven,” one of the stories in her collection Unaccustomed Earth.
As I listened to passages like this one…
He was from a wealthy family in Calcutta and had never had to do so much as pour himself a glass of water before moving to America, to study engineering at M.I.T. Life as a graduate student in Boston was a cruel shock, and in his first month he lost nearly twenty pounds. He had arrived in January, in the middle of a snowstorm, and at the end of a week he had packed his bags and gone to Logan, prepared to abandon the opportunity he’d worked toward all his life, only to change his mind at the last minute. He was living on Trowbridge Street in the home of a divorced woman with two young children who were always screaming and crying. He rented a room in the attic and was permitted to use the kitchen only at specified times of the day, and instructed always to wipe down the stove with Windex and a sponge.
…I was reminded of a feeling that I’d had reading certain Alice Munro stories. In awe, of course. But also thinking back to what I’d been taught by so many writing lessons. And thinking: She is “telling” at least as much as she is “showing”! This is not “in-scene.” There is no dialogue! Exposition is allowed! It can be done, and it can be done beautifully!
This was especially encouraging to me because only two days earlier I had (finally!) submitted my first commissioned short story.
I’m aware that there is significant telling in that story. There is not-inconsiderable exposition.
I haven’t yet received a response to let me know if it is what the commissioner was looking for. So of course, I’m still worried.
But on Tuesday evening, listening to Jhumpa Lahiri read aloud from a story I’d already read silently more than once, I heard something reassuring. Something important.
And that is because I was listening in a special way: as a writer.
What work-in-progress? Between the Yom Kippur holiday and my hit-the-ground-running return to my 9-5 office job this week (following a month-long medical leave), I’ve had neither the time nor the energy to do much writing.
However, I have been enjoying at least reading through the daily emails that I’m receiving from The Southeast Review. I’ve subscribed to the latest SER Writing Regimen, which means that I am currently collecting a series of inspirational prompts/exercises, quotes, podcasts, and riff words that I can use. Someday.
Good news on a few fronts. Mainly, I’m cautiously pleased with the status of the commissioned short story that I’ve been working on. And I’ve completed a draft of my next article assignment for The Writer magazine. Two big items on my to-do list, nearly ready to check off.
I’ve also started preparing my presentation for a November 13 appearance with the Jewish Historical Society of New York, and I’m steeling myself to plunge into the one I need to write for a visit to my home congregation in New Jersey on November 18–it will be a friendly crowd there, but a big one! And I’ve set myself an ambitious topic: “Why Is This Jewish-American Writer Different from (Some) Other Jewish-American Writers?” (Fortunately, I was greeted with so many “I loved your book!” comments when I was at the temple for Rosh Hashanah that my confidence is up. Plus, my mom’s friends have committed themselves to a home-baked cookie brigade for an extra-special Oneg Shabbat that evening!)
But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Several more rejections have (already) come my way this week, including my second rejection from a “top-tier” residency program. I know–such is life, and such is a writer’s life, in particular.
In other news, assuming that my doctor gives her okay when I see her today, I’ll be returning to my “day job” next week. I have been incredibly lucky with my recovery from last month’s surgery, and, as I’ve been reminded as the bills have begun coming in, incredibly lucky to have a job with pretty excellent insurance benefits. (I am also incredibly lucky to have amazing colleagues and coworkers who have not only showered me with get-well wishes and gifts, but also have pitched in to take over my responsibilities during my medical leave.)
I am looking forward to getting back to my “away from home” office. Still, I know that I will also be returning to that eternal challenge of sustaining and nurturing a writing practice with so much of my time and energy going elsewhere (as I know many of you understand quite well!). Wish me luck!