5 creative writing lessons I’m taking with me this year

Just one class left of the writing course I started this academic year. I submitted my final piece for workshopping a couple weeks ago; by the time it was my last go at being workshopped, I was able to articulate and act on some of the more important lessons I’ve learned about myself, my process and my writing this year.

Mainly, I was taken down a few pegs. Maybe all of them. Or maybe I hadn’t been on any pegs at all before and finally realized that. Maybe there are no pegs. Maybe there is no me.

No, I wasn’t drowning in the pit of despair, but there was a fair amount of despair in the second semester. OhMyGodNoOneGetsMe or MaybeI’mNotToBeGotten or WowI’mACrapWriter or Let’sGoBackInTheCaveOfSilenceForAnotherTenYears.

Ending the class, I feel energized. I feel confident in my peg level. I’m owning the self-doubt and despair and pegs. I have what to do. Maybe I’m a bit unsure on what to do or in which order, but I know there’s work to do.

Here are my top five takeaways:

  1. Be a little self-centered: Maybe it’s my introvertness, maybe it’s my paranoia, maybe it’s projection, but it’s always felt like asking people to read my work is super selfish. Ugh, another writer with an ego. But. But… there are  people in my world who seem interested. For the first time ever, I put it out there on Facebook – a status asking for volunteers to read two short pieces to help me decide which to submit for class. It worked – the responses gave me the gut reaction I needed. Prompts: they’re not just for starting  stories.
  2. You. Are. Not. Perfect. If I’m stuck in the ‘can’t let anyone see this, it’s not perfect’ rut, I’m now choosing to shut it down. Hit send. Eat a sandwich.
  3. Hit rockbottom: It’s a glorious place, a black hole, a dark, dank den of despair. It’s terrifying and enlightening. It’s cold and empty, and it surrounds you in its embrace. You never really know if you’ve truly hit it…  But it’s comforting knowing it’s out there.
  4. Read. Read. Also – read. It’s an oldie but a goldie, and one I actually enjoy.
  5. Critiquing is an amazing education: I’ve always enjoyed workshopping. Participating in classroom discussion is what kept me sane at the boringest of times, and it opened up the world at the best of times. It’s no burden for me to critique others’ works; it’s helpful to focus on someone else in critique mode. I ended up learning so much more from my peers in this class than in my old college ones; must come with age, maturity, experience.

What’s next? I’ve finally built the momentum to take myself more seriously. There’s a piece I’d like to submit for publishing. I’m open to workshopping with friends. More classes. More writing, more often.

Big juicy thank you to my fellow writer-class mates and our teacher – your energy was my energy, your writing was my education, and I’m going to ride our collective enthusiasm to the next level!

Oh, it’s on.

As I slowly rouse from the last four years of pregnant haze and breastfeeding exhaustion, the world becomes slightly clearer, a little brighter, and just a wee bit more attainable.

I decided that I would spend this year investing in myself, dusting off the creative workshops, writing exercises, draft after draft after draft of whatever it is I call that, Short short fiction, prose, poetry, bla bla. It’s totally fine.

So I’ve enrolled in two courses – a short one with Channie Greenberg in Jerusalem, for three weeks. And a commitment of two semesters with the program run by Judy Labensohn called So You Want to Write at David Yellin.

I’ve already got some stuff I want to share but I need to work on it further. One goal of this new direction is to write pieces I’d actually prefer to keep sacred, so I can rewrite and maybe make something of them. Maybe read them to no one at a bar. Maybe read them to the goats that graze across the street.

Maybe read them to you.

Binders full of women.

The summer of hot wind: the year a US presidential election takes place. Keeps getting earlier, doesn’t it? Maybe we all need to keep binders of women. Maybe we need to keep binders of fresh air. Nature’s air. The air that hovers over those freshwater brooks they show on the natural bottled water. That air, captured inside tin cans, so that when you breathe it, you get a hint of tin, a hint of mankind, a hint of what we’ve done. Fucking politicians.

For one day only.

My fourth time at the Writing Gym and we did a collective character exercise again, this time with two characters. I didn’t include every detail (ran out of time) and it’s pretty rough but below is what I came up with from the following: 

  1. Andrew, 55-year-old male currently in Sfat, confused about religious affiliation, single, violinist, self-employed, originally from London
  2. Linda or Leah, single, in her 20s, bartender/cellist, Conservative Jewish American

The sun was too strong. The light bouncing off the pale stones felt like lasers sharpshooting towards the centers of his eyes. Dazed, he wiped his stubbly face on his still-damp shirt, not sure how he got here, on – what is this street, anyway? He must’ve still been in Sfat because he couldn’t recall getting on a bus last night, but then again, how could he trust his own judgment at this point?

Andrew sat on a low stone wall on the side of the road and with his fingers, mentally ticked the facts he was certain of: I’m in Sfat – yes, definitely in Sfat since the stones shown like white ghosts and the northern hills created the panorama that was his point of view. It was a mid-June morning – the sun was strong and it must’ve been fairly early because he could spot the blur of a shepherd dog chasing goats over the side of the road in the yellow brush on the hillside below. And he was not yet sober – the waves violently crashing in his skull could attest to that fact.

Next to the spot where he had woken up, he saw his violin, as if it had been carelessly tossed to the ground. His eyes moved toward the nasty dent in the back panel. He searched his mind to uncover the truth behind that inharmonious circumstance, but his head gave up in angry discord.

He started to remember a woman with a young face – yes, it’s slowly coming back – a woman in her mid- 20s, offering him a drink sometime before things got intense. It must have been dusk, because the stars weren’t yet visible. He had thanked her and asked her name, but she had only smiled. He recalled her questions – honing in on his hometown of London, and why he had been in New York before he had wound up in Sfat. There was a barrage of questions, an outpouring of drinks, a meeting of a few other wandering lost souls, and after that he only remembered playing his violin, moving across vodka-soaked stones for a crowd of young revelers in a dimly-lit Sfat alley.

Coming-to, Andrew wondered exactly who she was. She was young – too young – and she was curious – too curious. What had she really wanted from him? Certainly not a free Saturday night concert in the streets of Sfat.

Andrew rose, steadied himself, and began walking toward the damaged violin. It looked sore, it looked tired, it looked defeated. As he bent to pick it up, a memory hit him. It was when his then-wife was in the hospital after their daughter had been born. He hated to remember it but the scene came flooding back with the sadness of the damaged instrument. He had come to visit her the day after the birth, still unsure of whether he’d stay or go. Sometimes, over the years, when he had (rarely) looked back at this period of his life, he could honestly claim she had known what would come next. Sometimes he justified it by saying she had just wanted a baby all along, so in the end, they both had gotten what they wanted.

His fingers ran over the strings and he lifted the violin to his chest. He looked up and then he saw her. The girl from the night before. She was carrying something big, but his vision was blurry.

“Oh,” he squinted into the sunlight and noticed she was carrying something.

“Hi,” she answered, and looked sadly at the violin. “Shame about that.”

He had so many questions, but he started with the obvious.

“What happened last night?”

She sat down on the low stone wall and looked across the hills.

“It’s possible we both owe each other apologies,” she said.

She paused and then began: “I’ve been looking for you for about 12 years. I didn’t really want to know as a kid, I just wanted to live happily and truthlessly. After all, how could I want someone who so clearly hadn’t wanted me?”

Andrew looked up suddenly. He noticed her green eyes then. He also noticed what she was carrying – a cello case.

“I’ve been living here, watching and waiting… unsure if I really wanted to know. But I was also angry. I wanted my due. How could someone be so carefree? Wander the world and never consider the chance at love they had so easily tossed aside?”

She ran her fingers along the hard case tucked in her arms.

“When I discovered you were a musician, it seemed like my only hope for feeling a connection. I had to hear you play. I had to know I have a future. After last night, well, I guess that’s the one part of this where I don’t feel disappointed. So… thank you. And… sorry about your violin.”

Andrew couldn’t wrap his head around the improbability of the situation. His long-lost daughter had hunted him down, followed him to Israel, sought him out in Sfat, lured him into a seemingly impromptu street party and gotten him disheveled and drunk so she could confront him at this moment.

He felt his ex-wife at his ear, an ominous note playing off her lips.

“Anyway… now I know. I’ll be returning to the States tomorrow. You’re free to find me when you like… if you can come with the words I need to hear.”

She stood, patted the cello case, and headed for the street. Then she turned around.

“By the way… happy Father’s Day.”

It’s not that I don’t like gum, you see.

The sun was as bright as the boy’s face while he watched his friend’s mother dig something out of the little box in her purse. She handed him a small something and smiled.

“Mommy, look!”

Mommy turned around and leaned close; her eyes went wide when she saw the familiar pink, hard circle in the center of Boy’s palm.

“Wow, what is that?” she asked with a smirk.

“It’s… um… I dunno.”

“It’s – it’s a pink stone!” Mommy said.

“A what?”

“It’s a special pink rock! What should we do with it?”

Mommy and Boy walked hand in hand to the car as Mommy babbled on and on about what one could do with a pink stone. They stopped at the car door and Mommy looked down.

“You could – you could put it in there!” she cried with delight.

Boy looked down into the sewer. “What’s that?”

“A sewer. A place for things like stones.”

Boy looked back at Mommy. “I want to eat this,” he said slowly.

“Oh, no. We don’t eat that. That’s a stone! We should put it somewhere! Like the sewer.”

As Boy got into the car, the stone still tightly grasped in his hand, tears began to fill his eyes. “No want that,” he said. The teardrops began to stream down while his lip quivered. “No want that.”

And he began to cry and cry.

And cry and cry and whimper and sigh and whimper and cry, as they drove to pick up Girl from her nursery.

Nothing could console him. Not an offer of ices from Girl. Not a hug from Mommy. Not a compliment from Girl’s friends.

And Boy continued to cry as Girl joined them in the car. And he sniffed and he whimpered and he moaned and he pouted.

And then Mommy asked: “Would you like to put your stone into the sewer?”

She looked back at Boy and as she smiled, Boy’s lips turned up to meet his eyes.

“Yes!”

So they drove to the sewer, stopped the car, and stood next to the dark hole below.

“Are you ready?” asked Mommy.

“Yes,” Boy said.

<plunk> went the stone.

“What a funny noise!” cried Mommy.

“Plunk!” said Boy.

And together they got back into the car and went home, smiling.

My first obit.

In 2001 I started as a reporter-intern for the Staten Island Advance. I had already been freelancing as a teenager, so I knew a bit here and there, but I had never taken a course in journalism. I wasn’t unique.

On one of the first days, at our orientation meetings, we reporter-interns were told that the first thing to learn – and the first thing we’d do – was to write an obituary.

Clearly, this didn’t appeal to most of us. At first, I couldn’t see past the dead people. I quickly realized, though, that writing obits isn’t about the dead people; it’s about communicating with the living – the mourning living.

I toughened myself up for the task; after all, most people who die are already old and the families were expecting it… right? So the chances of me getting handed a 47-year-old father of three who died of cancer should have been slim… right?

Slim or not, there I was, staring at this guy’s name, age, cause of death. He seemed Latino from the name. I tried to answer the question list myself, making up a story as I went along.

“He was an insignificant guy; his family lost touch with him years ago when he was caught selling drugs to teenagers. No reason to feel bad, you see.”

Better yet, I thought, maybe the family won’t want an obit; they’ll decline the offer and I’ll wish them luck.

But deadline was approaching and I wanted to be a journalist.

I dialed most of the number and hung up. I looked around the press room. I listened to the phones ringing, the voices, the faint T.V. background noise. The cop radio. The world of a reporter.

And I dialed again.

I spoke to the guy’s brother first. He was sweet and more than willing to gush about his brother, a family man, a hard worker. Loved by all. Missed by all. He passed me to his brother’s widow, and my stomach felt deep and hollow. She was crying a bit, but happy to know he’d be in the paper. It would be a good thing to have.

I finished the interview and missed the guy.

You know why obits are the first thing a journalist is assigned? Because it’s the core of every story s/he’ll ever write. An obit is:

Who:

What:

Where:

When:

Why:

How:

Details, details, details:

Weeks later, I was doing three to six obits a day, at least. It was part of the shift. I spoke to old people, young people, relatives who missed their mothers and relatives who hadn’t spoken to their mothers in years. The mourners of heroes, of saints, of nonchalance, of victims to this or that.

I think about my first obit sometimes when I remember my venture into reporter-hood. There are other stories I remember too – speakers, elections, government events, city issues,  small crimes, fires – and its some of those stories that are the reasons I pulled out of journalism.

But I stopped minding obits after a while and soon enjoyed those phone calls with the  living. It reminded me that I, too, was alive.

Version 1

Larutz.

“Alright. Larutz.”
“Shalosh… shtayim… echad…”
The room collectively sucks in its breath…
“Action!”

[Footsteps sound outside the metal door. A man dressed as a mifaked bursts in, and then abruptly stops. He is listening to music that will be filled in by the director later. He starts to rock back and forth, in tune with the imaginary music. He waves a finger in the air. Soon his whole body is coordinating with our imaginations.]

“Cut!”

I’m sitting on a table with my legs out in front of me, my right foot still tapping the air to imaginary music. I’m opposite everyone else in the room; they are gathered around the director.
I volunteered to help out because the director is a friend, but everyone else knows each other pretty well from working together the past few months.

The movie is about a boy freshly graduated from high school; he has to make a decision between following his dream and sacrificing the next precious years of his life for his country’s army. It takes place against the backdrop of Israeli nationalism.
The movie will be my friend’s first, and his completion of film school.

“OK, od pa’am. Chevre, sheket. Larutz.”

The director has spoken, the assistant counts down from three, we inhale and shut up.

“Action!”

[Footsteps. Mifaked bursts in the door.]

The extent of my helping out at the set has been polishing army boots.
Incidentally, that will also be the extent of my own army service in Israel.

[Mifaked rocks out to silence.]

“Cut!”

Everyone in the room is Israeli and communicates in Hebrew unless using some film terminology: “cut”, “mixer”, “sound”, “action.” The only word I’m hearing in Hebrew that relates to film-making is “larutz” – Roll (camera) – literally meaning: to run.
Roll camera. Start filming. Begin. Run.

The most bizarre, and at the same time satisfying, thing about being on this movie set with my director-friend’s cast and crew is that they are all speaking in Hebrew to each other and that this is the place where I live. I have voluntarily began life in a Hebrew world, and it has begun. It begins again everyday when I wake up and walk outside.
It is possible that I should not fear Hebrew, distrust Hebrew, dismiss myself dressed in Hebrew words when it is what I am to be here, wrapped in it, embraced in it, like the soft wrap skirts Israeli girls wear.
That someone told me “larutz” and I did; I can feel the Hebrew wrapped around my waist, over my legs, surrounding me in its soft melodic fabric that makes me feel like running further, more.
And, on the set, when someone makes a joke in Hebrew, I laugh. When my director-friend declares a five-minute break, the crew disperses into pockets of Hebrew conversation. And when there is something they need me to do in wardrobe, I’m on it – as soon as they give me the command in Hebrew.

“Larutz… Action!”

Israeli (5) – 2005.

Israeli.

And then, he was back.

We met for drinks to catch up and somehow, amid the silence of catching up, we sensed where each of us had been in the past two years.

“You didn’t think I was going to come b’aliyah, did you?” I said it with my best defense mechanism smirk.
“Well… I thought it could go either way. Yes, I am surprised.”

Two nights later he called me again.

“Elizabet, be ready at your house in ten minutes. Can you do that?”
“I’m not home – gimme 15 –“
“B’seder.”
Click.

I was at some friends’ watching downloaded episodes of Americana when he called, and as the last episode was wrapping up I collected my second-hand bag and my ratty cream-colored sweater and thanked the boys on my way out to meet Shachar in front of my house.
I wondered on the walk home what this drive was to meet him. The adventure he brings in any given meeting? What is that adrenaline, really, that he pumps into me with a phone call or an ‘Elizabet’? After two years of not speaking, after two years of failing to find ourselves, what kept the spark of ridiculousness still glowing in two dim hearts?

Ten minutes later, calves burning from the rush home, I found the familiar white VW Gulf parked in front.

A bed poked itself out the back.

He found me a new bed. Crazy.

I found Shachar waiting in the stairwell.

“There you are! Come, help me bring this up.” He took my hand in his and we started towards the car and like Lot’s wife, I looked back behind our trail… Was there something there I missed? Is this a ghost pulling me by my palm towards a car I once knew well?
In breathy silence we managed to pull the bed up to the top floor and in short commands managed to get it into my niche of a room, set under the window. I had been going months on four skinny mattresses piled up like the Pea Princess. I looked at Shachar, who was looking at me.

“Ma ha’sha’ah?” I scrambled to find my pelephone.
“9:50.”
“I have to go darling, I will speak to you soon.”

I walked him to the stairs and just stopped —- and watched him continue down. I didn’t know what to say to this… guy.

“Thank you… you’re so nice…” I stammered, half remark, half question.

I could hear Shachar laughing that familiar laugh as he bounded down the twirls of stairs.

“I am so… Israeli,” he replied, the words floating toward my ears like the beeping of an alarm clock.