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Thursday, February 17, 2022

Write On!: Sometimes I’m Too Jewish, Sometimes I’m Not Jewish Enough

I want to believe that I’m the sum of all my experiences, that every time I pick up a pen and launch into a story I’m giving it everything that I have —

  • the books I’ve read and the movie I watched on the plane here,
  • the Jewish food my parents raised me on and the watered-down secular Jewish culture they gave me,
  • the first time Eddie Torres kicked my ass walking home after school in sixth grade and the twenty times he did it after that,
  • the time I became an Orthodox Jew when I was 20 years old
  • and the time I started hooking up with a Catholic-raised pagan sex worker 3 years into it,
  • the prayers I said this morning, including the entire story of the Binding of Isaac and his almost-attempted murder by his father Abraham, which we say every day, although I’m still not 100% sure why we say that and not, say, the story of Bilaam beating his ass,
  • the archery lesson I took my Hasidic girls-school daughter to last night
  • and us reading Dracula on the way home, her request
  • as the people next to us stared.

But there’s a problem inherent within that. Stories are microcosms. Salman Rushdie says that, every time you tell a story, at the same moment there’s a million other stories you’re choosing not to tell. If I decide to write, say, a memoir about hooking up with my pagan ex-girlfriend, I’m not telling you the story of when I first became Orthodox, or going to secular Hebrew School as a kid, or how my wife and I celebrated Shabbos when we were dating, or how there’s a white nationalist guy sitting next to me on the plane right now and how I feel as someone who looks like me, with a beard, payos, tzitzis.*

When we write stories, we start at a point. Maybe it’s an idea. For me, it’s usually an image — it might not be the image the story starts with, but it’s an image that I know will come up.

The point is, it’s a point. As storytellers, we take that point and move it along an axis, we tell it, we create a line, and the line goes on as far as our story does, ad infinitum if we want it to. And I know I have suddenly started talking about math in front of a bunch of writers, but bear with me — for every point in the universe, there’s an infinite series of lines that can be drawn from it. If you start here {POINT IN THE AIR}, you can go this way {GESTURE IN ONE DIRECTION}, this way {POINT IN ANOTHER DIRECTION}, or this way. That’s the direction we choose to go with a story.

My first novel, Never Mind the Goldbergs, started with an image of a girl wearing three stacked, ripped skirts — a miniskirt, a knee-length skirt, a long gypsy skirt, all of them crowned with punk-rock patches — and she’s standing on a Hollywood set, and a non-Jewish wardrobe person is trying to tell her what clothes Orthodox people are supposed to wear. It’s a pretty clearly Jewish image, right? Pretty much every direction you’d take that in is has to embrace the Jewish angle, or at least include it at some point.

I wrote this other novel, Manhattan Beach. It hasn’t been published (yet?). Here’s how I first conjured it: imagine the movie The Goonies, where four kids find a map leading to buried pirate treasure beneath their hometown — and, of course, obstacles that keep rogue treasure hunters away — except that, in my vision, the kids are 80-year-old men.

This story didn’t have to be Jewish. Except that, in some way, it did. In the original movie, the kids’ homes were being foreclosed upon; in my remake, it was the synagogue where all the old men hung out all day. I told the story in ten chapters, one for each of the men left who made the synagogue’s minyan: the mentally-disabled caretaker, the celebrity skin-care doctor with the subway ads, the old gay guy who never got a chance to come out because he was a teenager during the Holocaust, and instead he lived alone in a forest stealing from Nazis.

I don’t have to make these stories Jewish. That quality, the Jewishness of it — the religious stuff, the Holocaust stuff, the one-off references to the texture of matzoh and the passing inclusion of an oy — they’re a part of the story, sometimes even a fundament of the particular story I’m trying to tell. But they’re just some of the tools in my toolbox, a few of the memories in the knapsack of my mind. At some point, I was on a hot streak of writing really really Jewish poems, one about my vegetarianism and the profundity of meat in my grandmother’s house, another about my gay Orthodox friends and my non-Jewish girlfriend, and then I wrote a poem about my teeth.

Again with the microcosmos. We defamilarize the familiar, describing a watermelon as if no one in your audience has ever tasted watermelon before, and at the same time we create comfort in the unknown, describing the experience of descending into a ritual bath so it’s as close to the reader’s heart as if they dunk in a mikvah every morning. I don’t write much poetry anymore but I love it, it’s the aesthetic and intellectual challenge of writing a new novel every time you sit down with a new page. We rev up our microscopes and we go on full blast. Sometimes that’s looking at a ritual bath. Sometimes it’s my teeth.

Maybe because I am Orthodox, a word which here means that there are 613 rules in the Torah — some explicit and some obscure, from permitted foods to the correct way to tie your shoelaces — a lot of those minutiae tend to be Jewish in nature. Because I am human, or punk rock, or a boy, or relatively obsessed with the X-Men, a lot of them don’t. One way or another, you will probably be able to find something Jewish about most of what I write. The fact that I wrote my teeth poem on Shabbos morning, walking the bumpy San Francisco hills to shul — I had to keep repeating it to myself over and over again the whole day, till sunset when I could actually commit it to paper — might make it more Jewish now that you know that.

But it’s not going to show up on the page when you read it, and every story I write definitely does not pass muster as a Jewish story. PJ Library, an amazing organization that buys literally millions of picture books each year to send out free to children, has yet to accept anything I’ve written. I literally got two editorial notes back from them two months in a row, “This is too Jewish” and “this isn’t Jewish enough.”

The same thing could probably be said about myself. And yet, for all the good the PJ Library organization does, both for Jewish pedagogy and for the literary community, most of their books kinda suck. The characters are flat. They always do what they’re supposed to do, except when they make a mistake and learn a lesson from it. They are stuck in the eternal cycle of literature that exists explicitly to teach children a lesson, and because of that, they don’t stay in that cycle long. Most of those books, my kids read once and leave near the recycle bin, thinking perhaps that they’re like their weekly newsletters from school.

This might sound like a call to arms to end the canon of Jewish novels, but it’s actually a plea for the opposite. I’ve been dying to write a Jewish novel. Not because I think it might finally get me published as an adult novelist, although that would be very cool, but because I want to have something to read that resonates with me in that very specific way. As authors, we are so fond of taking our characters and systematically deconstructing them, putting them into precarious situations and risking their lives, their morals, and their emotional health. As readers, though, we read because we are isolated and alienated from the world and we want to find a connection, see inside somebody else’s head and say it’s really not so different from our own. And most of the time we’re looking for a bare emotional connection, another nerd as nerdy as us or someone heartbroken or full of heart or yearning to be in another place. But as much as sometimes I need to read about one of Sartre’s displaced journeymen or Winterson’s sexually diaphanous adventurers, I would love to see, or to create, someone who looks like me on a page.

And I’m trying. Yesterday, I was trying to explain why I loved Lolita and was deeply troubled by it — aside from the usual reasons — and I blurted out, “He could’ve written about anything in the world, why did he write about that?” The first time someone I knew read Goldbergs, it was a woman at my synagogue, and she told me she’d read it in the same way she might have told me that she saw me buying opiates on the corner.

Did you read the whole thing? I asked her. No, she said — she stopped right after the Orthodox protagonist hooked up with her costar. “But that’s right before she starts making everything better!” I expostulated (although it isn’t that simple). “I’d just had enough,” she told me, and that was that.

I have a friend who started calling up Jewish Hollywood writers and actors, trying to convince them to put Orthodox Jews on their shows. “Nothing crazy,” she told them, “just a minor character who happens to wear a yarmulke or runs out to shul.” But that’s the opposite of what I want. I want to make stories where everything a character does matters, and where who those characters are — their history, their relationship with G-d, even their anxiety about their teeth — isn’t just a way of telling a shocking and efficient story, but a way of giving people (and by people, I mean myself) something to love. 


This was delivered last week as part of a symposium on Jewish Writing vs. Writing by Jews, chaired by Goldie Goldbloom, at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa.

Still image from X-Men: Days of Future Past, as if you didn’t know. 


* – Yep, that part was true. I wrote that line really quickly, then scrolled my computer screen up to hide it. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Write On!: How to Write for Yourself

 Every blade of grass has a story to tell
— Darshan, “Animate My Anatomy”

Hey! I'm just taking some questions from the ol' email inbox. Ready? Set? To corrupt Montell Jordan, this is how we go.

How do you become a professional author?

Poverty is the secret weapon of the writer.

I’m not saying that being poor is a good thing, because it’s not. It sucks. (And I realize that I just contradicted the wisdom of Fiddler on the Roof, which is only slightly more sacrilegious than doubting the authenticity of the Bible. It’s okay. Let’s keep going.) And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get paid well from your writing — thank G-d, there are ways to do it.

I’m saying, have a job that isn’t writing — at least, that isn’t writing what you deeply and passionately want to write, that comes straight out of your heart and keeps all that passion and fire and rawness and fragility intact.

Because if that’s what you want to write, it’s a good thing to tell yourself, I’m not doing this to make money.

And keep repeating it to yourself.

Repeat it when you don’t believe in yourself.

Repeat it when you don’t believe in your characters, and so instead of making decisions you open yourself up to them and let them take the story in whatever crazy way it wants to go.

Repeat it when you don’t even know what the characters want, so you kill one of them in a freak thunderstorm. (It’s ok! Do it! If your brain is telling you to — and this is in writing, not in real life, mind you — then there might be a reason. You can come back later, after you’re finished writing, and figure out the reason, and what it Means for the Rest of the Story. Or you’ll realize that maybe you needed to keep her alive for the rest of the story. Don’t worry! By that point, you’re already at the end, and you have a complete story written, so you can pretty much do whatever you want.) (Also, if you’re curious about where I got this idea from, skip to the end of this essay.)

Repeat it when there’s one really obvious way you could take this story — it’s your first day of school, you’re so nervous you don’t know what to do, you’re gonna get beat up and teased and eventually win the science fair, but really you just want to write about the cookies you stopped to grab at your grandma’s house on the way home.

There’s a power to writing that comes from its powerlessness. Even more so with poetry. Nobody reads anything these days, and especially nobody reads fictional stories or poems, so you don’t have to feel bound by them. You never have to be the poet who only writes rhymed poems about storms and pain — that is, unless you really want to be; the only one holding you there is you. Today it’s not raining and you’re the only person who caught sight of a rainbow before it disappeared. Why not write about that? Go for it. Nobody’s looking. And even if they are — well, hey, then you’ve got a reader.

We’re surrounded by stories. Literally — they’re everywhere. At one point, I remember asking David Levithan — my editor at Scholastic, who edits a crazy number of books and puts out one or two of his own every year — if he’s ever afraid of running out of ideas for stories. He said, I’m more afraid of having so many ideas for stories that some of the best ones fall through the cracks.

Every idea can make a good story. Just honor it and let it do its thing.

At what point in the writing process do you involve an agent or a publisher? Do you let them know as soon as you have a good idea, and get their… go-ahead? Their blessing? I don’t know what you’d call it. Or do you attempt to write a full, complete draft of whatever it is and then start shopping it around?

Okay, fine. Let’s talk publishing. EVEN THOUGH I just spent the past 400 words or so telling you why you shouldn’t think about that.

I’m going to first paraphrase Joshua Henkin, my writing professor, and say: as late as humanly possible. There’s a saying about too many cooks in the kitchen, and for most forms of storytelling, the exact number of “too many cooks” is 2.

It’s great to meet an agent or an editor. It’s double great if you want to show them what you’re working on, and it’s super double great if they actually ask and you offer. The thing to remember is: You’re still working on it. The sooner you show an agent, the sooner you open yourself up to them saying something like, “Hey, you know how you’re mostly writing a historical novel about the Second Temple, but with aliens? Maybe you want to lose the aliens.” And even if you say no, you’ve opened yourself up to the possibility that doing a story about the Bayis Sheni with aliens might not be the coolest thing ever. (Side note: this example might be the coolest thing ever. Can someone please write it?)

But: Doubt. In one word, doubt is why you shouldn’t show your story to publishers, or agents, or anyone except for helpful and supportive friends — and even if you do that, make them swear up and down, no bli neder involved, you DEMAND the neder, that they won’t say anything critical — until your story is finished, and edited, and you’d feel comfortable having it published exactly the way it looks at this moment.

As a side note, the literary industry is in a perpetual time- and money crunch, and editors and agents are looking more and more frequently to take manuscripts that require the bare minimum of editing. The more you can make it sound like a finished book — the closer it is to a finished book — the more likely they are to take it seriously.

Where did you get the idea for the freak thunderstorm?

Lolita. Which I never wanted to read, because the idea was gross, then needed to read, because Vladmir Nabokov basically taught himself English so he could do his own translations, and is one of the best writers this language has. It’s in the first few pages, and known as the shortest death in literature: “‘My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.”

Friday, February 4, 2022

My new chapbook!

So I wrote a bunch of poems and bound them together, and the collage artist Katie Skau cut up some images for them, and Ghost City Press crumpled the whole dang mess together and threw it into a book so that you can have it for free. Go here to get it.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Write On!: But How Do You Make a Plot?

Hey, welcome back to the writing space. If you have writing questions, send them to me! It’s just my first name at gmail.

First lesson today: Always show up. I wrote 700 words of a different story, decided it was too depressing, decided to stuff it under my bed alongside those clothes that are almost-dirty, but still clean enough to maybe wear again some day. I wasn’t going to write anything. I didn’t have time, didn’t have another idea, was still pretty buried in my old idea. (Maybe you’ll see some traces of it in this one.)

So I dove in. This is a question I’ve been dying to address, but kept getting distracted by things like Aristotle (who is worth his own column) and Joseph Campbell (ditto) and the Torah (um, probably worth more than one column).

How do you develop a plot?

When I enrolled in a master’s program for creative writing, I assumed it would be all about answering this question. Two years, twelve classes, you’d figure that, of the three primary elements of story (plot, setting, characters), this one would happen first, right? WRONGEST.

That’s not to say we didn’t talk about it. But we didn’t talk about it enough. Of all the elements of writing, plot seems to come hardest to most writers I know. Plot is a monster. Characters, we have inspiration for all over the place. We know characters, we breathe characters, most of us are characters, of a sort, from Tom Wolfe’s rock-star white leisure suits to Virginia Woolf’s breathless romance and incomprehensibly sad suicide. And setting — we love settings; we love places; from writer’s nooks to exploring new places to the Narnias and Hundred Acre Woods of our mind.

But plot? Plot’s the nightmare of nightmares. Once you have these kinetic characters, this perfect place, what are they gonna do there?

Here’s why, in my opinion: Plot has to make sense. Not only that, it’s taking all the things that don’t make sense about your story — why does the detective have a limp? what’s in the nanny’s closet? — and it forces them to make sense. It’s the cowboy riding through a field of rebellious teenage cows, trying to wrap a lasso around every last neck. It is the most left-brained part of a right-brained activity, the part that collects all the random stuff we’ve sprinkled throughout a story. And it’s the part most readers nitpick the most about. If you’re a reasonably good storyteller, people will find very little to complain about objectively in terms of your characters — maybe they don’t like them? maybe they did something stupid?

But in terms of plot grievances, you hear it all the time: “That ending sucked!” “I didn’t understand what was going on!” “Those middle 200 pages completely lost me!” And probably for good reason.

EVERYTHING has a plot. Poems have plots. What’s the definition of a story, as opposed to an anecdote or a joke or a drunken/sleepy story (because we all know those aren’t real stories, they don’t make sense, and most of them don’t even get finished being told)? A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The main character starts in one place, physically and mentally and spiritually, and gets the chance to change — they might take it, they might not, but that decision gives a story its story-ness. We want our characters to be bigger than they are.

When Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” she didn’t write about the Lottery in the abstract — she wrote a story of the day it was taking place. She described a typical Lottery that wasn’t typical at all, and the things that were normal taught us what the Lottery was, and the moments that weren’t typical also taught us what the Lottery was. The turning point of that story — the moment you realize who won the Lottery, and what winning the Lottery means — is both completely surprising and completely unsurprising. It makes a horrible sense; it feeds a feeling we’ve had since the first lines of the story.

Plot is driven by character. This is a big one. My professor, Josh Henkin, says that if you really know your protagonist, you’ll never have to stop and think, what happens next? This never actually happens, partly because we aren’t perfect, but also partly because we aren’t really in the character’s head space. We’re creating people. And people always find something to do. They always keep moving.

Plan ahead. Yes, you hate outlining. We all hate this. Outlining robs our story of its soul. When we tell a story naturally, the writer’s head is in the same place that the reader’s is — we’re learning about the characters, we’re diving deeper into the story. And this is good. Sometimes I’ll startle myself by throwing a major surprise into the story as I’m writing it — in Never Mind the Goldbergs, I knew that Moish was secretly filming a movie everywhere he went, but I didn’t know that he would return to Los Angeles and go straight to the movie’s premiere. It made sense within the context of the story (if you haven’t read it, it did! I assure you!), but it wasn’t something I’d prepared for.

Here’s what I do: on the last page of whatever I’m writing (short story, novel, haiku) I keep a running of what I think should happen next. In the scene, in the chapter, in the book. It’s never set in stone, and often changes — as I get closer to a Big Event, I’ll add in new little things that need to happen before and after it, and when something big changes, I feel totally free to change or trash other things.

Basically: keep a map. But remember that your destination will change.

Any time you open a door, make sure you close it. It doesn’t have to be a big deal every time. Sometimes the biggest buildups lead to the smallest payoffs — Netflix series have become experts at this, where 9 episodes’ worth of hints will lead to a really good one-liner between two characters. The important thing is, you close it. Keep track of these things. (An outline, ahem, works wonders.) Not only will they make your story feel more professional, it’ll feel more satisfying, too.

Less is more. This isn’t a plot tool so much as it is a tool for everything you write. I’m hyper. I try to leap from idea to idea, to get as much in as possible. DON’T. One of the best things about writing, and there are a lot, is that you have control of the reader’s mind. When you play a song, you have the reader’s ears. When you make a movie, you control the reader’s eyes and ears. Words are the least and the greatest of all powers: you can tell a story that lasts a moment and make it last an hour of the reader’s life, make them think about the same thing twenty different ways, take them inside the mind of two warring characters.

There are so many ways for this to go wrong. But there are also many, many ways to do it write — and do it different than anybody’s ever done.

Our minds are yours. Now go and do something with them.

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