Archive for the ‘Writing and books’ Category

Digging up history for a historical novel

April 21, 2022

How far in the past does a novel need to take place for it to be considered “historical fiction?” That question came up recently in an online writing discussion group that I follow, and the answers were both varied and revealing.

Varied: Some people suggested a fixed amount of time, such as fifty years in the past. Others suggested it simply needs to be distant enough that many readers didn’t experience the era. Still others offered specific criteria: Before cellphones, or before computers, or before the most recent war….

And revealing: For some of us, it was boggling to think that parts of our own lives—the 1960s, the ’70s, maybe even 9/11 ?—might now be shelved with historical fiction. 

Historical fiction… isn’t that Ken Follett writing about medieval cathedrals? Not me shopping for bell bottom jeans as a teenager in Greenwich Village! Am I now as antique as a Gothic cathedral?

Nothing says “historical fiction” like an 1,104-page novel about a cathedral

With the new novel I’m starting, though, there’s no question that it’s historical. It’s set in the 1600s in the Jewish communities of Europe.

And that’s requiring a level of research beyond anything I’ve done before.

My non-fiction book on U.S. girls’ schools certainly required historical research—lots of time in school archives—but nothing from before the early 1800s. All the sources were in English, and the stories took place in a world that was different from mine yet recognizable.

My forthcoming fantasy novel has characters from the deep past, such as pre-colonial Africa and the edges of the Roman Empire, but those are all secondary figures. The main character is from 21st century San Francisco: I’ve walked the streets she walks and eaten the burritos she eats. Though I had to research those other characters, I only needed enough for brief walk-ons—not enough to carry an entire book.

With this new project, I need to know 16th century life in the lands we now call Germany and Italy and Turkey. I need to know how Jews and others dressed, what their homes looked like, what they ate. I need to know how their streets smelled and sounded. I need to know how they got from one place to another.

How a Jewish woman in Istanbul might have dressed in 1574, from “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” (published by Golem Santa Galerisi)

That last question has preoccupied me for several weeks. My character travels from Hamburg to Istanbul. But how? Does she go by land, sea, or some combination? What is her exact route? Would she have ridden in a coach or a wagon, and, if so, what did vehicles from that era look like? What did ships from that era look like? How many passengers on a merchant ship and where did they sleep? How many miles per day would her coach or ship have travelled? How did Jewish voyagers interact with Christians during their travels? And so on. 

Images of ships from a 17th century Haggadah

Yes, it’s fiction. Which means I can make everything up: There is no single right answer. But some answers are more plausible than others. I need to learn enough about travel logistics of that era to make her journey believable and historically accurate.

I don’t want to be like some 25th century writer recreating the year 2022 and saying that the heroine flew from California to Paris in an hour and a half!

The 1600s are what historians consider the “early modern era” of Europe. Because of developments like the printing press, there are more written documents available from this period than from prior centuries. But photography hadn’t yet been invented. Unlike cathedrals and palaces, few “typical” Jewish homes still exist with their 17th century form and furnishings. And while I’ve found some artistic depictions of 17th century ports and cities, they are far less numerous than, say, in the 19th century when every young painter aspired to do a Grand Tour of Europe.

So this is challenging. But it’s also a great treasure hunt. The subterranean stacks of U.C. Berkeley’s main library are one of my favorite places. I’m finding treasures such as Alfred Rubens’s oversized A History of Jewish Costume. (It weighs almost four pounds.) Or a history of coaches and carriages first published in 1877. Or a recent book by a Brown University professor on “the great Jewish refugee crisis of the 17th century.” 

A History of Jewish Costume

I slogged up the stairs from the stacks this week lugging about 15 pounds of books. (Rubens’s tome wasn’t even in that batch!) It felt like physically unearthing past centuries and raising them into the afternoon Bay Area light.

It’s strange to be writing a novel where I will spend a year or more at work before typing a single sentence of story—before I even know my character’s name—but I need to understand the backdrop in order to figure out what happens to her.

Very occasionally I wonder, What did I get myself into? But mostly I’m having a lot of fun.

Book contract!

February 1, 2022

Did you hear the shouts reverberating through your modem?

I have a publisher!

I’ve signed a contract with Hypatia Press to publish my two-book fantasy series, Shaken Loose.  

No, this is not a specifically Jewish book. But it did indirectly grow out of some of the issues we’ve explored together in this blog—such as the contradiction between a supposedly just God and a universe so full of injustice. 

This moment has been a long time coming. I started writing Shaken Loose in 2014, at which point I envisioned a single book. I began querying agents in 2017 with no luck, did several rewrites, realized it needed a sequel, queried more agents with no luck, hired a developmental editor and did more rewrites, gave up on agents, and finally moved on to small presses that allow you to submit without an agent.

Now here we are at the start of 2022, and these books finally have a home. Hypatia Press is a newish small press dedicated to “quality irreligious publishing,” which is a perfect description of Shaken Loose

This is Connecticut. Not my book. Photo: Ilana DeBare

It’s set in a dystopic afterlife—a Hell that includes both truly evil people and anyone from throughout history who was not a baptized Christian. Yep, that would include me. And billions of other folks. Maybe you? It’s more fascinating than grim as the modern, secular Bay Area protagonist encounters 4th century Hun tribesmen and Chinese revolutionaries and Jim Crow-era segregationists and, of course, Satan. 

And viewed today—as opposed to when I started writing back in 2014—it’s a relaxing, almost benign kind of dystopia! There is absolutely nothing in there about Covid or Trump or climate change. 

Maybe this is the start of a new genre: “Escapist dystopia.”  :-) 

The tentative publication date is summer 2023. Now I start a new stage of this process—marketing. I need to create an author web page, solicit promotional blurbs from other writers, develop a social media strategy, maybe start an additional blog that is more focused on fiction than this one. Not as much fun as writing the actual books, but at least I have a long lead time to work on it.

I’ll keep you posted! And at some point, probably early next year, I’d love your help in spreading the word.

Writering

October 26, 2021

The other day I invented a new word for what I was doing­—writering.

Of course it wasn’t really new. With the web, you can almost always find someone else who has already done something similar to whatever you’re doing.

But it was new to me. Coming up with it made me happy. So there! 

Writering refers to all the ancillary work that writers have to do that is NOT writing. That could include book research, updating one’s web site, querying agents or publishers, printing business cards, commenting on a friend’s work-in-progress, or even taking all those scrunched-up photocopy receipts out of one’s wallet and putting them in an “expenses” folder.

I just wrapped up a six-month stint back on the staff of Golden Gate Audubon, doing communications there again. (Which partly accounts for the lack of recent blog posts here.) During those six months, my novel was on hold, which was in fact a welcome and restorative break. I’d been querying literary agents without success—often getting form-letter rejections or no response whatsoever—for a book that has been under construction since mid-2014. Seven years! So it felt wonderful to be working with people who appreciated me, and equally wonderful to have finite projects like newsletters that could be started and finished in a single day.

But now it’s wonderful to get back to the book!

I’m doing some limited re-writing, but even more writering. I’m reviewing my spreadsheets of agents and small presses to figure out whom to query next. I’m researching those agents and presses, to make sure I understand what they’re looking for. I’m educating myself about alternatives such as hybrid publishing and self-publishing. I’m starting historical research for my next novel, which remains an alluring but skeletal concept.

“Did you have a good writing day?” Sam asked the other evening.

“I had a good writering day,” I said.

I like the word writering because it sounds like motoring, with its connotation of forward motion. Revving engines! Speed! Distance! Progress!  (Remember that Mini-Cooper ad campaign from a few years ago with the tag line, “Let’s motor?”)

In the driver’s seat

It’s easy to feel unproductive when I’m not actually adding new pages to a manuscript. There are few things as fulfilling as looking back at the end of a day and seeing that I’ve created two, five, or maybe even ten pages of story out of nothing. It didn’t exist, and now it exists! It’s even better when I re-read those pages and like them. I feel like I’ve earned my evening glass of wine….

A day of mucking around in spreadsheets and query letters doesn’t give that same sense of accomplishment. But hey… it’s not “mucking around,” it’s writering.

As the Mini-Cooper folks would say: Let’s writer!

Lost islands of our lives

June 24, 2019

There are episodes that are cut off from the great river of our lives. These are weeks or months or even years with no connection to our present day. We haven’t returned to these places; we don’t tell stories about the events that took place then; we aren’t in contact — not even ersatz social media contact — with any of the people.

These episodes can feel like dreams. Like ancient cities lost in the jungle. Like islands that were once part of the mainland but then isolated by continental drift — our own personal Galapagos, where time stops and the beaches are pristine and the animals never learn to fear humans.

For me, one of these times is the spring I spent in Santa Fe in 1978.

Downtown-SantaFe

Downtown Santa Fe

I took the semester off from my East Coast college and through some random decisions ended up working as a waitress in a deli/bar on the main square. In retrospect, I was throwing things at the wall to see what might stick. Imagining myself as a writer, wanting to experience America beyond Manhattan and Cambridge, creating a life from scratch among utter strangers. I stayed for a while in a Jesus freak commune and met Vietnam vets and fended off harassing bar patrons and had a crush on a soulful-eyed, beautiful Latino construction worker who barely noticed me and drank a lot of peppermint schnapps and then one night died in a car crash on one of New Mexico’s winding mountain roads.

When spring ended, I returned to Cambridge and college. I’ve never been back to Santa Fe. I don’t remember – perhaps never knew? — the last names of any of the people I met there.

It became a Galapagos island. It stood apart; my history moved forward elsewhere. As decades passed, I thought about those months less often.

But among the encounters I had that spring was one with a marginal and short-lived literary magazine called Read Street, after one of the streets in Santa Fe. It was started by an unlikely character – a loud, crass, heavily-accented New York man who wore tinted aviator sunglasses in that late-70s “on the make” style. He was someone you’d expect to find managing an L.A. rock band, not running a little literary magazine. I think I had a short story published in it. I think he tried to pursue me and so I backed away from the magazine.

There’s nothing else I remember about that particular aspect of my Santa Fe time… except for a poem published in the magazine that stuck with me through all these decades. I had attended an event where the poet, a Native American woman, read it aloud: I was struck by her long, dark hair, her gleaming talent, and her age,  just a few years older than me.

The phrase I remembered from her poem was “cuchillo moon.”

Her name, which I have also remembered all these years, was Joy Harjo.

Last week she was declared the Poet Laureate of the United States.

And so the modern scientific research vessel – or is it a touristic cruise ship? – pulls up to my Galapagos island.  Private, dreamlike memories are abruptly anchored to  2019 news headlines. I’m not sure if something has been lost or something gained.

But… congratulations, Joy Harjo! So well deserved.

And here is that poem, which I was able to track down, thanks to Our Friend the Internet. (It’s from her 1983 collection, She Had Some Horses. Unfortunately, the blog template doesn’t allow me to reproduce the exact formatting.)

Cuchillo

By Joy Harjo

cuchillo
sky
is blood filling up my belly

cuchillo
moon
is a white horse thundering down
over the edge
of a raw red cliff

cuchillo
heart
is the one who leaves me
at midnight
for another lover

cuchillo
dog
is the noise of chains and collar
straining at the neck to bite
the smell of my ankles

cuchillo
silver
is the shell of black sky
spinning around inside
my darker eyes

cuchillo
dreams
are the living bones that want out
of this voice dangling
that calls itself
knife
(cuchillo).

Canon of Thrones

April 4, 2019

If George R.R. Martin rewrote the classics of English literature a la Game of Thrones…

Pride and Prejudice and Dragons

Illustration by Rebecca Schuchat

Pride and Prejudice

Elizabeth Bennett is engaged to Fitzwilliam Darcy, but Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh disapproves and hires mercenaries from the Golden Company to slaughter the entire engagement party. Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas vows revenge, travels across the sea to apprentice with a cult of assassins, and decapitates Lady Catherine with a garden rake.

Mrs. Dalloway

Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party, and her daughter’s tutor, a religious enthusiast, tells her the party will fail unless she sacrifices her daughter to the Lord of Light in a ritual bonfire. The daughter is burned at the stake in Regent’s Park but white walkers nonetheless descend upon the party, eat all the canapés, and then eat the guests. The party is not a success.

The Great Gatsby

Daisy and Gatsby, brother and sister, are happily committing incest when Daisy’s power-hungry father forces her to wed Tom. Tom is in love with Myrtle and launches an armed insurgency to defend Myrtle’s honor from Rhaegon, even though Myrtle is secretly married to Rhaegon. Myrtle and Rhaegon die but first have a secret son who ends up sleeping with Rhaegon’s baby sister. Yep, just another wild Roaring 20s party at West Egg.

Beloved

Sethe and her family are freed from slavery by Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons. But Sethe’s daughter Beloved is chopped into tiny bits by vengeful Sons of the Harpy and becomes a ghost. Sethe falls in love with Grey Worm, a eunuch who is the only other dark-skinned character in the entire universe. Together they feed the Sons of the Harpy to very large and hungry dogs.

On the Road

Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty travel across the country for kicks. On the way, they each lose a leg, an eye, an arm, and their manly parts. They eat rats. They sleep in mud. They get buboes. When they finish their journey, Sal publishes a best-selling epic poem about it, “The ’47 Cadillac of Castermere.” Dean poisons him. He dies.

To Kill A Mockingbird

When white lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of rape, his daughter Scout is ostracized and attacked. Mysterious neighbor Boo Radley summons dragons to rescue her and they incinerate Maycomb, Alabama. Everyone dies.

Catcher in the Rye

Holden Caulfield is expelled from the Night’s Watch and wanders around north of the wall with his direwolf, expressing disgust with the hypocrisy of feudal society. His sister Phoebe follows a one-eyed raven to find him, but they are ambushed by white walkers. Everyone dies.

Of Mine and Men and Dragons

Illustration by Rebecca Schuchat

Of Mice and Men

Lenny pets the puppy. It’s actually a dragon. Everyone dies.

The Road

A father and son travel through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. Reaching the sea, they find a fleet of tall ships heading to Westeros. The father turns out to be an ace swordsman. The son discovers a hidden talent for baiting bears. They sail away, help Daenerys Stormborn win the throne, and marry princesses. Nobody dies.

Revision superpowers

February 20, 2019

When I was a kid, I read a lot of DC superhero comics – Superman leaping tall buildings with a single bound, Batman with his masked identity, The Flash with his superhuman speed, Wonder Woman with her Amazon strength and magical accessories.

I’m currently revising a set of two novels. Revision is the least fun part of writing for me. Basically, I hate it. So sometimes I wish I had a set of Revision Superpowers:

X-ray vision

Even when we know something is a rough draft, the words assume a stubborn permanence once they’re on paper. How do we view our manuscripts with the critical insight of an outside observer? How do we get beyond what is, to what could be? X-ray vision would let us see through the black ink on the page to the better novel hidden within – to find fresher and more precise language, tighter plot lines, and undeveloped themes.

Superman-Look_Up_in_the_Sky

By Alex Ross/ DC Comics

Flight

Flying would let us hover at 10,000 feet and see our manuscript as a whole – its structure, flow, and themes. The cliché is that we get stuck “in the weeds,” but it’s less like being in ankle-high weeds than being in a 10-foot-high cornfield. You spend days tinkering with a handful of words on a single page when you should be reshaping the work as a whole. It’s hard to hold 300 to 400 pages in your field of vision from ground level. Up, up, and away!

Laser beams

I don’t care if they shoot out of my fingertips or if I have to pull a weapon out of my utility belt. But I’d like a super-sharp beam to slice away clichés and unnecessary, qualifying language. Burn away all those instances of “suddenly” and “somewhat” and “seemed to.”

Super hearing

Does the dialogue work? Does the writing flow smoothly? Reading passages out loud can help assess that, and you don’t need super hearing to do it.

Flash

Speed

When I recently needed to rename a character, I realized we have one kind of super-speed already: It’s called Search and Replace. But in a larger sense, I wish we could tear through the overall revision process like The Flash, making it a matter of weeks rather than months or years. We can’t. It sucks. Live with it.

Sidekicks

Robin saved the day when Batman was trapped. His butler Alfred made sure he had a hot meal after a bout of crimefighting. Turn to beta readers for help when you need a new perspective on your manuscript. And have an Alfred or two in your life who can nourish you and cheer you on.

ww1

Magic bracelets

Superheroes don’t hide in bunkers. You’ve got to be open to criticism of your work, even if it feels like incoming missiles. But self-doubt and self-loathing aren’t helpful. Wonder Woman used her magic bracelets to deflect gunfire; we need them to deflect those internal bullets that scream,“You’re a miserable failure, you’ll never be any good at this, go back to writing Facebook posts about your cat.”

Secret identity

Mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent didn’t have the strength to lift mountains. But in his Superman alter ego, he did it all the time. Much of the work of revision seems impossible – eliminating big chunks of plot, replacing characters, even reconsidering the basic premise of your story. When you feel daunted and powerless against the heavy lifting of revision, it’s time to assume the secret identity that allows you to Do Anything. Put on the lycra tights and flowing cape – cue the trumpets or drums – it’s Super Revision Writer!


What else? Are there other Revision Superpowers you wish you had? Or that you already possess and are putting to good use? Tell us about the secret gadgets and vehicles in your Revision Batcave.

 

Justice_League

Protecting your manuscript from the forces of evil

 

The empty nest re-fills and re-empties

February 4, 2019

The nest is empty. Again.

My daughter moved back home from New York last September, about two years after graduating college. It was a temporary although open-ended move: She wanted to live rent-free while applying for artist residencies in Germany.

I had trepidations. I write at home and rely on an empty house free of distractions. Since leaving my job last January, I’d chugged along with the first draft of my novel as steadily as a railway worker laying track. I was worried that having her around would mess that up.

But home she came. And mostly – 90 percent – it was great.

Empty birds nest

This was the first time she’d lived with us for an extended period since high school. And delightfully she was no longer a high school student! None of the surly, oppositional stance of a teenager. She was funny, talkative, interested in doing stuff with us, and good about keeping the kitchen clean and confining her mess to her own room. She cooked (excellent) dinners. She made progress on the work goals she’d set for herself – the residency applications, creating a portfolio web site, doing her creative projects etc.

BUT.

We were both working at home. All day, every day. This was more time than we have spent in each other’s presence since her first year of life, when I was on maternity leave and she hadn’t yet started day care!

My preferred routine is to get up early, go to the gym around 7 a.m., and be on my computer by 9 or 9:30. Meanwhile she’d be in bed with the cat until 11:30. It drove me nuts. Was she working? Was she watching YouTube videos? Everything she did seemed to take much longer than it would take me. I flailed around in the swamp between Trust and Verify. I tried not to constantly ask, “SO? What are you working on? Have you finished your ______?” but I did end up asking that a lot, which probably drove her nuts too.

There were pleasant distractions as well as irritating ones. She’d ask me to accompany her shopping, and of course I’d say yes. She’d want to go to the gym mid-day and I’d do that with her, even though it broke up my writing momentum. I don’t regret those interruptions – she’s only here for a short while, enjoy the time with her– but it meant I often felt less productive than I like.

There’s a kind of a worry sub-routine that runs under the other programs of my brain when she’s living with us. I suspect this is true for many parents, particularly mothers: It’s 11 p.m., is she still out with her friends? Did she write that thank-you note to her great-aunt yet? Has she made a dentist appointment?

When she was living 3,000 miles away, that sub-routine shut off. I didn’t know or care where she was at 11 p.m. I assumed she would manage her life, and she did. But then she moved home, and the sub-routine kicked back in. Unnecessary, vestigial, irrational, but there it was — stressful and distracting for me, and annoying for her.

Spending so much time around each other reminded me of when she was an infant.  We’d be home together all day, skin against skin, nursing and fussing and nursing and fussing, and sometimes by 5 p.m. I felt like we couldn’t stand to touch each other any more. Thankfully that was when Sam would show up, fresh and calm, and I could hand her off.

In any event, when she was accepted into a three-month residency program in Berlin, I was thrilled. It’s a great opportunity for her, it will allow me to reenter my lovely hermitlike work mode, and it will also give us some distance from each other. Good for everyone! By last week, I was eagerly counting the days until her flight and looking forward to having time alone with Sam again.

But then in the past few days, I started to feel separation anxiety. Was she packing everything she’ll need? Does she know what to do if someone follows her in the street? Does she have dental floss? I wanted to hover but she wanted to be left alone. I felt rejected and jagged and weepy.

Just like when we dropped her off at college six and a half years ago.

Today I dropped her at the International Terminal of SFO. Which meant it was time to:

Get all this off my chest.

Turn the sub-routine off.

Get back to work!

Trust yourself as an artist

February 27, 2018

I’ve returned to the writing life!

After six years working for Golden Gate Audubon Society, I returned to full-time work on a novel on January 1st. After a three-week family trip in January and early February, I truly settled down to full-time writing about two weeks ago.

Now – without bird-related blog posts, newsletters, and social media to write for Audubon – I have the time and drive to resume my own blog posts. My apologies for the long absence, and I hope you are still with me!

Let’s start with a few thoughts on trusting oneself as an artist.

This is a more complex novel than I’ve tried before – speculative fiction set in a world that I am creating, inhabited by characters from varied regions and time periods on Earth. I already have a draft of one volume that needs some significant revisions, and am working on a second volume that will follow up some of the loose ends from volume one.

One challenge is that, sitting down to work, I feel pulled in multiple directions:

  • Go back to revise volume 1, or lay new track in volume 2?
  • Finish mapping out the “grand scheme” of the plot and the cosmology of this imagined universe, or take it chapter by chapter?
  • Flesh out my secondary characters or focus on my main character?
  • If I work on the secondary characters, should I start with the 1920s Chinese communist, the 11th century Damascus merchant, the 4th century Hun, or the 21st century Brooklyn grandmother?
  • Or should I work on sections about my fun, non-human “magical creatures?”
  • Research? Or write?

I need to do all these things eventually; the question is where to begin and what to do on any given day.

My first reaction to the incredible privilege of writing full-time was – of course – despair. “This is overwhelming.” “I can’t do this.” “I don’t have the skills or knowledge or abilities.” And so on.

I dealt with that by shifting into familiar, comfortable research mode. Off to the wonderful underground stacks of the Doe Library at U.C. Berkeley, one of my “happy places.” I love the sleek spaciousness of this newish facility, and how the bookshelves move frictionlessly, magically, on tracks when you turn a giant handle. I love how as a UCB alumna I can check out up to 20 books at a time from one of the best research libraries in the world.

Gardner stacks

Rotunda in the underground Gardner stacks at Doe Library

But most of all I love how visiting the library transforms the quest for information from an intellectual journey into a physical journey.

Rather than a serious of Google clicks, I descend staircases and wander through aisles of bookshelves. It’s like a treasure hunt. I start with my list of target books. When I reach the book I’m seeking, there are often related books adjacent to it that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I reemerge into the sunlit outdoor world with arms full of books – more than I can comfortably carry – and feel triumph at my “haul.”

It’s so much more tangible than online research! And it provides the fulfilling sense of having accomplished something.

Even if that accomplishment is illusory – often the books don’t provide the information I need – it’s still a good way to generate momentum and confidence.

So I started with research. I now know a lot more about communists in 1920s Shanghai than I did two weeks ago. (For whatever that’s worth.) Then it was on to 11th century Damascus. Read books, take notes, think about my characters.

This morning I felt like it was time to write. Something had quietly shifted inside me – from “I don’t know enough about this character to write him,” to “I want to start writing him.” It wasn’t a deliberative decision, just a shift in what felt possible or even necessary.

So that’s where the trust comes in. I opted to follow that feeling and start writing one of the characters, even though I’m still waiting to get another book or two about his era. And in order to write him, I decided to start a chapter or two before he comes on stage. That meant focusing on a different character who is there when he arrives.

It wasn’t a rational process. But it felt right, and I got about 1,000 words down. It was a starting point, past the “I can’t do this” hurdle, and now I can just keep going.

So: Listen to that quiet inner voice that tells you, as a creator, what you need to do next!

Even if it is a little bit out of order and not part of a rational “battle plan.”

The end is near (of the novel, not the world)

June 30, 2015

I’ve been working on the first draft of a new novel for slightly more than a year. Progress has been in small steps punctuated by constant breaks: My halftime job at Golden Gate Audubon gives me the rest of the week to write, but the paying work often creeps over into the unpaid work and then there are all the other interruptions of family, holidays, life.

This week, though, I’ve reached the last chapter.

Audubon work was relatively contained in June so I got on a roll. I saw the end of the book ahead of me, a long straightaway after winding through mountains. I was writing a lot! I became unusually spacey, caught up in imagined conversations between my characters while driving or taking my spin class or buying groceries. I was so distracted that I locked my keys in the car at the gym last week.

locked-out

Evil zombie woman looks at her inaccessible car keys

Then Sam went backpacking for the past five days, so I had my own private writers’ retreat here at home – nothing to do but write, go to the gym, and heat up canned soup.

Yesterday I was exhilarated to reach this point. To get the whole darn thing down! To have a narrative that goes from point A to point B! To write  down on paper all the ending episodes that I’d had in my brain for months!

I had to restrain myself from posting jubilant cheers on Facebook. Huzzah huzzah huzzah! Champagne for everyone! Wait, I told myself, until you are actually done.

Today I got even closer. I started what will be the last chapter.

And now I don’t feel exhilarated at all. Quite the opposite.

I’m sad because something very sad is happening to my main characters. I’m anxious because once the first draft is done, I need to put on my critical hat and look at all the things that suck with the manuscript and make it better. I’m worried because I’m not going to have a chance to finish the draft until this weekend, when Sam will be out of town again and the post-draft letdown will really hit and I will be by myself and I will feel REALLY AWFUL.

For me, one of the necessary tasks in writing a first draft is to suspend all critical voices. Like many writers, and I suspect particularly women writers, I have a very persistent internal critic that is happy to point out every way in which my work is hackneyed, melodramatic, overwritten, predictable, boring, cliched, shallow etc. Over the years, I have gotten very good at shutting the valve on my critic while I plow through a first draft.

But then the first draft is done, and it’s time to edit and revise. I need to be critical. But there’s no halfway setting for my critic valve.

Once released, the critic blasts out with the power of a New York City fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and I’m flooded with self-loathing:

NYC hydrant, 1969

NYC hydrant, 1969

This book sucks! I can’t write decent dialogue! I’m no Virginia Woolf! I’m no Tom Wolfe! I’m not even Wolf Blitzer! This book should be flushed down the toilet before anyone can laugh at its incompetence, which is only exceeded by its hubris!

I’m worried that’s what happens next. With Sam out of town. So…

To-do list for the weekend:

Trip to Ace Hardware. Look for a Critic Wrench that can open the valve part way. A little bit at a time. Drip by drip, revision by revision.

But first, finish the book.

And second, open that champagne. Even if I’ve forgotten that I earned it.

The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Tired?”

“No.”

“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.