Wise words…by other people

We live in strange times. It crackles in the air. Every generation in every country probably thinks that their strange times are special. And yet, I feel that had anyone been asked in the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and so on in nearly every decade, they would have said the same exact thing.

When I think about the rise of Hitler and fascism in Germany, the slow tide that became a tidal wave of hatred, those who were first disliked, then unwanted, and finally annihilated mostly watched and waited for the swell to dissipate. Swells generally do. And we all ride the waves of the strange times. What culminated with the Holocaust was a particularly tall and strong wave, which sucked humanity into it and left behind a haunting wake. But waves are a part of life and we usually choose to ride them rather than stand to face them and risk getting tumbled. Of course, people get tumbled anyway.

Okay, enough of that wave metaphor. (My goodness, a whole paragraph!) These meandering thoughts developed out of a brief discussion with my father after reading an op-ed in the New York Times about voter turnout. The sad percentages of young people who, for whatever reason, didn’t vote was disheartening. Perhaps some of them are now joining marches and signing petitions and calling their representatives–too little, too late. Perhaps some of them remain ignorant and indifferent. I don’t mean to be judgmental because many who don’t vote have what they consider to be very valid reasons. But I can’t help but wonder about those who do nothing, who ride the wave without ever saying, “Wait, something isn’t right here” and “What can I do?”

And that conversation, and bit of depression about the current general state of the world we live in, brought to mind Martin Neimöller’s often-cited words, frighteningly pertinent again.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

People are starting to speak up. It’s beautiful to see. But not enough, not yet.

And while I’m on the subject of other people’s wise words, we can go a little further back in time and end with those of Edmund Burke (an Irish political philosopher from the 18th century probably most known for the following quote often bandied about in various contexts):

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Was I really doing anything?

Have you ever spent several hours with your laptop open and your fingers making the keyboard clickety clack only to ask yourself, “Was I really doing anything?”

I haven’t been in a particularly good headspace to think about my creative writing. I look at my novel, this beautiful labor of love, this has-so-much-potential pile of words, and I am not overly inspired. I added a few pertinent lines to the first chapter, inspired by my research. That’s it. That’s all I had in me. I wonder if I should try again in July: start fresh, clear the cobwebs, set new goals. Perhaps I just need a reboot.

And yet, every day I sit down in some seat somewhere and open the laptop and clickety clack away at it, so surely something must be coming from that. And it has. I was looking at the words I’ve written so far – organized based on my outline, to boot – and all of a sudden I have an Introduction section almost completely written.

I’ll still probably ask again soon, “Was I really doing anything?” as the workday draws to a close and I turn to preparing dinner. And although it may not always look like it at first, maybe it’s just a paragraph or a few lines, but slowly and surely the answer is “Yes.”

Misplaced productivity

I have gotten a lot done this week. I went to the park with the pup. I went to CrossFit (and needed hours of recovery after). I went retail therapy shopping. I baked and cooked delicious dinners (see below). I did some “paperwork” tasks for HR. I went to the university library to do some research. I read some research. I wrote one brilliant paragraph and a few so-so ones.

What I didn’t do was edit my novel. (I also didn’t blog.)

But the week is drawing to a close and new goals will be set and strived for, centered on the novel. I like setting small, manageable goals. I like more when I accomplish them.

How do you make sure that when you sit down and open your laptop, you edit your work? There always seem to be other things to do instead. I must have some special form of attention disorder that’s made just for the academic who tries to do research and creative writing. I suppose it just comes down to making it a priority and sticking to it.

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What I do instead of writing: homemade pesto (with toasted almonds and a handful of spinach too), leftover grilled chicken, summer squash in abundance from the farmer’s market, and quinoa/brown rice pasta.


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What I do instead of writing: Strawberry “shortcake” cupcakes. (Take out a little scoop from the vanilla cupcake and fill with diced strawberries. Cover with cream cheese vanilla buttercream frosting. Top with strawberries. Try not to drool.)

It’s a hard knock [writer’s] life

The writing part of being a fiction writer is easy. I don’t say that to brag and I hope I can explain it well enough so that you go, “Yes, that’s it.” [Side note: I find the research part of academic writing to be easy and fun, while the writing part feels more like wrestling an alligator.] When you’re writing your new story, the ideas you’ve had, the characters you’ve envisioned, the plot points you’ve considered, and so on all come spilling out. You think every sentence is better than the one before and sometimes they really are. Here is the story you imagined now given life!

The writing part is fun. At first, you barely even look at a misplaced comma let alone major plot inconsistencies. You’re not thinking about a potential reader, what your audience would like to see or what should happen in order to move the story forward. And any thoughts about what would make your book commercially successful – ha! You’re only interested in giving the story you’ve dreamed about shape. Never mind that that shape will end up being lumpy, ill-formed, and full of holes. Never mind that that shape will end up being hacked apart and refashioned into something else–something readable, enjoyable, and sellable.

The writing part is only the beginning. You’ve got an idea that you think is brilliant. You’ve got the chops to be able to string some beautiful words together. You’ve got the time to devote to creating those 80,000+ words. You’ve written a novel! Throw yourself a brief little celebration – because it’s true, not everyone can do what you’ve just done, although many have – and then take a look at your writing. Really, take a look. Because now the real work begins.

The writing part is certainly not over. You’ve written your end scene, you’ve had your celebratory Scotch and chocolate. But wait! Editing requires a good amount of new writing in addition to all the things you’ll cut. You have to learn to let go of truly well-written pages. You have to figure out what is missing from the whole and how to fix it. You have to be able to write these new little bits so they can be stuck in cohesively with the rest. You might have to change nearly every beautifully strung together word. I was lucky in that a wonderful agent spent a lot of time and effort helping me identify what my novel needed to be complete. Now that I know what needs to be done, I can envision it, and I actually agree with all the changes; I must admit, though, the doing is slow-going.

The writing part isn’t even my favorite part! That’s what I find so chuckle-worthy. I truly love editing. My red pen and I have great affection for one another. I love editing my work and others’. But in the last decade, I have only edited non-creative writing of my own. Editing a novel is a different ballgame altogether. I do it in little bursts, then a scene will stump me [“You’re perfect the way you are, you don’t need fixing!” or “You’re just all wrong and I don’t know how to change that…”] and I’ll go days before I look at the document, minimized at the bottom of my screen. Self-editing is crucial to any good writing. I know. But I really need some tips to keep myself on track in order to get the novel edited and back out into the world. Only 10 pages a day and it would be done in less than a month! It is now time for diligence and goal-setting and perseverance. A writer’s life is very much made up of those things.

Excuses and inspiration

After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to the historians alone. Now comes the hour of artistic creation.”

These words from Israeli Holocaust survivor and prolific author, Aharon Appelfeld, have been inspiring me anew lately. I read them in relation to my academic writing, especially when looking at more contemporary “art” for contemporary audiences. I also read them in relation to my creating writing and my novel, which tells of one potential aftermath of the Holocaust.

Tomorrow I really must squeeze in some more writing time. The weekend did get rather busy (although I did bang out an overly long introduction paragraph to my article, which, when cut down, should be a smashing way to begin it). Monday I’ll be busy again, including a couple of hours at the university library doing research. But research doesn’t count as writing.

Which brings me back around to the Appelfeld quote as inspiration, reminding me that what I do on a daily basis is important; in fact, it is a form of remembrance, however small.

Thinking about writing and editing (plus excerpt!)

I have finally returned to editing my novel. It is isn’t that I didn’t have time the last seven or so months; rather, I wasn’t in a good head space to look critically at my writing or to think creatively. And editing really requires a lot of a writer. Along those lines, I couldn’t really think academically either. I was so mired in my own misery and being made to feel inadequate in one part of my life had permeated the rest of it. Now that that part is gone, the metaphorical weight lifted, I returning to all forms of writing with renewed vigor, albeit slowly so.

Now that I’m thinking about writing again, my mind and fingers are still kind of all over the place, perhaps from being out of practice. For example, I thought about writing an article – of the op-ed variety not academic – about anti-Semitism in America, about being my kind of Jewish, about what it all means today. I even started it. While I haven’t necessarily “written” anything for my newest venture, I have begun the painstaking research process and read half a dozen important articles and found many more. I find the search part of research truly fun. I’m going to the university library next week to look at some books; yes, I’m already looking forward to that evening.

But I really should focus on editing The Beauty Still Left because the agent that was interested in it gave me a lot of good edits and notes and I want to remember them all. Before I send it back or to anyone else, I need to take all of them into consideration. The primary points: More action, more relationship development, and more intrigue/mystery. The best parts take place in the past through flash backs–that does not make a successful story. I’m still trying to figure out how to best make the flashback scenes so they don’t feel like “telling”. I’ve got some great mystery started that needs to be woven throughout. And I think I have started making the brother-sister relationship a little more realistic by making the characters more fleshed out (and also more realistic, less “perfect” and easily liked). All-in-all, given a little time, I can do it. I enjoy a good bit of editing, after all.

Sample of the mystery introduced in the first chapter:

Johann turned his head sharply as the engine roared to life. It was the man from the platform. There was something about the lines of his body, even at this distance, that Johann recognized. He felt the recognition in his bones. And yet it wasn’t possible, not really. Johann shook his head and when he looked again, the ghost had gone. He fixed a smile on his sister, comforted. That man was dead.

And a little later, some more mystery and a little of the brother-sister exploration:

Johann looked around the village as they meandered. But Analiese could tell that it wasn’t at all like someone taking in and admiring a new place, and it was a quaint English village worthy of admiration. Rather, he looked around with a vague air of suspicion. Johann was inspecting it. She couldn’t say what he expected to find, what he feared might jump out at him from inside Reginald’s Butcher Shop or Mrs. Dobson’s tiny haberdashery, but Analiese sensed his wariness. His open, vaguely friendly manner with her was a façade. His eyes darted and his body was coiled tight. It made her jumpy, too.

Not ten seconds later, she knew that he thought he recognized someone. Johann stiffened beside her as a man came out of the pub, stumbling over the small entry step. He relaxed a moment later as the man straightened up and his face became visible in the sunlight. Analiese scrutinized the stranger, judging him slightly for his behavior but seeing nothing suspicious about him. He was slight of stature with dark hair, lank but just shy of greasy, and a yellow cast to his skin. He looked unwell, but harmless. Most likely a drinking problem, she thought with a nose wrinkle. Then Analiese turned the full force of her scrutiny on Johann who was asking her an inane question about the village population.

“Oh, eight hundred or so,” she answered readily. “If you include the farms around.”

Johann looked around as though trying to fit eight hundred people onto the high street and widened his eyes. “Really.”

“Oh yes. You’ll see at the Harvest Festival,” she said. Thinking of the festival chased away any curiosity about her brother’s reaction to the strange man. She looked forward to it every year. There was nothing of fear or sadness to the festival, even during the War. For one day every year, the people got together to pretend their worries didn’t exist at all. Analiese was a great pretender.

“The Harvest Festival?” he asked. Johann often repeated a portion of what she said, inviting her to clarify and expand on it. She always accepted the invitation.

“Food and drink and games. You know,” she said, because weren’t all festivals the same. He looked skeptical, but surely he remembered festivals. “We always make an appearance. It’s fun, I promise,” she assured him. He shook his head in what could be agreement. “Here!” she announced and dragged him under a ridiculous pink awning.

Places and titles

Where I write has taken on new meaning now as I realize there has been no real pattern, perhaps indicative of the way I’ve lived my life, a bit rootless but wanting roots. I’ve written some really awful words in some really amazing places, and some really beautiful words in some really questionable places. I’ve been comfortable, cramped, serene, and sweaty. I’ve written on hands, napkins, conference programs, notepads, Moleskins, typewriters, phones, and laptops. I’ve had my favorite pens explode on me, computers crash on me, had everything stolen except for my notebooks, lost brilliance I will never remember, and retained trash I wish I had lost. I’ve written poems, songs, stories, articles, reviews, and diary entries. My words have gotten me to over 25 countries and back home again, wherever home may be that month. I’ve ignored good company because “I just have to get this down, one sec.” I’ve sat alone on benches, walls, grassy knolls, boats, planes, trains, and automobiles, in restaurants, cafes, churches, cemeteries, concentration camps, museums, parks, and stations. I’ve sat at desks – antique, from IKEA – in hostels and hotels, libraries, universities, and homes. I’ve created some pieces I’ll always cherish and mostly those I’ll soon forget, pieces others will never see meant only for me or those I’ll share with a few or the world, if they’d have me.

I think about these things now, writing from my parents’ back porch with the best pup at my feet. I recline in comfort while my life is poised for change once more. I think about these things because the new material I’m trying to write talks about “place” in Holocaust literature. The working title is “Trains, the journey trope, and cultural tourism: Representations of spatial suffering in Holocaust literature and memorialization.”

One of the texts I am using is Primo Levi’s most well-known work. Levi titled this spectacular piece of non-fiction in Italian, Se quest é un uomo, which translates into English as “If this is a man.” This title asks hard questions of the reader even before entering the narrative. It asks readers to think about the people who the Nazis considered sub-human and introduces Levi’s ethical examination of humanity’s retention in Auschwitz. The story then opens with Levi’s poem, Shema, invoking these questions and the image of the prisoners and the place. American publishers printed Levi’s work under the less challenging title, Survival in Auschwitz, for reasons that will not be assessed here. Some questions remain with the English title, but less harshly so, about how one could survive in such a place; this title blunts the hard questions about the people themselves, about whether or not this prisoner is still a man or the Untermensch the Nazis claimed. Rather, the English translation’s title places the emphasis on the iconic concentration camp, a name sure to grab readers. Levi has written of the site, “Auschwitz: a name without significance for us at that time, but it at least implied some place on this earth.” For Levi, as for his contemporary readers and visitors (more on its reconstruction and preservation later), Auschwitz functions as a concrete symbol of the Holocaust. In this way, the English title emphasizes the changed perception of Auschwitz from the name of a destination, which ended the terrible journey into the unknown for those who would be imprisoned there, to an iconic symbol of the Holocaust for non-experiencers, all while underscoring the importance of place.

There is a lot in there, a sort of rambling mishmash of partially-formed ideas, forcing linguistic and spatial understandings onto a publisher’s choice and moving briefly over the crucial significance of “Auschwitz” as a word, as a symbol. But I have faith that these wandering words will be shaped into an article worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal–after in-depth research and more rounds of editing than I can count.

I beg you/ do something

In my novel, The Beauty Still Left, I wrote that the murdered family members now immortalized in photographs on a wall were saying, “We forgive you our deaths.” It was projected upon the smiling grayscale faces by their loved ones who struggled with survivor’s guilt. This response seemed logical to me as I imagined what it would be like to see those photographs every day, to be reminded of the loss, and to feel irrational guilt about not sharing their fate. But it also seemed equally logical that the lost ones would have attempted to assuage the pain and sense of responsibility; their smiles would repeat those words until they were eventually believed. To love is to forgive, I think. (Ignoring what Love Story told an entire generation about apologies, to err is human.) To love is to forgive.

I did not know at the time I wrote that little scene that I was channeling a great poem and a great poet, “Prayer to the Living, To Forgive them for Being Alive” by Charlotte Delbo. The poem’s last lines:

I beg you
do something
learn a dance step
something to justify your existence
something that gives you the right
to be dressed in your skin in your body hair
learn to walk and to laugh
because it would be too senseless
after all
for so many to have died
while you live
doing nothing with your life