CNF Conversations: An Interview With David Lazar

David LazarI’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include the just published I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms from the University of Nebraska Press, Who’s Afraid of Helen of TroyAfter MontaigneOccasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in NonfictionEssaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviewsand Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Eight of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. Lazar received the first PhD in the United States in nonfiction writing, in 1989. He then created the PhD program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its seventeenth year, and series editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State University Press.

About I’ll Be Your Mirror: In his third book of essays, David Lazar blends personal meditations on sex and death with considerations of popular music and coping with anxiety through singing, bowling, and other distractions. He sets his work apart as both in the essay and of the essay by throwing himself into the form’s past—interviewing or speaking to past masters and turning over rocks to find lost gems of the essay form.

I’ll Be Your Mirror further expands the dimensions of contemporary nonfiction writing by concluding with a series of aphorisms. Surreal, comical, and urban moments of being, they are part Cioran, part Kafka, and part Lenny Bruce. These are accompanied by Heather Frise’s illustrations, whose looking-glass visions of motherhood—funny and grotesque—meet the vision of the aphorist in this most unusual nonfiction book.

Julija Šukys: David, congratulations on your new book. It’s a finely wrought collection of formally diverse texts. In it we find longish, textured, memory-based personal essays (like “When I’m Awfully Low”), interviews both real and imagined, as well as fragmented and poetic hybrids. Themes the reader encounters include musical theater, bowling, sex, gender conformity, and nonconformity. Certain figures return again and again: your lover who committed suicide, your mother, and your son. The tone of the collection is both melancholy (“Ann: Death and the Maiden”) and kind of punchy, as in your conversation with Mary Cappello. For me, that conversation was a highlight of the book. I immensely enjoyed your disagreements with Mary about digressions and whether the term is a productive one for the essayist, your comparing of notes, and your challenging of one another’s ideas of what makes and what should make or unmake our nonfiction literary canon.

You produce three conversations here: two imagined (with Michel de Montaigne and Robert Burton) and one real (the one with Mary Cappello). I’ve always loved the interview as a form and have long thought of the essay as a conversation with a reader. Can you talk about the place of the interview or conversation in your work as an essayist?

David Lazar: What better place to talk about the interview than in an interview, Julija! Thank you! I first became formally interested in the interview about twenty-five years ago when I was doing long interviews with M.F.K. Fisher and gathering the historical interview selections that became the basis of Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. I noticed immediately in the historical interviews how manifold the forms of published interviews were: some were formal, others informal; some were interviews broken up and interspersed into feature articles. Some interviews effaced the questioner, while others were obviously more dialogic. And when I began my own conversations with Fisher, what began as formal calls and responses, devolved delightfully into digressive (that word!) interplays, with certain questions recurring and receding, our senses of each other emerging as we circled each other, sometimes warily, sometimes fondly. I remember amusedly an editor writing to tell me that Fisher was a well-known essayist and I was not, so clearly the reader wouldn’t be interested in hearing so much of me. In addition to finding the response boorish, I thought it wrong. But in any case, that started me thinking of the interview as another cognate of the essay, both in the way one voice, the interrogated, can wander through, around, and back to certain ideas in essayistic ways, but also, again, dialogically, in the play of two voices. Solo, or duo, it’s still explorations of voice.

As I write in the MFK Fisher book, if I may be permitted to quote myself:

Etymologically, interview derives from ‘entrevue,’ a form of entrevoir, to have a glimpse of, as well as “s’entrevoir,” to see each other. We can see early, unnamed versions of the interview in the Socratic dialogues, the conversations of Satan with God in the first chapters of Job, the imaginary interview of Margery Kemp, but in its semantic infancy, the interview referred to a metting of great moment, between great personages, prince to prince, king to king, a ceremonial occasiona, before it degreaded to person to person. By 1626, Bacon can say, in New Atlantis, that is has been “ordained that none doe intermarry, or contract, until on Moneth be past from their first inter-view” . . . . The seminal Q & A:

Johnson: Why do you write down my sayings?

Boswell: I write them down when they are good.

My interview with Mary Cappello was a delight for me because I trust her so completely as both a writer and a friend. I don’t think there are many nonfiction writers working at her level right now. Plus I know I can be as silly or serious as I want or need to be in the moment with her. It’s extraordinarily liberating. Ultimately, we both hoped, as I hope here, that our sayings were good.

The imaginary interviews (which are harder than they might look!) are great fun and also serve a purpose: to engage in a living dialogue with writers who can still speak vividly, as though sitting at the table, though long gone. Burton, a favorite of mine, and the interview with Montaigne that Pat Madden and I performed, are ways of saying, “Hey, this guy can still carry a conversation.” Finding questions and responses that are spirited takes a lot of re-reading and choreography, but I enjoy it.

You’re the founding editor of Hotel Amerika, a journal that declares: “Work with a quirky, unconventional edge—either in form or content—is often favored by our editors.” In founding the journal, you created a context for the kind of work you love, respect, and produce (or, at least that’s what I surmise). I imagine this decision grew in part out of the experience of placing your first book, The Body of Brooklyn for publication. In the essay “Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror” you write that it took ten years for the book to find a press and describe it as follows:

My essays were all different kinds of juggling acts, with different forms and excessive digressions, photographs, vaudeville versions of the self. [. . .] It was some kind of Hydra – but think of those heads from 1963 as more like obscure objects of my own desire to construct an essay persona.” (103)

To what extent does this description of your past work still hold true of what you write today? How true is it of “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” for example?

Let’s see: about Hotel Amerika—creating the journal itself was actually quite separate from my own work. I had been the Associate Editor of Ohio Review for years at Ohio University. When that folded (long story) I was asked by the university to create a new journal. It may seem unthinkable now, but I said I would with certain terms. They were these: that I be given complete editorial control and independence; that I be given a paid managing editor; that I have a budget that allowed me to pay at least nominally for work; and that I be given a course reduction equivalent to that of the past editor of the Ohio Review. They said yes! Boy, talk about paradise lost. In creating the magazine it was important to me to put out a magazine that looked lovely, was photographic in its covers, was pleasant to hold, and was a place where one would find work that both respected generic conventions, especially in the essay, and completed denied, which led to our TransGenre issue, and our use of the transgenre category for ever issue. We wanted to have issues that, yes, and here is the connection to my work, had a lot of different stuff going on—images, and fractured essays, prose poetry and literary criticism, translations, etc. Behind it all we tended to value work with a playful ear and a playful sensibility that still was willing to embrace the most serious questions. And you’ll probably find the figure of the flâneur and the flâneuse in more of our works than most magazines. So, yes, you’re quite right, there’s a connection to my work. But I’ve always felt that an interesting magazine has to have a sensibility (part of me is unregenerate Jamesian, and the word sensibility rings importantly) and that sensibility comes from editors steering the magazine’s vision over time.

About I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, yes, I think it, too, covers all kinds of ground in terms of different kinds of essay, and then the poetic aphorisms in the back. The aphorisms were actually a separate book, and it was Alicia Christiansen, my editor at Nebraska, who so cleverly suggested merging the two. I loved the idea. So the book is a two-fer! But I think it works together because the connection between the voice of the aphorisms and the voice of the essays is so clear. And because I think the aphorism is such an important part of the essay. I talk to my students about the aphorism and have them write them all the time. And I did a special issue on the aphorism in Hotel Amerika some years ago. So there go—it’s full circle. That issue actually started my own writing of aphorisms. And I posted each of them on Twitter, for about a year and a half. Twitter is only really interesting as an aphorism space.

To answer your question directly: that description of my essay writing still holds true. My essay voice is very performative and quirky, and the vaudeville description is apt. I’d like to think it’s a kind of Beckettian vaudeville, though: as Winnie says, in Happy Days, “sorrow keeps breaks in. . . . “

Can you tell me a little about how form works for you? And about the decision (if it was a conscious decision) to bring these different essay shapes together into the same text?

I almost never lead with form—it’s not the way my mind works. I start with whatever I’m thinking about and see what kind of trouble I can get into. Before you try to find a way understand what it is you’re trying to defuse, I think it helps to toss in as many monkey wrenches as possible, write the most complicated version of your dilemma, your set of ideas, your confessional conundrum, whatever version of essaying you’re doing. After those feverish early drafts, that’s when form kicks in for me, as a way of creating order, cutting extraneous material, finding the heart of matter. I let the material suggest form sometimes, as in, “oh, there are really two voices working here, so why not write it in two voices.” Or, how could these ideas sit with each other if I pushed them towards each other without overt transitions. Sometimes forms take wilder shape, the sequence of self-deconstructive photo prose poems in Body of Brooklyn, for example, where I wanted to comment on the nature of self-commentary itself. But form is functional, and I never say, for example, “I think I’ll write a braided essay,” or some such thing, and I teach that way, too. I don’t even like the term, “braided essay,” for that matter. Isn’t one just alternating parallel subjects. Must it have a poeticized name? I fear I’m sounding cranky.

Not cranky! In fact, you’ve introduced my next question. Let’s talk about the essay, its past and its present. You describe in “Hydra” how you switched paths from poetry to essay, “which at the time felt like changing sports, rather than leagues” (103). Ultimately, you earned the first PhD in nonfiction writing “as though I were some kind of generic freedom writer” (103) (I love that), and for this reason in addition to many others, you are perhaps better placed than most to take a long view, both forward and back, of the essay as form.

Of the eternal problem of what to call this thing we write, you offer: “Nonfiction is in many ways a non-genre, the un-genre” (103). Its defining characteristic appears to be hybridity: “To an extent almost all nonfiction offers some form of hybridity, biographies straying into history, essays digressing into informational riffs, autobiographies becoming necessarily biographical, etc.” (104). You appear to be arguing for a more expansive understanding of the essay. No more personal vs. classical vs. spiritual vs. lyric essay. Let’s be done with the braided and fractured and meditative essay. Rather than looking for new genres (I think I hear you say), let’s expand our sense of the essay, our beloved form and genre that continues to morph into shapes that surprise us. Have I understood your position? Is there something here you want to push back on or dig into? I’d love to hear/witness you riff on all of this.

Well, Julija, you did indeed anticipate the answer I gave above! Yes, at times I feel I’m misunderstood as an essay classicist (which is funny to me considering how experimental some of my work has been and much of the work I’ve published) because I’ve tended to emphasize a few points, fairly basic that are rather important to me: the history of the essay is extraordinarily delightful and various, and I can’t imagine why someone would make it their vocation without exploring that rich field. Especially mining the writers who were early and formative practitioners. And all essays represent a desire: to explore, to confess, to untangle, to express, and to interrogate the nature of that desire. The formal distinctions you mention are, yes, like carpenter’s tools. The important thing to remember is that we’re talking about a house with many rooms, and that house is the essay. However, neither white space, nor reverse chronology, nor braids can build that house. Only desire can. One can call it whatever one wants, but I like the simplicity of: essay.

You subtitled this book “Essays & Aphorisms.” Which of these texts are essays and which are aphorisms? What’s the difference? Can an aphorism be an essay, or vice versa?

I think of an aphorism as a short, self-enclosed form, usually one line, pithy, witty. But as with the prose poem, there are variations. Some are philosophical, some are arch. Some urbane, others lyrical. Some aphorisms are political, direct, whereas others are closer to one line poems. But aphorisms, as the special issue I did for Hotel Amerika showed, come in more forms that I thought. What do we call the two or three sentence aphorism? The string of related aphorisms? Well, we might sometimes call it a short essay, or a prose poem, or . . . a string of related aphorisms. We don’t really have answers for some of these questions, which makes writing them fun. I think that’s true, at least for me, for the essay as well. Every essay I write is just an essay. It’s not a lyrical essay or mosaic essay or segmented essay, although one might (or might not) use these words to describe it. I see some of the new formal categories as limiting, rather than liberating. So I like to see where different forms or subgenres intersect and talk about it: hey, that’s something like a short essay or maybe a densely aphoristic paragraph or, or, or.

But aphorisms are central to the essay, and I can’t imagine the essay without the aphorism. Think of the essays you love, and immediately aphorisms come to mind as the dramatic moments of thought in those works.

I read this book out of order in part because I couldn’t resist skipping ahead to the last piece (an aphorism, a series of aphorisms), “Mothers, Etc.” I read it late one night in bed. I couldn’t help myself. Tell me how this gorgeous collaboration with illustrator Heather Frise came about, both practically speaking and artistically-philosophically.

I’m absolutely delighted that you skipped around. And particularly to the aphorisms section and Heather Frise’s work, which I think is so extraordinary. The Mothers section of the aphorisms popped up as an idea when Heather and I went to the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago some years ago. When we came out, we saw a huge neo sign that just said, “Mothers,” by Martin Creed. We both thought it was wonderful and immediately decided to collaborate on some kind of piece about mothers. I had seen many of Heather’s drawings and thought they were just fantastic: grotesque and beautiful, disturbing alternative worlds. They were . . . fierce. I had been writing aphorisms, many of which were a bit strange, and thought this would be a good match, so I asked Heather to just start sending me pictures and I started sending her aphorisms, and we mixed and matched. I go back to those pictures all the time. They’re my favorite part of the book.

On the “Mothers, Etc.” front: I’m interested to hear how you think about line breaks and white space. How do you know if a text needs a visual vocabulary as well as a linguistic one?

That’s a wonderful question. I felt I need to create some kind of thematic, but asymmetrical pacing that made the reading of the aphorisms pleasurable and meaningful. The thing about reading aphorisms is that, hopefully, they make you think, they stop you for a while. So, at very least, I wanted some space to give the reader a way to keep reading, to think, white space as cogitation. It’s miraculous to me that Nebraska, again, Alicia Christenson, completely understood this. To have simply listed aphorism after aphorism, fifteen on the page, would have exhausted and bored the reader. As for where I created the breaks, how large they were, how many on a page—part of this was through creating thought groupings, and part of it was intuitive, and favoring, on occasion, ones I wanted to give more emphasis to.

Tell me about where you come down on the term lyric essay. I get the sense that you reject it because all essays, one way or another, are lyric (are they? ugh…I can’t tell anymore). Anyway, this term has rooted itself our CNF/essay reading and teaching culture so firmly. It’s become shorthand for a certain kind of text: the fragmented, the poetic, the enigmatic. Do you think the term lyric essay has earned its place? Have you made peace with it? Or should we just say essay and leave it at that?

To extend a bit, I tend, yes, to favor essay because essays have always been lyrical, and essays have always been enigmatic, poetic, fragmented. There’s a difference between the adjectival—that essay is lyrical, and the noun form, that’s a lyric essay, which isn’t that useful to me. Many works that are called lyrical essays don’t seem to me to think or move like essays at all. Perhaps we should call them prose poems, or . . . strings of aphorisms. Or something else entirely.

How has the landscape for essayists changed since you published that first Hydra collection, The Body of Brooklyn? Do you feel hopeful about the essayistic literary context and community? Are we indeed in a golden moment for nonfiction and the essay in particular?

Oh, dear, it’s so much better now. The standard line when I was trying to publish Body of Brooklyn was that essay books were verboten. Even when I did finally get it taken by Iowa, they tagged it as memoir on the back! And you couldn’t even think of using “essay” in your title. I can’t tell you how it’s delighted me that Nebraska, to its everlasting credit, has included “essays” in the subtitles of my last two books. Of course there were some essays books being published. People like Hoagland, Didion, Baldwin, Epstein, Fisher, but many of these writers came to publishing books of essays through other genres or disciplines, and there were almost no younger essayists around until Phillip Lopate and Richard Rodriguez and a few others broke through.

Are we in a golden age? I’d rather tone it down to a vibrant age. I think there is a lot of interesting experimental writing going on, a lot of hybrid stuff, and as is the case with anything, much of it is not very interesting, and some of it is wonderful. I think in terms of the essay proper, I’m able to find some very fine practitioners out there, some of whom Pat Madden and I are lucky to be able to publish in our book series, 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State. Kristen Rowley, the editor in chief at Ohio State, who moved over after created the wonderful nonfiction list at Nebraska, has just been a great advocate for literary nonfiction. I’m giving her my golden Oz medal for meritorious service. But I while I think there are some very fine essayists out there now, I don’t there are many great ones, at least that I see in the US. And you need great practitioners for a golden age. What I’d like to see more of in younger essayists, before they start hybridizing the form, is seeing how far they can drive on gasoline. Since we’re talking about words, the environment can take it.

But there’s excitement about nonfiction writing, and that’s a good thing.

Thank you, David! I’m so happy to have had this conversation.

Thank you, Julija for your superb questions. I can’t imagine a better probing questioner.

Buy I’ll Be Your Mirror here. 

[Photographs courtesy of David Lazar]

 

Share

Post-Publication Projects: On Returning to Small Forms

Different sizes by Funchye

I’m leading a writer’s workshop on the personal essay in the fall. I’m happy about it, because the essay is a form I love.

I tend to write essays at the beginning of a bigger project, and use them as a way to test out ideas and to work through central questions of longer projects. But since I’ve been, on the one hand, shepherding out my new book, and on the other, slogging through the final third of a new book manuscript, I haven’t actually written an essay for a while. Bigness has consumed my writing life. Yet, seeing as I’m going to be trying to offer some insights into the form, I decided it was time I sat down to another one.

When we first arrived in Gozo (Malta’s sister island), where my husband, son, and I are spending an 8-month sabbatical (only 7 weeks until we head home), I had all kinds of ideas for a book I would write about this place. “Botany!” I thought, “There’s got to be a story in all this plant life and especially that weirdly named Fungus Rock.” Then, later, “Saints and healers!” Then,” Knights of Malta!” And finally, “A travel memoir about our time here…” None of these books have come to fruition.

Instead, as is my habit, I’m starting with an essay. Perhaps a book will follow.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been corresponding with an editor at a reasonably mainstream magazine. I originally sent a pitch for a long piece — 5,000 words — about Gozo, the naming of places, and the idea of home. It’s a length I like because you can say a lot in 5,000 words, but it’s still short enough to be read in one sitting. The editor came back to me with good news. She liked the idea, but asked that I revise the pitch and shrink the envisioned essay down to no more than 1,000 words.

Now, for someone who’s been writing books, 1,000 words is very short indeed. (Just to give an idea: this blog post is over 700 words long!)

No problem, I said. I’m up for the challenge.

This is where the process got complicated (that is to say, I learned something about myself).

For 5,000 words, I can lay out a structure and map out ideas in advance. I have enough room to look ahead and plot which move will come after which. Not so for 1,000 words. Perhaps it’s a personal failing, but I feel like the only way for me to plan out an essay that short is not to. I have to feel my way through while writing a first draft, then cut, cut, cut, until I’ve smoothed the text down to its kernel.

Unsurprisingly, my reworked pitch didn’t impress the magazine editor. It was too vague and too general. I’m sure others know how to pitch a mere 1,000 words, but I, big-heavy-text-writer that I am, evidently failed miserably. Like a large-animal vet trying to write a care manual for rabbits and gerbils.

But to her credit, the editor hasn’t given up on me. She still likes the original concept, is willing to see how I can make it work as a tiny text, and is waiting for a draft.

Tiny-essay writing is a process that is so different from book writing. With the latter, there’s breathing room. You can use your whole self, your whole past, and explore connections big and small. You can make mistakes and edit them out without throwing the whole thing off. But in a tiny essay, you have to choose your moves carefully. Any misstep, and it’s over.

The Rumpus‘s fantastic advice columnist Sugar recently came out. That is, she revealed her true identity — that of a writer named Cheryl Strayed. Strayed will soon release a collection of her Dear Sugar columns as a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It’s a formulation I love.

That’s what I think 1,000-word essay has to strive to be: a tiny beautiful thing. Tight, strong, economic, and without a word out of place.

A bit like the island of Gozo itself.

So here’s to moving back from the big to the small.

Wish me luck.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

[Photo: Funchye]

Share

Show Me the Money: Where to Find Writers’ Grants

Platita para la micro, y una moneda de....?? 細かいお金 by * Cati Kaoe *

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I couldn’t have written Epistolophilia without writers’ grants and research fellowships. A number of different arts agencies and institutions — these are listed in the Acknowledgements to my book — helped me pay for plane tickets, get paper for printing, buy time for writing, and (perhaps most importantly) they confirmed that my writerly hunch might be a good one.

I’ve applied for hundreds of grants over the years — so many that it’s now become part of my creative process. Entering grant competitions is one more way for me to work out ideas, test the waters, and see if a project has legs. I’ve had a lot of success partly because I’ve learned how to talk about my work in a way that makes sense to granting agencies; and in part because of the numbers — the more grants I apply for, the better my chances.

I’ve had a few queries regarding grants recently: how to find them; what they fund; how the system works. So, I thought I’d give an overview here.

By far the best resource for grant, fellowship and residency announcements I’ve come across is Mira’s List, a blog kept by the extraordinary writer Mira Bartok (soon I’ll be interviewing her about her new book The Memory Palace, so stay tuned). I recommend signing up for her mailing list or checking her site frequently.

There are a few things to keep in mind when applying for grants. First, grants beget grants. That’s to say that every grant you receive increases your chances of getting another one. Second, granting agencies want to feel confident that they’re backing a winner, so be prolific. Finish your projects and publish them!

So what kind of funding is there to be had?

Of course, there are the big and prestigious awards like: the Guggenheim Foundation, Canada Council for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. These awards are generally for established writers and artists, and even to oft-published authors, applying for them can feel like a lottery. Unless you’re very senior indeed, it’s best to treat them as long-shots, and expect to be turned down so you can be pleasantly surprised (or ecstatic) when you win an award.

Easier to win are geographically determined awards, like the New York Foundation for the Arts, the CALQ (Conseil des Arts et Lettres du Quebec or Quebec Arts Council), and the Ontario Arts Council. Most states and provinces have their own granting agencies, so check out yours. Many cities (Toronto and Kansas City are two examples ) have artists’ grants available to their residents, so check those out too, and mark deadlines on your calendar. Obviously, the smaller the geographic area defining the competition, the better your odds.

Don’t forget to check out the Fulbright Program if you’re a US citizen, have a scholarly affiliation, and need to do research abroad.

Artists’ Residencies are a good way to go for short periods (weeks or months) of uninterrupted work away from home. Some cover all costs; others ask artists to kick in a share of the cost. Sometimes there are small application fees, which annoys me, but perhaps it won’t bother you. There are well-known colonies like Yaddo, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Banff Centre for the Arts. (Here’s a good resource to check out for more artist residencies.) Universities, like McGill University in Montreal, often have writers-in-residence, so keep an eye out for those too.

Library grants can be very useful for those of us doing research. Many public and specialized libraries offer fellowships to writers. A few examples include the New York Public Library Fellowships, Chicago’s Newberry Library Fellowships, and the Laman Library Writers Fellowship in Arkansas. Around Montreal, where I live, public libraries offer fellowships to local writers. See if this is the case in your community.

Other aspects to consider are subject matter and genre. There may be grants available to fund work in a specific genre or on a particular subject area: Yiddish culture, the Holocaust, biographyAmerican history, and poetry are just a few examples of areas in which targeted funding is available.

Finally, don’t sniff at small grants like the awards of between $500 and $1,500 offered by Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation. I won this one just as I was finishing my book, and it paid for the daycare I needed to get the final version of my manuscript ready for review at the press. Remember, grants beget grants, so the very fact of winning a small award improves your position in the next round of competitions.

When writing grant proposals, be as specific as you can. If you can give chapter breakdowns, do so. If you’ve written half the book already, then say so. If you have a publisher interested, underline that. Demonstrate how your project is new, innovative, and important. Show that it contributes to knowledge or culture. Point to your past accomplishments to underscore the fact that you finish what you start.

Above all, don’t despair. The grants system can be capricious and unjust. Brilliant projects can get rejected and duds occasionally get funded. Write the application, put it in the mail, then forget about it and get back to your work.

Which is, after all, the whole point.

[Photo: Cati Kaoe]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

Share

CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part I)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

*

In this revelatory biography, Beth Kaplan sets out to explore the true character and creative achievements of her great-grandfather Jacob Gordin, playwright extraordinaire and icon of the Yiddish stage.

Born of an Anglican mother and a Jewish father who disdained religion, Kaplan knew little of her Judaic roots and less about her famed great-grandfather until beginning her research, more than twenty years ago. Shedding new light on Gordin and his world, Kaplan describes the commune he founded and led in Russia, his meteoric rise among Jewish New York’s literati, the birth of such masterworks as Mirele Efros and The Jewish King Lear, and his seething feud with Abraham Cahan, powerful editor of the Daily Forward. Writing in a graceful and engaging style, she recaptures the Golden Age and colourful actors of Yiddish Theater from 1891 to 1910. Most significantly she discovers the emotional truth about the man himself, a tireless reformer who left a vital legacy to the theater and Jewish life worldwide.

Beth Kaplan is a writer and actress in Canada. She has taught memoir writing at Ryerson University for sixteen years and at the University of Toronto for five. Her essays have appeared in the Globe and Mail and other newspapers and magazines. Visit Beth Kaplan’s website at www.BethKaplan.ca.

Julija Šukys: In your bio in the opening pages of the book, we read that you spent twenty years raising children and writing this book – “they both left home together.” My writing became entangled with and inextricable from my private life once my son was born four years ago. In light of the connection you draw between your kids and the process of writing, I’m interested to know more about the relation between them.

Beth Kaplan: I had my first child in Vancouver when I was nearly 31. I’d been working as an actress in Vancouver for eight years; when I got pregnant, I left the stage and registered to take an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. So it was as if pregnancy gave me permission to finally sit down and write.

And then the birth of my daughter took that permission away – or at least, made the process difficult. I adored being a mother and didn’t know how to focus on anything else. I’d take the baby to a YMCA daycare for a few hours every few days, so that I could write – but often instead I’d grocery shop or sleep or read the newspaper, things I couldn’t do when she was around. And I felt alone. Almost none of my friends in the theatre or at UBC had kids, and I didn’t know, or even know of, any mother writers.

Someone said once that of the 3 things of vital importance to a married woman – husband, children, work – she could only successfully have two of the three. I thought about Virginia Woolf with husband and work, Margaret Laurence with children and work, L. M. Montgomery with all 3 and a wretched life. There were very few examples of a writer with all 3 successfully. Later I discovered Carol Shields as one very good example, and there are now lots. But around me in the eighties, there were few.

I wrestled with that constantly. I managed to finish the degree long-distance – we moved to Ottawa for my husband’s work in 1983 where I had my son, and then to Toronto in 1985, where I finished my thesis on my great-grandfather and decided to keep going with research and to write a book. When my kids were 6 and 9, my husband and I separated, he moved shortly after that to the States, and so I was a single mother with financial support from him but 100% custody of two difficult children and an old, disintegrating house, in a city where I had no work connections and no family.

The result – the book wasn’t published until 2007. I don’t blame that solely on being a single mother. I also completely lost confidence in myself, was isolated with no support group, had no idea what I was doing – in academic research, there are methods, I just didn’t know what they were. I compared the book to an octopus with its tentacles around my neck – the minute I pried one away, another had me in its grip. And that’s just the writing, let alone getting the thing published. It’s a miracle it ever appeared, in fact.

So this is a very long answer to your question, which is – that I came too late to understand something I call beneficial selfishness. I think writers, artists, have to be selfish sometimes, even with their children. That is, not selfish to the point that their needs are neglected. But selfish in asking them to recognize that their mother has important work that requires something of them. Writing is so invisible. If I were playing the cello or painting, they could hear or see that. But they could see nothing of my work. That was hard for me too, as most of the time, I didn’t believe either, with very little published, that I was a writer.

What helped was writing essays for the CBC and newspapers and for “Facts and Arguments” in the Globe and Mail – I published a lot of short term things that got me out there, got my name in print and showed the world, and me, that I was a writer. Incidentally, many of my essays were about my kids. They grew up being chronicled on the back page of the Globe – always with veto power, of course. But they liked it.

25 years later, I’m still in the same house; the kids live on the other side of town and their rooms here are rented out to help pay the mortgage. I teach but have lots of time, lots of quiet for writing, which is heaven. Except that my daughter has just told me she’s pregnant. Omigod, I’m going to be a grandmother. I can’t wait. But this time, I’ll be able to cuddle and hug and read stories, and then give the baby back and get on with my work.

The fact is that unless you have a spouse who can take over, which I did not, young kids do and must come first, especially when they’re very young (and again when they’re teens but that’s another story.) But that doesn’t mean shelving the work. It means being creative with finding time, and it means taking it and yourself seriously enough to be selfish, sometimes. Otherwise, the work is constantly last, and the book takes 25 years to emerge.

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare constitutes a kind of textual archaeology. It tells the story of your great-grandfather, Jacob Gordin, a Yiddish playwright once compared to Shakespeare and Ibsen, now largely relegated to oblivion. Tell me about the impetus to embark on such a journey, and the research path down which it took you.

I needed to choose a thesis subject for my MFA, and it was my husband who said, You have a great man in your family, write about him. Once he’d said it, of course, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. Because there was the mystery I’d grown up with – why did my father and other relatives have such disdain for a man who’d been in his time so revered? So I blithely began, without realizing that almost all my research materials were in New York City– this was 1982, the Dark Ages before Google, so research meant writing letters, making phone calls, and getting on airplanes. The first time I flew from Vancouver to New York for research in 1983, the thrill of arriving at the YIVO Center for Jewish Research on 5th Avenue, asking for their materials about Gordin, and watching the cart rumble up to my desk with all those file boxes. Then opening them eagerly, and finding that nearly everything was in Yiddish or in archaic Russian – the next tiny hurdle, as I spoke and read neither.

I was lucky enough to find a woman who translated from the Yiddish for me for 25 years. So it’s really our book, Sarah Torchinsky’s and mine.

I wrote lots of letters of enquiry, discovered family members to interview – several of them just in time, as they were extremely old already when I found them – and read everything I could find on or around the subject. I didn’t start using a computer for writing until 1987 or so. And Google, of course, much after that. It seems unbelievable now, how much time research took. And several people have pointed out that in the Internet age, we lose the thrill of hunting and holding the actual artifacts and books.

As I read your book, I found myself continually pondering questions of language. Interestingly, Jacob Gordin’s strongest language, and the language he appears to have loved best, was Russian. Yet, he wrote his plays in Yiddish, a language that always represented a bit of a struggle to him. It’s not the language he used in private: with his wife he spoke Russian, and to his children, English (a language it appears he never mastered). Why, once he had gained some success, do you believe that Gordin never made the switch to Russian? Why did he continue to write in Yiddish, despite the limited audiences, the community politics that you describe, and despite the fact that it was not the language in which he planned his plays?

Gordin didn’t switch to Russian because nobody on the Lower East Side ever wanted to hear Russian again; he would have had no audience at all. Yiddish was the language of mothers, of home, hence not only of the theatres but of the burgeoning Yiddish newspapers. Russian was the tongue of the oppressor, the Cossack enemy, there was no place for it amongst the Jews in America. But Gordin always dreamed of going back to Russia one day. Before he died, he knew that his plays were touring Russia – one of his sisters, who still lived there, wrote to him from her town in Ukraine of her pride in going to the theatre to see two of her brother’s plays. But she saw them in Yiddish, not in Russian. There were Yiddish theatres and troupes performing Gordin’s plays in South America and in Eastern Europe – in fact, all over the world.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Images: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

Share

CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part II)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

*

This is Part II of a two-part interview with Beth Kaplan about her book, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: My second question about language is about your relationship to the various tongues at work in this book. What is your relationship to Yiddish and Russian, the languages of your ancestor? Given the decline of Yiddish since World War II, there’s a real sense of loss that surrounds that language these days. Does this sense of loss come into play in your relationship to Gordin’s texts and history at all?

Beth Kaplan: Well, this is a very profound question because it also goes to the heart of my hybrid status – as a half-Jew delving into this very Jewish story. Several people, hearing of my work, told me I should learn Yiddish first. A Yiddish academic, who continued to be extraordinarily unhelpful, told me when I called to introduce myself at the beginning that writing a book about Gordin without speaking Yiddish was like writing about Moliere without learning French. As if my family connection were meaningless.

I had no interest in learning Yiddish, though I did take a term of Yiddish classes through the Toronto school board, where my suspicions were confirmed – the class was filled with people wanting to reconnect with memories of their childhoods, especially of their grandparents. I had no such desire. In fact, my grandmother, Gordin’s daughter, spoke no Yiddish and had no interest in it. That’s the irony at the core of all this, as you noted – Gordin, revered as a Yiddish playwright, spoke Russian or English at home and hadn’t much respect for the language of his great success. I did take Russian lessons, incidentally, which interested me much more because it’s the language of a country I could actually go and visit.

So it was thanks to my dear Sarah Torchinsky that the Yiddish documents revealed their secrets to me. My father, whose relationship with his own Jewishness was conflicted, as I point out in the book, loved Yiddish phrases and expressions and used them often, but he would have been horrified at the thought of actually learning to speak the language. Intellectuals like him thought of Yiddish, not as a vibrant language in its own right, but as a kind of hybrid, debased German.

I respect and admire those trying to keep Yiddish alive, especially the amazing Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Centre in Amherst. Right now, I am corresponding with a woman living in rural Texas, who speaks Yiddish in complete isolation and is translating one of Gordin’s plays. But the future of the Yiddish language is simply not my cause.

Although your portrait of Gordin is nuanced (you don’t hold him up as the best playwright who ever lived, nor do you sugarcoat difficult aspects of his personality like his ego), the book nevertheless reads as a project of rehabilitation. Gordin’s legacy has suffered terribly from a vicious campaign waged by the New York Yiddish literary critic, Abraham Cahan. Talk a little bit about the conflict between Gordin and Cahan. How much did you know about it when you began researching? What, in your opinion, lay at the heart of Cahan’s fervour in destroying his rival so thoroughly?

Abraham Cahan was a critic at the Jewish Daily Forward. The more I learned about his vindictive personality and especially his campaign against my ancestor, the more I felt that if nothing else, this book would defend Gordin and expose what he endured. I learned that Cahan pursued several other vicious vendettas, one against the writer Sholem Asch even more single-mindedly destructive than the one against Gordin.

I posit in my book that there was something about Gordin’s largesse, huge family (eleven children) and enormous popularity that goaded Cahan, who was the opposite in nature, an anti-social man with very few friends, no children and an unhappy marriage, who lived not in a home but in a hotel. So the surface of their battle may have been political – they disagreed vehemently on how Jews should be helped to adapt to their new land – but I think with a burning personal base.

When I found some of Cahan’s articles against Gordin and had them translated by Sarah, they broke my heart – they were so petty and cruel. Not without an occasional point, certainly – but far, far beyond the boundaries of criticism. They attacked everything about Gordin with a kind of nasty glee with made me, literally, feel ill.

You describe finding a number of Cahan’s assessments of Gordin’s work almost verbatim in current descriptions of his work, namely that his plays have little literary merit. To me (and I think to you), it is this question of tainted legacy (that of Gordin as a hack, and even, as you describe, of a plagiarist) that is the greatest tragedy of this story. What does Gordin’s story tell us about the capricious nature of literary legacy, or of how writers are made and destroyed?

I made a lot of the tragedy of Gordin’s humiliation by Cahan, because I did come to feel that Cahan had left an accusatory legacy of plagiarism that my father absorbed. But in the end, I have to point out that many people did remember and respect Gordin – that Cahan’s campaign wasn’t completely successful. After all, a quarter of a million people, apparently, packed the streets the day of his funeral. I think that Gordin was more a newspaperman or a teacher than a playwright, in that he was so didactic, always preaching his message. But an elderly Yiddish actor I spoke with from Britain told me his plays were spectacular vehicles for actors. I had to keep in mind how much the theatre itself has changed; that many of the most successful playwrights of a particular time vanish pretty quickly. Our list of great playwrights of other times is much smaller than the list simply of great writers; it’s hard to write a play that is relevant to its time but will also endure. Gordin was a marvel for his time and place, bringing theatre with dignity and finesse to a people who’d had no theatre at all only decades before and who only knew a kind of vaudeville of melodramas and operettas. He accomplished a great deal, but he was no Ibsen.

Most of my own contact with the Yiddish literary scene has been through my research on Vilna. I was amazed to learn of the vibrant Yiddish scene that Gordin was a part of New York at the turn of the century. Do you see echoes of that theatrical and, in some ways, revolutionary world? Or is it really gone for good?

I describe in the book the scene in the 1800s in New York, when factions supporting rival actors playing Macbeth began to fight each other in the streets, resulting in a number of deaths. If only audiences cared so much today about the theatre! But today when people are sitting at home in front of a thousand different screens, we can’t reproduce that time, when sitting in a theatre meant so much, gave people a taste of home, let them hear their past, their homeland… It was an incredibly vibrant time, when New York was flooded with immigrants, desperate to learn and prosper. In a startlingly short time, many of them did.

This is a book not only about your great-grandfather, but also about your extended family, and about you. It’s about your hybrid identity (half-gentile, half-Jewish). It’s about the family silence surrounding the one great, but somehow shameful family member. It’s about the discovery of roots, and the drawing of a line back to the other writer in the clan. How important to this story is the fact that you are Gordin’s great-granddaughter? Talk a little about the decision to write a book that was a work of creative nonfiction, infused with the writerly gaze and experience, rather than a “straight” biography.

I had a big technical problem writing the book, which was never really resolved – that it was, in fact, two books. The first was the scholarly Gordin biography that was needed because there wasn’t one – detailing the history of the man and his plays. The other book, the one that really interested me, was the family story and my connection to him and to his life. I got trapped in the biography, loaded down with facts and names and dates, and then did my best to bring life to all that with the personal stories.

The problem was that the resulting manuscript was too weighty and scholarly for the mainstream publishers, where my New York agent first sent the book, and too personal and informal for the university presses, which wanted a dry biography with footnotes and no personal material. Footnotes! I’d been doing research for over 20 years, most of them as a single mother in chaos, I had paper stuffed into boxes all over my house with no idea where I’d found this quote or that bit of play, and no desire to spend years digging it all back up. I said no footnotes, which meant most university presses were not interested.

Luckily, Syracuse was happy to take the manuscript and turned out a beautiful book, though I had to cut some of the personal stuff. If I had to do it again, I might try to actually do two books – one for the university Yiddish departments, with just cold facts, and another with far fewer facts but more heart and soul about the family.

A wealthy friend of mine, after reading the book, said, “Too much detail. Why didn’t you turn it into fiction? That would have been more fun and would have sold much better.” That may be true. But I have not the remotest interest in taking a fabulously interesting true story and fictionalizing it, inventing characters and situations when I’d hunted for decades to uncover the real ones. My friend Wayson Choy has written two novels and two memoirs; I admire that kind of ambidextrousness, switching between fiction and faction. I have no interest in even trying. Give me a true story, any day.

[Image: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

Share

CNF Conversations: An Interview with Myrna Kostash (Part I)

Myrna Kostash, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.

*

Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Myrna Kostash is a fulltime writer, author of All of Baba’s Children (1978); Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada (1980); No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls (1987); Bloodlines: A Journey Into Eastern Europe (1993); The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir (1997); The Next Canada: Looking for the Future Nation (2000); Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River (2005); The Frog Lake Reader (2009); and most recently, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey into Byzantium (2010).

In 2008 the Writers’ Guild of Alberta presented Kostash with the Golden Pen Award for lifetime achievement. In 2009 she was inducted into the City of Edmonton’s Cultural Hall of Fame, and in 2010, the Writers’ Trust of Canada awarded her the Matt Cohen Award for a Life of Writing.

Prodigal Daughter

A deep-seated questioning of her inherited religion resurfaces when Myrna Kostash chances upon the icon of St. Demetrius of Thessalonica. A historical, cultural and spiritual odyssey that begins in Edmonton, ranges around the Balkans, and plunges into a renewed vision of Byzantium in search of the Great Saint of the East delivers the author to an unexpected place—the threshold of her childhood church. An epic work of travel memoir, Prodigal Daughter sings with immediacy and depth, rewarding readers with a profound sense of an adventure they have lived.

Prodigal Daughter has been awarded the 2011 City of Edmonton Book Prize and the 2011 Writers Guild of Alberta Wilfred Eggleston Prize for Nonfiction.

*

Julija Šukys: Like all good texts of creative nonfiction, Prodigal Daughter is a hybrid text. It’s part travelogue, part historical exploration, and partly a narrative of a personal and spiritual journey. The unifying thread and the organizing metaphor (if that’s not wrong way to think about him) is Saint Demetrius. He’s a complex figure who is appropriated and venerated by a number of cultures and historical narratives. Can you talk a little bit about how Saint Demetrius came to be at the centre of this book for you?

Myrna Kostash: There are 2 versions of this “origin” narrative:  the one in the book and the one that is the more truthful story, which out of discretion I have not used. But the published version is close enough: in search of an entry point into a book about Byzantium that I had wanted for years to write, I came across the figure of a saint venerated in the Orthodox Church whose story as told by the Church was exactly the perfect “hook” for me. St Demetrius, according to the hagiography, was martyred in the northern Greek city, Thessalonica, in 304, for the crime of professing faith in Jesus Christ. A couple of centuries later, however, he reappeared in the form of a saint working various miracles in defense of his beloved city, Thessalonica, which was under sustained attack and siege by barbarian marauders. Historically, these barbarians were Avars and Slavs from beyond the Danube, and they never did succeed in taking the city, although they settled in the region, Macedonia. It was this coherence of Slavic ethnicity and the Orthodox spirituality of Byzantium (I was baptised into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada as an infant) that inspired me to begin this book’s journey: I had a subject.

What did Saint Demetrius stand for when you began the journey of Prodigal Daughter, and what does he stand for now that you’ve come to the end of this particular chapter of writing and life?

For the first three or four years of the project (it did take ten!), I was obsessed by the ethnic implications of “my” saint, namely that a Greek saint, who performed miracles to defend his people, eventually also became a saint venerated by his enemies, the Slavs, my people, when they became Christians. But, as the book discloses, there were a number of turning points in my journey with Demetrius that complicated this simple ethnic formula, points which rerouted my journey, first into an enfolding within the Byzantine world in the Balkans and Constantinople, and second within the Church herself. Having written the book, I am now a faithful member once again of the church of my childhood, and the travelling icon of St Demetrius still goes with me where I go. What he “stands for” is of neither an ethnic nor historical nor even cultural significance but for what all saints stand for in Orthodoxy: an ideal representation of a human being “who is what he ought to be.”

In part, this book is about your somewhat reluctant return to your childhood roots in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. You’re a feminist, a leftist, and a humanist. All this makes for a fraught relationship with your childhood church, so you naturally moved away from it as a young adult. After what you describe as a number of failures of the core ideologies of your youth (the Left, student radicalism, even feminism), you recently found yourself yearning for something else: new meaning and a sense of the sacred.

Can you talk about this path back to Orthodoxy? How did your journey across greater Macedonia and the history of Byzantium help repave an old path differently for you?

I certainly had no spiritual intention for this journey. As with all my previous books, I was initially motivated by intense curiosity about history, and, in the case of Prodigal Daughter, by all the narratives – stories – that have been told about Byzantium, the Balkans and Eastern Christianity, all of which form a kind of cultural grammar for me (and which for most other people, I imagine, represent a triple whammy of exoticism if not downright weirdness). But even so I admit that on previous travels through the region I was always drawn to Orthodox churches as spaces of genuine repose and reflection. Even socialist feminists need that! Perhaps it was just the familiarity of them that drew me in; I certainly wasn’t very interested at that point in the content as opposed to the form of the life of worship they embodied.

But, when it came time to write the book, I realized that, if I were to understand the Byzantine world in which St Demetrius came to be venerated, I had better reacquaint myself with the closest representation of that world in our own time, namely the Orthodox Church. I was living in Saskatoon at the time, as writer-in-residence at the public library, and so I decided to go to a Ukrainian Orthodox church there, to Sunday services on a regular basis. There was much I had forgotten about the forms of worship and much that I never had known or understood (in my childhood in the 1950s the services were entirely in Ukrainian, a language I barely spoke), so I began to read seriously about the history and theology of the Church. For the first time in my life, I read the New Testament, in the form of the Orthodox Study Bible, had a host of questions about what I was reading, and sought the conversation and counsel of a Ukrainian Catholic, Byzantine rite, priest and theologian at the University. He was absolutely brilliant – a deeply consoling mixture of intellectual erudition and spiritual intuition – through whom I became aware of and was prepared to acknowledge something which I mention only glancingly in my book, a deep yearning for the Divine.

Of course, this journey back into Christianity would not have succeeded had I not been convinced, and remain convinced, that there is no contradiction between the core and enduring values of (socialist feminist) humanism and those of the basic Christian teachings. The elaborate mysticism of Orthodox theology is something else, however. I’m still on that journey.

One of the purposes of this book, it seems to me, is to shed light on an ignored and forgotten era: the 1000-year history of Byzantium. Prodigal Daughter is an attempt to engage seriously with the Balkans, a place that still today is so often dismissed as backward, laughable and even murderous. What was the impetus to fix your attention on that time and place?

When I was travelling around eastern and south-eastern Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s (for my books Bloodlines and The Doomed Bridegroom), I became aware of a persistent mythology about “where Europe ends.” Wherever I was – Athens, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Prague, Cracow, Warsaw – people locally insisted that where they were was precisely where Europe “ends.” Which is to say that, where it ends, “Asia” begins. “Asia” signified Turkey in some cases but mostly it signified the Europe that was Orthodox, used the Cyrillic language, had been included in the Ottoman or Czarist Empires, had fallen within the Soviet bloc of countries, had been inflamed by “ancient communal hatreds” well into the 20th century, or some combination of these.

What struck me most was that, first, my relatives who still live in Ukraine were thus “outside” Europe, apparently, and, second, that a large part of the territory “outside” Europe had fallen historically within the borders of Byzantium or been contiguous with it. I was incensed. How was it possible that such disdain and ignorance could be expressed about a thousand-year Empire of astonishing political, cultural and spiritual achievement? (By the way, Byzantines never called themselves such – the term was first applied by a Renaissance German scholar – but named themselves Romans right to the end, as successors to the Late Roman Empire. The city of Rome “fell” in 476 to a Germanic army but the Roman Empire just kept on going, from its new capital of Constantinople, until its defeat in 1453 to the Ottomans.) So began my project to bring into view through a work of literary nonfiction at least some aspects of this world of European otherness.

It’s interesting (actually, maddening) that the first publisher I approached with a proposal to write under the working title Demetrius: Seduction by a Saint, turned it down on the grounds that “we’ve never heard of St Demetrius and we don’t care; write about St Francis.” Of course this did force me to think about how I would make anyone care about St Demetrius – by making the reader care about the narrator, that is me, as it turned out – but I admit that if I read about one more narrative of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello, I’m going to scream.

This is Part one of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Photo: www.myrnakostash.com]

Share

Five things I learned from writing an essay that got rejected over and over until it finally found its home

Since my most recent essay, “Pregnant Pause” came out in print, I’ve been reflecting on what I learned from the journey to its publication.

It was an incredibly hard road for that essay, for a variety of reasons. First, it’s a hybrid and relatively experimental piece of writing (part literary, and — I must admit — part academic) which makes it hard to place. Second, at 5,000 words, it’s lengthy — longer than many publications are willing to consider. And, finally, it took me ages to figure out what it was about, face what was wrong with it, and determine how to fix it.

So here’s what I learned:

1) Do what comes naturally. If first-person writing, haiku or journalism feel good and seem right, don’t fight it. In my case, I fought the first-person voice (where I feel most at home) for far too long, and wasted a lot of time.

2) Give your text to trusted friends and colleagues to read, and listen to what they say. If they are getting confused by what you’ve written, it’s probably not because they’re stupid, but because there’s something wrong with your text. Accept feedback about what isn’t working, swallow your pride, and fix it. At one point I was told that there were too many names in my piece and that it was hard to follow as a result. At first, I got my back up, then I tried listening, started paring, and things got better.

3) Sometimes, it isn’t you; it’s them. If you can see that the text is really good and it’s still getting rejected, the problem may be that you’ve been knocking on the wrong doors. I finally found a home for my essay when I figured out who its audience was, and which publications catered to those readers. I started to get positive (in some cases overwhelmingly positive) feedback and good advice once it began to land on the right editors’ desks

4) Don’t give up on a text just because it’s taking too long. Writing is a craft, and learning it takes time. My many-times-rejected essay took crazy long to write — as long as the book that grew out of it — but it represents a whole new level of understanding on my part about writing.

5) Shake off rejection as best you can. Don’t talk about it too much, don’t obsess, don’t let it kill your confidence and belief in what you do. Take what lessons you can from the experience, then get back to work.

Happy writing. Be courageous.

[Photo: Giovanni Spina]

Share