New Year’s Newsletter: Reaching for Hope through Art in Difficult Times

Sally Wiener Grotta's January 2021 newsletter
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Happy New Year and Welcome to the (soon-to-be, I hope) New Roaring Twenties

What a rollercoaster ride we’ve been on since my last new year’s newsletter. I hope you and yours are well, and finding reasons to smile despite the strange and difficult times we’re experiencing.

Since the initial March lockdown, I’ve been sheltering in place in my comfortable bunker (as I’ve come to call my home), alone with my dog Shayna. While I had some bad spells (who didn’t?), I managed to keep a somewhat even keel by choosing to treat the whole episode as an extended writing retreat. Up until last Wednesday, the words were flowing rather well, including making a decent dent into the first draft of a new novel Women of a New Moon.

Throughout my isolation, I often fantasized about what it will be like once I’m released. I imagined all of us being freed from fear by vaccinations, so that we can safely gather with (and hug!) family and friends, dance to live music, and mix with strangers in theaters, restaurants and art gallery openings. As I had written in a previous newsletter:

I crave the fellowship of artists, writers and all kinds of creative thinkers…. I need them almost as much as I need air and water and chocolate…. It helps me see beyond my here and now, and inspires me to reach deeper and wider in my own work.

It’s this craving that gave me hope. I was sure that others must Read More

Sally Wiener Grotta reads from her new novel “Women of a New Moon”

During this past November’s virtual Philcon, I went back and forth what piece of fiction I should read. For much of the past year, I’ve been pouring all my passion into a new mainstream novel Women of a New Moonand that’s what I really wanted to share with my friends and fans. However, Philcon is a science fiction conference, and I worried that my audience would expect me to read one of my recently published science fiction short stories or a new not-yet-published speculative novel. Uncertain what to do, I asked a number of people who had mentioned they’d be logging into my online reading, and they all wanted to hear Women of a New Moon, even though it is still in its first draft. Decision made.

Women of a New Moon centers on a woman’s Torah study group. We learn about the six modern women of the group – their personalities, histories, crises and story arcs – through the filter of their monthly discussions of women of the Bible (such as Eve & Lilith, Sarah & Hagar, Miriam, and so forth). At the beginning of the book, they are what I call “intimate strangers,” because they know each other only through frequent but superficial schmoozing at synagogue events. They meet once a month, taking turns hosting in their homes, and each chapter is from the host’s point of view as she leads the group for that month. I read portions of Chapter 2 in which Jen (a retired war correspondent and secular humanist) is leading a discussion of Sarah and Hagar.

Unfortunately, the recording of my reading failed. Again, I listened to my friends and fans, and a number who hadn’t been able to join me for my Philcon reading asked me to do another recording of it, and to let them know when it was posted. Of course — how could I resist? So, here it is.

Aftermath

"Old Glory" by Sally Wiener Grotta

Writing is how I process the world into story. When my fingers are on my keyboard, my brain accesses a deeper part of me where fictional characters live out their complex lives and whisper their tales to my subconscious. When I tap that area of my mind, I can create reason and beauty out of trauma, though I’m not always sure how that happens. That’s why one major driving force behind my work is that I write to try to understand what to me is unfathomable.

For instance, hate, cruelty and war might be human nature, but they don’t make sense. Why would any individual or group want to expend precious time and resources on something so self-destructive? Life is too short, too jam-packed with responsibilities, pleasures, needs, hopes, and perhaps, if you’re lucky and you work at it, love. And yet, people waste their lives hating, hurting and killing each other. Some even appear to get pleasure from acts of cruelty, I guess to prove that they have a modicum of power over another’s life. It boggles my mind, trying to understand why. The pain of it slices through to my inner self.

So, I write fiction, poems and essays to try to dig my way through my discomfort and confusion over what I’m told is simply how human beings are built. In my novels and short stories, I create characters I learn to love and, as part of the process of crafting a tale, Read More

Welcome to the (soon to be) New Roaring Twenties

Flapper dancing at 1920s party100 years ago, the world erupted into the mayhem and creative verve of The Roaring Twenties. Given the popularity of gangster and jazz movies, we’re all familiar with the frenzied world of 1920s wild parties and speakeasies. Liberated from the horrors of World War I and the terror of the Spanish flu pandemic, the world went crazy. The sexually charged sights and sounds of what F. Scott Fitzgerald called ‘The Jazz Age” were emblematic of a sense of pure abandon. Social relationships, personal constructs, public behavior and political philosophy became fair game, as people broke through at traditional boundaries and constraints.

The 1920s were also a time of great art adventures and experimentation that altered the nature of creativity not just Read More

The Power of a Single Word

Self-portrait: Sally Wiener Grotta, storytellerFor years now, whenever I’ve spoken at book clubs, I’ve told my audiences, “The book you read is not the book I wrote.” That’s because reading is a participatory experience. We bring our personal histories, prejudices, expectations, hopes and concerns to our interpretations of what we see on the page. That, in turn, can color the narrative and dialog, often making our reading of a book uniquely our own.

I’ve understood that concept for so long that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was blindsided by a friend’s adverse reaction to a word I had written. I consider the word in and of itself a neutral description. But as far as she was concerned, it was a highly charged, derogatory expression.

Read More

How do you find the book you didn’t know you wanted?

How do you find the book you didn't know you wanted? by Sally Wiener Grotta

Do you know who and what Dear Abby was and still is? My sister Lee tells me that question identifies one of the generational divides. And once she said it, how logical it was. Those of us who were raised on reading newspapers (the real ones that left black newsprint ink on your hands) know about the Dear Abby advice column, just as we know about the comics page that young and old never missed, and the crossword puzzles that gave us such pleasure when we managed to fill in all the white boxes. Read More

Berry Picking – a poem

Winter Memories of Strawberries by Sally Wiener Grotta Here’s another poem memory inspired by Ellen Kushner’s  Facebook posting of “Picking Blueberries” by Margaret Atwood.

Then again, what is memory other than the mythology we’ve created about who we are, who we were, and why we have become the person we are today and may be tomorrow? I wonder how my sister remembers this day, if she remembers it at all, if it ever happened.

Grey clouds heavy with snow
Hover close to the earth,
Extinguishing the sun.
Yet the air is sweet and crisp,
Fertile with sensations
Of the ever-present now
And memories of never again.Read More

My Mother’s Hands

Poem - My Mother's Hands by Sally Wiener Grotta

 

I return over and over again to hands, to touch, to the beginning of story which is also a type of touch my mother taught me. But in a time when loving means not touching, regardless of how much we ache for and need our loved ones’ touch, remembering my mother’s hands fills an emptiness that memory also creates.

A few days ago, the author Ellen Kushner posted  a poem on Facebook, “Blackberries” by Margaret Atwood. In response, I wrote “I look at my hands and see my mother’s touch.” I knew it was the beginning of a poem, of such intimate memories that I wasn’t quite ready to sit down and let it flow through me. Some memories can’t be allowed to blossom until the heart is soft enough to not fear the pain and the beauty of lost loves, past moments that can never again be reclaimed. Then, this morning, I looked in the mirror, held my hands to my face, and I knew I had the strength once more to be soft. 

Thanksgiving: The Family Joys, The Pain-Filled National Myth and The Dream

"Shawnee Homelife" Painting by Ernest Spybuck
“Shawnee Home Life about 1890,” painted by Earnest L. Spybuck in 1910. Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma (from the Smithsonian Institute)

Today, as I sit in isolation, just me and my dog Shayna, I’m remembering the joy of Thanksgivings past. Of family and friends. Smiles and hugs. Fascinating, respectful conversations and silly gossip, both of which have helped me learn, grow and become. 

That was the reality of my family’s Thanksgivings. But the celebration of that specific day — Thanksgiving — was based on a myth of America’s origin. The myth was/is hurtful, erasing from our collective consciousness the pain and destruction of Native Americans that was at the root of our country’s origin. As such, it’s a bloody stain on our souls as Americans.

But it’s also a dream of peace and the sharing of bounty among people of different backgrounds.

This Thanksgiving and in the days and years to come, I hope we can acknowledge the pain of Native Americans, respecting and honoring their culture, trying to heal the inequities that continue to hurt and kill. But I also hope that we can build on the dream of peace, of bounty shared, and of conversations that can lead to understanding.

As the Gates Begin to Close

As the sun sets on Yom Kippur — a day set aside for reflection, to evaluate our past deeds and failures, to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to rededicate ourselves to a better future — I’ve decided to share this poem that evolved out of my meditations this morning.

On this day of awe,
when I turn my mind
to the blessings of my life,
and to my failure to treasure,
to honor and nurture them,
when I count my sins
of omission,
of commission,
of blindness
to what must be done,
what should be done,

Read More