A few months ago, I wrote an essay for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) FWAFicWritblog which was inspired by reading Samuel R. Delaney’s The Atheist in the Attic.
Novelist as Poet or Philosopher?
Meditation Inspired by Samuel R Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic
I am reading Samuel Delany’s book The Atheist in the Attic very slowly, a few pages every morning, so that I can savor individual gems of ideas through the day, usually latching onto a single concept that resonates for me, makes me think, wonder, question. This morning I’ve been fixating on the above quote, and on various paths of thought where it has lead me.
The Atheist in the Attic is a “fictive reconstruction” of a meeting between the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch de Spinoza, told from Leibniz’s point of view. Clearly, philosophy is the subject. But as I read the section quoted above, I immediately applied it to writing fiction. In particular, what drives me to write stories and novels.
I write to understand. My characters and plots are formed in a subconscious that churns with confusion or concern about how the world functions (or fails to function). As I write the story my characters tell me, I… (To read the rest of this essay, please go to the SFWA blog.)Read More
In my second newsletter, I focus on how our humanity is expressed and supported through storytelling. It includes links to an essay on connecting with strangers through their stories, a video on our Creativity Gene, and a free ebook of my short story The Broken Bottle which was originally published in The North Atlantic Review.
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I’m a Daddy’s girl. I always was; I always will be. That’s not to say that I didn’t love Mom. In fact, I trace my storytelling lineage – perhaps the most integral aspect of who and what I am – through her bloodline, not Dad’s. Still, the bond between Dad and me remains deeply rooted.
Dad and I understood each other with no explanations. Yet our discussions helped us to explore ideas in the quest to better understand each other and the world around us. In the car when he drove me wherever I was going (and later in life when I drove him), on our long walks together, during late night snacks at the kitchen table, in his basement lab where he taught me to help him when he was creating braces for his patients (he was an orthodontist), whenever we were alone, we talked. About books we’d read, or movies we’d seen, or people each of us knew… and about his childhood.
I loved hearing the stories of Dad’s immigrant family.
My grandfather Morris and grandmother Anna were from the village of Cherkas in Kiev – in the area known as “the Pale,” the only region of Russia where Jews were allowed to settle. When Morris received notice of being recruited into the Russian army, his older brother Ike smuggled him out of the country on a train. I wish I knew more about that story. (I ache for the details that I’ve lost from those wondrous childhood storytelling sessions.) All I know is that they ended up in Philadelphia, setting a pin in the map for the rest of the family.
Anna was a teenager when she left Cherkas. One day she came home and told her family she’d had enough; she was leaving. She never disclosed what had happened that day that instigated her decision. Dad was convinced that she had been raped by “Cossacks”, which is what all Russians were called by the family back then. (Throughout her life, whenever she heard the words “Russia” or “Cossack”, Grandma would spit, as though warding off the devil himself.) Anna walked from Cherkas, probably to Hamburg, Germany, where she somehow paid for her passage to America, to Philadelphia. Our family has been walkers ever since. The day she died, she went for a walk, then lay down for a rest and never woke up.
I have to let the storyteller in me fill in the vast gaps in my knowledge about Anna and Morris in the old country, and their young family in Philadelphia. Anyone who could have shared what actually happened is now gone, just as the age in which they lived is merely another story that is sometimes told well, sometimes distorted, often both, as any retelling of history is.
One such story is Fiddler on the Roof.
When I was a very young child, my family enjoyed going to Broadway shows. Back then, producers would release “house seats” for sale to the public just a few minutes before the curtain went up. (House seats are those that are saved until the last minute for VIPs such as important reviewers, backers or celebrities, just in case they show up.) My parents would sometimes send me to the box office just before a show was about to start (while keeping an eye on me from the other side of the lobby). I would stretch up on tippy-toe to look over the ledge at the lady behind the grill, and ask, “Do you have any house seats for sale tonight?” How could the cashier resist? And that’s how I got to see some amazing otherwise sold-out Broadway shows with my family – like the first run of Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel.
I remember the wonder of the show, the beautiful music and delightful dancing, and my Dad loving every minute of it. I also remember the family story that Charlton Heston was sitting a couple of seats behind us. (Heston had played Moses in the movie “The Ten Commandments” about a decade previously.) So that when Tevye was speaking to God on stage, Zero Mostel would occasionally direct his plaintive cries to Heston.
But mostly, I remember my Dad’s comments afterwards about how the story of Fiddler was his parents’ story, our history. I grew up with the family listening to the LP of Fiddler, and I learned every song by heart. They became part and parcel of my understanding of where I came from, who my people were.
Depending on my time of life, different songs became important points of reference for me – including those from Fiddler. For instance, one that resonated in my early adulthood was Far From the Home I Love, a love song from daughter to father, about leaving, moving forward, yet looking back and treasuring what brought her to the point that she could leave, must leave. My love song for my Dad.
Yesterday, I relived all this in the darkened theater of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, watching the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene perform a new version of Fiddler. As a rule, I don’t enjoy revivals. Whether it’s a movie or a play, I feel that revivals are generally rehashes, and attribute their frequency to the industry’s preference for banking on a proven audience pleaser as opposed to taking a risk on a new creative venture. This was not the case with this remarkable production of Fiddler, directed by Joel Grey.
The new script and lyrics are entirely in Yiddish. For audience members like me who don’t speak or understand Yiddish, supertitles in English and Russian were projected on scrims on both sides of the stage. What surprised me was my reaction to a language I never learned. The Germanic guttural sound of it was a subliminal echo of my grandparents’ voices. Individual words flew through my consciousness, and I felt that I almost understood them. Of course, it was only a word here or there – zei gezunt (go in health) or shayna (nice, pretty) or mensch. I was still dependent on the supertitles to follow the show (except during the songs).
But it was more than the language that was changed. The production has a depth of rich, authentic textures. Visually stark, I felt as though I had a dusty, tear-streaked window view into my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ daily lives – of the emotions, connections, needs and dreams that held them in place, and the horrors that threw them out into a new cold world.
From the first strains of the song Tradition, I had tears in my eyes, remembering my Dad, wishing he were there with me. And for the poignant beauty of what is much more than another Broadway revival. This Fiddler carried me deep into myself, and yet far away to a world that is essential alien to me.
Then, when Hodl (played by Stephanie Lynne Mason) sang Far From the Home I Love to Tevye (Steven Skybell), sobs caught in my throat.
I am not religious, nor was my Dad. I often describe myself as a secular humanist. But I am proud of my Jewish heritage, wrapped up as it is in my love my family, of my relationship with my Dad, of who I am as a person, as a woman, and as an artist. I guess I will strive for the rest of my life to understand what it means when I say, “I am a Jew.” Today, I understand it as an instinctive, emotional and intellectual response to life that I often express in my art and my passions. Yesterday, it was a link to the people who came before me, and to all who have loved, laughed, danced and suffered as Jews have.
As I sat sobbing in that dark theater, I experienced Fiddler on many levels: as a veteran theater-goer, enjoying the consummate acting, singing and dancing – as an artist appreciative of a brilliantly transformed work of art – as a humanist who doesn’t understand hate or cruelty – as a descendent of Jews of the Pale who were forced to leave their homes and make new lives for themselves – as a woman who has lost the people who defined my home and is now learning to make a new life for myself – and as a daughter who was privileged to love and be loved by a father who was wise enough to understand when it was time for me to go off on my own, far from the home I loved.
The following is an essay I wrote for my old website a few years ago. In the wake of the horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s L’Simcha Tree of Life one month ago — and the the current political atmosphere that has given permission for such hate to come out of hiding and act on it — I find this piece a poignant reflection of the innocence I was once privileged to feel. While the essay is about the Jewishness of my writing, it’s also a declaration of who I am, and reinforces my determination to not be cowed by the haters. And, yes, I still believe that most people are good and kind, and that we can find our way out of this current climate of hate and divisiveness — if we work together.
As I wrote that title, I hesitated. While the statement “I am a Jew” has a proud heritage of defiance and strength, I can almost hear my grandmother warning me, “Be careful, sweetheart, what details you ask others to focus on about you.” But then, she came from a time when being Jewish was a double-edged sword that gave us the protection of belonging to a rich tradition and community, while separating us out for ostracization and exclusion from society as a whole. I’m lucky to not be living in the era of her youth.
Or am I being naïve and foolish? Given the ghettoizing of women writers which implies that somehow our work is not as significant as that of our male counterparts, am I taking a chance by saying that not only I am a woman, I am a Jew? Will I now be relegated to second, or even third-class status in the literary hierarchy? Will I now be considered only as a Jewish female writer? Was William Faulkner “merely” a Southern male writer? Or, Thoreau nothing more than a New Englander tree-hugger? Why is it necessary for me to publicly dismiss my roots, out of fear of having my art and writing less respected?
A few years ago, I broke both my arms. One moment, I was happily strolling along with our young puppy galumphing at my side. The next, I was sprawled face down in the asphalt of a parking lot.
More shocking than the thwack of pain was the blink-of-an-eye speed with which it all happened. I had tripped over a hidden metal rod in a supposedly landscaped island, and suddenly I had no control over my own body. Gravity took hold and threw me to the ground. Though only a few months old and still untrained, Watson was a good puppy and sat next to me until a stranger came by to help me get up.
Can you imagine what it was like to have both my arms in slings for months, useless, unable to do the most basic things for myself? One of the more memorable moments was after a few weeks of frustrating (and boring) passivity, when I was Read More
When I first read Anges de Mille’s retelling of a discussion with Martha Graham about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity, I recognized myself in it, as I expect most artists do. And I took Martha Graham’s advice to heart, hoping I would remember it during times of uncertainty in the value of my work.
When I shared it on Facebook, it hit a resonant chord with many of my friends, a number of whom reposted it. However, Rita Ashley replied, “Hmmm. Let me ponder this. Am I less of an artist if I am satisfied with a work I produced? If I cannot see a need to change, improve or correct?… Is dissatisfaction a requirement to be a good/great artist?
I realized that Rita has a very healthy pride in her creations that I sometimes also feel. But that doesn’t make my dissatisfaction less of a driving force in all my creativity.
It’s a discontent not just with my art, but with the world around me, and my uncertainty about my ability to find the words or images that can help me (and others?) understand, deal with it, perhaps explore the questions that might — if we’re very lucky and persistent — find solutions.
Or, if I’m to be precise, I’m driven by a combination of confusion, concern, and dissatisfaction. I can be pleased with a single creation (sometimes), but my body of work is very incomplete. I have so much more to say, to try to understand.
What drives your creativity? When, if ever, do you feel you’ve reached a point of completion?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1970’s classic thriller movie The Stepford Wives. Based on the novel with the same name by Ira Levin, the story is simple and nightmarish, a chilling distortion of the American Dream. The men of Stepford have decided that the only way they can attain an idealized Ozzie-and-Harriet-like suburban life is to replace their wives with “perfect women” in the form of mechanical dolls. These automatons are obedient, non-confrontational, devoid of opinion – and, of course, both great in bed and superb cooks. They’re also svelte, always impeccably groomed and white.
I keep flashing on The Stepford Wives not because I particularly liked the movie, but because it has become a cultural icon of the social pressure to conform. It’s a distorted view of womanhood that feels particularly relevant in light of the groundswell reaction to my recent essays Is Obesity the New Obscenity? and The Monster in the Mirror. With the many hundreds of comments, hits, links and likes those essays have received, I’ve realized that I’m not alone in my discomfort with the way people who don’t fit a distorted physical “ideal” are treated. In fact, “we” far outnumber “them.”
So why do these twisted yardsticks of “acceptability” persist when so many cry out against them? What is it that condemns society Read More