The Story of Us

The Many Faces of Me by Sally Wiener Grotta
“The Many Faces of Me” by Sally Wiener Grotta

I tell myself a story every morning and every night, and in the in-between hours. It’s the same story, with variations, so that over the years it has changed, altered by life and by the telling, and – always – by my perspective and my angle of entry into the narrative.

It’s the story of me, who I believe myself to be.

Facts underlie the story, of course. I am a woman, though I have been a girl. And sometimes I fall back to that youthful persona, to a time when I was partially unformed and uncertain, with no lines on my face, no scars on my being.

I am what is called “white” or Caucasian – what strange terms to try to describe a certain beige complexion, an unavoidable acknowledgement of social and political advantage.

I am a Jew. But what that means can vary so widely, to myself and to others, that sometimes I think that the only fact of the matter is that flat statement of my heritage. But other times, I know that my constant questioning, overall optimism, and sense of personal responsibility – as well as my storytelling – stem directly from that heritage.  (If you’re curious, I go further into this in my essay “I am a Jew“.)

Facts soon become quicksilver as I try to separate out the many confusing tendrils within me. What is the story I tell myself of my relationships to others, to the world, to my work, and all the other elements that make up my life and environment? It depends… on memories and fears, influences and reactions, crises and resolutions … all mixed up with what I’ve done and seen, where I’ve been, the shape of my relationships, the impact of current news, the texture of my dreams, and the weight of my perceived successes and failures.

At one moment, I might see myself as an accomplished professional writer and artist, pleased with what I’ve achieved, excited by what I may yet learn to create. The next, I have no doubt that I’m an imposter, and will never be more than a wannabe.

Other times, I’m a friend, lover, sister, aunt, who is loving and loved. But, in dark hours, I know myself to be ultimately alone, unimportant to anyone but myself.

I may see myself as gentle, ferocious, kind, cruel, generous, selfish, intelligent, ignorant, spirited, ineffective, and all other flavors of adjectives.  And so I will spin my story to fit my current perception, and will be channeled by that tale to make the perception real.

The truth is that I am all those things… and more. I’m a jumble of contradictions that build on top of each other, as we all are. Isn’t that what it is to be a human being? And whichever attribute I choose to focus on is what I will be… at least for as long as I continue to tell myself that particular story.

Isn’t it the same with the story of us?

The narrative of us that is currently bandied about – within families, among communities, across the country – is that we are a divided people. Those on the other side of things will never listen, can never understand [fill in the issue of the day].  We tell ourselves that we’ve become too polarized to function, and anyway, our side is the only one that sees things clearly and has a valid case.

As long as we continue to tell and believe that story, can we be anything more than the contentious populace we are now?  What if we started to tell the tale of a people who may argue and disagree, but who recognize that the argument is a path, not the purpose? Isn’t that the essential nature of a democracy?

What’s more, what if we flavor our story of us with a belief in humanity, not in the abstract but in our perceptions of individuals? As we build our narrative, let’s take a page from the best novelists and avoid stereotypes. Instead, let’s flesh out each character with all his or her many dimensions, and even try to hear the story each person tells of ‘me’. Perhaps, then we can move forward together, if not hand-in-hand, at least with hope that there may be something more than anger and rigidity defining who we are.

No, I’m not saying that our social and political problems are merely a question of perspective. The roots run deep. But if we can construct a narrative that includes the struggle to understand, to listen and to find some common ground where we can hash out compromises and create new solutions, isn’t that the beginning of a new story of us? And if we believe in it, isn’t it possible that may help us look toward a future where we just might be able to work together to make it real?

Calling All Dreamers

A new popular theme is emerging in the arts – one of unabashed, unapologetic hope. While partially a reaction to society’s current divisiveness and anger, it also has a lot to do with faith in humankind and our future – and a very large dose of the courage to speak out, to try to lead the way.

The first issue of DreamForge Magazine

Yes, human beings can be cruel, violent and selfish, but we can also be kind, generous and open to learning to be better. What’s more, I believe that the latter tendencies are the stronger, more prevalent. So it is that my own art has long explored the questions we need to keep asking ourselves if we wish to reach toward a wider, richer future.

As John Lennon sang, “You can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” A case in point is the launch of a new science fiction and fantasy magazine DreamForge, whose motto is “Connecting Dreamers – Past and Present. Imagine. Engage. Inspire.”

What a leap of faith – to start a new magazine in this era of so many publications failing to survive the digital transition. Yet, it’s fitting that Scot Noel (Editor and Publisher) and his wife Jane Noel (Designer) have jumped in, with all their heart and, I’m sure, a large portion of their savings. How else could they, as Scot wrote, “make a noise in favor of hope”?

I have just read the first issue of DreamForge. It’s a beautiful publication, filled with delightful stories. I was so impressed – particularly by Scot Noel’s personal message – that I immediately emailed Scot, and asked for permission to reprint his editorial as the first guest blog on this my new website.

Here it is, an editorial designed to give all of us hope about publishing and about our future as a species.


Which Shall It Be?

by Scot Noel

Scot Noel, Editor & Publisher of DreamForge Magazine

The world has been coming to an end for a long time, for centuries if not for millennia. While the doomsayers wring their hands and point to evidence of moral decay and economic collapse, the reality is – cities grow larger, nations grow richer, and the population of humankind is approaching 7.7 billion people. (It was less than 3 billion at the beginning of the space age in 1957.)

Science, technology, and knowledge itself are advancing so quickly, their growth rate is becoming exponential. Only 476 years ago, Nicholas Copernicus published a blasphemous theory that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. Today, we have charted the shape of the universe itself, and in another 500 years we, as a species, are likely to command godlike powers that any human who has ever lived, including those of us around today, would consider the province of the divine.

Why does it all seem so terrible and doomed to destruction? Are we like Icarus, son of Daedalus, daring to fly too close to the sun?

We are indeed like Icarus and the ancient Greeks, and like our Cro-Magnon ancestors of 35,000 years past: we are human. We are built for an enemy and predator-filled world where spreading bad news and taking violent action were essential to survival. Fierce tribal loyalties and a win-at-all-costs attitude have been our go-to kit since before civilization was conceived.

Times are changing. We are a young species with short memories and a dull sense of what the future really means. A thousand years, ten thousand, a hundred thousand and we will not yet be middle-aged, and by then the stars will be ours. Literally. What will we do with them, I wonder? Before that day arrives, we must mature, and the very forces of our increase will pressure us to do so.

We will grow out of our messy teenage years and clean up our act. We may pollute our planet for centuries to come; we may fight horrendous wars a thousand years from now, but we will also be learning, building, and changing all along the way. We will end suffering, poverty, and sickness at a faster rate than the worst among us can create them. We will heal this world and build new ones. Long before the end, the better angels of our nature shall – as they have been for a thousand years – rise up to overwhelm the destructive impulses of our genesis.

Hope, big dreams, and perseverance will get us there. Hope is not an illusion; it’s simply a perspective backed by engagement with the world, whatever the condition of the world may be. And fiction has its part to play. At DreamForge, we believe words are important; that the stories we tell ourselves affect the present and become the future. It’s been said that the arc by which fiction changes the world is long and subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

One day we will meet new civilizations among the stars but, more importantly, we must learn to respect the aliens among us right now. You know who they are; they’re the people who by circumstance, culture, or choice are different from you.

By our human heritage, we are built to see them as threats, competitors for scarce resources, subversive forces ready to challenge our beliefs and tear apart our communities. In the future, there will be too many different peoples, beliefs, political ideologies, and – eventually – species of human to count. We’re going to have to get over our fears and loathing.

When you find yourself thinking the people on the other side of the ideological divide are too stupid to understand your point, that you can’t empathize with them and their values, that their way of looking at the world is ruining your country, your community, and your life – that’s an ancient evolutionary adaptation the purpose of which is as extinct as the trilobite.

Mere tolerance is unacceptable, extreme diversity inevitable. It’s the only way we can ever begin to embrace the vast gulf between ourselves and the creatures we shall meet among the stars, they who know nothing of the doctrines and dogmas over which we are willing to take life and destroy worlds.

Our only true enemy is entropy, the gradual dissolution of complex systems, the force behind suffering, aging, and decay. Fortunately, life by its very nature fights entropy, and our prowess in understanding and then mastering the intricacies of universal forces appears unbounded.

In a screenplay by H.G. Wells for the Science Fiction Film “Things to Come,” the movie ends with a dramatic monologue that goes in part:

“… And when he (man) has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.  And if we’re no more than animals we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this – or that: all the universe or nothing… Which shall it be?”

What Photography Has Taught Me About Writing… and Vice Versa

 

 

Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta
Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta

 

 

I am often asked what I mean when I say that my photography and writing inform each other. Photography, storytelling, and, yes, life… it’s all about what we see, how we convey it to others and whether we can make it meaningful.

When I look at the world through the lens of my camera, I see so much more. My field of vision might be more limited, but everything becomes more focused, limned with greater clarity of shadows and light. Life resolves into aesthetic patterns and colors, giving definition and meaning, and making the ordinary everyday more noteworthy and memorable.

It’s as though my lens has the magic ability to see through to the essentials of a moment or of a personality, to tell me story that I might have missed if it weren’t for my camera’s eye view.

I often think about my photography when I’m writing… visualizing what I want my readers to see, focusing my words as I would my camera lens. To go even further,Read More

What Drives You to Write Your Stories?

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

I Am A Jew

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.


 

Lighting the Menorah by Daniel Grotta

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?

Being Jewish is Read More

Choices

Reprinted from my old blog which is now closed.

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

What a Bitch!

Bitch meme by Sally Wiener GrottaThe other day, a woman described another woman to me as a bitch. Bitch is one of those words that can convey a world of ideas. But what does it really mean? And, more to the point for any fiction writer working to create flesh and blood characters, what are the undercurrents and coloration of using such a “power” word in our prose?

As powerful as the word bitch is, it could pull us into a political, feminist discussion about how it has been used to delineate and limit women. But, for now, I’m more interested in the process of creating fictional women who resonate with readers’ imagination, becoming believable, real.

The storyteller in me wants to pose the so-called bitch and her describer into a wide range of scenes, to see how they change.

Does the description change in meaning for us when the woman saying it is a daughter talking about her mother? What if the mother is Read More

Staring into the Mirror

Reflections, a self-portrait by Sally Wiener Grotta

(Essay by Sally Wiener Grotta, republished from Anisfield Wolf website)

In Karen R. Long’s essay What Biases Are You Carrying?,  which was posted on the Anisfield Wolf blog, Attorney Louise P. Dempsey was described as having used the following riddle as part of a lunch talk.

A man and his son were in a car accident. The critically injured man had to be helicoptered to the hospital. His son was rushed by ambulance to the same hospital. When the boy was wheeled into emergency surgery, the surgeon looked at him and said, “I can’t operate. This is my son.” The blog then asked the question, “How is this possible?”

If you haven’t heard that anecdotal test before, consider your answer for a few moments before continuing to read.Read More

The Monster in the Mirror

 

Reposting my essay from March, 2015

The_Hermit_and_the_Sleeping_Angelica_by_Rubens
The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica by Rubens

After all the hoopla over Leonard Nimoy’s stunning photo of nude fat women that I posted on Facebook, and the energized Internet response to my essay Is Obesity the New Obscenity? I’ve been thinking a lot about personal body image and how society feels empowered to comment and judge on a woman’s physical appearance.

Women’s Bodies As Markers of Social Standing

In past ages, a full rounded figure was a sign of wealth, of having enough to eat. Society would point at a man who could afford to keep his wife fleshy and recognize him as a man of substance. He was far above the riff raff who lived hand to mouth with no excess in their homes or on their bodies. Only aristocrats or very successful merchants had what we now call obese wives and children.

Today, as tabloids, TV and the Internet constantly remind us, the truly rich tend to marry the truly thin.

But in all the discussions I’ve seen about the various feminine ideals through the ages, most ignore the central issue. Women’s bodies have long been commodities and status symbols. The “trophy wife” might be a 20th century phrase, but it’s an age-old concept.Read More

Technology versus Art

A few years ago, Daniel and I were writing profiles of prominent professional photographers for Lexar Media’s Website SayCheese.com (which has since been discontinued). They were feature stories about the photographers’ philosophy, style and adventures, with some tips and tricks thrown in. The pieces were a delight to do because of the people we got to spend time with and watch at work.

At the time, I was at a trade show party (I think it was PhotoPlus in New York City), when someone said, “You absolutely must profile… [name withheld to avoid his embarrassment]” for SayChesse. I didn’t know the photographer being recommended, but he happened to be present at the party, just on the other side of the room. So I went over to him, introduced myself, and asked him what he shoots. His reply was an energized discourse about his camera equipment. When he finally took a breath, I smiled, told him how nice it was to meet him and walked away. Daniel and I never wrote a profile on him for SayCheese or any other publication.

What that photographer had lost sight of is that photography isn’t about the camera, it’s Read More