A Parable for Writing

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Earlier this week, Joshua Cohen told us how to write a book like Coney Island and about the biggest cemetery in the world. His new novel, Witz, is now available.

I’ll end this first blogging experience with a nod to a neighbor. We pass often. Each life has people like this; satellites that maintain polite orbits—especially in a city no one’s truly alone.

Such acquaintanceship is akin to blogging: Note this entry’s looseness, its casual constructions, much more familiar and less demanding than any in my novel, Witz. Also note that I don’t know you. We are passing. These words are a nod…

The neighbor’s name I don’t know either. I call her Tape Woman, and H. does and D. does, too (H. and D. are close friends).

We call her Tape Woman because she—a white woman, older—binds thin strands of black electrical tape around her head. Above a robe of layered garbage bags, her face is sectioned by lines of this adhesive, rendering her in appearance the idealized offspring of a Jewess and a zebra, or a walking-talking-to-herself Bride of Frankenstein who’s misapplied her tefillin (phylacteries).

It’s tempting to think that the number of lines wound around her face signify something: that some form of numerology, or body modification cabbala, might be involved.

Three lines of tape (above eyes, under nose, on chin) could mean one thing. Four lines (above eyes, under eyes and over nose, under nose, on chin) could represent another. I imagine hermetic wisdom, salvific messages, prophecy being communicated. Perhaps the lines of tape symbolize the pillars of the universe, according to the rabbis: prayer (tefilah), charity (tzedaka), and repentance or return (teshuvah)?

D. says passing Tape Woman on the street (Brighton Beach Ave.), or boardwalk, means two days of bad luck.

H. swears she went to school with her daughter.

So she’s crazy. And is frequently harassed and insulted, in Spanish and Russian (when she murmurs to herself, she murmurs English). But once she did something—action, a physical act—that healed me, that gave me to myself more whole and alive.

One spring afternoon, taking a break from the book, I walked the boardwalk toward Coney. Tape Woman stood on a bench, flinging out her hands in a joshua cohen witzfeeding gesture. But her hands were empty and the birds, expecting a feeding, only circled and squawked.

She clenched her hands again, gripping the wind.

And then again she flung out her hands and again the birds, more maddened than me, shrieked with disappointment.

This was writing. A parable for writing.

There is no feed, there is no feeding—books being mere fantasies or lapses. I am a crazy old lady, too—all writers are and all readers are birds. And the only truth is shrieking.

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Authors Blog series. Visit his official website here.

Posted on June 4, 2010

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