Renowned operatic baritone Thomas Hampson was once asked how he managed to keep from crying during a tragic aria. His reply? If the composer had wanted him to cry he would have written it into the score. The singer’s job was to make the audience cry.
I have cried from time to time writing my novels, but less than readers have, if their comments are to be believed. Like Hampson, when I am writing an emotional scene, I am immersed in conveying its intensity to the reader using the only tool I have—words.
It’s a form of parallel processing, feeling the story enough to write it richly, and remaining just enough outside it to find the words. A reader can say in a blubber of tears, “Oh that’s just so sad,” or scream “No!” when something terrible happens, but I can’t. Nor—and this is more difficult—can I tell you what to feel. I have to take you there.
Even my most romantic stories are the product of something not the usual stuff of love: practical decision making. I know what needs to happen for the overall story to progress. I introduce characters and plot elements to help me tell the tale. Somewhere along the line, the story takes off so dramatically I sometimes wonder if I am in charge at all, or just taking dictation.
In my novels, the protagonists are always my inventions, and thus much of my plot is driven by the need to have them be where the history and biographical figures are most interesting. In my latest novel, The Mapmaker’s Daughter (Sourcebooks 2014), this involved getting a young Jewish girl, Amalia, into the court of Henry the Navigator, but since I wanted her also to witness the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, she had to live long enough to become a great-grandmother. For the first time in my writing career, I had to figure out how to tell a multi-generational saga through the eyes of one woman. I knew I also wanted her story to include the rich world of Muslim Spain, so I had to figure out a way to get Amalia to the court of the Caliph of Granada and then find a reason and means for her to leave so all the rest could happen.
Because I love Amalia, I also wanted her to have a rich life, full of family and friends. A second level of decisions required finding characters, both historical and invented, who could populate her world in the way I desired. I want to avoid spoilers here, so I will say only that love—deep, passionate, fulfilling love—is a big part of her memories as she looks back on her life while waiting for the ship to take her into exile. So are her bonds with women, which are always at the core of my novels. So is her identity as a Jew, for which she has risked so much, gaining great depth and richness of spirit in return.
I gave her a good life, though rarely an easy one. She is waiting within the pages of The Mapmaker’s Daughter to tell you about it.
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I began my first post with a Sarah Silverman joke, so let me start this one with a more traditional example of Jewish humor: Once upon a time in the Shtetl, a rabbi was in his study, pouring over the Talmud, when all of a sudden he noticed something he’d never seen before: A new word. Now, this rabbi had read the Talmud dozens of times, he practically knew the entire thing by heart, so for him to discover a new word was like a chemist tripping over a new element in the back yard. He ran out to tell his wife, dragged her in to look at the new word, and only when she brushed away the fly that had landed on the page did he realize what had happened.
I tell this joke not only for the opportunity to write, “Once upon a time in the Shtetl,” but also because the tale is emblematic of a prominent feature of Jewish thinking: The borderline manic attention to individual words. Jewish scholarship examines texts on the most granular level, with the belief that each phrase, each word—even, in Hebrew, the letters making up the words—contain multiple layers of meaning that, like light refracting through a prism, can be revealed through careful study. We are very much the People of the Book in that for thousands of years we’ve been reading the same books—the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Bible—over and over, wrestling with and arguing over and reinterpreting the finest nuances. You can draw a fairly clear line from the Mishneh Torah to contemporary debates over whether genetically modified food is kosher.
As a writer, I’m often asked about “my process.” As a Jewish writer who just completed a novel loosely based on a book of the Bible, I’m often asked about the role of my religion in my writing. I can answer both these questions by pointing to this tradition in Judaism of granting the highest esteem to each and every word. I’m an inheritor of this tradition, and it is fundamental to how I write. Simply put, when I write, I do my best to give every word the attention I believe it deserves. “God is in the details” is an old saying that both nicely sums up my aesthetic view and points back to the scholarly tradition that shaped it. For a writer, it’s in the details where the mystery and majesty of art can be found; for a Torah student, it’s in the details where the mystery and majesty of the divine can be found.
So how does this belief in the value of individual words play out in practice? Well, here are the first few sentences of my novel, The Book of Jonah:
Jonah knew the 59th Street subway station well enough that he did not have to look up from his iPhone as he made his way among its corridors and commuters to the track. He felt lucky as he came down the stairs to the platform to see a train just pulling in—he boarded without breaking his stride, took a seat by the door of the nearly empty car, went on typing. A crowd of people flooded in at the next station, but Jonah felt he’d had a long enough day that he need not give up his seat. But then an older woman—frumpy, blue-haired, with a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose—ended up standing directly before him, and Jonah decided to do the right thing and he stood.
I probably rewrote that paragraph dozens of times in the course of the two or three years I worked on the book. At various points, Jonah was looking at a Blackberry and not an iPhone; the name of the subway station was omitted, then specified, then moved from Union Square to up to 59th Street; a dash grew and was cut and then grew again between “empty car” and “went on typing.” The older woman in an early draft didn’t have “a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose” but rather “a grandmotherly sweet button nose.”
I won’t get into the thinking behind these many changes, and I certainly won’t argue for the relative degrees of mystery and majesty the various drafts achieved. My point is that I write with the idea that even the slightest variations in a word or its punctuation can create ripples across the entire sentence, the entire paragraph—really, when you come right down to it, the entire book. The context, needless to say, is different, but like a yeshiva student, I try to respect the layers of every word.
Now, I should add that a lot of writers have this mindset, many of them non-Jews. But as I think about the connections between my religion and my work, this attitude toward words is one of the first things that comes to mind. I should also mention that there’s a real downside to writing this way: My writing process is a slow one, filled with constant reconsideration and reevaluation. Many times, I’ve felt like that rabbi in his study—believing I’ve stumbled onto something great, only to discover that I’ve been mistaken.
Like they say, God is in the details.
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Quite recently, someone asked me about my “process.” This someone wasn’t asking about the creative parts—the meandering through the dark, schlepping a bag full of puzzle pieces and seeking out the elusive slots where they might fit—but quite literally about what I do during my waking hours, which hours those might be, and when and if I stop for snacks. She was asking about the nuts and bolts.
What I wanted to say is that I know nothing (and that of course I stop for snacks). I’m just winging it. I’m still waiting to be found out. Still, I wrote 336 pages that will be printed and bound and on (some) shelves in just a few weeks, which is something one teensy bit better than nothing.
1. Get dressed every day (except when you feel like the very heart of what you’re writing is delicately wound into the fiber of your socks and robe)
2. Stop and move for food (except when you must, just must, have your fingers centimeters from your computer at all times)
3. Exercise in any form: stand up, walk, run, go to a yoga class (except when all the jostling around risks dispersing your very precious thoughts, and then stay put, very very put)
4. Get by with a little help from your friends (except when talking to anyone at all about anything at all will sully everything, make you forget or derailed or soft or sleepy)
5. Find inspiration in art, music, literature (except when they might be toxic to your work and undo all your efforts to find voice)
There you have it. Fool’s gold.
In the end, I think, anything you can do is my actual answer.
Also: do the best you can, however you can, every day that you can. Take care of your body, your wrists, knees and eyes. Take care of your computer, and back up what matters. Take care of your bills because Verizon doesn’t care that you’re writing the Next Great American Novel. Take care of the people that love you. They will be there when you pick your head up, but only if you play your cards right.
The process is long, there is no end to it—at least, not really—so don’t be dramatic and pull eight all-nighters just to show us that you can. Or do, if you can. Do.
The first step for me in writing fiction is deciding which of my characters is telling the story. I might sense an entire novel taking form inside of me but if I start writing from the wrong point of view I cannot find the story I want to tell. My most recent novel, The Imposter Bride, is a case in point. The first scene of the novel seemed to write itself. It describes a young woman named Lily arriving in Montreal immediately following the Second World War, having taken someone else’s identity to cross borders and gain entry to a new life in a new country. The first drafts of the early chapters told the story from Lily’s point of view but each time I tried to move beyond that first scene I hit a wall. A first person account of a Holocaust survivor’s life during and after the war simply did not feel like it was mine to tell, nor did it feel like I was gaining entry into the heart of the novel I felt within me. I kept writing and rewriting from Lily’s perspective for longer than I care to admit, aware that it wasn’t working but not pinpointing that the problem was one of perspective and point of view. Finally, one morning another voice came into my head. It was the voice of a six-year-old girl, the daughter of Lily, living in Montreal in the 1950’s. As I began to follow that voice the story opened to me. The details and story lines that had eluded me for so long poured out. It became a story of the intergenerational effects of trauma within a family and within the community in which I was raised.