Pen for Hire

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12/16/2014

God is a family affair

My mom is in Israel for a visit and we decided to meet in Jerusalem. The first stop, of course, was the kotel. On the way in, I pointed out where I asked my wife to marry me. We separated, she to the women's section, me to mine. As I passed the tefillin stand, the normal thought went through my mind; I am religious so I don't need that. Another voice in my head laughed scornfully, telling me that I am a fake and not as religious as I want people to think I am. Ouch! So I stopped and put on tefillin, so tired that I put on the head tefillin first, in my rush to get it over with. Then I remembered when I first brought my parents to the kotel. It was their first time in Israel and they were excited. At one point, I left my father, of blessed memory, alone adn went off to pray by myself. A little while later, he walked up to me, strangely excited. "Guess what I did!" He sounded like a teen who had just done....I dunno, whatever teens get excited about. That was the kind of breathless look he had when he said, "I just put on tefillin for the first time since my bar mitzva." 
So, now, here I am, with my mom, wondering while I wind up the tefillin if I am the same age as my dad was when I first brought him here. And I remember him excited and full of life , while I stand here feeling half-dead, weighed down with bills and broken expectations. It's not all that bad. Maybe I'm only one coffee away from redemption. I know that I still have that spark glowing, waiting for just a little traction, a reality with a tiny bit less disappointment. It is there, hidden in the memory of my father's smiling face.

And immediately I think of my children.

12/10/2014

Rambling writer

My job as a writer of fiction is to look at reality and say, "Maybe it isn't exactly that way. Maybe it's different. In order to be a good writer, I can't lie. I have to be telling the truth when I write fiction. For me, that comes particularly easy since I have an awful memory. I can't remember facts, and like Gimpel the Fool in the story by Yitzchak Bashevis Singer, I believe everything I am told because, if you hang around long enough, it will probably happen somewhere sometime. And I have recently found scientific proof to support that.
I have become fascinated by the studies of memory. What is memory? There is surprisingly little proof that it is a biological process that writes onto your brain cells. Science has yet to directly confront the question of what is consciousness. Elizabeth Loftus has studied memory in the context of the legal system and has discovered that memory is an incredibly malleable phenomenon. People will swear to things, be absolutely sure something occurred, list details, and the statistics show that the majority of instances, people are mistaken.  It would seem that memory is fallible in the extreme.
I have a gift. I collect facts and theories from vastly separated sources and like Magister Ludi in Herman Hesse's Glass bead Game, I bring them all together. But Herman Hesses was not a Deadhead from New Jersey with a history of chemical abuse. The facts stayed straight. With me, it becomes this massive mixed up Sunday morning stew made up of crazy left-overs that should never have been put in the pot together. When I discovered how fallible our memories are, I thought immediately of the Dancing Wu-li masters and what it taught me about the multiple-universe theory. I think that our memories are one-hundred percent accurate. Let me explain.
If time is a line, then what is the study of history? When many lines come together, the result is not a line. The result is a net. But my line is separate from yours. It could be that I remember something differently than you, not because one of us is wrong, but because both of us are right, but we exist on separate lines. I am standing on a different time line than you. My facts are right for my line, and your facts are right for yours. Both histories, both lines of the past, actually existed. And at one point we came together.
That all being said, and maybe it would have been better that it hadn't, but it was, so here we are. I am going to make a premise, and my facts could all be wrong, but I believe my theory is correct nonetheless.
I am wondering what it means to be an American Jew. I don't care to discuss our psychology or values. I even feel that the history of the Jews in America would not answer my questions. If history was a story, and our nation was a single character, what would he be? Even stranger, given the character's wandering in foreign lands, his short but productive stay in America, now that our character lives in Israel, what part does he play in the story of mankind?
It has been said that when Tolkein wrote the Hobbit, the dwarves were his interpretation of the Jews, longing for the kingdom under the mountain, overly fond of gold, greedy yet honorable in their mission, hunted by the evil dragon.

If we were to write the story of American Jews coming back to Israel, what would it be? If we were writing a fiction based on history, not on facts, but on the essence of what we learned from history, what would our story be?  

My thoughts on writing

Question: Could you describe the writing process?
Response: Writing is a very passive; things come through me, not from me.
Question: But you do come through in your writing. It is uniquely yours. How is that?
Response: Well, for example, in The Hope Merchant I wrote a section that is anti-GMO. I am not militantly anti-GMO but I am certainly not a pro-GMO kind of person. I am not republican. So one of the reasons I am against the whole university process and learning to be a writer is that a major part of the writing process is turning yourself into a proper vessel for the story to fill. If you live in a closet in the suburbs and never go out, then I think, I mean I could be wrong, but the only thing you can truly write about is closets in suburbs. If you only prepare yourself to be a vessel for stories about closets in suburbs then those are the stories that are going to come to you. You have to live it. You have to be willing to put your life on the line in order to open your soul for new realities to come into existence. That is why the stories that come to you will be uniquely yours.
Question: So, Eliyahu, how do you prepare your vessel?
Response: A lot of it is a life process, definitely. I still remember speaking to Donna Insilaco twenty-five years ago when I was a cook in Manhattan. I said that I wanted to be a writer so I could go and living an interesting life. She said, “No, it works the other way around. First you live an interesting life and then you write about it.” I’ve definitely been lost in the forest a lot of years, failing at a lot of things. But through those failures, I’ve lived it, experiencing. Failure is still contact. It’s real and valid. It’s not a closed door. It’s an open door to a different reality, a different reality from people who are successful, in some ways more valid. Not all stories are about heroes that conquer. How boring would that be if those were the only stories we had? I’ve lived it and that is already a preparation. On a daily basis, I have my writing rituals. I think artists are very religious, or superstitious might be a different way to put it. First I play one game of solitaire. Losing is a sign from the gods that I need to get writing right away because winning takes more time. Then I check my email. Then I yell at myself for wasting time. Then I stare at the page, feeling awful because nothing is coming, and I’m not really a writer so who am I trying to kid. Next thing I do is realize that three hours have gone and I cry because what came out onto the page is so wonderful.
Question:  So when you come up with a story idea, is it something from your past or does it suddenly hit you? How does that process work?
Response: Well, it’s an actual process. Usually I get an image, a picture, a quick burst of a scene. And for that picture to exist, there has to be a certain reality; a past that is a believable and logical sequence of events that bring that picture into existence, then the picture itself, the fulcrum point in time, and then the future that is derived out from that picture point in time. So, for example, in Riding the Backroads Home, for some reason I suddenly saw this image of a girl sitting at a booth in a diner, talking to an old Charedi man, who I knew was her father, and it was clear that they weren’t in the same reality anymore. I mean, Charedi men don’t do the bacon and eggs scene very well.  And, in the picture, I was sitting in the next booth over, back to back with the girl, listening in on her conversation. I don’t know where that image came from but it was the same time I was writing Sihara. I guess I’m fascinated by religion. God is everywhere but with religion you have an inside and an outside, and even when you are inside there is a dynamic, circles within circles. In theory, there is no inside and outside; we are all god’s little children. Free choice makes all this possible and it is essential to religion. I choose to do good. But it is problematic to the concept of God. How can we have free choice and coexist with an infinite, all-encompassing, all-knowing god? Philosophers think they are so clever by asking can god create a stone that he can’t lift. Well, can god lift a stone of any size if he is part of the stone as well as the one lifting? Can I lift a stone that contains an infinite god? My p;roblem is that once I start believing in God, I stop believing in me. And once I stop believing in god, I feel like crap.
Question: I’m getting the sense there are a lot of contradictions you are trying to deal with. In the writing process, how do you pull it all together? You have your own life experiences, you’ve got your philosophies, you’ve got the message that you want to set forth, and you’ve got that inspiration that comes through you. How do you pull them all together?
Response: First and foremost I think it is being true to the reality of the image, the story. That comes first. The story is not an extension of me. It has its own life. I have to be true to that. A biker has a bike. A biker talks a certain way. As soon as the story is twisted to fit some outside purpose, it rings false and dies a little bit. Sometimes I blow it, I’m not one hundred percent, but that is what I’m shooting for. Sometimes the miss comes from something inside of me. I’m not the perfect vessel. I’m too different than my characters. I’m an outsider to the reality of the story. I don’t use foul language anymore but the character does. I end up wioth fake sounding dialog because of that. The story has a life of its own, an integrity and solidity that I have to be true to. How much of me is in the process? There certainly is a certain level but this is exactly where I have to do an awful lot of screening. I have to take away any expectations about where I want the story to go or think the story should go. Like when you raise kids. Do your best but mostly you do your best to let it be free. Sometimes it’s easier. With Hope Merchant, I was a dairy farmer. I know about dairy farming. So I had a certain reality that coincides with the story’s reality, especially when it came to the relationship with the cows.
Question: There was something in The Hope Merchant where you probably had to do some research, about the indigenous character, the Inuit character. How did you prepare yourself to relate to that?
Response: I kind of fudged that. I did a little research for that but not really enough. And I think it’s okay to fudge it. I had a little message to bring, not a big message. If it offends anyone, I apologize. It wasn’t about them, per se, it was more about the story. I didn’t prepare myself for writing an informative piece. There are things I’ll do a little bit of research for but I’m not really into that. For so many people today, the word research is synonymous with Google. If I really wanted to do a research piece, I don’t feel it would be complete if I never actually speak with the subject or personally experience it in some way. But up until now, research hasn’t really been an essential part of my writing process. I feel it, though. My content editors will usually catch me and make me do a little Google work. I like that because it stops me from relying too much on clich├ęs and it can even pull the plot in new directions. It always helps. Like when my editor said that it wasn’t enough to say that Jack, the lawyer in The Hope Merchant, was a dirty lawyer. It kind of stymied me. But then I thought about him ending up on a dairy farm and I got the whole idea for Bo-plus and Creves corporation. By the way, Creves is the town where Monsanto’s headquarters are located. I think it added a new dimension to the story and even added a few sections of plot. But I feel my lack of research. Sometimes I’ll look at my own writing and say, “That’s a little shallow.” I can feel that there isn’t enough research. It lacks the 3d feel that having that reality inside of you gives it. I am in awe of writers who can do that, do research for fiction.
Question: That could be your next step, a new way of being true to the story.
Response: Maybe. I haven’t felt the need to do that yet. Maybe it’s an inherent laziness or fear of unfamiliar waters. Maybe it’s just that this is the kind of writing I do. At the risk of sounding snotty or obnoxious, maybe I haven’t felt the need to do that yet because I’ve led a very varied life. It gives me a pretty rich palette to work with without having to leave my chair. I own that. It’s different than a writer who sits in his apartment in the upper west side and does a lot of research to write about a different culture or location, in a way I have a problem with that. He hasn’t really put himself on the line. He’s done the mental homework but he hasn’t really put his butt in the saddle.
Question: You make fiction sound like journalism. Is the personal element really that important to the process?
Response: One hundred percent. It’s interesting you put it that way. I usually don’t like writers who come from the established community of writing professionals. Journalists are the exception.  I don’t really care for writers who learned in university. It’s this instant karma shortcut that universities are trying to make a buck off of. They say, “Come here, pay us, sit in a nice air-conditioned room, and in four years you will be a writer.” I don’t like that. The writers I love are not from the established writing community. Steinbeck and Hemingway, for example, were not at all like that. Just because you wrote a thesis paper on Hemingway doesn’t mean you are equipped to write about war or running with the bulls in Pamplona. I have a theory that I’d love to research. I think that almost anyone who gets an advanced degree in creative writing will get published, and since the publishing company has invested in them, they will get sold because the publisher will invest in marketing. But the books that are still being read years later are almost exclusively from writers who came from the outside. When I first came to Israel, I wrote a novel based on what I experienced in the after-hours surreality of Manhattan. I was there during the crack wars of the 1980’s. I have the manuscript but when I think about working on it, editing it and polishing it up, I get scared. It would be like going back and reliving it. It was a slice of hell and I am very reluctant to put myself through it again.
Question: That’s a very strong critique of the publishing industry.
Response: Yes, and I think they deserve it. The big publishers are responsible for their own demise. When I first started submitting my novels, I thought the publishers were interested in finding good material and selling it to the public. I now believe that what they have been doing is finding out what they can sell, finding material that fits their comfort zone, and making sure that their system is so overwhelming that something better that the public may want, can’t compete. The internet has destroyed that business model for them. Marketing used to be pushing something in people’s faces until they bought it. Advertising used to tell me what to want. Marketing is now a process of attracting. The public knows what they want and they have the tools to filter out the pushy marketing and find exactly what they are looking for. The same thing already happened years ago in the music industry. It is shocking that big publishers didn’t see it coming. I think it’s because the mechanisms got so enormous that they just couldn’t change. Now, anyone with a PC can home-record their music or publish their own book. The smaller publishers can change and adapt and since they don’t have to support an obese infrastructure, they can make a nice living as long as they can connect with their specific slice of the public. Also, the industry is populated by employees. Even CEO’s have become employees since their bonuses are given with no regard to their achievements. Employees don’t care as much about succeeding as they do about not being caught failing. It is much safer to have a big pile of rejections than to put your chips down on a manuscript and maybe have it fail. They are playing it safe; signing celebrities and grad students the profs have said could write. The problem is that few celebrities can write and few grad students have anything worthwhile to say that anyone except their professor wants to hear. I am disappointed that bookstores are closing down. I would like to see them return and I think they will. I think they became slaves to the publishers and too wrapped up in that system. That system stopped serving the public and at the first real threat, collapsed. People who read love bookstores. I hope that one day a new business  model for bookstores will emerge that is independent of the major publishers. Maybe Indie publishers can each open a bookstore. That would be cool.
Question: Who are some of your heroes writers?

Response: Oh gosh! Barbara Kingsolver is definitely one. If I could use prose like she uses prose, I would be so pleased.