The ProsenPeople

New Reviews September 22, 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017 | Permalink

I’ll Have The Burger, Hold The Exposition: On Research for Fiction Writers

Thursday, September 21, 2017 | Permalink

Allan Appel is the author of The Book of Norman, out September 26th from Mandel Vilar Press. Earlier this week, he wrote about the careful balance fiction writers must strike between truth and story. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "Interior, Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah"

A friend of mine, a high school history teacher old enough to have learned to drive in the stick shift era, once described his preparation for teaching a course as something akin to gunning the engine and then pulling back on the choke.

By that, he meant his approach was to learn everything he could about the subject, stuffing himself with wonderful and interesting information. However, when, at the first session, the students looked up at him glassy-eyed, he started to back up; he slowed down; he offered salient points and context and sine qua nons of all the knowledge he had obtained. In other words, he refrained from, as editors warn reporters, dumping the whole notebook.

Novel writing, and specifically my experience in researching The Book of Norman, very much followed that kind of arc of erudition. When my characters began to lead me to their growing concerns about the afterlife, both the Jewish and Mormon versions, my first stop was the Mormons and I began with biographies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the group’s history.

I think some not-so-latent prejudice was at work in that I didn’t want to pick up a book devoted to straight Mormon theology. Why? Having in the course of a normal life cruised by Mormon visitor centers in New York and elsewhere, having looked in the window at their mannequin-evocations of the Angel Moroni and other celestial figures, I concluded there was not much here of intellectual richness.

Wrong! That was my point of view. Not the characters’.

My characters were deeply interested in the stuff, and if they were, I had to be. I found Mormonism for Dummies (yes, that yellow-and-black cover series from Wiley Publishing Company that—please don’t titter—is really immensely helpful). My Jonathan character, the younger of my two brothers, would be going, as an enthusiastic potential convert, to classes where he learned Mormonism 101, and so would I.

So I learned the distinctions between celestial, telestial, and other levels of Mormonism’s elaborate heavenly architecture. I learned that Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father propagate souls on a distant planet called Kolob. Mormonism for Dummies itself is a little embarrassed about these interplanetary, science-fiction origins and it comes through in the little jokes the authors seem to make about such aspects of Mormon theophanies.

But there it was. I gathered the kinds of Mormon afterlife information I needed to be conversant in, and then not snobbery but ignorance kicked in when it came time for me to learn something of Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.

My experience growing up in a Conservative Jewish community in L.A. was such that the afterlife hadn’t played much of a part in our education or concerns. When it came down to it, I knew very little. My Norman, who was to become a reluctant defender of the faith against his brother’s increasingly sophisticated queries on Jewish afterlife beliefs, drove me to the Jewish library this time. 

I read Abba Hillel Silver’s Where Judaism Differs; I re-read Milton Steinberg’s As A Driven Leaf. I was studying with a Chasidic rabbi in Brooklyn at the time, DovBer Pinson, and I read his book on the afterlife as well as several by Conservative-trained rabbis. I got much better stuff about dybbuks and ibburs and other emanations of the Jewish soul, lots of folk beliefs, from DovBer than from the superstition-cleaned theology presented by the more “respectable” seminary trained writers. My old 1919 Kaufman Kohler-edited Jewish encyclopedia had extensive articles on Jewish angelology; who knew such things existed even where I grew up, in the City of the Angels?

So now I knew stuff and I could stuff my stuff into my characters to prove that they knew it too. Novel writers, heed the warning! Mistake. After having thrown out a first draft because I knew I was too close to the origins of the story and it went emotionally all wrong, I wrote another draft or two that were emotionally much closer to the truth, but they were obscured because I had too many Planet Kolobs and/or one too many references to how the rabbis told us to distinguish an angel—they apparently have no Adam’s apple.

My erudition was necessary but not sufficient to make the characters real. In the early drafts, they were in too many places talking heads for the author, and so I edited away and edited away. I lost interchanges that included many witty moments of intellectual dueling between nascent Mormon Jonathan and seminary dropout Norman. As the playwriting teacher tells the student, "You must learn to throw away your babies."

In short, knowledge and information are critical, but beware of using too much of it. This becomes a particular danger if you yourself grow interested in the material, as I did. I’m old enough to be thinking about the afterlife, if there is one, far more than I did when I wrote my first novels decades ago. So to the same extent that you attach to the material, you have to find it in yourself to detach in order for it to be there for the characters.

If you don’t let the research become exposition, it turns into a kind of energy that fuels the novel and it becomes a resource so the novel can slow down, or accelerate, to get back to our initial motor vehicle metaphor, or sputter, and then, with a jolt of surprise, take off. Just like life itself.

Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. 

Too Close for (Fictional) Comfort

Tuesday, September 19, 2017 | Permalink

Allan Appel is the author of The Book of Norman, out September 26th from Mandel Vilar Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Like so many of the dusty, venerable clichés about writing, one of the most stalwart, “To write what you know,” is sharply double-edged when it comes to fiction.

Here’s the problem: If all you write is a transcription of what you know, however moving or harrowing, you’re not going to come up with something that has verve or magic or that extra boost that is the sine qua non of fiction and that separates it from creative nonfiction, or even heartfelt journalism.

However, if in fear of staying too close to the nonfiction reportage, as it were, of what you know and experiencedif you filter or transform or invent too muchthere’s a danger of creating something that loses the emotional heart of your story.

In writing The Book of Norman I found this a particularly nettlesome problem to negotiate. In my first of what have to have been seven drafts of the novel, which I began writing that many years ago, I have two brothers and their families gathered at a house they are jointly renting on Cape Cod for a week in the summer. There one evening, shortly after the families watch a Masterpiece Theater version of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda on TV, out comes one brother, the Mormon convert, brandishing a piece of paper and asks the still-Jewish brother to look it over. The paper turns out to be an ordinance, an important Mormon document usually requiring a blood relative’s signature or okay to initiate the proxy baptism of the dead.

Well, that interchange pretty much happened in our real lives together in that summer house. I remember, writing that first draft, I was still seething with emotion. I was (am) the Jewish brother, and my Mormon older brother who had converted in our twenties, several decades before, was the presenter of the ordinance.

We had a huge blowup, our children had to restrain voices, and, like a kid having a tantrum, I had to have my daughter and wife sit beside me in the bedroom where I felt my heart beating double-time as I raged for hours. All that entered the draft as well, powerful for me to write at the time because it was raw.

After fifty pages of my first draft, a story too close to the actual events except for silly name changes, I knew I was in trouble. It didn’t feel quite right, but I thought I could write my way out. So I kept writing for another twenty or thirty pages. At close to a hundred pages I ran out of gas. After I had more or less transcribed the events, my characters had nothing else to do. I had created them, or rather non-created them, so close to the bone of what actually had occurred, they did not have sufficient life to make choices, to go in directions that I could not anticipate. Another old writing saw became true again: Follow the characters, back off, let them lead.

Here's the thing: If you don’t create characters with sufficient life of their own, they are going to die on the page. One of the harder things to learn is to recognize they are dying and let them go, take a deep breath, have a beer, meditate, wait some time, and go at it again.

When I did, some months later, I resolved to keep the struggle over a dead father, the emotional heart of the story, but I now knew I should insert some changes that by their nature would force true fictionalization. In my first draft, the two characters were in age just like me and my brother, I younger and he older. This time I rendered myself older, and allegedly wiser, and this made the character begin to operate more independently.

A second critical change was that I yanked the events out of the present of the actual incident and catapulted them way back into the past, in the late 1960s, roughly around the time of my brother’s conversion. That of necessity also prompted fictionalization; because I remembered little, I had to invent much.

I also deliberately created a fantasy mother. My real mom was a shy, self-effacing temple lady who went to the oneg Shabbats and swiped a lot of the brownies and danishes and other goodies to bring home to us. She rarely wore makeup. She was sweet but frowsy, very far from the independent, witty, film noir-esque deli waitress I made her in the novel. Like a true character, she started to do things that I never planned, like organize one of my favorite scenes in the novel, the Sabbath dinner.

When the characters surprise, you are on the right track, but you’re there because you’ve deliberately inserted devices to remove the story from its factual origin while retaining the emotional heart. That’s one of the true magic tricks of fiction. It doesn’t guarantee a great story, but it does guarantee story, which is the fundamental job of a fiction writer to create. It also is important, in such delicate matters as religion, conversion, and love, to have this distance if you’re sensitive to those whose encounters with you are the source of the material.

At this writing I have not yet heard how my brother or other members of his family, all still devout Mormons, responded to The Book of Norman. I hope they’ll like it and tell me so. Even better, I hope my brother will say he likes the story and add “But that didn’t happen.”

Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. 

New Reviews September 15, 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017 | Permalink


Book Cover of the Week: The Female Persuasion

Monday, September 18, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Natalie Aflalo

While Meg Wolitzer's newest novel won't be out until next spring, the cover of Female Persuasion has already sucked me in like some sort of psychedelic vortex. The book has been described as "electric" and "multilayered," just like its jacket's seventies-inspired graphic. According to early write-ups, the concept of desire is central to the story. I think the cover really captures the obsessive, addictive quality of desire in its repetition and dizzying brightness.

Also: Is it just me or do the triangles remind anyone else of the Illuminati symbol? The book is supposed to be about power, ambition, and influence. Hmm...

Naomi Alderman's "Disobedience" is Now a Film

Friday, September 15, 2017 | Permalink

Mazel tov to Naomi Alderman! Her novel Disobedience, which was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, has been adapted into a film directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio and starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. The story is about a young woman who leaves behind her ultra-Orthodox upbringing – and the distinguished rabbinical family she was part of – to seek happiness and fulfillment elsewhere. The movie just premiered last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, but critics have already praised it as "a beautiful, fraught, and emotionally nuanced drama" and a "respectful and immersive..portrait...of the many forms love can take."

The Rohr judges on why they loved the book: Many novels of disobedience in Jewish literature, from the beginning of the modern period on, paint the world left behind in largely or entirely unsympathetic terms; when the main character is forced, by circumstance, to return to that world, one of Alderman’s achievements is to complicate that picture by rendering it in subtle shades and its inhabitants as real people, not caricatures. Alderman’s abilities are by no means limited to ethnography, though; through a series of surprising developments, she explores how and whether change can come to a world that prides itself on holding fast against change; and how her characters’ various disobediences are themselves, if not necessary, seemingly inevitable.

The Dignity of an Empty Parking Lot

Friday, September 15, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Minna Zallman Proctor, taking inspiration from Virginia Woolf's short stories, wrote about the blog post as literary form and imagined the interior lives of two strangers in a coffee shop. Today, in her last post, she ruminates on bodies, and the struggle to align our outer selves with our inner selves. She has been blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

For beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself. This soul or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside of us.
—Virginia Woolf, “Montaigne”

I love when we watch TV shows I’ve already seen because I can fall asleep with impunity, awkwardly arranged on our crummy couch. It’s better than shifting miserably for ninety minutes trying to find an adequate arrangement of throw pillows to relieve the hot throbbing at the base of my skull. So much easier to just pass out. It’s after eleven anyway.

I was brilliant and energetic last night. Between Foyle’s War and bed, I thought to take three ibuprofen and also to ice my neck. I slept better than I have in weeks and didn’t need to move cautiously in the morning, lest my head roll off my body.

I dreamed that I was doing cartwheels across a sun-drenched lawn, every part of my body arching muscularly against the vortex. Every time I inverted, diving down like a superhero toward the grass, my left arm gave way, over and over again.

My friend Diane and I took the kids to a park in central New Jersey for a hike last week. It was a promising morning, the sunlight dappled and clean, the blue air freshly washed from three days of rain. It was a bit of a drive to get out of the city and we all gasped dramatically as we turned off the highway onto a country lane dotted with pretty stone farmhouses and geese ponds. We hadn’t had a GPS signal for miles by that point, and made our way by feel to the park entrance. 

Just as we turned in, the skies opened up. “It’s just a summer storm,” we said merrily to the children. “It’ll clear up.” “They said it wasn’t going to rain until four,” Diane reassured me. “Who knew it was going to rain at all?” I protested, and then laughed because the drops kept coming down faster and harder. We pulled the car into a good spot, under a tree, near the trail maps, and then watched through the sheets of rain as drenched families emerged from the park, shirts wet to transparency, hair plastered to forehead, soft sneakers extruding little puddles around each footfall. “I cannot believe our timing,” I repeated absurdly. “It’ll pass,” offered my daughter fantastically.

The children ate their sandwiches and then decided that the best way to wait out the storm would be to change into their bathing suits (an elaborate process that involved arguing about who goes first, shouting loudly, diving over the seat into the way back, kicking the car roof on the way, exacting solemn oaths of not looking, and then shouting some more because it was all taking too long), and play in the rain. Nature’s sprinkler! It was a grand idea.

I sat in the driver’s seat, gnawing without pleasure on a gluten-free meal bar. It had been a long August. I had slept too much and too little, hadn’t worked as much as I needed to, and only had sporadically satisfying solutions for quality family time. I was frequently irritable, icing my neck, or distant, engaged in endless conversation with my imaginary friend, Mandy Patinkin.

The night before I’d barely slept, nor had I slept much the night before that. I was exhausted but cheered by how beautiful it was even in the downpour. Diane ate shortbread cookies and pressed cool water bottles to her forehead, trying to ward off a migraine. We watched the children frolic in the parking lot. We were proud of their resilience and antics. I tried to calculate how much extra energy I would need to just get out of the car and join them.

“Why aren’t you going out?” I asked my son, who of the three children had resolutely decided to stay in the car and just watch. “They’re having so much fun,” said Diane. “I have my dignity,” he answered unsurely.

I’ve been working for the last five years with my godmother on a book about her life in twentieth century music. Last spring, soon after we’d sent the completed manuscript off to the publishers, she took a spill in her garden. She’s in her nineties now, outlived all her siblings and all but one of the great musicians we gossip about in her memoir. Pierre Boulez and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies both managed to die within months of each other and just as we wrote the final chapters. There were many instances over the course of our project when she would lash out at me for my leisurely pace. “Minna,” she would email me, “I’m going to die before we finish this and that will be on you.”

“Minna,” she emailed me, “I fell in the garden. It was scary.”

Later she described to me how she’d been picking beetles off the roses and just tripped. She described the event as if it happened silently and in slow motion, as it must have been on the soft carpet of her lawn that sunny morning. She is so small and round, I imagine that from inclining over a rose petal to the ground must not have been a great distance. She told me that she stayed there where she fell, flat on her back among her flowers, staring up at the blue sky. First, trying to figure out if she’d died, then just to see the sky and feel her body against the ground. Hours passed. And then she got up again. Nothing broken, just some bruises.

I love to dance—if that’s what you can call what I do. It feels more like thrashing into entropy, swinging my limbs fast and high, releasing myself from the horizon line. Barking at the volume and heavy beats. Leaping into shapes, stomping, landing hard with my bare feet. I’m here, my feet insist to the ground. Feel me as I feel you. It’s not dignified in the least. I danced this summer at a university event, out in the formal garden. There was a split second, a reckless movement, and I tossed my head too fast, too suddenly. I caught sight of the full moon out of the corner of my eye, in an instant felt my neck crack, the sound splitting up between my ears and the gleaming moon exploded into so many dizzying flashes of pain. Keep dancing, I told myself. If I didn’t stop, it would mean that nothing had happened.

I regret, though the moment is now long gone, not getting out of the car in the rainstorm. Regret not grabbing my son by the hand and making him run with me in the rain. No one would have seen. What’s the cost of sheer sensation? It was only a few minutes, after all, before the wet clouds blew away and the golden light of a late summer afternoon flooded our eyes.

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.

On Why You Must Never Depend on One Coffee Shop

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Minna Zallman Proctor wrote about Virginia Woolf's short stories and the blog post as literary form. Today, taking inspiration from the narrator in Woolf's "Street Haunting" who attempts to inhabit the minds of the people she passes on London's streets, Minna imagines the interior lives of a couple in a coffee shop. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.
Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting”

There is a couple in the coffee shop where I'm working today who are talking about running away together. I’m trying hard not to eavesdrop, forcing their perfectly audible conversation to muddle itself in my ears, the way you can make your vision blur by relaxing your eyes. But the mutter and rhythms of their conversation is just as revealing as specific words would be. Sometimes they stop talking entirely, reach across the small table to hold hands and stare deeply at each other, at a length that only belongs to the besotted. The prolonged gaze that would make a friend look away or bore a spouse. Between these two, the looking feels like a hungry tattoo, imprinting this stolen time. Because neither one has actually abandoned their real lives. This is stolen time in a crude and absurd coffee shop—forged bohemian in a neighborhood of immigrants, pensioners, taxi drivers, and substitute public school teachers—with amber light bulbs, putty colored walls, a series of seventeen provisionally framed sketches by a local artist hung in a distressingly uneven horizontal line…

He’s older than she is by some years. Bald and white grey, in a short sleeve chambray button-down that fits loosely, timeless casual, over khakis. He’s wearing socks under his sandals. She’s in jeans and an expensive, form fitting fleece. Clogs. Her curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail and held off her face with a brightly colored headband. She has her back to me but I can see from this angle that she has beautiful cheekbones and practical glasses. Her earrings are from a museum gift shop.

It’s pouring out and still early morning. Even though I’m only catching snatches of conversation, I know they are talking about how to make big decisions. Talking about the way people in their lives, a son maybe or sister, are resilient. Anticipating consequence. At one point, he tells her the story of a great betrayal. I don’t mean to listen—but up look up accidentally from my book and catch him wiping tears when he says, “He was the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Tall, grown men crying breaks my heart. Nothing else makes me want to solve everything in the world that can’t be solved more than a crying man, not even when my own children weep (children always weep). “I either want to come back to Brooklyn,” she says suddenly, “or Boston.” I understand, I think. “But do you have another offer in Boston?” he answers and there’s more silence before she answers with a long discourse on failings that I can’t hear but think would sound too familiar if I did. Boring to hear one’s own endless neuroses rehearsed once that first shock of recognition has evaporated.

They stand to leave. They embrace with great affection and sadness, for letting each other go, for having to let each other go. Affection so chaste and enduring. The physical contact of a lifetime. I see now as he turns from her and walks out the door, upright and bravely inclined as tall people are, before he even hits the street, against the rain. Leaving her standing behind, phone already in hand, preparing for the next moment of her day. I see now what’s been grotesquely evident all along, they are not lovers, they are father and daughter.

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.

Cat Without A Tail

Monday, September 11, 2017 | Permalink

Minna Zallman Proctor is the author of Landslide: True Stories, out September 15th from Catapult. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Writing the occasional piece, such as this one, is a special kind of torture. Not least because I’ve had in mind for as long as I can remember putting names to forms that the term “occasional piece” actually and officially described something literary (and not a piece of furniture). And that “something” would correlate to a blog post—a gorgeous lineage that would have taken its primordial urge in vast antiquity, philosophy and spiritual writing, taken form under Montaigne and rolled forward steadily gathering variations on substance and style through Virginia Woolf, to the contemporary moment. Though if the writing has been a shapely snowball descending through the centuries, its labels have been troublesome entropic pebbles. I have decided to call this an “occasional piece” for the same decorative reasons that I decided my book of personal essays should be referred to not as personal essays but as true stories and although there were moments in the course of writing them that I was convinced I was advancing theories of narrative forms, I was more accurately writing memoir. Oh, for the days when everything long was a novel and everything short a story.

There are three most important tools for an essayist, or memoirist: truth, storytelling, and observation. Though classified historically as automatic writing or stream-of-consciousness, seldom as memoir, Virginia Woolf’s occasional pieces are paragons of intricate and sensitive observation, in which the evolution of her perception is always the story itself, and truth breathes like an organism in her perfect transparency.

Virginia Woolf tossed them off—my fantastical perception. I have this (potentially ahistorical) idea that in the period before blog posts, the occasional piece was an exercise, a writing calisthenic that Woolf performed muscularly between novels. She was exercising her pencil—why a pencil? Because it was the pursuit of a pencil that led her out walking “half across London,” late afternoon, in “Street Haunting.” “No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one.” Though widely anthologized, however, I can’t read “Street Haunting” with pleasure. To me it reads too much like work, like sweaty, impeccably executed calisthenics and a treatise on observation: “The eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances.”

Her pencil led her in brilliant circles. Frequently cited as Woolf’s first published “short story,” “The Mark on the Wall,” is more than story or essay in any classical sense a dramatic musing. I have a colleague who lectures eloquently about “The Mark of the Wall,” singing out in his lectures the brutal devastation of the First World War—the voluminous compression of a war story seen in a spot. As devastating the final shrinking of all life, all those young boys’ lives lost, to a mark on the wall, I can’t read that magnificent piece as anything but an indictment of domesticity. This pencil at work, flying over the pages, almost orgiastically as it searches for what, or rather where, the mind will lead, I hold my breath every time because I know what’s coming—they always do in real life. There’s “a vast upheaval of matter and someone is standing over me—.” Her husband has walked into the room, the scene, onto the page. The spell is broken as it always is when a writer is absorbed back into life. The piece must end because that was the time allotted by circumstances to the thought, the journey, the door on the room of her own, after which there must be resolve. It is only a piece and inspired yet formed entirely, as blog posts must also be, by its occasional-ness.

My heart instead belongs entirely to “The Death of the Moth.” For in this very small piece a battle is waged for significance, vastness, and eternity by a very small moth—“He was little or nothing but life”—and the moth wins. Because in the course of this most remarkable account, Woolf transforms the moth: “Watching him,” she writes, “it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body.” Here Woolf ignites a cosmology, a spiritual transcendence, the link between her ability to see, witness, observe and what’s vast and unseeable, what makes faith.

With her pencil, Woolf prods at the moth in her window frame, as if by righting its tiny body, she could suspend its death throes. “I lifted the pencil again,” she writes “useless though I knew it to be.” But a moth, coming to the end of its life cycle, doesn’t need saving from death—the gesture is useless—it needs, we need, its life to be saved from insignificance. Which she does, ultimately, by lifting her pencil and putting it to paper—a moth, a testament, the book—immortalizing the moment, this moment, and linking it to eternity.

Can one hope that in all these words, this proliferation of words that fills every screen and waking moment, there are some few, exquisite ones that can stop time long enough to see God?

Minna Zallman Proctor is a writer, critic, and translator who currently teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she is also editor in chief of The Literary Review. Her most recent book is Landslide: True Stories. She is also the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling and has translated eight books from Italian, including Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives. She lives in Brooklyn.

A Year of Memoirs

Friday, September 08, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about the value of personal writing. Today, she delves into the many memoirs she read before writing her own, The Book of Separation, out later this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Before I could write a memoir, I needed to read.

I was primarily a fiction writer and read mostly novels. But before writing The Book of Separation, I decided to spend a year reading only memoir. I asked friends and fellow writers for suggestions. I made lists and assembled a stack of books. I kept a notebook where I wrote about what I could learn from each memoir. How did the author structure the story? How did the author make use of flashbacks? How did the author create a compelling voice?

I began by re-reading two of my favorite memoirs: Devotion by Dani Shapiro and Aftermath, by Rachel Cusk. I loved Devotion for its probing questions and compassionate voice, Aftermath for its blunt force honesty. I had turned to these books for comfort as I navigated my divorce and leaving my Orthodox Jewish world, and my copies were well-worn, passages underlined, pages creased.

From there, I set out. Memoirs of childhood. Memoirs of addiction. Memoirs of divorce. Memoirs of coming of age. Memoirs of excursions and adventures. I scribbled notes in the margins, folded down the corners of pages I wanted to return to.

There were books whose stories haunted me – the voice of the writer pained, honest, bold. Reading them, I felt like I understood not just the author’s story but the world around me more deeply: Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped; Alice Sebold’s Lucky; Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and Western Dress; Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story.

There were books that parceled out wisdom about how to forge a genuine self: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick; Through the Door of Life, by Joy Ladin. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff was a coming of age story so sure-handed and moving that I devoured it in one sitting. In Cabin, Lou Ureneck turned the process of building a cabin into a pensive, moving exploration of family and growth.

Some books, like Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come, I read more than once. This memoir, about Fuller’s divorce set against the backdrop of her African family and upbringing, was lush and piercing. On each page, I stopped to take in a moment of beauty. “In the end, at least in this end,” she wrote, “the world beyond me and the world inside me could no longer exist in the same place and I broke.”

I underlined and underlined.

I was particularly interested to read memoirs of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world, especially Shulem Deen’s searing, masterful All Who Go Do Not Return, and Leah Vincent’s bold, powerful Cut Me Loose. In both, the pain of forging a change and the bravery required to do so was apparent on every page.

These bore much in common with memoirs that explored leaving other religious worlds. Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong describe the author’s journey to becoming a nun and then the slow leaving of her convent. What captivated me was her portrayal of the mystery and power of religious faith even as she describes the slow encroachment of doubt. I also loved Losing my Religion by William Lobdell, a Catholic journalist who covered the Catholic sexual abuse cases and whose faith was burned away as a result.

I savored Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer, which traces her desire to be a good girl inside her Evangelical Christian world, and the process by which she came to question her role there. In this book, the author’s voice jumped off the page and carried me into a world that was both foreign and familiar. “As far as I could tell,” Bauer writes about the official church teachings, “that was the only story told by the officious soul, and the real and true sadness had been excised for a more mellifluous account....”

I folded over this page. My Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Memphis was a world far from hers, yet I knew the feeling that parts of your experience were not permitted. The particulars might have varied, but the emotional truths landed close to home.

In all these memoirs, I found a common theme: the transformation of the self over time. In many of these memoirs, the author leaves one world and begins to make way for another. The kinds of leavings varied – leaving a religious world, a childhood, a destructive way of being, a former self. But in all, there was a palpable sense of the loneliness that comes with change and departure.

This was a feeling I knew well. In the years of leaving my marriage and religious community, I felt more than anything the sense of the known world receding – the way it looks when you set sail from a fixed shoreline and move into something that is uncertain and unmapped. Throughout those years, I wondered: did anyone around me feel this way too?

The answer, for me, came in these memoirs.

Reading memoir helped teach me how to write memoir. But most of all, my year of reading helped me feel a little less alone in the world. Now, when I look at these books on my shelves, I think of the authors as fellow travelers. These memoirs are books to take with you on the journey across.

Tova Mirvis is the author of the memoir The Book of Separation. She has also published three novels: Visible City,The Outside World, and The Ladies Auxiliary which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.