The ProsenPeople

The Poet of Thompson Street

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joseph Helmreich wrote about writing what you know—and what you don’t. With the release of his debut novel, The Return, Joseph is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Photo: Martin Duffy

In the summer of 2006, fresh from a brief stint at Hebrew University, I took an internship as a script-reader for a New York film studio, hoping to jumpstart a career in the “pictures.”

To my surprise, life at the studio turned out to be fairly mellow. Sure, at any moment you could be asked to read a novel, screen the upcoming film based on that novel, and turn in “coverage” of both by morning. But by and large, it was a far cry from the hustle and bustle glamorized in shows like Entourage. Mostly, interns read scripts and books at our leisure, dreamily escaping into other writers’ fantasies while marveling at how their hotshot agents had let the material loose with multiple typos and incorrect formatting.

When it came time for lunch, though, I’d indulge in a different sort of escapism. Since kosher food in the neighborhood was scarce, I would make my way to NYU’s Weinstein cafeteria where, dining amongst students and professors alike, I would live out the cosmopolitan NYU experience I never had. On the walk there and back, I would soak up the bars and cafes of MacDougal Street, the crowds and buskers of Washington Square Park, the famed, past-their-prime rock clubs of Bleecker Street.

I always paid particular attention to coffee shops, eager to spot any of the distinguished philosophers I’d studied in college (NYU has the highest-ranked philosophy program in the world). Once, glancing into a café window on University Place, I thought I’d finally found one. When I took a second look, I realized it was actually the poet, Samuel Menashe.

Menashe, who lived much of his life in a small railroad flat on Thompson Street, was a paradoxical figure, famously obscure. Although revered by a select group of critics and peers, he somehow never achieved the wider audience he deserved and in 2003, at the age of 79, he became the first-ever recipient of the Poetry Foundation's "Neglected Masters Award."

I had seen him recite at the Bowery Poetry Club once. His poems were powerful, concise works with spiritual themes and evocative titles like “All My Friends are Homeless” and “No Jerusalem But This.” When another poet later remarked from the stage that she didn't memorize her poetry like Menashe did, he’d called out from the crowd, in a genteel voice that reminded me of Jimmy Stewart and Pete Seeger, "I don't memorize my poems—I know them because I wrote them!"

Menashe had just finished lunch at the cafe and as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, I approached and expressed my admiration for his work. He was friendly and gracious. But when he asked about my vocation and I explained that I evaluated screenplays for a movie studio, he suddenly looked aghast.

"You mean you decide whose work will be considered and whose won’t? My God, what an awful responsibility!"

Well, I explained, trying not to stammer, I did my best not to discard anything of quality,

"But how can you know?"

In his 2011 New York Times obituary of Menashe, William Grimes would quote Stephen Spender’s assessment that Menashe’s poetry “compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds” and would remark that though his work often appeared in important journals, “he wrote and lived as a bohemian, and throughout his career encountered difficulties in finding a book publisher.”

He had of course been right that day in Greenwich Village. I couldn’t truly know that I wasn’t passing over richly deserving work. Surely, there was no one who better understood why that mattered than Samuel Menashe, the poet of Thompson Street, the great Neglected Master.

Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return and co-author of Warring Parents, Wounded Children and the Wretched World of Child Custody. In addition to his writing, he is a member of the alternative folk duo Honeybrick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.

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Writing What You Know—Or What You Don't

Monday, March 13, 2017 | Permalink

Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return, a science fiction novel about a vanished astrophysicist who reappears six years later and inspires a cult following—despite denying he was abducted or ever even missing. With the release of the book this Tuesday, Joseph is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

“Write what you know.” At some point, every beginning writer hears this controversial piece of advice. While there’s been considerable debate over its exact meaning, there’s no denying that its simplest interpretation has allure. Does anyone think John Updike could have written about Newark Jews with the same insight and realism as Philip Roth? Or that Roth, working out of his clapboard house in Connecticut, could have composed a story collection about Indian Americans to rival Interpreter of Maladies? Knowledge and experience breed authenticity and authenticity matters; this is especially true in today’s cultural landscape, where the trait is no longer seen as merely an artistic virtue but—as the recent controversy surrounding Lionel Shriver’s comments at the Brisbane Writers Festival demonstrates—often a moral one, as well. The writer who relies too heavily on imagination over life experience can invite charges of cultural insensitivity or, worse, appropriation.

But “write what you know” is more than just pragmatic or even ethical advice. The maxim reflects the genuine artistic impulse to share. Writers have deep, personal connections to what they know, and writing about these subjects—their hometowns, families, communities, personal struggles, etc.—often transcends the simple transfer of knowledge. The writer bares their soul, exorcises their psychological demons, bring us into their world, and in doing so, bonds with the reader as the personal gradually transfigures into the universal.

And yet, there are other kinds of writers and other reasons to write. In fact, we sometimes learn the most from the writers who started out knowing the least. When Tom Wolfe delved into the variously alien worlds of psychedelic hippiedom, fighter jocks and astronauts, and Wall Street “Masters of the Universe”, he emerged with works of prose that are not only realistic and engaging, but are widely regarded as definitive. As opposed to being limited by his ignorance, Wolf used his outsider status to his advantage, dressing deliberately out of place in flashy white suits so as to provoke people into explaining things to him. Like the great journalist he is, writing for Wolfe has always been a process of learning as much as teaching and, in both his fiction and non-fiction, he takes his readers along for the ride. If Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion or Margaret Atwood or even Philip Roth had embarked on all their books by considering only what they already knew, their oeuvres would undoubtedly be thin and far less interesting.

When I began writing my science fiction novel, The Return, I didn’t consciously set out to explore topics with which I was unfamiliar. But when the story demanded it, I didn’t fight it either, and so I soon found myself researching quantum mechanics (I was a C+ physics student), Catholicism (I’m an observant Jew), and coastal Spain (my European excursions are largely limited to the concentration camps in Poland). I can’t say that my treatment of these subjects will necessarily read as accurate to those more familiar with them.

I also readily admit that in my book’s genre, that might not matter much. Authenticity is inevitably less scrutinized in a sci fi thriller than it is in literary fiction. In a book like mine, the plotting much more than the setting, prose, or dialogue, is the lifeblood of the story.

Still, I’m sure there are many who would have encouraged me to stick to what I “knew” and in some sense, they’d be right. My descriptions of Spain will never match Cervantes or Javier Marías’s. I can’t expound on theoretical physics like Neil deGrasse Tyson and my writings on Christian theology probably fall short of Dan Brown’s, to say nothing of Milton’s. I hope I got more right than wrong, but either way, for me, the challenge of tackling these less familiar subjects made for a richer and more exciting writing experience. I’d like to think that the sense of adventure and curiosity it brought out in me will also be contagious to the reader.

“Write what you know” is useful advice, but, like all artistic advice, it needs to be taken with a good dose of skepticism and applied carefully. In the end, a spirit of openness, possibility and risk-taking may be more valuable than a timeworn adage that, sensible as it may be, ultimately encourages us to play it safe.

Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return and co-author of Warring Parents, Wounded Children and the Wretched World of Child Custody. In addition to his writing, he is a member of the alternative folk duo Honeybrick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.

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