The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.
Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel The World Without You, which was named an Editors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and was the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. You can read more of his blogging for the Jewish Book Council here.
The story goes that in 1923, when my father, a shy five-year-old, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to talk to immigration officials, and they suspected he was a deaf mute. My grandfather couldn’t get my father to talk, and the family was threatened with deportation. But my father loved math, so my grandfather asked him some math questions. My father answered the questions, and the family was let in.
My grandfather was a well-known Orthodox rabbi and, as such, a teacher of Jewish law, and though he would have liked my father to follow in his footsteps, my father was hoping to teach math. Eventually, he went to law school, and after some years at the State Department and the U.N., he settled into life at Columbia Law School, where he was a professor for fifty years.
So the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And the apple spawned more apples: one of my brothers is a professor of history, the other a teacher of music. Did I have a choice but to become a teacher myself?
Yet I am, first and foremost, a novelist. Every morning, once my daughters are off to school, I walk the fifteen blocks to the Brooklyn Writers Space, where I find an empty cubicle, and where, keeping a promise to myself, I haven’t learned the Internet password. No food, no drink, no cell phones: although I’m surrounded by other writers, there might as well be no one else in the world besides the people I’ve invented who light up my screen.
But then afternoon comes and my stamina slackens and other obligations call. How does a novelist retool? The way anyone else does, I suppose. We watch movies and read books and eat out in restaurants. We spend time with our family, and with our friends. Two years ago, I started to take piano lessons. I’ve even begun to work out with a personal trainer: no surer sign of encroaching middle age.
But the real way I retool is by teaching. It’s strange, I know, to look at my day job in this way, but I do. I direct the fiction MFA Program at Brooklyn College, which means that I get to teach some of the finest young writers in the country. In a typical year, we get close to 500 applicants for fifteen spots.
Teaching fiction writing brings me back to my own roots as a writer. I’m often asked whether I always wanted to be a writer, and the answer is, Yes, I always wanted to be a writer, but then I also always wanted to be a basketball player, and at some point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough.
I was, in fact, a decent basketball player; I was the captain of my high school varsity basketball team. But I went to a small Jewish high school in New York City, where being captain put me in mind of that line from Ethics of the Fathers: He’vay zanav la’arayot, v’al t’hee rosh la’shooalim. Be the tail of the lions and don’t be the head of the foxes. Well, being the captain of my high school basketball team wasn’t like being the head of the foxes; it was like being the head of the mice.
And, so, I went off to college understanding that basketball wasn’t in my future. I felt the same way about writing: it was a dream. But then I graduated and got a job at a magazine where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction submissions. I saw how many terrible ones there were, and I felt oddly inspired. I thought if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure, too.
I tell this story, in part, because a fiction writer risks failure every day. But I tell it, also, because I was intuitively good at figuring out what wasn’t working in other people’s stories long before I was good at writing fiction myself. I had to teach myself to become a more intuitive writer.
It’s what I continue to do when I teach my graduate students. I’m teaching them, but I’m also teaching myself. I may be more experienced than they are, but we’re all struggling with the same things: how to tell a story, how to make our characters jump off the page, how to use language that sings. Writing workshop meets in the evening, and the next morning I’m ready to take my own advice to heart, ready to log in the hours.
The other thing about teaching is you’re engaged with actual human beings. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy for fiction writers to forget this. We spend so much time with imaginary human beings, it’s a relief to be in the company of real ones. Teaching enlivens me. Or, in the words of my late father, whose mother tongue was Yiddish, it’s a mechaye.