Ear­li­er this week, Shulem Deen wrote about New Hap­py And World­ly Hasidim.” He is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a mem­oir about grow­ing up in and then leav­ing the Hasidic Jew­ish world. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

I don’t remem­ber pre­cise­ly when it began, but at some point, about a decade ago, as a 30-year-old liv­ing among one of the U.S.’s most insu­lar Hasidic sects, I had this fan­ta­sy: I want­ed to go away to the Iowa Writer’s Work­shop and earn an MFA in cre­ative writing. 

How exact­ly did I learn about Iowa, or MFAs, or writ­ing work­shops? I can no longer recall. Just a few years ear­li­er, at age 25, I bare­ly knew the dif­fer­ence between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, or even what a major” was. The idea of get­ting a col­lege degree seemed as remote as meet­ing the Pope on the Mon­sey Trails bus. But at some point I learned that the Iowa Writer’s Work­shop was where peo­ple went to become writ­ers. And I want­ed to be a writer.

At age 33, I left the Hasidic world. I had learned a lot by then — I knew what a major was, and the dif­fer­ence between a bachelor’s and a master’s. But I nev­er did get to Iowa, or any oth­er cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram. Or even any old bachelor’s degree. Life got in the way, and I lost my roman­tic notions of Amer­i­can high­er edu­ca­tion. But when an oppor­tu­ni­ty came to write a book, I knew that it meant com­mit­ting not only to writ­ing but also to teach­ing myself how to write. 

The Iowa Writer’s Work­shop had been a dream because the pro­gram was leg­endary — one of the first such pro­grams in the coun­try — but when I began to lay out the first draft of my book, I real­ized why I real­ly need­ed it, or some­thing like it; I need­ed a basic under­stand­ing of lit­er­ary craft, an immer­sive envi­ron­ment in which I could exper­i­ment with form and tech­nique, and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend time with oth­er stu­dents as well as with sea­soned writ­ers who had already pro­duced bod­ies of work from whom to learn. But such an envi­ron­ment was not an option at that point — I’d com­mit­ted to the book and had loom­ing dead­lines. I had no choice, I real­ized, but to cre­ate my own MFA writ­ing program. 

Read, read, read—this is every sea­soned writer’s advice to novice writers.

I was poor­ly read. Sec­u­lar books are scarce with­in most Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties, and for­mal edu­ca­tion — aside from reli­gious stud­ies — is mea­ger. I’d had only spot­ty expo­sure to Eng­lish lan­guage books, and I’d nev­er giv­en myself to the task of read­ing any­thing of qual­i­ty. As much read­ing as I had done over the years, I’d done none of the required read­ing of a high school or col­lege stu­dent. And so I knew that I’d have to start my writ­ing edu­ca­tion by read­ing more widely. 

Not know­ing any bet­ter, I took to the clas­sics, Amer­i­can authors in par­tic­u­lar: Melville, Twain, Hem­ing­way, Fitzger­ald, Salinger. Read­ing these was impor­tant, but they were not par­tic­u­lar­ly instruc­tive about writ­ing. The read­ing often felt tedious, at least on the first read; I would nev­er have picked these books out of a pile — and so it was hard for me to see what made them great. I had nei­ther my own devel­oped aes­thet­ic nor any­one else’s mea­sure for great­ness. I had only one mea­sure: Am I enjoy­ing this? And the answer for much of it was: not really. 

I broad­ened my selec­tions, tried tack­ling some of the oth­er greats — the Rus­sians, the French — but my read­ing was hap­haz­ard, dis­or­ga­nized, with no nat­ur­al pro­gres­sion that might’ve helped me learn any­thing. I slogged through Dos­toyevsky with lit­tle appre­ci­a­tion for either the prose style or its themes, then took up Joyce and Faulkn­er and under­stood next to noth­ing at all.

As I was to learn, not all read­ing leads direct­ly to bet­ter writ­ing. Read­ing intel­li­gent­ly takes skill, and before such skill is cul­ti­vat­ed, read­ing indis­crim­i­nate­ly and with­out guid­ance can be frus­trat­ing and counter-pro­duc­tive and it can leave you try­ing to imi­tate writ­ers you have no busi­ness imi­tat­ing. It took a while for me to learn the dif­fer­ence between good books and books to learn writ­ing from. The clas­sics, I real­ized, as impor­tant as they are, are par­tic­u­lar­ly clunky as ele­men­tary writ­ing instruc­tion — espe­cial­ly when you’re your own instructor.

I did even­tu­al­ly find my foot­ing, both as a read­er and a writer. I real­ized that a book has to res­onate in a cer­tain way before it can be instruc­tive. You don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have to like the book, but you have to get a feel for what it is attempt­ing to do, both as a whole and in its parts. 

It’s hard to say at what point and with which books I began to feel that nec­es­sary res­o­nance, but at some point I began to notice things — a page that held me cap­tive, a turn of phrase par­tic­u­lar­ly ele­gant, a metaphor that did exact­ly what it was sup­posed to — and I would go back and see how it was done. I began to see more clear­ly when a work had some­thing for me to learn from and when it was some­thing only to mar­vel at, be inspired by, but to know that it was a dif­fer­ent sort of writ­ing from my own, and that some voic­es stand only to be admired — a do-not-try-this-at-home kind of writ­ing, best left to sea­soned lit­er­ary stunt­men. (Hen­ry Miller is for me the best exam­ple of this.)

In the end, it wasn’t the clas­sics that taught me most, but con­tem­po­raries. Frank Con­roy and Tobias Wolff taught me about set­ting up scenes, and mak­ing good use of dia­logue. Mary Carr and Rick Bragg were inspir­ing for their exhil­a­rat­ing lan­guage, even if I could nev­er hope to mim­ic such flu­id­ly exquis­ite prose. James Bald­win’s beau­ti­ful­ly wind­ing nar­ra­tive essays, with its vivid descrip­tions of grit and racial despair ren­dered in lan­guage so effort­less­ly mes­mer­iz­ing, put me on the look­out for arti­fice in my own writ­ing, forced me to more stren­u­ous­ly weed out clunk, and to let my para­graphs flow with a more nat­ur­al rhythm. 

I also read books on writ­ing, and some of them would prove indis­pens­able. John Gardner’s The Art of Fic­tion remains an invalu­able man­u­al on essen­tial nar­ra­tive tech­niques. Stephen King’s On Writ­ing, with its unique blend of guide and mem­oir, is both instruc­tive and inspir­ing. Some­times, all I need­ed to get me going was the image of a writer at work, or a master’s thoughts on writ­ing, and for those, the many long form inter­views in The Paris Review were both a treat and an impe­tus for get­ting to work. 

Most impor­tant­ly, after read­ing many dozens of works — nov­els, mem­oirs, short sto­ry col­lec­tions, and essays — I learned that to write com­pelling prose I’d have to emp­ty my mind and find my own voice, which would be marked­ly dif­fer­ent from any author I’ve read — and that this is what makes writ­ing good, not the oth­er way around.

I had many crises of con­fi­dence while writ­ing. There were times when I thought the whole under­tak­ing to have been fol­ly. I’d berate myself for think­ing that an ex-Hasid with lit­tle for­mal edu­ca­tion could teach him­self, while near­ing mid­dle age, what oth­ers pay exor­bi­tant sums of mon­ey to learn. If only I’d got­ten that MFA, I would think, I’d know how to set this scene, per­fect that awk­ward tran­si­tion, replace a clunky metaphor with a stream of effort­less­ly breath­tak­ing prose. 

A cri­sis of con­fi­dence does noth­ing to make a dead­line go away, though, and I had no choice but to go on. My book took four years to write, and the dual task of teach­ing myself as I went made much of the process tor­ment­ing. By the time I sub­mit­ted that final draft to my pub­lish­er in Feb­ru­ary 2014 I had very near­ly exhaust­ed myself. But it also remains the most exhil­a­rat­ing work I’ve done in my 40 years of life. I would glad­ly do it all over again. 

Shulem Deen is the found­ing edi­tor of Unpious, an online jour­nal for voic­es on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brook­lyn Rail, Tablet Mag­a­zineThe Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward, and else­where. He serves as a board mem­ber at Foot­steps, a New York City-based orga­ni­za­tion that offers assis­tance and sup­port to those who have left the ultra-Ortho­dox Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. He lives in Brook­lyn, New York.

Relat­ed Content:

Shulem Deen is a for­mer Skver­er Hasid and the found­ing edi­tor of Unpious. His work has appeared in The Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward, Tablet, and Salon. He lives in Brook­lyn, NY.