Ear­li­er this week, Mar­jorie Ingall wrote about step­ping out of ghost­writ­ing to write her first book since 1998. With the pub­li­ca­tion of that book, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jew­ish Moth­ers Do to Raise Suc­cess­ful, Cre­ative, Empa­thet­ic, Inde­pen­dent Chil­dren, Mar­jorie is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on the The ProsenPeo­ple.

1. I did a met­ric ton of research. When I was in col­lege, I dealt with my fear of writ­ing papers by exfo­li­at­ing. Through an excel­lent and pro­tract­ed skin-care reg­i­men, fol­lowed by the rit­u­al clean­ing of the dorm room and doing laun­dry until 4:00 AM, I worked myself into enough of a last-minute pan­ic that I could actu­al­ly sit down to write. This is not a great strat­e­gy for a 47-year-old woman. So I dealt with my anx­i­ety by doing more and more and more research. I was con­vinced that once I knew every­thing in the entire world about every­thing in the entire world, the book would flow out of me like sweet­ened con­densed milk out of a dorm fridge after my roommate’s stash tipped over. 

2. I was ter­ri­fied of writ­ing in my own voice. As a ghost­writer, I found the very notion con­fus­ing. How schol­ar­ly should I be? How much of my fun­ny blog­ger (www​.sor​ry​watch​.com) voice should I use and how much of my jour­nal­ism voice? Who the hell was I? Since I could not decide, my first draft was both late and ter­ri­ble. My best friend, a nov­el­ist, told me I sound­ed unable to own my author­i­ty. She point­ed out that I kept default­ing to oth­er people’s words to dri­ve my own points home. I quot­ed big wads of aca­d­e­m­ic texts. I sourced every­thing mul­ti­ple times. I sound­ed pre­ten­tious, uncom­fort­able and stilt­ed. You can be self-dep­re­cat­ing while still sound­ing con­fi­dent and eru­dite,” she told me gen­tly. It took a long time for me to relax into that advice. Per­haps para­dox­i­cal­ly, I had to learn to sound like myself. 

3. Dead­lines! When you’re writ­ing a book, dead­lines are fake! Sure, you can put arbi­trary due dates for each chap­ter in your cal­en­dar, but when you’re writ­ing arti­cles that have to be filed every week, or mag­a­zine sto­ries that have to come in on time or no one will ever hire you again, you know that book dead­lines are stretchy and fun­gi­ble. Also, book pay­ments come in very slow­ly. Pay­ments for one’s reg­u­lar gigs come in more quick­ly. One deludes one­self about what one should be doing at any giv­en moment.

Also one needs to check Face­book and Twit­ter constantly. 

4. The state of pub­lish­ing. I went through three edi­tors and two pub­li­cists (at last count) over the course of work­ing on Mamaleh Knows Best. Chaot­ic times, chang­ing indus­try. My first edi­tor was a Mem­ber of the Tribe with a small child, and her edi­to­r­i­al ques­tions seemed tar­get­ed to read­ers like her. My sec­ond edi­tor was the par­ent to much old­er chil­dren and was not her­self Jew­ish; her pri­ma­ry inter­est seemed to me to be broad­en­ing the book’s read­er­ship. Final­ly, I was accus­tomed to writ­ing celebri­ty books, which are not, shall we say, heav­i­ly edit­ed. So I was sur­prised to get detailed, pas­sion­ate edi­to­r­i­al notes on each chap­ter. The part of me that came of age writ­ing for women’s mag­a­zines was a peo­ple-pleas­er and want­ed to do every­thing the edi­tors sug­gest­ed; the part of me that had a spe­cif­ic vision for the book (a blend of social his­to­ry, folk­lore and mythol­o­gy, humor, the­ol­o­gy and par­ent­ing, high cul­ture and pop cul­ture) want­ed to push back. It was uncom­fort­able. My sec­ond edi­tor was frus­trat­ed by my harp­ing on Philip Roth; I knew I wasn’t doing a great job explain­ing why his work was essen­tial to under­stand­ing the weight of the Jew­ish moth­er stereo­type, but I couldn’t accom­plish what I want­ed to. (My edi­tor was also hor­ri­fied that I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to keep a para­graph about Portnoy’s food­stuff-relat­ed mas­tur­ba­to­ry habits, com­par­ing them to the pas­try pen­e­tra­tion in Amer­i­can Pie. Why is this here?” she kept demand­ing. This will turn off your read­er com­plete­ly!” Ulti­mate­ly, I decid­ed that a dis­cus­sion of Jew­ish men ejac­u­lat­ing into comestibles was not the hill I wished to die on. In the end, there is per­haps less Philip Roth in my book than there should be, but few­er peo­ple will gag while read­ing it, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.) Ulti­mate­ly, edit­ing made this book much, much bet­ter. And short­er: I cut 20,000 words from the sec­ond draft. Every­one says edi­tors don’t edit any­more,” but this was not my expe­ri­ence, and no lie, I’m glad. 

5. Who is this book for? How Jew­ish should it be? How much knowl­edge should I assume the read­er has? Am I talk­ing about Jew­ish par­ent­ing now, or Jew­ish par­ent­ing in dif­fer­ent eras of his­to­ry, and what the hell is the dif­fer­ence? As I wrote and revised, I felt I was tap-danc­ing like crazy to reach read­ers of many dif­fer­ent back­grounds. (My favorite review so far is by a pop­u­lar, very crit­i­cal Goodreads review­er who is not Jew­ish and has no chil­dren— the fact that she enjoyed it will make me feel good to my dying day, ptui ptui ptui.) The wrestling act made the writ­ing act take much longer than I’d expect­ed. And I’m sure the book will frus­trate yeshi­va-bred read­ers for whom not enough mate­r­i­al is brand new, as well as goy­ish read­ers who feel it is too dang Jew­ish. Here, for exam­ple, is a sto­ry that was left on the cut­ting room floor because explain­ing Purim to the unini­ti­at­ed made it take too long to get to the punchline:

Back when my daugh­ter Josie was four, she was play­ing Queen Esther with my mom. Josie liked to dress in a tulle skirt, sun­glass­es, and mul­ti­ple strands of Mar­di Gras beads and plas­tic leis; then she’d line up her stuffed ani­mals on the couch and sit prim­ly at one end of the line with her hands fold­ed. Whichev­er fam­i­ly mem­ber she’d force to play Aha­suerus had to go down the line and inter­view each stuffed ani­mal about why it deserved to be his queen. My mom would always try to keep the process from focus­ing pure­ly on looks — even though that’s what the actu­al text does — because she want­ed Josie to think about qual­i­ties more impor­tant than phys­i­cal appear­ance. Mom would play an Aha­suerus look­ing for qual­i­ties like kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty, patience. Any­way, once Mom asked Josie, So, Esther, what qual­i­fies you to be my queen?” Josie looked at her like she was a moron and said, I have the skirt.”

Mar­jorie Ingall is a colum­nist for Tablet Mag­a­zine and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The New York Times Book Review. She has writ­ten for many oth­er mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers, includ­ing The For­ward (where she was The East Vil­lage Mamele), Real Sim­ple, Ms., Food & Wine, Glam­our, Self, and the late, lament­ed Sassy, where she was the senior writer and books editor.

Relat­ed Content:

Mar­jorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jew­ish Moth­ers Do to Raise Cre­ative, Empa­thet­ic, Inde­pen­dent Chil­dren, and The Field Guide to North Amer­i­can Males. A for­mer colum­nist for Tablet and the For­ward, she is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The New York Times Book Review and has writ­ten for a gazil­lion oth­er outlets.