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Why am I still struggling to write fiction?

            For a long time now I’ve been trying to be practical: I went out and got a social work degree because I thought I needed to have a practical career, and I discovered that wanting to be practical and being able to do those practical things is not the same at all; and then, or even before then, I tried to be more practical about my writing, and focus on what other people wanted me to write, instead of trusting myself and writing what I needed to write.

            I spent most of last summer working on essays about psychology and trauma, because that’s what I thought I should do, because it seemed more practical than writing fiction, and more likely to get published. But, while my therapist was somewhat happy with my efforts (nothing I write is quite how she would write it, so…), I found the writing difficult and frustrating, and alienating, and the rejections kept coming anyway.


            Back when I went to school to be a writer, the message was always that there is a right way to write: there are rules you have to follow, and styles and techniques that you have to master. But four years of graduate school (two masters degrees) didn’t teach me how to be that writer, they just instilled a lot of stop signs in my brain, telling me what not to do, and who not to be (basically me). And then came all of the rejections from the publishing world, for work my teachers thought would get accepted. It’s demoralizing to be rejected both for who you are and for who you aren’t. It doesn’t leave many options.

            But it would be unfair to blame my fiction block solely on those rejections. I haven’t felt safe writing fiction for a while now, partially because of the external voices telling me that I’m writing all the wrong things, but even more so because I’ve been afraid of the truths that will come out if I allow my imagination to run free. At least with memoir writing, I only have to deal with the things I was willing and able to do in my real life; in fiction I would be opening the door to all of the forbidden thoughts: all of the dreams and ideas and impulses I’ve refused to act on.

            The thing I’ve always loved about writing fiction is that I don’t have to worry so much about the truth. I don’t have to worry if I’m misquoting or mischaracterizing someone (or capturing them exactly as they are, but as they don’t want to be seen). I can play. As a kid that meant that I could write wish-fulfillment stories, and send my characters to exciting places and give them of all the money and friends and good looks I could ever want. But even then I discovered that letting my imagination go where it wanted to go meant that other things came up too, darker things that I didn’t want to deal with. I’d try to write my version of Fantasy Island, where everything was supposed to be perfect, and monsters would start climbing up the walls and crawling out from under the beds.


            I kept writing fiction, but I found ways to keep a lid on my imagination, listening to all of the No’s in my head, from teachers and family and friends and writing around all of those stop signs. Each story or novel took forever to write, with all of those interruptions, and the process was not fun, and I became more and more discouraged.

            But I can’t stop writing; that’s not one of the options. I want to be able to convince myself that the rejections are irrelevant, and that instead of writing what I think I am supposed to write, I should write the things I need to write. But even if I can overcome the first set of stop signs, I’m not sure I can convince myself that it’s safe to write whatever comes into my mind. I want to trust myself. I want to be ready to just write and let the chips fall where they may, but what if those chips explode in my face?

“Potato chips?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

How do I make the blog into a book?

What I like most about writing this blog is that it leads to conversations with people all around the world. I get advice, and sympathy, and connection, and crankiness, and humor, and on and on, until my three page investment turns into days of feeling like I am not at all alone.

pix from eos 006

“Look at all of our friends!”

The blog has taken the shape it has as a result of both the comments I get and the blogs I read. I’m not isolated or impervious; I absorb what I read and what I see and, mostly unconsciously, I challenge myself in response. The community aspect of blogging is so satisfying, but I still feel like a second tier writer, because I haven’t been accepted by the cool kids at the publishing houses and literary magazines.

“So not cool.”

I’ve been getting rejection letters from agents and publishers, telling me that I am a wonderful, talented, exquisite writer, but… but what? Isn’t that what I’ve spent my life working towards? Isn’t that the point? I can’t even begin to understand the market forces that turned publishing into this quagmire, whether there are just too many writers trying to get published, or too few publishers willing to take a risk.

When I was first looking for a graduate program in creative writing, and collecting rejections from the schools I’d applied to, I was told that MFA programs weren’t interested in my writing ability, they were interested in the uniqueness of my story. The writing, they believed, they could teach me, but they couldn’t teach me how to be interesting. I think agents and editors have taken the same view. They’re looking for a hook, a unique story, something the world is currently clamoring for, and if they have to rewrite every word, so be it. Most of them have graduate degrees in writing themselves.

It has been suggested to me that I try to make this blog into book, because dogs are popular lately, because people seem to like my blog posts, and because my novels are not getting picked up. But I don’t know. It feels like I’d be trying to make a piano into a guitar.

I’ve been reading through my blog posts from the beginning, and I’m not as disappointed as I was afraid I would be, but I’m also not magically coming up with an idea for how to structure it. Is it a book about writing the blog, or is it a book of the blog, not self-conscious, not even revised so much as sewn together?

My Delilah

Delilah is perplexed.

When I first started the blog, I was squeamish about memoir writing. One of the things I like most about writing fiction is that I can change things for the better. I can make up lives that I would want to live. It took me a while of writing blog posts to get desperate enough and brave enough to put more memoir and risk into the posts; to tell people who I really am, when I’m not just trying to be acceptable. And a lot of people reached out to me as a result, and showed deep understanding and compassion for me that I would never have gotten if I’d left out the painful parts.

Samson chewing on my brother.

Samson chewing on my brother.

I had a creative non-fiction teacher who said that the best way to write an essay is to bring two separate ideas together, and the drama and surprise will come from the place where the two ideas meet. I kept that in the back of my mind, not really getting it, until maybe a year into writing this blog. I started to notice that no matter how unrelated my chosen topic seemed to be to the theme of the blog – dogs – as soon as I forced myself to find a connection, the essay came together. For some reason, just writing about each topic that interests me can get bogged down, tedious, and flat, but when I try to combine it with the dogs, I find new things, new angles, that I didn’t know were there.


Dina always had her own way of seeing things.

Miss Butterfly.

Miss Butterfly brings socks and warmth.

Miss Cricket.

Miss Cricket makes everything more interesting.

I feel like every six months or so, I let myself reach down another level, admitting things that are scary to admit in public, showing another layer. And I’ve needed to do it this way, at this pace. I can only push my boundaries a little bit at a time, and only when I feel ready. I think there’s still a lot of room for me to grow, and that makes me worry about turning this into a memoir too soon.

I don’t want to lose this.