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Alumni Day

            I graduated with my MFA in fiction thirteen years ago, and I’ve never been to any of the Alumni events held by the school. First of all, it’s too expensive to fly to North Carolina and stay in a hotel and pay tuition. Second, I’ve been busy with other things for the past few years: taking psychology classes, then working on my MSW, and now teaching. But, to be honest, even if I could have made the time, or afforded the trip, I was too scared to go. I didn’t want to face people who had made more of their writing careers, or their teaching careers, or their editing and publishing careers than I had. I can barely keep my ego ticking as it is, and I was afraid that going back into that environment with so little to show for myself might crush me.

“You’re so melodramatic.”

            This year, because of Covid, the alumni programming was planned for Zoom, or something like Zoom. It would just be for one day, and free, and easy to get to, but I was still reluctant to go. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know that many people, and I was afraid that I would see people I did know, and didn’t really want to see again, but most of all, I was afraid that I would fall into a shame spiral, comparing myself to other people and how brave they are, and how persistent they’ve been, and how confident they are about their right to be heard. I was also afraid that the intellectual snobbery thing – we write literary fiction – would leak all over me and make me feel shitty, and my ego strength would return to where it was when I was in that school, and I would fall off an emotional cliff.

Given all of that, it was hard to understand why I was even considering going to this thing. It felt like some perverse way of testing myself, to see if I’ve changed in the past fifteen years. But I also felt guilty for not pushing myself to go to any of the previous years’ events, and missing out on the possibility that someone or something at one of those reunions could have helped me build my writing career. I don’t think I’ve ever really healed from the writing workshops in graduate school: the jealousy, the demeaning quality of the criticism, the conformity of the standards, the daily reality that everything is a competition for scarce resources… That’s why when I run writing workshops now, I try hard to make them therapeutic and welcoming and non-competitive, because my own experiences in writing workshops were so much the opposite.

            But then there was the boy. I think of him as a boy because we were both so immature when we met in graduate school. He’s off on his own track now, married with kids and a good job, and I’m still me. I wanted to see him, but only if he was going to smile at me and be happy to see me; I didn’t want to see him if he was going to pity me, or look down on me. And I didn’t even know if he would be there.

            Maybe most of all, I wanted to see if this one day return to graduate school could help me restart my confidence around trying to get published. I’ve been steely-eyed about making sure I get a blog post written each week, no matter what other responsibilities come up, but I haven’t been as strong-willed in the past few years about working on and sending out my other writing projects.

            It’s just so freaking hard to ignore the rejections.

“I accept you, Mommy!”

            I finally filled out the registration form for the Alumni event, thinking I could still decide not to go at the last minute. I chose a few sessions to go to, and gave myself permission to leave sessions early, or go to more of them, depending on how things went.

            I woke up early on Alumni day, well, earlier than I wanted to, and went to my first event in the living room. The timing of the first session was lucky, because I had my regular phone call with my therapist scheduled for right afterwards. That safety net was reassuring. I flipped through multiple screens looking for faces I might recognize, and then I checked the participants list. I saw a few familiar names from the school Facebook group, but not many from my time in the program, so I took a break for a few minutes, paced the floor, watched some terrible news, and then went back to the computer for a reading by one of the graduates from my time who’d been more successful than me. And I survived. The therapy break right afterwards was a relief, though, and then there was a writing workshop that felt more like a literature class, which is not my thing, and then I slept through a panel I’d wanted to go to, on book promotion, because I was exhausted from all of the zooming by then.

“Can I go back to sleep?”

            To make up for missing the Book Promotion panel, I forced myself to go to the first few minutes of the final event, an Open Mic, despite not having it on my to-do list ahead of time. I actually tried to stay for a while and support my fellow alumni but I couldn’t seem to sit still anymore, and I wanted to start writing this blog post, because I couldn’t really be sure what the day had meant to me until I could look at it in squiggles on the page.

             I was disappointed not to see the boy; maybe he’d gone to one of the sessions I’d skipped, or maybe he was too busy, or maybe he was just as afraid of returning to graduate school as I was, or maybe he was afraid of seeing me. And I was disappointed that I didn’t recognize many of the other alumni on the screen, and that my impulse to send out my work was still in snooze mode. I was disappointed that Alumni day hadn’t turned out to be a great step forward in my life, or a chance to confront deep dark old wounds, or get a great idea for a new book, but, the good news was that I didn’t fall into a shame spiral either. I’d given it a try, and then I’d listened to my discomfort and my own point of view, and I let myself shrug it off. That wouldn’t have been possible fifteen years ago, or ten, or even five. I was able to hear the old thoughts pass through my mind – you’re not trying hard enough to fit in, you’re not the right kind of writer, you don’t deserve success because you don’t know how to give people what they want – and I picked up each old thought like a Daddy Long Legs in the bathtub and I set it aside. And that was it.

            It was an anticlimactic experience, but, in its way, it was a significant step forward for me. I said yes to something that scared me, I gave it a try, and then when it didn’t work out, I was able to just let it go. And then I took the dogs out for a walk, wrote the first draft of this blog post, and watched a Hallmark movie, or two. Not such a bad day after all.

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?         

I Miss Going to the Library

            I used to go to the library at least once a week, to browse the videos, or check out new books, or pick up a few crossword puzzles from the research librarian’s desk. There was usually a book or two that had to go back to the library, or a book someone told me I had to read, and, once there, I could always find something on the recommended-book cart, or in the seasonal display where they set out books on different themes, like biographies of athletes for the Olympics, or scary stories for Halloween, or beach reads for the summer, or political thrillers for election day.

            But I haven’t been to the library since the world shut down in March. Sometime early in the summer, I think, my local library began to allow pick up and drop off of books: you could order a book online and they’d call when it was ready and schedule a time for you to pick it up. But I haven’t done that. At first I didn’t need any books, because I still had a pile of paperbacks that I had, coincidentally, ordered right before the shutdown (there was a mysteries series I was binging and I couldn’t find the earliest books in our local library system). But when those books ran out, I still didn’t think of browsing for library books online.

            I can’t seem to browse for fiction online. Non-fiction is easier, because I either know which author I want to read, or I’m looking for research books on a specific topic and my expectations for great art or entertainment are limited, especially because I read non-fiction a few pages at a time rather than in a binge, the way I tend to read fiction.

“Is fiction another word for chicken?”

            The other reason I didn’t go looking for books at the library is because I’ve been re-reading a lot of the books on my shelves for a while now, in an attempt to see which ones I don’t really need anymore, so that I can make room for new books. A project I thought would take a few months has turned into years, because to do the project justice, of course, I’ve had to re-read each book from beginning to end before deciding to let it go.

            Most of the fiction in my life lately comes in the form of movies and television, and that’s been fine, but at some point, I really will need my local library to open back up. I’ll need to wander past the shelves of books and let a cover catch my eye, or trigger my memory of an author I read years ago and lost track of. I’ll need to see a pile of books waiting to be shelved and remember a book I’ve long wanted to read and never got around to. I’ll need to see cover art to give me a hint about what kind of book the author, or her publisher, thinks she’s written. Is it a cozy mystery? An intellectual tome? A romance? A fantasy? Or maybe I’ll just be in a blue mood, and any book with a blue cover will suddenly glow at me and call out for my attention (I’ve found some really good surprises that way over the years, and a lot of crap too. It’s not a perfect system).

“Can I eat your book now?”

            There’s something to be said for having a book with a time limit. A two-week book has to be read right away, even if you have a lot of work to do, which gives the reading more urgency and importance. A pile of three- or four-week books feels like a luxury at first, but then starts to cause anxiety and turns into an emergency by the end of the second week of leisurely meandering through the first book on the pile.

            I wonder, now that I think of it, if it’s only my local library that’s still closed. Maybe in other parts of the country, or other parts of Long Island, they left their libraries open the whole time, or opened them sooner than in my town. I think bookstores must have reopened by now, but I rarely go, because a new hard-cover book is way too expensive for me, unless I’m absolutely sure I will love it.

            Luckily, the dogs haven’t been lacking for “reading” material. They get their stories by sniffing the grass in the backyard, and that local library never closed, even in the early days of the Covid shutdown when people were afraid to go outside. The girls have never had to wear a mask that could block their ability to sniff, and they’ve never had to avoid familiar places in order to practice social distancing. Their lives have been pretty idyllic, actually. The only activity that’s been delayed, for them, is a yearly visit to the vet.

“When I say run, we run!”

            It’s probably a good thing for me that the library is still closed, though. The temptation to wander, and touch all of the books, would be too strong. I would forget about Covid and meander too close to someone without a mask, or, even more dangerous, I’d find a pile of books and fall into a wormhole and forget to come back out in time to teach my students, or walk the dogs. And I know two dogs who just wouldn’t stand for that. They don’t understand why I can’t sniff the grass for stories the way they do, and I have to say, it’s one of the many disappointments of being born human.

“Being a dog IS better, Mommy.”

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?

I Am Struggling with the Sequel to Yeshiva Girl

For years I thought I had a solid draft of the second Yeshiva Girl book tucked away, just waiting for the first book to be published so I could neaten it up and publish it soon after. But last year, when I opened the file on my computer and looked at the draft, I was underwhelmed. It was a mess. There were at least three competing versions of the story running around, all incomplete. I had added to, and revised, the file over the years without remembering most of what I’d done.

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“Like I forget that I already ate breakfast?”

 

Reading through what I had, finally, I realized that I was still undecided about where the book should even be set, in time or space. Parts were set in high school, parts were set in college, parts were set in Izzy’s grandparents’ house, and parts were set in a skating rink.

One of the dangers of writing autobiographical fiction is that it’s hard to know which details from real life to keep, and which ones to change. The second Yeshiva Girl book will have to be even less memoir than book one, because I made such a point of giving Izzy a soft place to land in book one, something I didn’t have in real life.

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Happy girl!

I want Izzy to have a better life than I’ve had, with love and children and professional success, but I don’t want to downplay the impacts of trauma, because I know better. I want to find a way to let Izzy struggle, so that other survivors can be validated and recognize their own struggle in hers. I want people to know that child abuse, of every kind, leaves deep scars, and that expecting victims to recover on their own, without support, is unrealistic. That’s just not how humans work. But, I still want Izzy to have a happier life than I’ve had. That’s why I gave her a living grandfather, even though my own grandfather died when I was eight years old. And I want to play that out for her, how having that safe place at age sixteen makes a difference in her life, but also, I want to show that it won’t be a magical cure either.

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“I prefer magic, Mommy.”

It feels like there are at least ten ways to write the second book, and I almost need to write out all ten in order to feel like I’ve done the work and gotten as much as I need to get out of the process of writing it. In the end, that’s what I did with the first book. I was satisfied with what was on the page because I’d had the chance to write, and delete, every other possible version of the story.

One of the decisions I have to make is about using flashbacks. I have been told, too many times, about the danger of telling stories in flashback. I had a fiction teacher in graduate school who was fierce about the things we shouldn’t use in our writing. Like, no dreams, no flashbacks, and no stories about girls getting their periods.

I really think the second Yeshiva Girl book would benefit from flashbacks, so that I can set the book further in the future without losing good details from the in-between years. And I want to use dreams. I have found dreams to be incredibly vivid in their ability to show how things feel.

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“Like when I catch the squirrel?!”

Also, for my own wish fulfillment, I want Izzy’s father to go to jail, or die, or get some fair comeuppance, because my real father did not. I joke that God sent at least ten plagues his way, but none of them worked. The fact is that he has never acknowledged his guilt, or responsibility, for anything.

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“Grrr.”

It’s these endless inner conflicts that keep getting in my way, but they are also the reason why I need to write this book in the first place. I’m just not sure how to speed up the work, so that I’ll still have time to write everything else I need to write before I run out of energy. Or time.

 

YG with Cricket

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?

 

 

The Book is Ready

 

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I’ve spent many years trying to publish my first novel, Yeshiva Girl, through the traditional publishing route: sending it out to agents, and then watching as my agent collected rejections for me, and then sent it out again, and again. I had hoped that the #MeToo movement would be a sign that the world was ready for Izzy, but the rejections kept rolling in. Izzy has a story to tell that I think a lot of people can relate to, in one way or another. And, fundamentally, I didn’t want her to be alone on a shelf anymore, I want her to be out in the world, so I decided to self-publish on Amazon.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, 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.

I want to thank my brilliant and talented Mom, Naomi Mankowitz, for the beautiful cover design and page layout for the book, and for every day of love and support throughout my life. And, of course, I need to thank every dog who has passed through my life and taught me about unconditional love and healing. And thank you to all of you, for your support and encouragement for me through the blog, and for inspiring me to take the leap into self-publishing!

me and the girls

We’re sort of ready for the leap.

 

Please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl And if anyone feels called to write a review of the book on Amazon, I’d be honored.

 

 

 

 

 

The Social Work Detective

 

I keep thinking about writing a mystery novel with a social worker as the protagonist. I never took a class in forensics or criminalistics (they weren’t offered at my schools), but I think one of the things that draws me to social work is the craving to be a detective; to find out the mystery of the person or family or couple sitting in front of me, telling me they have no idea what went wrong. My protagonist would be curious about everyone she meets, though, so I’d have to be careful to try to limit her focus to the people who are pertinent to the particular case at hand, or else the book will be never ending.

In real life, death and destruction, or any kind of physical pain or gore, horrifies me, but in a novel, murder calms me down. Maybe murder mysteries have the same paradoxical quality as Ritalin or caffeine: calming a hyperactive mind with a stimulant. The intensity of murder, in a novel, helps me to focus on one thing at a time, instead of on the thousands of priorities running through my mind: I need to lose weight, pay off my student loans, do my homework, find a second dog, get to work on time, keep up with friends, fix the world, and find the right outfit to wear on Thursday.

But would it be as calming to be the writer of the mystery instead of the reader? Would I have to do a ride along with the local police in order to get the details right? Would it be a cozy or a thriller? Would I have to kill off characters I like? Or worse, make one of my favorite characters into the murderer?

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Cricket, with the trowel, in the garden.

I don’t even know why I’m trying to plan a new novel right now, given all of the work I have to do for school. I feel swamped this year. The work seems harder and more all-encompassing, and the stakes seem to be higher too. But, it’s not so much that I want to write a mystery, it’s that my mind goes there on its own. Some part of my brain is always working on story ideas, and coming up with plot points and character names. Taking the time to put it all down on paper at least gives me some sense of order for these random thoughts, so that they don’t think they have to repeat themselves, endlessly, out of fear of being forgotten.

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“Listen to me!!!!!!”

The only thing I know for sure about my social work mystery is that there would have to be a dog in the book. This isn’t a social worker thing, just a me-thing. I would feel bereft trying to write a whole novel, or even a short story, without a dog in it. Cricket is auditioning for the role, but I’m worried she’d want to be the protagonist herself.

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“I am always the star of the show.”

 

The Clumsy Bird

 

A few years ago, I started working on a children’s story about a clumsy bird, but I couldn’t figure out how to finish it. I knew who the main character was: if there was a tree or a power line or a roof in her way, Lola would smack into it. Her mom took her to every doctor she could find and the bird doctors did every possible test on Lola. They diagnosed her with bad eyesight, then partial deafness, attention deficit disorder, maybe a neurological movement disorder of unspecified origin, or bird seed intolerance, but nothing seemed to stick.

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This is what I think Lola looks like

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This is what Lola thinks she looks like

The last doctor Lola went to was a specialist in flying disorders. He squeezed Lola’s feet, and rotated her wings and had her fly to and from his medical nest twenty times. And then he stared into her eyes, with his wormy breath going up her nose, and said, “You’re fine, go away.”

The flight back home was long and Lola’s Mom had to tie a rope between them to avoid an accident along the way.

Of course Lola had an older brother, who was embarrassed to be seen with her. And mean girls in her flying class (aka gym), who made fun of her for her awkward flying technique and tendency to fall out of the sky.

There was a boy bird in Lola’s class who was taunted for being “as blind as a human,” because he couldn’t see where he was going as well as everyone else could. Lola was nice to him, thinking they were in the same situation and could offer each other support, but he resented her sympathy. He called her clumsy, and taunted her along with the rest of the class, just to feel like at least he wasn’t as low down on the social ladder as she was.

I kept looking for ways for Lola to save herself. She was an inventor, by necessity, and created parachutes and nets and trampolines out of whatever she could find in the garbage. She spent months in physical therapy with the seagull at the beach, who was a little too hard core. He made her stand on pebbles to stretch the webbing in her feet, and wrap her wings around the trunk of a tree, and then he’d drop her into freezing cold water to shock her brain, but nothing changed. And then she was sent to the wise goose, who worked at the median of the main road. He spoke in riddles, while walking in constantly changing patterns to help retrain her brain. It didn’t work, but at least with the goose Lola felt less self-conscious, if only because he wasn’t like anyone in her own community, and he didn’t laugh at her for being different.

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This bird is one hard core trainer

goose

“Are you saying I’m fat?”

But what I really wanted was for there to be something in the bird world that would work better than in the human world. I wanted the elders of her community to come up with a non-stigmatizing way to help the disabled birds who lived amongst them. I imagined bird community conferences, with the elders sitting in the sacred tree, and the younger birds left to line up on the telephone wires, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the birds creative and compassionate enough to make the clumsy bird feel welcome.

I have this block against writing better endings for my characters than I have experienced for myself. It feels like lying in a way that fiction doesn’t usually feel like lying, to me. But I want better for Lola than to have to be in it alone, hitting up against walls that shouldn’t be there. I just don’t know how to get that for her.

 

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“You can do it, Mommy. I believe in you.”