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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?

The Pet Dragon


When my nephew was five years old, he had a pet dragon. She followed behind us when we were in the car, and sat on the roof of his house when he was in his bedroom – he could see her sometimes through the skylight. At first, when we were driving home from a restaurant and he was strapped into his car seat and telling me breathlessly about the dragon, I thought she was a he and that he was dangerous. But my nephew made sure to clear that up on our next trip, a state away, where the dragon was still following us – or possibly one of the dragon’s friends, since no self-respecting dragon would take on such a big job alone. Five year olds need a lot of protection. The dragon team, it turned out, when I pressed him for details, traveled by trains specially built for dragon transport. Benjamin, my nephew, was a train freak, so this was not surprising.

Unless you know something I don’t know about a race of dragons visible only to five year olds, we can assume that this was all in his imagination. Even Benjamin believed his story only sometimes. But he was telling me a truth he couldn’t express any other way. He wanted me to know that the world felt like a dangerous place. He wanted me to know that he was lonely, and only an invisible friend the size of a house could possibly relieve his loneliness.

I don’t think I had a pet dragon as a kid, but I did, absolutely, truly, believe that Olivia Newton John could see me from Australia and would come to help me if I needed her.

olivia newton john

Olivia Newton John, always on call.

I used to be afraid that I would create a pet dragon or something like it if I allowed myself to write memoir. I was afraid of remembering things wrong, or being accused of remembering them wrong, and I felt safer in fiction. I’m not as scared anymore, after three and a half years of writing memoir for the blog. I honor the emotion of the moment, no matter how outsized, or how quickly it passes. Just because I don’t feel the same way today, doesn’t mean it wasn’t real and vivid yesterday. I still love the freedom of fiction and the chance to make things make sense in a way they usually fail to do in real life, but I like the subtle joys of memoir too, finding the nuggets of sense in the chaos.


my little nuggets of goodness.

Cricket doesn’t quite make up stories. She doesn’t mean to exaggerate, she’s just a tad melodramatic. A sound in the hall is really the neighbors coming back from dinner, not evil men intending to blow up the building and steal her chicken treats. But Cricket lives in the world as she believes it is, just like we do. She just has fewer resources for checking out if her view of reality is accurate. She believes what she feels.


“I know how it is and you can’t tell me different.”

I try not to concentrate too hard when I’m writing, so that whatever unconscious truths are in there have a chance to bubble up. I tell myself that I can write whatever I want, so that I can remember things out of order, or make weird connections, or forget words. I can make things make sense in later drafts, and edit out the nonsense words, without killing all of the pet dragons before they’ve been created.

Benjamin, by the way, ended up getting a lizard a few years later on. Maybe when he looks at that little lizard, he imagines his old friend the dragon has come back to stay, or sent emissaries to watch over him. And it helps.

white lizard

Ben’s lizard.