Adaptations

June 18, 2010

A private student of mine wrote to say that she’s been sick for the past few weeks and wasn’t writing. She’s nearly finished a memoir and was hoping that the summer hiatus from her teaching job might afford enough time to write every day. But now she’s behind, frustrated and melancholy, and wondered if I had any suggestions. The first seemed obvious: Rest and get well. The second: Do as much as you can even if it is in small spurts.

I’m not sure if men and/or women have an easier time working in small spurts or not. I certainly learned to use my time well when I became a mother. I had no choice. Raymond Carver did the same when he became a parent, one reason his short stories are very short stories. He wrote the early stories in one breath as he was taking care of his children. And when a writer friend of mine developed repetitive strain injury, she wrote poetry—by hand—and segments of essays. Some of the essays stayed short, some she worked on incrementally and slowly. Not only did this force her to find new rhythms of working, it also enabled her to explore a new genre; she’d never written poetry before.

I’m commuting a lot this summer in a long-winded triangle: the city to upstate to Ct. to see my venerable mother, to the city, back upstate, and so on. Though I appreciate my laptop, my cell phone, and my car, the nomadic life is both tiring and unsettling. I do the best I can with the time I have and I’ve changed my goals: I’m working on a revision of a failed novel instead of generating an idea for a second murder mystery. That’s the adaptation I’ve settled on to the present demands and challenges of my life. Tomorrow and next week may be different and I’ll have to adapt again. But the writing continues unabated.

Not Working

June 11, 2010

I am about to abandon an essay I have been working on since the end of term. It’s not working. Needless to say, I prefer to finish what I begin, to find an armature, and a market. But, sometimes, my initial intuition about a story falters as I realize there isn’t enough story to tell, or not enough information available to write about it.

I do feel somewhat discouraged this morning. I’ve been writing to people all over the world and receiving timely replies few of which have added much to the story. Despite the dearth of information, I have laboriously written ten pages. The laborious effort should have been a key. Something was wrong from the outset.

I didn’t choose the story; it came to me in the form of a dress handed to me during Shoah week by the mother of a good friend of mine. The dress--one of more than a hundred extant in America-- is made out of linen and beautifully embroidered. It comes from a village that no longer exists—Antopol in Polesia. Over the centuries, Antopol was occupied by the Swedes, the Russians, the Germans, the Russians—not necessarily in that order, and was finally “liquidated” by the Germans in 1942. A few villagers escaped to Israel, a few to America. A memorial book was written in the 1970’s and published privately. This is even available online. But the answers to my questions about the dress: Who made it? Why was it sent to America? Why wasn’t it sold? How did the relatives from the town living more affluently in America respond to the request to sell the dress? These questions and many others could not be answered and my story mutated into a screed about indifference to suffering. It was painful to write. My own Holocaust story kept spilling into it.

I also had to consider the feelings of my friend and her mother. They did not expect my curiosity or investigative spirit. And my friend’s mother is old and frail.

And so I have let this story go. I will donate the dress to the Smithsonian. And I will move on to my next project. As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Old Friend From Far Away, “The point here is to go on. Don’t get stuck where you have not succeeded. Go on to something else. You don’t know what will unfold. None of us have as much time as we think.”

Archives