Photo of candle lighting
secondnight taken by DD, so she’s not in
it. The guys (DH, DS, and DD’s boyfriend) properly covered their heads and donned
hats for the blessing of the candles—
A mad hatter’s party^
The night before that one was
the first night of Hanukah. DD is vegan now, so I worried about how eggless
latkes would pass for the real thing. I needn’t have. The vegan latkes were
successful, maybe better than ever.
DS and DD had just returned
from a wonderful all-day hike in Point Reyes. DS then proceeded to put on a
Santa outfit and head with a sack of gifts for the little kids in the house
next door. He does it at the neighbors’ request, and from the fact they ask him
to please do it every year, he must be a good one. Nothing like a Jewish Santa!
Only after DS’s Santa duty could we all light the Hanukkah menorah, sing songs,
The only thing that went
wrong was that DD came back without her wallet. She thought she might have lost
it on the second of three buses they took, but couldn’t be sure. It had her bankcard,
her ID, her Juilliardstudent ID card, her dorm
room key, and some more things... Oh, and there was money also. All the cash
The office for Marin Transit Bus
Company was already closed, (Christmas eve) and would be for the next day.
(Christmas day) We thought it might be closed Monday. (Christmas Day observed
in offices) We had no way to call their lost
We figured that if it isn’t
located by the time we call on Tuesday, we‘d have a lot of work to do to
replace everything. What a shame.
As my grandma would have
said, “it’s always something.”
Now for the rest of the
DD called the bus company Monday
just in case someone would be there, and a woman answered. DD didn’t have to
say much, only that she may have left a purple wallet on bus line #68, when the
lady asked, “do you go to Juilliard?”
Yup, they had her wallet.
That afternoon we drove to San Raphael to the central terminal to collect it,
and everything was in it.
But there’s more---
DD said there’s twice as much
cash inside than she had before. All her IDs are there, and someone added some
Well, that’s our Hanukkah
story, and we’re sticking to it.
Although they fall roughly on the same month, only a few
times in every century do Christmas and Hanukkah actually occur at the same
time. That is-- the first day of Hanukkah (beginning the evening before
according to Jewish tradition) is also Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is also the
evening of first candle lighting.
This is one of those years.
If you celebrate both, or either, this one’s for you—
I’m one of the few who has yet to read a Stephen King novel, though I know I
have read one of his short stories a long time ago. This very good and uber-successful
author writes horror stories. I don’t read horror. Ah, the horror!
I got a strong recommendation to read his book on writing, and it turned out to
be a delight. The writing advice is solid if standard fare, but the memoire
parts are a testament to why he is the Stephen
King— a vivid story teller of the first order.
King puts members of his profession into four categories. He sees this classification much like the government’s
food pyramid, with the bottom having a larger mass than the pinnacle top.
the bottom are the Bad Writers. Mr.
King hints that a few are commercially so successful they live a life of luxury in the Caribbean. (Who could he be talking about? I have my list)
them, in smaller numbers, are Competent writers,
who comprise much of the work-for-hire, journalistic, and other pretty decent
writing we encounter.Competent
writers have the ear for cogent expression, but their stories lack wings.
the competent are the Good writers,
and Mr. king suggests he is in that layer. Good writers have solid technique
and tell good stories.
the very top are The GREATS. Think Shakespeare, Yeats, Faulkner, or Eudora Welty.
King believes that no amount of teaching will turn a bad writer into a
competent one. They lack the ear, or they wouldn’t have been bad to begin with.
He insists that no how-to course or mentoring will make a good writer into a
GREAT. The Greats are divine accidents.
teaching and coaching have a place in the middle of the pyramid. There, the
competent, who, if they listen well, try hard, and work at it, could become
tend to agree. I see this in all fields, though it’s most pronounced in
artistic pursuits. It fits with a certain perception, one divergent from Malcolm
Gladwell’s and his ten-thousand hours of work to any expertise.
then I wonder: how wise or true is it to have rigid classifications? It
organizes the mind, and is fun in its way, but how deeply true?
is my other confession for today: I really don’t know, and I know that I don’t. Organization and classification (like these pyramids) make for easy, comprehendible and jauntier
I don’t know about the substance of King’s notions, but trusting some
of the best readers I’ve known, Stephen King is nothing if not a Great
storyteller. Maybe his system is just
another one of his stories, cooked for easy digestibility.
the Jewish Home, where my mother passed her last eighteen months, I met one of
most magical people ever. Ben was a marvel. He was a resident who, by the time
my mother moved in, had been there a few years.
On set days and times, Ben played
the pianos on every floor for other residents. It wasn’t official, but he had a
job—making music for those who were not mobile and couldn’t leave their floor. Sometimes
he played the grand piano at the common area on the first floor, right next to
his room. He’d shuffle over carrying his sheet music, sit down at the keyboard,
and make marvelous music just for himself, with the whole house watching.
my mother’s birthday month, and at the luncheon for all the residents who had a
birthday then, he sat next to my mother. She glowed. I did, too. Ben was not
only handsome; he was radiant. Ben was beautiful.
to make conversation, but already suffering from dementia, my mother made a
valiant effort to connect with him and make a friend. It must be a Jewish
trait, for he answered every question with first repeating it. The conversation
went something like this--
mother: “Are you very old today?”
“Am I very old? Just old enough.”
mother: “What is that?”
“What is that? Ninety-two.”
mother: “That is too old.”
“Too old? Yes, it is.”
mother: “How long will you live?”
“How long? They give me a day, I take it.”
last line stayed with me. My mother lived for another year and four months, and
passed away eight years ago. Ben still lives. He is one hundred-years-old.
I try to begin each day by saying what he
said. I’ll take it.
friend was rejoicing at the sale of her first manuscript to a publisher. The
joy of being able to say my editor
for the first time brought back memories.
there’s nothing like the first.
first my publisher. The first my editor. The first my book. The first my agent. These can come in a different order, but that^ was mine.
really, none of these is really mine.
I don’t own them.
writers have are stories. Stories we make with chapters we construct with
paragraphs that we make by joining sentences. Sentences we make with words. It
boils down to this: the only thing that we own are the words.
the words are a gift.
opening verse from the gospel of John rushes in:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word
The meaning of this enigmatic phrase, for me, is that all comes from thought. Thought
extended outward begins with words, and words begin with one word.
I sit and contemplate this, I realize nothing is mine. I rejoice at having nothing.
a literary plot device known in Latin as deus
ex machina. Originally from the Greek apò mēkhanês theós, and used in Greek plays, we have many examples from
Judeo-Christian stories.I’m thinking of the biblical story of Job, where the philosophical
discussion and events are resolved by the appearance of G_d from the whirlwind,
and all is resolved and restored. It is not resolved by the main character, nor
by any of the other characters’ actions. In fact, that is the very point the
book of Job is making.
literary analysis this has come to stand not so much for divine intervention as
for the addition of an unexpected event or character not organically coming out
of the story. Such things do, in fact, happen in real life. But in modern storytelling,
where the heroism depends on humans conquering life’s obstacles, it often feels
contrived and unsatisfying.
the how-to circles it's
a no-no. If I read or heard it once, I have heard it many times. We don’t do it anymore.
suggest we do use it, and use it everywhere. This is where fantasy comes in. A
whole genre devoted to coming up with world building rules that zig-zag between
life as we know it and fantastic elements popping in conveniently to work their
You need the main character to get in somewhere where they can’t possibly?
— Introduce, and then give ‘em, an invisibility cloak. Voila! Harry Potter,
anyone? Why didn't we know about this magical invisibility thingy all along? Because
we just needed it now, silly.
same for magical realism, a genre I am partial to as a reader and a writer.
Think of the uses of time-travel, not in the form of scholarly research, but a device
where the main character actually gets to hop in a few centuries back and even retrieve
a long-lost object.
Deus ex machina hasn’t gone away. If
anything, it is used more than ever. We just have other names for it.
Nora Ephron is a treat, no matter how many times I’ve read her before. She didn’t
blog, per se, but she is called “the original Blogger” by some.
out that a friend who opened a restaurant named a meatloaf dish after her. It bore
no resemblance to any meatloaf she had made or eaten before, but it was
fantalicious, and people complemented her on this gourmet version of a
down-home lowly staple.
the chef changed, the dish changed, was moved to Tuesday nights only, and
eventually disappeared from the menu. Ephron saw an analogy to her life, and
life in general. You have your day, your heyday, your recognition, the fade out,
and then you’re gone.
years after her death, Ephron still lives, and some meatloaf recipes carry
her name and are still googled daily. But what didn’t quite apply to her life,
turns out, does apply to mine.
too, had a dish named after me.
ago I managed the storefront of a gourmet pastry shop. The owner-chef was a genius,
and while she insisted on never making a down-home cookie (no chocolate-chip)
and never calling a cake a cake (she only made tortes, please!) the cakes, ahmm,
tortes, were as incredible tasting as they were gorgeous. Tasteful in and out.
made some classics, but also came up with original concoctions. One of those
she named the Mirka Torte.
was not my favorite, but it was up there. Layers of Cake (torte!) speckled with
shavings of dark chocolate and orange rind hugged an orange sabayon cream, a
sort of fluffy custard, and a thin strip of cark chocolate ran in between. It
was light, beautiful, and as it turned out, quite popular.
I married she made our wedding cake, and of course it was The Mirka Torte. When
my step-mother asked her why she named this composition after me, the answer
was that it is both a simple and straight-forward, as well as a subtle and
complicated composition. Just like its namesake.
really know Mirka well,” my step-mother said.
years after its debut, and long after we had worked together, I ran into this
cake on a dessert menu at a fancy restaurant. It was still named Mirka Torte.
No one knew why, but that was just fine.
then it was gone. Like all ephemeral things, it had its day, and then it
slipped into the night.
is as it should be, to make room for others.
for a moment there I had a whiff of the Nora Ephron thing. It was nice.
I live, the seasons are barely delineated. Call it year-round spring, and you
wouldn’t be far off. But we do our best to pretend to have, at least, two
is ushered with a change of bed quilts, from the light colored and thinly
stuffed to the heavier, darkly rich hued kind.
When my kids were little, the
content of their dresser drawers would change— with lighter clothes placed at
the bottom and sweaters floating to the top. New pairs of socks would replace
the odd unmatched singles of last year, and sandals got pushed to the back of
the shoe drawer.
truth, we can just about wear any of the clothes any time, and the bedding
would not make a real difference either way. But we pretend we can’t, really,
in order to have the illusion of change. Unlike folks who have what we here
call “real weather,” we don’t change our tires to snow tires, and we don’t use
antifreeze. We don’t need to get the snow shovels from the back of the garage,
and we have no use for thermal underwear. For those who go on ski weekends—
their gear is specialized, but this was never part of my life in California.
one seasonal thing is not a pretense for me. One word sums it up: SPICES.
Specifically— Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and that thing we call allspice,
which isn’t all the spices mixed together but a kind of pepper from a West Indian
you can use these in summer, and people of “real weather” think of these
seasoning as ushering Fall. But in some mysterious way I find a strong urge
overtakes me to start spicing and baking and stewing and sprinkling with the
above as soon as November comes.
today. Can you smell it all the way from my kitchen?
the gingerbread is baking and the pumpkin soup is simmering, I reflect on how
this relates to writing stories. I don’t want to write the same story over and
over. I mark a new story with new and distinct words and expressions. In this way
I know I am entering a different territory. Words, used like seasoning, tell me
I am here and not there, and should address perception differently.
Just as I will
now dress differently.
this sounds like a stretch, just come over and get a whiff. I’m not kidding.
still clueless about many things. But I’ve learned a few things about the world
of publishing, and specifically-- kidlit publishing.
and clearing some old Emails from way back in ancient times of ten years ago, I
found some amusing testaments to clueless thinking.
my first beta reader asks why proofreading is necessary as, surely, editors at
publishing houses do that after a book is acquired. He’s seen it in many
movies. (By then I knew a manuscript needs to be pretty much typo-free, and my
response was educational.)
same beta, bless him for he was fantastic with spot-on feedback, congratulating
me on my first acceptance and advising I copyright all the characters as they
can become major commodities. (He’s seen that in movies, also.)
my response to another beta who suggested some how-to books, was to say I didn’t
want to read anything that would make my writing formulaic. Of course, not long
after, I did read a few of the suggested books and more. Re-inventing the wheel
is for geniuses, and I’m not one.
writing friends who suggested we writers wait too long for cursory responses,
no responses, and otherwise unacceptable behavior from business professionals.
We don’t put up with such in the rest of our lives, do we? I already understood
this is apples and lemons. There are more of us knocking on doors and fewer of
them to answer the doors. It’s called reality, and yes, we do put up with it.
so much more, but you get the point. There are a lot of misconceptions, and the
school of hard knocks hammers us into shapes that fit the indentations.
here’s the kicker: it hurts sometimes, but we don’t have to do it alone. These
old Emails are the evidence I had beautiful walking partners, and occasionally
even been one.
still clueless about so many things I glibly talk about. What do I confidently really know about global warming?
Preventing lung cancer? Personality disorders? It if am honest, I would have to
say that I know close to nothing, and mostly echo what I’ve heard, or think I may
have heard, or maybe I, too, saw it in a movie. But I still jabber about it.
I get a peek into my cluelessness. Even more mercifully, I am not alone. Everyone
of you who’s reading this is walking along, and I hope you can hear my footsteps
as I’m trying to catch up with you.
say that you should only write about what you know, and others say you should
write about what you want to know. I’m in the latter group. I do stick with what I know, and know
intimately, when it comes to the main character. This is essential for me even
more when the story is written in first person, and the narrator is the main
there are other characters, and they often come from other places, other
faiths, even other times. Seen through the main character’s eyes-- the narrative
voice remains an authentic observation of their “otherness.” But as readers are
diverse, I always felt I should run a story with such characters by Beta
Readers who would have known them intimately.
One of my novels, set in the
South, has a narrator. The narrator is an outsider, lands in the American South, and marvels at the
difference of her northern California mind-set and the people and place she
finds herself in. I ran many of the southern dialogue lines by a native of the
specific area, and, once the second draft was done, I had the whole story read
by my first Beta reader, a native of the American South.
turned out to be insufficient. Another reader objected to the way a character
spoke and acted. I revised, again. This time with a reader who was not quite
from the same place in the south, but of the same race as the secondary
have done similar things with other stories. I did not know there was a name
for such readers, but I’ve learned. They are now called Sensitivity Readers. They will check the authenticity of voices and
manners, because they know from the inside. At the same time, they will point
out anything that strikes them as pointlessly offensive.
simple internet search using this term will show not only that it’s
established, but there are sites that hire such readers, vet them, and for a
fee will connect writers to a specific need. I was ignorant that this was recognized
and monetized, and had turned to friends or other writers with an exchange of
reading their work-in-progress. I know what I don’t know, which is plenty, and
I know feedback is invaluable.
search of authenticity, I try to remember not to sanitize what real life sounds
like. This is not about the PC police waving their badges. At the very least, it is a good idea to run
work by people of a different background and weigh their feedback. In the end
the process is enriching well beyond the mining of my own mind.
is the Day of Atonement, YOM KIPPUR, of the Jewish calendar.
mistakenly think it the holiest day of the year. The Torah is explicit that the Sabbat is holier, and is one of the ten commandments. But the Sabbath comes
every seven days, and it’s easier to try to breath in holiness once a year
rather than every week.
do not fast on Yom Kippur, and haven’t since the last time I tried, too many
years to count. That’s another story which I managed to insert into my WIP in
fictional form. But I do attempt a form of atonement.
If I offended you in any way, I’m sorry.
If I failed to help you when I could have, I’m sorrier.
If I caused you harm*, I’m sorriest.
*Unless you are the gang that broke
into our home in mid-June. I hope you are caught and arrested, and I will
gladly testify to make sure you don’t walk away with a slap on the wrist.
I am clearly not ready for sainthood.
Wishing all who observe a calm and
reflective day, and may you be signed and sealed in the book of life for the
year to come.
My favorite Jewish New Year story is one I already posted two years ago on the
eve of Rosh Hashanah. I suppose that just as we repeat the ritual of dipping
apples in honey, saying the same annual blessings and making the same honey cake in more or less the same way, I feel it is not wholly
inappropriate to post part of it here, again. (The complete version is in the
link under the first sentence^.)
My mother was a permanent guest at our home every Friday and
In 2001, friends of my father and stepmother were visiting the
bay area from Israel.
I didn’t know them well, and when they called, I asked them to
come for Rosh Hashanah dinner. I figured that they could use a taste of
My mother was a Kugel fan. If you haven’t heard of kugel, let’s
just say that it is a casserole of cooked-anything-at-all mixed with beaten
eggs and seasonings. I had promised her a round kugel for Rosh Hashanah. Round,
like all New Year dishes that symbolize the closing of circles.
I didn't make
kugel often, so I set out to make the best. I had a mother to honor,
Israeli guests, and an urgent need to respond to the disaster that had
just struck our nation-- with the perennial Jewish celebration motto: They
tried to kill us, we survived, LET’S EAT!
My mother dreamed of potato-kugel. So I grated and seasoned and
mixed and mashed, pouring the mixture into a greased round dish and into a 375
Then it occurred to me- the last time I made carrot-kugel, DH mentioned not
once, but twice, how much he liked it. So I grated and mixed and added the
cinnamon and brown sugar and to another round dish it went, also into the same
DD came in and asked what I was making.
“Kugel, for the New Year,” I said.
“Yum. I love noodle-kugel,” she said. Oops. I wasn’t thinking of
her favorite. So I boiled egg noodles and mixed in the eggs, apple sauce and
the raisins, and into the oven in yet another round baking dish went kugel
It crossed my mind that having something green for the New Year
was sort of mandatory. Think harvest, re-growth, life. Zucchini-kugel would
have to serve that role. More grating, beating, mixing, pouring. The oven was
almost at full capacity.
DS came in. With the resolute expression six-year-olds are so
good at, he informed me that he doesn’t eat any of these kugels. In desperation
I made the only kind I knew he would: chocolate-kugel. Not very traditional,
but it was round and it was going to be irresistible. Think dark-chocolate not
too sweet soufflé, only this one stabilized with matzo meal so it doesn’t
By then I was ready to collapse.
Our guests arrived right after my mother. Introductions were made, and they
complimented our table. I lit the holiday candles, and DD blessed the round
challah. DS said the blessing over the fruit of the vine, (ours-wine, his and
DD’s grape juice) and we said SHE-HEH-CHEH-YANU, the prayer of
gratefulness for having arrived to this day. It had never meant more.
I opened the oven door and brought out the first.
“Wow, kugel!” our guests exclaimed.
I went back and brought the second.
“How nice, a kugel!” the wife said.
I was feeling positively giddy when I brought the third.
“Ah, kugel,” I heard. It sounded a bit like a sigh.
Not done, I came in with the fourth.
“Another kugel?” said the husband.
I felt positively sheepish bringing in kugel number five. But it
was chocolate; the only one DS would eat.
I suspect our guests from Israel thought they really had landed
are revisions so difficult? Because a real revision (not tweaking here and
there) requires seeing in a whole new way. RE—VISION.
time a story is submitted, it’s been revised and tweaked many times. So when it
returns with an R & R (revise and resubmit) request, what writers consider
as good a non-acceptance as there can be, it’s because it’s not the other R,
the final one. (Rejection)
Yippy! But now I have to look at the story in a new way.
what I thought the story was about turns out not to be. Maybe a character that
meant so much to me doesn’t serve the story well. Maybe a sub-plot is more of a
main plot, or the plot isn’t a plot at all.
liked it enough to want to see it again. Now, if I could only figure out why or what they liked… because a house once carefully constructed now
feels wobbly, and the removal of a few of its support beams threatens to make
the whole come tumbling down…
is where Re-Vision is crucial. To let go of
the house I built and carefully decorated, I try to imagine the inner-walls in
different places. Try to imagine a different entrance. Imagine re-doing the
that about describes the process from the outside. From the inside—there are no
just got through it, again. The house is still standing. Have faith, you can do
Aside from the notion of whether it is nature
or nurture that shapes personality, and with it, destiny, there is something
that every writer must struggle with and every reader must decide whether to accept
or reject: how stereotypical can a character be before we call the narrative
racist, or sexist, or simply poor and formulaic? There is nothing to make the
character singular and thus fully fleshed out.
And the other side of the coin is
really the same question, only read in reverse: how unusual can a character be
before we exclaim that such person would never do this or say that? Would a twelve-year-old
use proper archaic English they could have only glimpsed from Shakespeare? Would
a four-year-old remember something that happened when they were two? Both are
possible, but not typical, and many would say are unbelievable.
I ask, because I have read enough
reviews, given reviews, or gotten feedback, and have seen both reactions. “Formulaic,”
Classical musicians face similar
balancing dilemmas when interpreting well-known pieces of music. A piece of music must sound different and
new, thus it lives. But it can’t be so singular that the composer wouldn’t
recognize it, and the listener would have their expectations smashed.
I like the Yiddish proverb above, because
it reminds me of this delicate balance: similar, but not the same. Made of the
basic stuff, but formed into a different shape.
A delicate, almost undefinable balance.
A good visual is the tightrope walker. I think of her as I dialogue with my
characters, and pray I don’t miss a step and fall off.
are places where we don’t expect high ethical conduct, and are pleasantly
surprised to find it. (Example: Does anyone expect insurance companies to be
driven by high moral standards? The astonishment of positive encounters with
such suggests we don’t.)
Then there are situations where ethics are a must, because trust
is the foundation of these alliances. (Example: with physicians, therapists, or
teachers. The astonishment of negative encounters suggests we had assumed the
very best ethics from them.)
Having had, personally and through friends and family, some positive
and negative experiences lately, I got to thinking about ethics and the gap
between what we say and what we do. I say “we,” because while I am not guilty of most of the mentioned below, I can’t and won’t exclude
myself from the abundance of failures, often explained as “that's how it’s done,”
and “this is the real world, darling.”
But it got me wondering, and questioning. No reasoned answers in
this post, just questions. I would love yours: the questions and the answers,
if you’re so inclined.
These are all examples of things I
have come to realize happen all the time.
*Is it all right to play editors against
each other in a bidding war for manuscripts?
* Is it all right to look for a job
while you still have a job?
*Is it all right to look for an agent
while you have an agent?
*Is it all right to look for a
spouse/partner while you have a spouse/partner?
*Is it all right to say publicly you are
an in-network provider but say privately you will only treat privately “on the
side,” for much more $$?
*Is it all right to take a friend’s confidential
confessional life story and publish it without their consent?
*Is it all right to ghost-write and for
$$ let the payer put his name on it?
* Is it all right to promote a friend’s
product/book while having a less than high opinion of it?
While most are legal, I’m not one to see any as truly ethical.What do you think?