Thursday, September 16, 2010

Just before Rosh Hashanah I wrote about my aversion to blanket "if I've hurt you, please forgive me" statements as a method of teshuvah (which technically means "return" but is often used to mean repentance, as in a return to G-d). I am not alone.

Maimonides first outlined the steps of teshuvah, steps that one must go through to fully return, whether the thing you're asking forgiveness for is between you and G-d or between you and another person. But I'm not going to talk about that. I'm going to let Bev and Sara talk, in this excerpt from Strength to Stand:

    Sara watched from her peripheral vision as Eli approached David and then led him out of the house, the look on her husband’s face like that of a boy about to be taken out to the woodshed. The door closed behind them and she let out a deep breath. Maybe Eli could pound some sense into him.
    She stood and stretched, then set the book down on the sofa and went to the kitchen. “Okay, put me to work,” she said to Bev.
    “Uh uh,” Bev said, shaking her head and chopping a head of broccoli into smaller florets and collecting them in a bowl. “I cook tonight. You relax. Don’t think I don’t know who’s been keeping us in clean towels all week.” She stopped and looked at Sara. “Or you can stay here and keep me company.”
    “I can do that.”
    “Good.” Bev returned to her chopping. “You want to tell me what happened Shabbat morning?”
    “Not really.”
    Bev reached for a scrubbed carrot and began slicing it on the diagonal, creating long, thin strips. “Okay. You want to tell me why David’s been in the doghouse for three days?”
    Sara picked up a broccoli floret that had fallen on the counter and put it in the bowl with the others. “There are five steps to forgiveness in Judaism, right?”
    Still slicing carrots, Bev looked thoughtful. “Hmm. I thought there were three.”
    “David gave a sermon this past fall about forgivenessteshuvah. I remember he was nervous that it sounded too preachy, which I thought was kind of funny. It all tied into a bigger picture about how we need to make teshuvah for ourselves, not only for the person we’ve wronged, how forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting, and how not forgiving can keep us from moving forward in our lives. He really put a lot of himself into that sermon.”
    “It sounds like it.”
    “He worked on writing it for over a month. As good a speaker as he is, he gets anxious about the High Holy Days and actually starts practicing, like he’s in speech class all over again. I must have heard that sermon a dozen times.” She stared at the growing mound of sliced carrots. “I wish he’d done a little less practice delivering it and a little more practice doing it.”
    “Hasn’t he apologized?”
    Sara ticked the steps off on her fingers. “According to his sermon, first you have to recognize that you did something wrong. Then you have to decide you’re not going to do it again. Third, you confess what you did and fourth, go to the person you wronged and apologize. And last, you take steps to keep it from happening again.”
    Bev stopped slicing and wiped her hands on the white dishtowel hanging from the oven handle. She looked at Sara. “Okay. I think when I learned it, one and two were combined and three and four were combined. So why is David still in trouble?”
    “He did apologize. He admitted he wasn’t listening to me with an open mind and that he rejected anything I said that wasn’t already in his perception of how things should be regarding the shul and my role in it. But we never resolved it. I’m waiting in limbo, and since he seems to think that my forgiveness will solve everything and we can go back to being a happy family without ever addressing my needs, I’m not ready to forgive him yet. How can I if the problem that started it all is still there and still unsettled?”
    Bev sliced a jicama in half and set one half-sphere aside. “You need to give him a chance to redeem himself, Sara. Maybe he needs your forgiveness before he can consider your needs without a guilty conscience.”
    “Maybe. But it would be much easier for me to forgive him if I knew we’d work toward a solution. Right now I’m afraid if I forgive him, he’ll think things are all better and we’ll never address my role. Or worse, we’ll wind up repeating Saturday night.”
    “You might have to tell him exactly that,” Bev said, stripping the fibrous brown peel off the turnip-like vegetable. “He may be able to recite the steps of teshuvah backwards and forwards and upside down, but Sara, he’s a man. The male brain sometimes needs to hear these things explicitly stated. And occasionally repeated. Slowly.”
    Sara laughed. “I guess I was hoping it was as clear to him as it is to me.” She watched Bev slice the jicama into half-inch wide shavings. “What do you think Eli’s saying to him?”
Bev pursed her lips. “Oh, I don’t know. They have a really deep friendship. Well, you know that better than I do. Eli doesn’t have any really close friends in Spokane. He has lots of distant friends, and I mean lots. But his nickname for Davidwhen he calls him ‘bro’he doesn’t take that lightly. He’ll do right by him.”
    Sara turned toward the voice. Jonathan was standing in the dining room, looking forlorn, a clump of orange Play-Doh in his hair and smaller bits clinging to his clothes. She managed to stifle a laugh. “You need some help cleaning up, Jonathan?”
    “Judy did it. She didn’t like that I poked a hole in her turtle so she smooshed it on my head. She got a little off the plastic you put down, too.”
    “And why did you poke a hole in her turtle?” Sara asked calmly.
    Jonathan shifted his feet. “’Cause she took all the orange and I got green. She says orange is a girl color and green is a boy color, but I like orange better.”
    “Does that make it okay to destroy something of hers?”
    “No.” Jonathan hung his head. “But if she gave me the orange like I asked, then I wouldn’t have gotten mad. It’s her fault her turtle got a hole.”
    Sara glanced at Bev. “Time to put that first step of teshuvah to work.”

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Teshuvah and Controversy: is the relationship causal or casual?

So here it is just before Rosh Hashanah and I'm about to create some controversy. Maybe. For the two people who still read my blog (Hi there!). But maybe this is good and well-timed, like so few other things in my life, so maybe it will work out.

Okay, here goes. You know how lots of people post generic "If I have hurt you in the past year, I'm sorry" statements on blogs and Facebook statuses (stati?) and email and all manner of mass-directed communication?

I hate those. I really do. It is at or near the top of my Rosh Hashanah Pet Peeve List. And I'll even tell you why.

Yes, you could go back into my childhood where, by the ripe old age of seven, I developed an intense interest in religion and was shocked by the idea that some Christians -- nice Christians who lived in my neighborhood, even -- did all kinds of things the church considered sinful, then went to church on Sunday and said a forgiveness prayer with everyone else, while the pastor said they were forgiven because 2,000 years ago the Romans executed one of many, many thousands of Jewish "troublemakers" and he forgave them so now everything's peachy and they can go do whatever they want now and just go get forgiven again on Sunday.

You could go back there, and I'm sure my odd view of comparative religions as a seven-year-old might play a factor. But you might get an even better view of why this is such a pet peeve if you were to have been a fly on the wall during a particularly powerful conversation with my mother (aleha hashalom). Confronted, rather politely in fact, with an overwhelming amount of evidence that her acts of "discipline" were far more likely to succeed in casting calls for "Mommy Dearest" and not in teaching children anything like what she'd intended, she admitted to all such acts, offered a few of her own that I didn't know about, and then proceeded to say, "I know I did these things. I know I could have made better choices. If I've hurt you, I'm sorry."

How do you fess up to years of what most states in the country define as abuse and then say, "If I've hurt you, I'm sorry"? If I've hurt you? If?

Whatever the source, these "blanket apologies" are not apologies. Any apology that is a form of an if-then statement is not an apology. (If I've hurt you, here's a generic sorry. If not, please ignore this message. You decide which camp you fall in.) No, that doesn't work for me. That's a cop-out. That's an end run. That's just wrong.

Actually, what that is is a way to avoid facing those you've hurt, and looking for all the world like you're still apologizing to them. But in my view, you're not. Not yet.

A true apology means that you have to talk to the person (not in a text message, not on Facebook, not through Twitter, not in an email, even worse in a newsletter or some other formal communication) and tell them that you're sorry and for what. That's the key. If you don't know why you hurt me, how can you avoid hurting me again? If I don't tell you what I'm apologizing for, how do you know which action I regret and am trying to mend?

A blanket statement (If I've hurt you in the past year, I'm sorry. We good? Case closed. Let's grab a beer.) may look good on the outside, but it does nothing to actually mend a relationship harmed. Not until you go to that specific person and offer a specific apology for a specific event, will that harm truly be repaired. The rest is all window dressing.

And if I have harmed you in the past year? Well, if I've given you a specific apology about a specific harm and you've accepted it, let's go get a drink. If I haven't yet, I might have forgotten, or I might not even know that you were hurt, in which case I wouldn't want you to have to make due with a blanket apology. Let me know what I did to hurt you and I will do my best to apologize and make sure it doesn't happen again. And then we can put it behind us and grab a beer. (Why beer? I don't even drink beer!)

To everyone else, may you have a joyous and peaceful New Year, filled with fun, food, and memories, and surrounded by people you love. Shana tova, k'tivah v'chatimah tovah.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Jewish Book Carnival

Review Jewish books? Write Jewish books? Love Jewish books? There's a new carnival for you!

The Association of Jewish Libraries has just started a Jewish Book Carnival that will run monthly, building community among blog writers and readers and sharing information on Jewish books.

The inaugural edition can be found at

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tips For Writing

Write the story within you. Most writers will tell you to write the book that's in you right now, the book you think about every waking minute, the book you have no choice about writing. Don't write the book your publisher wants, or the book your mother wants, or the book that's guaranteed to make the New York Times bestsellers list. If it's not the book that is kicking and screaming to get out of your head and onto paper, you'll only wind up being disappointed in it, and it probably won't please your publisher, your mother, or anyone at the New York Times. Hand in hand with that goes...

Believe in yourself. This is crucial to not only writing well, but selling the book you do write. If it's too elusive, too overwhelming, or causes you to snort derisively, please consult with a good therapist.

Keep a journal of ideas. You can keep an actual journal or book and write down story ideas, character names, plot twists, and so on. Or you can do what I do which is messier but also works: I write ideas down on slips of paper, backs of envelopes, paper napkins, or anything else I can get my hands on and then keep them all in a box that I call my Idea Box. Whenever I want an idea for a story, or I need some way to develop a plot or I need a character name, I reach into my Idea Box and pull them out. Usually one of them fits. UPDATE: I also use my iPod Touch for this, writing ideas into a memo or note and sync-ing it with my laptop. I name them all starting with "Useful Bits:" and categorize them as "Writing" so I can group them efficiently.

Don't be afraid to improve. In other words, don't expect your first writings to be perfect. They won't be. It's the nature of growing as a writer. Use each opportunity to write as a chance to develop your craft. A year from now, you'll look back on your writing and be surprised at how far you've come. That's good: it means you're growing. The scary part is when you look back at stuff you wrote years ago and it looks exactly like the stuff you wrote yesterday. That means there hasn't been enough growth. Even published writers aren't perfect writers. I was first published over twenty-five years ago and I'm still learning and growing as a writer.

Read writing books. You can find them at any local library. One of the many better ones is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. As a writer, you are an artist, and all artists need to learn their craft from those who have already succeeded. Books about writing will answer a lot of questions about fiction and non-fiction, synopses, characterizations, dialogue, plot, setting, description, and so forth. They are a wellspring of information, so take advantage of them.

Be a prolific reader. The more you read, the more you will see how other successful writers practice their craft, and the more you'll learn about your own.

Learn to see life from others' perspectives. Practice this in your everyday life and it will open up new worlds. Maybe you were miffed at the woman driver in the white minivan because she cut you off in the parking lot at Target and stole your space, even though you were waiting patiently with your turn signal on. But what was SHE thinking? Maybe her version went like this:

Jeez, I'm so sorry, I know you're waiting for that space, but I have to get inside and get some cough medicine for my son, who's coughing so hard, there's blood specks now. I'll be as quick as I can. I'm so sorry! I had to leave him home with his ten-year-old sister and I don't trust them home alone. Plus, the furnace repairman is coming in twenty minutes, and I can't afford another copay at the doctor's office until payday. Please forgive me for taking your space. Maybe you have a sick child at home, too. So sorry, so sorry! I'm hurrying!

Use your childhood traumas. Did you grow up in a less than idyllic setting? Many writers did. Somehow, childhood trauma and the creative arts go well together. Use it to your advantage. Parents divorced? Death in the family? Child abuse? Frequent moves and no friends? School bullies? Foster care? Family alcoholism or mental illness? If you can answer yes to any of these, first, consider therapy. Then, realize that you know firsthand what sells novels: CONFLICT. You know about betrayal and abandonment, about neglect and abuse and love as a double-edged sword. You've seen the dark side of life. Consider it research and use it in your writing. But...

Don't write your autobiography as a novel. Rarely does this work well in fiction. Creating a fictional character who shares some of the same characteristics is fine, and often successful, but make sure there's a clear boundary between that character and you.

Avoid procrastination. You can read writing books and take writing classes to improve, but you can also take it to the extreme and hinder your writing. Whether it's a fear of failure or a fear of success or just coming to the realization that learning about writing is easier than actually doing it, there comes a point where you've learned everything you need to know for now and you just need to sit down and write!

Write without editing yourself. I know this goes against what you may have learned in the classroom, but the important thing is first to get down the ideas. After you've written your first draft, then you can go back and check spelling, move words or sentences around, correct any grammatical errors, change words, cut stuff out or put new stuff in. Too often, we're trying to correct our writing before it ever makes it onto the paper, and that can stifle ideas and creativity. Instead, just write first, even if you're not sure what word to use or how to spell it. You can always mark it and check it later. Often times, I can't think of the exact word I want to use, but rather than stopping my writing and thinking about it for a long time, I'll use a >similar word< and mark it the way I just did. Then later I can go back and figure out that the word I really wanted was 'synonym.'

Learn the rules before you break them. Yes, you are occasionally allowed to break the rules in fiction. But before you begin sentences with 'but,' learn the rules. In non-fiction, journalism, and free-lance writing, good grammar is essential. In fiction, you have more leeway, but rule-breaking must always be for a good reason and not just because you can. Picture yourself with a finished manuscript, a contract with a publisher, and an editor who is a former English teacher. If you can provide a really good argument for why you broke a rule in a particular sentence or paragraph, keep it. If not, use correct grammar.

Keep on writing. Use every opportunity to write, whether it's in a class or not. Lots of people are published but that doesn't make them good writers. Good writers are hard to come by, and, in an amazing defiance of logic, they don't always get published. They're still good writers. Good writing can earn scholarships, win awards, and help you get jobs and promotions. Good writing can help you succeed at whatever you want to do, whether it's writing for a living or not. Take every chance you have to write, and see it as an investment in your future. It doesn't matter what you write about. It only matters that you keep writing.

Write through writer's block. Stuck? Unmotivated? Unfocused? Set a timer for five minutes and do a free-write. Just write about anything: classes, family, friends, your social life or lack thereof. Write about not being able to write (this is my favorite). Write about how you feel, how you want to feel, or what it feels like not to feel anything. Describe your difficulty with writing in as much detail as possible. What does it look like? How does it sound? What's the physical feeling? Write a conversation between you and your writer's block and make it serious. Humorous. Melodramatic. Hint: this technique also works for research papers and dissertations.

Endings happen. Every story needs an ending, whether you plan one or just stop writing that story one day. Planned endings are better; your readers will like you for it and will feel a sense of closure with your story. I often begin writing without an ending in mind, just letting the story take me where it will. About halfway through the story, though, I start thinking about the ending. How do I want it to end? Does the good guy win or lose? Does the nice guy finish first or last? Does my main character succeed beyond her wildest dreams, or does she fail miserably? Then I think about how to get there (to the ending) from here (where I am in the story).

I may still use some obstacles to make it hard for my protagonist to succeed, but I start working toward whatever I want my ending to be. This works whether my story is one page or one thousand pages. Then, when I have an outstanding idea of something that could happen in the story that I know will mean adding many more pages to the story or changing the ending, I have to make a decision. Sometimes I throw out my old ending and use this new idea to keep the story going. More often, however, I write the idea down and put it in my Idea Box, then keep going with the planned story. This keeps me to my page limits, and allows me to use my great idea with another story. After all, there will always be another story.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Stupid Questions

Firefox no longer remembers this blog in its auto-fill history, so clearly a blog post is long overdue.

I had a kind of stupid question earlier today and, as I am a quasi-Digital Native, I searched for the answer online. Because where else is one most likely to find the answers to all of the stupid questions than online?

Turns out, I wasn't the only one to have asked this particular stupid question. I found it posted on Yahoo! Answers. And amazingly, I found an intelligent answer. (What, exactly, the question was is irrelevant.) And then I thought I'd head over to the Books & Authors category, just for fun.

I don't know what I was expecting—I should have been expecting stupid questions—but "fun" wasn't it. Mostly, it was a lot of people asking "What do you think of this for a story?" and then posting 17,000 sentences all in one paragraph with a notable lack of correct grammar and punctuation.

It hurt. It physically hurt. So I clicked off and decided to check Facebook and email for the one-hundredth time that hour.

Honestly, I don't want to be mean. I do support those who want to write and be creative. But let's get real. There is a lot of resource material out there (in the world, not necessarily all on the Internet, unless of course you're looking for answers to stupid questions) about writing. You don't even need to visit your local library anymore, though I do highly recommend frequent library visitations.

Don't just post a lot of blather and then ask, "Do you like my story?" I can say that 99.9% of the time, if you have to go to Yahoo! Answers to find out, the answer is NO.

So how do you get to be a better writer? Or learn to write a story? Start by reading. Read voraciously. Make that highly recommended trip to the local library (and then keep going back). And I'll post my own list (separate from Stephen King's writing techniques) shortly.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Still Active...Just Not Here (except now, and in the near future)

Guess what? I'm on Facebook. Yep, me and like five billion other souls all looking to connect over pokes and tweets and catching up while raising virtual livestock and growing cartoon plants. I've been very active out there in FB-land with my own author page, publisher page, and of course my profile where I can get caught up on the lives of my friends without ever having to talk to them.

In fact, I'd love it if you'd go to my author page ( ) and click to "like" it. That way you can stay even more in touch with the book goings on, like a delightful review left just today that has me all happy inside and ready to tackle the next round of editing on Strength to Stand.

That doesn't mean I won't be back here. Despite my occasionally lengthy absences, I do consider this blog a sort of friend, and I treasure all four regular readers out there. I have some plans for this blog, too, like how does a fiction writer, with a niche genre, go about getting a publishing contract without, 1. Spending their own money to some person or company that may not know--or care--what they're doing; 2. Spending months or years looking for an agent (who may or may not know what they're doing) who will then spend months or years shopping your manuscript around to publishers who may wonder if the author knew what he or she was doing when writing the book. How does the new world of ebooks and Kindles and Nooks and book downloads and Just-in-Time manufacturing and Ingram's new "Espresso Book Machine" affect us as writers and readers. How can we best get what we want to say to those who want to hear it?

(If you figure out  the answer to that last question, let me know.)

Or topics like, What's scary about going with a small press? What's scary about going with a great big New York publisher? Is it ever okay to friend your publisher/editor/author/cover artist on Facebook? Why is the book business looking more like the music business and why does that bother a lot of book people?

It's just me and my opinions and observations, with a Jewish twist. Because that's what I do.

Write on...