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Writing fiction – and surviving to tell the tale

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Unlike Alex Epstein, the Russian-born Israeli author whose first book I reviewed for Oy! and whose prodigious imagination gives birth to a seemingly unending supply of fantastical characters and settings, fiction is not my strong suit.

But inspired by Epstein’s latest offering, the sublimely translated Lunar Savings Time (watch for a review in Oy! soon), I challenged myself to explore fiction-writing before I dismiss it as an aspiration beyond my imagination and skills. That’s why I joined Birthright Israel NEXT’s latest creative offering—a Jewish Writers Workshop. Led by Stephanie Friedman, program director at the Writer’s Studio of the Graham School of General Studies at the University of Chicago, the workshop is both a safe place to get your writing critiqued and a four-part series exploring the work of great Jewish writers: Malamud, Paley, Keret, Bezmozgis, etc. In our two sessions so far, we’ve discussed what makes a writer a Jewish author and what makes the work of fiction a Jewish story. No consensus on the subject just yet—imagine that! The opinions are as varied as the books on the shelves at Noble Tree Coffee where we meet (Chekhov next to a physics manual).

I’m due to submit my story next Tuesday. And until about a week ago, my page remained as blank as when I started the workshop two months ago. I had trouble even coming up with a concept, much less actually contriving an entire story around it. (We even got writing prompts. In case you’re interested, we were asked to write a dialogue-based story or, following a reading of Malamud’s “The Talking Horse,” a fabulist story. Participants can also work on their own stories already in progress.)

Unlike the angels, ghosts, Zen masters and kings who like to rearrange libraries that populate Epstein’s stories, the characters that finally popped into my mind are decidedly less out of this world. Still, the story of how this story came about might be worth Epstein. In fact, it’s less a story than the transcript of a very detailed and persistent dream. I hardly ever remember them beyond the few short minutes between sleep and complete wakefulness, so I’m left with the surety that my mind must have taken this challenge seriously.

I’ve been honing the story since scribbling the basic outline last Thursday; the details keep revealing themselves, coming into my mind in spurts, sending me scrambling for the nearest pen and paper. (Luckily, I always keep writing utensils in my purse and on my bedside table.) The only things that came clearly were the first and last sentences. With them, I woke up itching for a pen, trying to capture the specific words that appeared in my dream.

As I’ve dwelled on the story, I’ve realized I also need to read more short fiction (among other things one can do to be a better writer). I happened upon the perfect venue to realize this goal: The Poetry Foundation’s Printers Ball, an annual celebration of printing and the written word held last Friday at the historic Ludington Building in the South Loop. It was a feast of literary proportions. (I’ve always wanted to write something this pretentious-sounding, but in this case—it’s true.) I picked up a bagful of anthologies and literary mags from the apparently burgeoning local lit scene. I’m savoring the stories, going through the anthologies little by little, getting inspired.

Of course, one short story—especially one of questionable quality and as yet unfinished—does not make me a fiction writer. In fact, as a journalist by training, I’ve always preferred having a factual starting point. But it’s been fun to challenge myself to try something utterly new and experience for myself that the birth pangs of of fiction are never painless.

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