Author Michelle Brafman: On Her First Novel, Washing the Dead, and the Tahara Ritual

Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead

Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead

I’m delighted to welcome Michelle Brafman, who’s just published her first novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books). Talk about serendipity. I am not the only one writing about a hevra kadisha (a burial circle) right now. In Washing the Dead, the narrator, Barbara Blumfield, describes how participating in the tahara ritual for the dead sparks her journey toward healing her complicated relationships with her mother and daughter, as well as herself. It’s the spirit of the time—the zeitgeist—that women are suddenly becoming more and more fascinated with this ancient, mostly unknown ritual.

Diana Bletter: You just published your first novel, Washing the Dead. Congratulations! Can you talk about the process—from your first draft to finding a literary agent and a publisher?

Michelle Brafman: Thank you! My road to publication was rather long and winding. It began eight years ago, after I graduated from the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. I sent some short stories to an agent who had just sold a friend’s book. The agent told me that short story collections don’t sell and asked me if I had a novel for him. Of course I said yes, but I really only had a short story entitled “Washing the Dead” that I’d published in Gargoyle and only an inkling of how it might expand. I got down to work and knocked out a draft, although it took me years and dozens of revisions to figure out the heart of this book. I worked with more than one agent and finally found a wonderful person for the project, who in turn found the best home for the book.

Diana Bletter: Can you talk about your own trajectory becoming a writer and how you got the idea for Washing the Dead?

Michelle Brafman: I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my thirties but I’ve always been a collector of stories. Before I began writing, I was a documentary filmmaker and was so taken with the tales that surfaced after the cameras stopped rolling that I had to write them down. I wrote some bad short fiction, but I took classes and improved and then applied to graduate school and started honing my skills. I’m still as committed to learning and growing as a writer.

I got the idea for Washing the Dead from a friend who told me about the tahara ritual. Although I have a decent Jewish education, I was unaware of this ritual, and I became enamored of the beauty and compassion attached to this rite as well as the sensory details of the actual washing and shrouding. Once I discovered the tahara, I knew what I wanted to do with the characters who had been rattling around in my head. I wrote the short story, and the rest is history.

Diana Bletter: Some writers say they write fast and then fill in the details after the first draft. What’s your writing routine? Do you find your characters doing things that surprise you?

Michelle Brafman: I write a rough draft pretty quickly, but it takes time to get to know my characters and in turn flesh out the central conflict of the book. The plot typically remains pretty much the same throughout the drafting process, but I reframe the scenes depending on what I’ve discovered about my characters. In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, she describes how a character emerges like an image in a Polaroid photo. I like that. I also think of my characters as people I’ve gotten to know over a period of time, yet who can surprise me by how they roll in various situations.

Diana Bletter: Do you have any suggestions for new writers? Are there any writing exercises you find helpful?

Michelle Brafman: I tell my students the following: Read as much as humanly possible and well beyond your comfort zone. Keep a notebook on your person at all times because you never know when a story will “happen to you.” Seek out mentors who will help you learn the craft and hone your voice, but take your writing as far as you can on your own before you ask for help. Then become a mentor to someone else. Keep your heart and mind wide open. Work really hard, and luck will find you.

I use many different writing prompts with my students, depending on the skill we are working on. My general advice would be to write every single day, even if only for ten minutes or so. Simply making marks keeps the creative pump primed.

Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?

Michelle Brafman: I’m working on a second novel. The setting and structure are entirely different, although once again I’m writing about family secrets and water.

Diana Bletter: Finally, my blog is called thebestchapter, and I write about trying to make the most of each day. What are the things you do on a daily basis to make each day a part of your best chapter?

Michelle Brafman: Thanks for the reminder! I try to take a few moments every day to share at least one laugh with my husband and enjoy the heck out of my kids. My daughter is about to enter high school, my son will become a bar mitzvah next summer, and the time is speeding by too fast. We have our little family rituals and jokes that I treasure, but sometimes I simply listen to them sing or joke with each other in the next room. I also try to connect my friends, via a phone call, a text, or if I’m lucky, a quick cup of coffee or a walk along the Potomac River.

Thank you, Michelle Brafman.

You can find Washing the Dead wherever you buy books. (And I hope you’re still buying books.)

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12 Tips for Mothering On Mother’s Day (MOM is WOW Spelled Upside Down!)

My mother with her granddaughter, Ruby, who's wearing one of my mother's wigs.

My mother with her granddaughter, Ruby, who’s wearing one of my mother’s wigs.

Last Mother’s Day, I wrote about whether it was a happy or unhappy Mother’s Day because it was the first Mother’s Day after my own mother’s death. You can read it here. But today, I want to share 12 tips I’ve learned about mothering throughout the years. I hope they help you. I wish I knew them earlier.

1. Be like a saleswoman. I worked selling Dead Sea products for a boss named Ari Singer, who also happened to be my son. He taught me, “Ask a potential customer a question, such as, “What skin cream do you use?” And no matter what they say, you reply, “Perfect! I want to show you something.” Great salespeople always agree with their customers, no matter what their response. Work with them. It’s like improvisation. Never contradict! Even when a woman told me she only uses Crisco on her face, I said, “Perfect!” and continued with my spiel.

The same rule applies toyour children. Even if your children ask you for something completely unreasonable, say, “Perfect!” or “Great!” and then, “Maybe another day.” Example:

Child: “Can you buy me Sugary-sugar-cinnamon-sugared Sugar Tidbits today?”

Mom: “Perfect! Maybe another time.”

Avoid saying, “No.” No just sends the child spiraling into, “I never get anything…Loobertina gets to have whatever she wants…You’re a bad mother.” So: AGREE and then change the subject. Or say what you will do instead. This keeps the conversation cheerful and avoids arguments.

2. Ask them, “Now or in 5 minutes?” Do you want to turn off the X-box now or in 5 minutes? They’ll always say 5 minutes, as if they’ve won an important point. Then you say, “Okay, so I’ll set the timer and when it rings, you’ll turn it off.”

3. Give your children chores. You are the Mom, not the slave. Your kids need to learn responsibility. Even if you have to re-sweep what your kid just swept, make sure they do it. You can put a daily job chart on the refrigerator. They can do their chores and then do what they want to do.

If they complain about doing the chore, tell them you’ll put on three songs and see if they can do it before the songs end. That’s usually how long a child’s chore should take.

4. Tell your child to talk like a big boy or girl. Avoid saying, “Don’t whine,” because kids are stumped. Say, “Talk like a big boy.” They know how big kids talk. You’ll see, they’ll change their tone of voice.

5. Don’t tell a child, “You’re a bad girl,” for example. Children are always good and pure inside. They might act poorly and display inappropriate behavior. Whatever you can ignore, ignore, and focus on what they’re doing right. You got dressed really quickly. You brushed your teeth when I asked you. Wow, you got along great with your sister. Then, do something with them to reward this appropriate behavior. You can build a tower and add a block each night they behaved right during the day. Or you can give stickers and a big reward after ten, let’s say.

6. Tell your kids to use their words instead of acting out. At the same time, when you speak, use less words. You don’t have to explain everything. You can simply say, “that’s not appropriate.” It’s a big word but they’ll figure it out. It keeps your voice neutral as well.

7. Don’t get involved with your children’s fights. (Unless there’s blood, as my husband Jonny always used to say.) They need to learn how to work things out on their own. You can listen to each side and then say, “I’m sure you’ll come up with a solution.”

8. Teach your children manners. Teach them to shake hands with people and look them in the eye. Teach them how to hold a knife and fork. How to excuse themselves from the table. How to say thank you for the dinner. How to be considerate of others.

9. Make sure they have a routine. Some say that God stands for Good Orderly Direction. Children need a bedtime, a bath time and a story time. Kids like small spaces, just like pets do. Small units of time work best. This goes with the corollary, children like boundaries.

10. Don’t negotiate. Don’t fall into the habit of, “If you do this, then I’ll give you that.” Because after a while children figure it out and then they’ll become master manipulators.

11. What do you want from them? That’s what you need to do as well. You want them to give you respect? Respect yourself. Make sure your partner respects you. Want them to talk to you with respect? Make sure your partner talks to you with respect. Talk to them with respect. Keep your voice modulated as much as possible. Want to get them to watch less TV and read more? Then turn off the TV and don’t watch it. Want them to exercise? Put on sneakers and go out.

12. “Did I tell you today that I love you?” Every day tell them you love them.

Watch these tips with two of my favorite actors on youtube here.

Remember, which adjectives do you want your children to use about your? Me? I want: magical, funny, silly, able to laugh at myself, consistent, strong, loving. What about you?

Happy Mother’s Day. Send in your own tips, questions and comments. Remember, mothers are always perfect because nobody is perfect.

Read an interesting article by Judith Shulevitz on mothers and who has got the market on worrying about the kids.

My mother, Gladys Katcher Bletter, was perfectly imperfect. But her legs were close to perfection. Here they were a few weeks before her death.

My mother, Gladys Katcher Bletter, was perfectly imperfect. But her legs were close to perfection. Here they were a few weeks before her death. You can see the cigarette butts in the ashtray, the boxes, and the plastic bags from her newspapers. Plus, her slippers which my sister, Cynthia, searched far and wide to find for her.

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For Writers: What’s the Best Way to Respond to Criticism? Take it.

stephen kingI read an article in The New York Times about Julie Straus-Gabel, the publisher of Dutton children’s books. When she is editing books, she sends writers—including John Green (The Fault In our Stars)—stinging letters full of criticism and suggestions.

Adam Gidwitz, who wrote the best-selling A Tale Dark and Grimm, said that he both dreads and depends on Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s editorial letters.

“Whenever I get a letter from her, I go through this mourning process,” he said. “The first day, I rage all day. The second day, the tears set in, and I say she’s right, and I’m a terrible writer. The third day I say I’m not a terrible writer, but I can’t write this book. The fourth day, I get to work.”

I’ve been through the exact same thing when I receive letters from editors telling me what I need to work on in my writing, only I skip the mourning and the rage and go write into, “I’m a reeeellly bad writer. I. Can. Not. Do. This.”

When I first sent out my novel, A Remarkable Kindness, my literary agent, Steven Chudney, sent me back an email with everything I needed to change. One of the things he said was the novel seemed too long. Too long? I wanted to laugh. Or cry. Because while I was writing it, I felt like I was pushing out a baby elephant and I couldn’t find enough words. Now, he wanted me to cut what took me so long to write? One chapter, he explained, that took place during a Hanukkah celebration. I liked that chapter. I really didn’t want to let it go. But when I re-read the chapter with an open mind, I had to agree with him.

Still, I asked Steven, “What do I do with the sex scene from that chapter? It’s a really good one!”

“I’m sure you’ll find somewhere else to put it!” he joked.

(I did!)

Then, after several more back-and-forths, and after I dug in andmade all the changes, Steven sent the book to Rachel Kahan, the editor-in- chief of William Morrow. After Rachel accepted it, she went through it again, and wrote notes like this one:

“This scene needs to be fleshed out because it raises a lot more questions than it answers, and if you’re going to split it with the scene in the burial circle, you have to give it more heft so the reader learns something new and there’s some payoff.”

Ouch!

Rachel was right about that scene. I hit the delete button. Cut it completely.

I think that the toughest part for me as a writer is being willing to stay open-minded about my work. If I want to improve my work, I can’t stay defensive. I can’t give the old, “Yes, but…” (Because as my dear friend Maggie used to say, everything after but is bulls- -t.) I have to be willing to look at my writing with fierce eyes, which is often hard to do because I’m so tied in and attached to the story.

That’s where great editors like Rachel steps in. She doesn’t care that I slaved over that one sentence for two hours. If it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go!

When I worked at The Southampton Press as a reporter, every Wednesday we laid out the newspaper for the next day. The production editors pasted the articles on big white boards. If an article was too long, it hung over the board like Rapunzel’s long hair. (Or a bad mullet.) We reporters had to go around with razor blades and slice off extra copy.

My editor, Michael Pitcher, used to joke with me because he knew how much it pained me to let go of my words. “Oh, I know how it pains you to get rid of your fine prose,” he’d say.

But after a while, I started to get used to throwing away whole paragraphs without looking back. I learned that in newspaper writing, the rule is to put the important information in the start of the story. Give the readers the pertinent facts first. The background stuff isn’t important. The same holds for fiction writing. Keep the fluff out.

However, we have to write more than we need. That is the most essential part of the writing process. We won’t know we’ve written too much until we write and write and write and then stop and look back.

We have to write a lot because that’s how our imagination works, spontaneously and fast. If we hesitate, if we start with the false premise that our first draft has to be perfect, then we’ll never start.

Here’s my rule: The first draft is the worst draft.

That idea frees me to write badly. It frees me to write.

When Stephen King was a high school senior, he got a rejection letter from an editor who wrote: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”

That means we have to write more and not less. Write a lot of junk, write freely, and then be willing to look at it and throw a lot of it away.

I’m almost finished for today. The key, dear writer, if you want to publish your work: be willing to write a lot and then be willing to let go of a lot. Be willing to have someone else read your work and suggest changes and then you must go back, work just as hard, and make those changes.

So, what is the best way to respond to criticism? Take it.

Hey, stick around. In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about how accepting criticism as writers also applies with criticism we get about ourselves.

We have to write a lot to get to the kernel of the story. We have to live a lot to have something to write about.

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Want To Improve a Relationship? Here’s a Simple Formula That Works Every Time.

Sometimes we can't see ourselves or others clearly. Take off those glasses! Model: Jonny K.

Sometimes we can’t see ourselves or others clearly. Take off those glasses! Model: Jonny K.

Want To Improve a Relationship? Use Algebra.

Even if you don’t get math, this one is easy. Let’s say you know that:

1 + 2 = 3 (Right? I’m assuming that global warming has not effected math, yet.)

So in algebra, you can write that with letters: A + B = C.

But if we just change (A) or (B) we get a different answer.

That’s how it goes with relationships. If we change ourselves, no matter what, the end result changes. The relationship changes but we have to be willing to change first.

The other day, I met an older woman who was holding onto a resentment toward her son-in-law. She just couldn’t let it go. When I suggested that she change how she acts toward him, the woman said sharply, “No way! I’m not going to be the one to change! He should change!”

Pride keeps us from apologizing first. Pride keeps us stuck in self-justification or self-righteousness. Sometimes we wear glasses that make us blind to our own defects.

What’s so bad about apologizing first? Humbling ourselves? Reaching out? Admitting we might be wrong? Too often we’re so busy looking at the other person but as the saying goes, “If you spot it, you got it.” Meaning, if we spot annoying behavior in someone else, chances are we own that same annoying behavior, only we don’t wanna see it.

That woman refused to budge about her own stuff. She’s living in a swamp of negativity. And after I heard her story, and then heard it again, I didn’t feel like hanging around with her anymore. I prefer to stick with people who are open-minded, willing to change, to grow, to learn.

I heard another story about a woman who wanted a number of things from her husband: common courtesy, respect, and non-sarcastic comments. Her friend suggested, “Why don’t you practice those things with him first?”

TA-DA!

She was willing to do that. She tried practicing courtesy (the highest form of grace) and stopped being sarcastic. She changed herself (A) and not only did the end result (C) change but along the way, her husband (B) started being gentler, and more respectful to her.

It has to begin with us. We can’t force anyone else to change. We can’t convince anyone else to change to our liking unless we are willing to look at our own behavior and change as well.

“A man can detect a speck in another’s hair, but can’t see the flies on his own nose.” Mendele Mocher Seforim. (This is the pseudonym of a late nineteenth-century Yiddish writer named Solomon Abramowitsch. His pseudonym in Yiddish means, Mendele the Bookseller.)

Thought for the day: If we want something to change, we have to change.

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Three Messages of the Easter/Passover Bunny

Amalia Singer with the Easter/Passover bunny

Amalia Singer with the Easter/Passover bunny

I was in New York City with Jonny and our six children right before Easter and Passover a few years ago. Since we were living in Israel, the kids had no idea what Easter was, so when we saw a bunny parading nearby, I said to them, “Look! It’s the Passover bunny!”

The bunny heard me saying that, and told us, “I really am the Passover bunny.”

“Really?” I said. “Here’s the test. What comes after ‘Dai, dai…”

And he said, “Eynu!”

That’s the famous song Jews sing at the Passover seder, “Dai-enu,” or it would have been enough for us.

What’s the message? First, there are so many paths to feel a sense of joy and holiness and we can respect all of them. Nobody has the whole truth. We just don’t know. But we can practice mutual respect.

We just don’t know. In matters of faith, there is no such thing as right or wrong. We each define God (or however we choose to define God) in our own special ways.

One of my best friends is a devout Catholic. I’m a committed Jew. We have long, inspirational, spiritual, uplifting discussions about Catholicism and Judaism. I esteem her beliefs; she values mine. Unlike in the rest of the world, where there is so much strife and self-righteousness and horrific violence when it comes to differing religions. One only has to read how ISIS has beheaded Christians to know the devastating crimes committed in the name of religion. In using the word “infidel” to apply to anyone whose spiritual ideas differ from their own.

Another thing I’ve come to understand is that we all have a sense of the divine inside us. How we express that is up to us. We can be creative and write, paint, dance or sing. Nobody else has dibs on expressions of grace, of holiness.

So wherever you are right now, whatever you’re doing, remind yourself that you are a channel for the divine here on earth. And I hope you find some way to express yourself while being tolerant of others, to fill your own well, and to appreciate your life. It is the only one you have.

Posted in Acceptance | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ask Yourself This: Are You a Depriver or an Indulger? And Why Does it Matter?

Pomelo blossoms. Next invention? An aromaphoto, so that you could smell that heavenly aroma.

Pomelo blossoms. Next invention? An aromaphoto, so that you could smell that heavenly aroma.

Are you an indulger or a depriver?

I could come up with a list of questions to help you determine if you indulge yourself or deprive yourself. But this one will do: If you have, oh, let’s say, an hour or two, do you indulge yourself with a simple pleasure – taking a walk, reading on the couch, meeting a friend for coffee – or do you remind yourself of all you need to do and get to work doing it?

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate myself a 7 as a depriver. I am my own meanest boss. I’d rather be writing than doing just about most things. Or reading. (In that order.)

But I decided that I also need to indulge myself because the essence of life, the very life of life, is made up of those moments when we’re doing the fun stuff. That’s what we remember. Not all those hours we were working.

That’s what happens when a goody-goody grows up.

Now I’m letting the tomboy in me have more fun. Which is why I spent part of my free time photographing the blossoms on our pomelo tree. How many of you have tasted a pomelo? It’s a citrus maxima, a citrus fruit, that looks like a bell-shaped grapefruit. But it’s not as juicy and not as sour. Peeling it and eating it like an orange is occupational therapy because it requires a bit of manual dexterity. A low-calorie way to keep your hands busy.

We had one pomelo on our tree last year. This year we have a lot of blossoms but there’s a hamsin brewing – that the wind that sweeps up from the desert – which will probably blow off all the blossoms.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I often write the blogs I want to read. The message for today is:

We must commit ourselves to our work, even if nobody around us understands what we’re doing. We must, as Flannery O’Connor said, wrote in a letter to her friend Cecil Dawkins:
“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. I see it happen all the time. Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well.”

So, we need to sit there and do the work. But then we must also give ourselves time to play, to dream, to look at the blue swath of sky, to smell the aroma of a pomelo blossom before it gets blown away.

Pomelo tree in China.

Pomelo tree in China.

It is hard to find the balance but both work and play keep the blues away. We can skip the TV shows that are junk food for the brain and do something fun that we will really nourish our souls. And we can do the work even if we do it badly. Because we only get one chance at life so we better do it right.

What do you think? Are you an indulger or a depriver? Have you ever tried to inch down the scale and become the other? And do you have any writing habits that work for you?

If you have nothing to do and feel like a split deprive/indulge time (first you have to bake, which to me is deprivation, then you get to snack — a definite indulgence) check out this recipe for pomelo citrus bars.

I am allergic to cats but I had to add this photo. Hope it makes you crack a smile.

Pomelo peel on a cat.

Pomelo peel on a cat.

Posted in work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Tool For Tuesday: How Writers Learn To Deal With Rejections

Nikki Giovani on failure, rejections and not giving up.

Nikki Giovani on failure, rejections and not giving up.

A friend of mine wrote to me in distress after getting a rejection from a magazine editor to whom she had submitted an article. “And he said he wanted to see it!” she groused. “Ouch. Now what do I do with it?”

How do writers handle rejections? I want to write not only about what we can do with the actual piece that was rejected but how we can cheer ourselves up.

We have to first decide why we’re writing. If we’re writing for ourselves, just for the fun of it, then we can write the article or the story, send it out, and if it gets rejected, we can remind ourselves that we were writing for the fun of it, anyway.

But if we really want it to get published somewhere, then we have to take a hard look at our work. Ask ourselves the following questions:

Did the article fit the format of the magazine or website we wrote it for? Every place has its style. A clothing designer wouldn’t try to sell a neon pink T-shirt with rhinestones and fringes to a shop that only sells minimalist black-and-white clothes. Every journal has its tone, its voice, its vibe. Some go for quirky, others for cynical, still others prefer inspirational. Did your piece match?

Re-gift the article. I confess to passing on a gift that I have received (only on very rare occasions, I promise) to someone else. So we can fix up a story and change it to meet another journal’s needs. I did this with an article that got rejected one place; I repackaged it and published it in The Huffington Post.

Check your query letter. Did what you deliver what you promised? Remember the rule: Under-promise, over-deliver.

Did you read a lot of pieces the magazine published before you wrote your piece? I mean, did you really do your homework on this? Did you make sure your style matched theirs?

Are you making excuses about your work? The old, “Yes, but…” doesn’t get you out of looking at your piece honestly. It reminds me of my neighbor who bought a table that an artist made from a trunk of a tree. It’s lovely to look at, but the table is on a slant and if you put a glass of water on it, the glass slides right off. “Yes, but…” my neighbor told me, defending her purchase. OK, it’s a lovely piece of art but it doesn’t work as a table. So, does your piece really work?

Finally, let it sit for a while until we can see our writing more clearly. We can show it to a trusted reader. We can put it away while we lick our wounds. But sooner or later, we have to decide if we’re in for writing in the long run.  “I really don’t think life is about the I-could-have-beens,” Nikki Giovanni says. “Life is only about the I-tried-to-do. I don’t mind the failure but I can’t imagine that I’d forgive myself if I didn’t try.”

That’s the message we can tell ourselves. The messages we give ourselves are the most powerful voices in our head. After getting rejections, I’ve sulked for a while and told myself I’ll never pick up my fountain pen again. But then I remind myself of all the writers who’ve been rejected. Writing is like preparing for a running race. We have to clock in a hundred miles to run ten miles. Writing is a discipline. It’s practice. It’s Harrison Ford saying, “Some actors couldn’t figure out how to withstand the constant rejection. They couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

I talked with my friend about her piece. She said that after she got over her discouragement, she was going to try to send the article to somewhere else.

That’s all we can do. We are only responsible for the effort not the outcome. But we have to do our best. If we want to write, that’s what we have to do. Write and rewrite and keep going. That’s the journey.

As Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

As I would say, “Put your tuchas in that chair and keep writing. No matter how many times you get rejected. Just keep writing.”

Posted in how to deal with rejections, Writing | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Ten Things To Remember On Trust.

Here's total trust. That's Ari walking on a highline in Turkey. He's got a harness on. But still.

Here’s total trust. That’s Ari walking on a highline in Turkey. He’s got a harness on. But still.

Here’s a prayer on trust that my friend, Amy, wrote. She sent it to me and I modified it a bit for all of us.

I trust there is a plan even when I don’t know what it is.

I trust that the process is perfect no matter how it appears, and that my path is mine, no one else’s.

What is ultimately good for me can look bizarre but I still trust my journey.

I know that all is good–there are no mistakes.

I trust that I am watched over and that my heart is attached to G-d’s.

I need to remember that G-d smiles on me all the time.

I trust that whatever is completely overwhelming right now, whatever seems hopeless and wrong, will not last forever. At some point I will get a break; the right people will show up to enhance my journey and everyone and everything that is not for my highest good will drift away on their own.

I trust that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be today.

We came up with different acronyms. Mine is: Total Reliance on an Unknowable Sure Thing. What’s yours for TRUST? Send ’em in.

And I hope that whatever you are going through today, you can trust that it’s what you need to learn an important spiritual lesson.

More on high-lining here. This is not an endorsement. What normal Jewish mother would encourage her kid to high-line? But acceptance doesn’t mean you like something. It just is and you recognize it.

Look how tiny the people look down below. Then again, don't.

Look how tiny the people look down below. Then again, don’t.

Posted in Acceptance, living simply | Tagged , | 6 Comments

How to Keep Writing No Matter What: The Novelist Who Learned How to Beat Writer’s Block

How satisfied can one gal be? This is me getting my first look at the ARC OF ARK -- the Advanced Reader's Copy of A REMARKABLE KINDNESS.

How satisfied can one gal be? This is me getting my first look at the ARC OF ARK — the Advanced Reader’s Copy of A REMARKABLE KINDNESS.

This is a post for all those writers who want to give up. Don’t. No matter how long it takes, keep going.

I was so disappointed when the novel I now hold in my hands, A Remarkable Kindness, got rejected by more than a dozen publishing companies in 2006.

Because I was hurt and dejected and feeling a bit sorry for myself, I stuffed the novel in a drawer and refused to even think about it. Then, in 2013, I was at the Jewish Book Council promoting my memoir, The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle, and it hit me in one of those epiphanies (if it were a Hollywood movie, there would have been a bolt of lightning): REWRITE THAT NOVEL.

That was in the spring. I reworked it through the summer of 2013. Reworked is putting it mildly. I had to rewrite almost each sentence. I polished it the way a guy might polish his first car – with a toothbrush. I originally had the point of view be a third-person narrator. I decided to make each of my four main characters write in her own voice. I had to change every “she” to “I” and every “her” to “my.” Changing the point of view was important because I had to really get into each character’s head and see the world through her eyes. Would Lauren think in this kind of metaphor? What simile would Emily use?

Still, there were some days when I thought, this is crazy, what are you doing I did not have writer’s block – I had writer’s neighborhood. Why are you wasting your time? But then I told myself,

IF YOU GIVE UP, YOU WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOURSELF.

I felt like I was writing in a cave, scratching away at a dirty stone wall. But I kept going. When I was ready, I gave it to some trusted friends to read. Then I sent it out to literary agents. One kind agent told me that it’s really hard to get the voice right and the characters sounded too much alike. So, I rewrote it all again, changing every “I” back to “she” and every “my” back to “her.”

Can you see how tough this all was?

The first time around, my novel was called, The Dead Can Never Thank You. (My daughter, Amalia, said that it sounded like a ghost story.)  When I resubmitted it, I called it The Women’s Burial Circle, which sounded too much like an anthropologist’s look at a weird ritual in Papua, New Guinea.

Then I stumbled upon literary agent, Steven Chudney, who accepted the novel. Like an architect able to envision a house in his head, he was able to envision how the book should be. I reworked it again using his guidance. He sold it to Rachel Kahan at HarperCollins within a few months.

So, if you are reading this and feeling the blues because if you haven’t sold your novel yet, keep working. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would – about eighteen years longer – to sell my second book. But don’t smash your computer. Keep moving your fingers over the keyboard or (as in my case) using a trusty fountain pen.

Right before I opened the box containing A Remarkable Kindness.

Right before I opened the box containing A Remarkable Kindness.

If you’re stuck, here is one exercise you might try:

Write a story in which one character has a secret that she/he has to tell someone about. Begin right at the moment she or he tells the secret, and then work backwards. Here’s a sentence to start with:

“What do you mean, impossible?” I said. This is based on the sentence I used to start me writing my story, “One Kiss, One Baby, One God,” for Commentary Magazine.) You can mix it up:

“What do you mean, impossible?” my boss/my best friend/my lover/my son/my priest said…

Set your timer. Give yourself however long you think you can stand sitting and writing fast. Write as much as you can in thirty minutes, let’s say. Do this a little at a time and you will have a story. Then put it aside for a while. Take it out to show your ideal reader. Do not send it out to magazines until you have had it read and edited. Take your time. As Malcolm Gladwell says, we have to put in our 10,000 hours.

And remember – if we write to get approval and admiration, then we’ll always feel slightly dissatisfied. We have to write for the joy of writing, just for the pleasure and the abandon and the free-fall feeling we get putting words together. Approval is an inside job. We have to fill our own wells.

We have to do the thing that calls us.

My husband, Jonny, wrote me:

“It is yours; you did it. You NEVER gave up. You got knocked down but you got up. You have guts. When I think of the word perseverance, your name heads my list. You experienced ups and downs and near crises but diligently continued no matter how many rejection letters you received. I am sitting back enjoying your success – so well-deserved.”

Proving myself – to myself – is the best feeling around. So all I can say to you, keep going. I really believe that the universe supports our dreams.

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Arthur Ashe: Words of Wisdom on Living Simply.

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe

When Arthur Ashe was asked, “Why did God have to select you for such a bad disease?”

He replied:“Fifty Million children started playing Tennis, 5 Million learnt to play Tennis, 500 000 learnt Professional Tennis, 50 Thousand came to Circuit, 5 Thousand reached the Grand Slam, 50 reached Wimbledon, 4 reached the Semifinals, 2 reached the Finals and when I was holding the cup in my hand, I never asked God “Why Me?”

So now that I’m in pain how can I ask God “Why Me?”

Happiness keeps you Sweet.Trials keeps you Strong. Sorrows keep you Human. Failure keeps you Humble. Success keeps you Glowing. But only, faith keeps you going.

Sometimes you are unsatisfied with your life, while many people in this world are dreaming of living your life.

A child on a farm sees a plane fly overhead & dreams of flying. But, a pilot on the plane sees the farmhouse & dreams of returning home. That’s life. Enjoy yours…

If wealth is the secret to happiness, then the rich should be dancing on the streets. But only poor kids do that.

If power ensures security, then VIPs should walk unguarded. But those who live simply, sleep soundly.

If beauty and fame bring ideal relationships, then celebrities should have the best marriages.

Live simply. Walk humbly and love genuinely.”

Sometimes we have trouble following Ashe’s suggetions. Sometimes just living our lives simply doesn’t seem so simple. Whaddya we do? Just for today, go to your own Six Senses Spa. Fill your life with treats for each of your six senses.

Look at something beautiful, listen to something beautiful, touch, smell, taste something beautiful for a treat. And lastly, pray something beautiful. Fill your own soul with a pray of thanks for things for which you can feel grateful.

Arthur Ashe said: “From what we get, we can make a living. From what we give, we can make a life.”

Posted in Arthur Ashe, Arthur Ashe quotes, living simply | Tagged , , | 5 Comments