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Am I a Jewish Writer?


Here's my interview with Jody Carr for her series of Jewish writers interviews, published on Carr Talks.

If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?

At one point I took my law boards and applied to law school. It’s strange to think

of now, because that life seems so different from the one I have chosen. Strange, but possible. I feel very comfortable in a life that allows me so much time alone, to think and read and write, but it’s possible that if my life had gone in a different direction, I would now feel comfortable in that life.

On the other hand: Once in college I had to take a personality profile test to help direct me in my career choice. It seems I had some VA education benefits coming to me from my father, and the tests were supposed to help insure that I was using my education wisely. So I took the battery of tests and found out that I was well suited to being a forest ranger.

OK, so maybe being a writer is closer to my true self than being a lawyer. It certainly feels that way now.

What single book has marked your life?

That’s a tough one. I often get carried away by a book, and for a time that book is the most influential. If I had to chose one, I think it would be Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands. I remember buying the book when I was in New York City and then standing on the street corner reading, mesmerized. What that book gave me was both inspiration and permission for my own writing. At the time, 1996, I was working on poems about my son’s drug addiction, and Gluck’s book about the end of a marriage gave me a whole new way of approaching my material. I loved the narrative feel of poems that were so much more than narrative, the collaging of different points of view, the way individual poems were strong enough to stand alone but so much stronger within their place in the story. After reading her book, I re-visioned my poems into what became To Get Here.

Do you feel as though writing is your calling or your career?

I feel that writing is my calling and teaching is my career. I write because I have to: that’s how I attend to my world, how I understand and organize experience. I love my teaching, more so as I get older and feel I have more to share with my students, but I can envision a time when I will no longer teach. I can’t envision a time when I won’t write.

Would we recognize who you are today in your childhood self?

I think so. I was an observer more than a joiner. And a reader.

When we moved from New York City to the suburbs our house had a downstairs den. It had bookshelves on one wall, big windows on the other walls, and a small couch. I loved to settle in to that couch surrounded by books, free to break off my reading and stare out the windows and daydream. It was heaven.

What brings you joy?

Reading, writing, walking, gardening, cooking, baking. Spending time with my children. Spending time with my grandchildren. My husband. Friends.

Do you believe your writing will be of service to the Jewish people? Is this idea one that matters to you, or is your mission less particular?

I don’t think of myself as a Jewish writer, so I don’t think in terms of my writing being of service to the Jewish people. That is, I’m a writer, and I’m Jewish, and I love being both, but my writing isn’t addressed to any specific group.

I am interested in how people live their lives. When I read, I am trying to understand what challenges people face, their joys and sorrows. What they’re proud of. What they fear. If I had to define a mission in my writing, I would say it is to share the experiences of my life–or the experiences of a fictional character who resembles me–in order to add my story to these others.

Beyond subject matter, and the identity of the writer, what characteristics, if any, do you believe contribute to making a publication “Jewish”?

I often feel that poetry, no matter what the subject matter or the writer’s identity, is Jewish: all that white space! Poetry asks you to read between the lines, to bring your own associations to the language on the page. And isn’t that what we’re encouraged to do when reading Torah? Isn’t that what the Talmud is all about?

What are you afraid of?

I’m afraid something terrible will happen to someone I love. My father died when I was very young, in a car accident when we were driving across country, so I come to this fear honestly.

In terms of writing, I’m sometimes less vigilant in protecting my writing time. That fear erupts in the middle of the night, when I wake up and realize I’ve forgotten something: me.

Advice for other writers reading this interview?

The best advice I ever got was in graduate school, when each of us was feeling that there were others vastly more talented than we were. One of my teachers told us, talent is important, but it’s the hard work that will make you a writer.

Make the space. Find the time. Write.

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