The Arbor Vitae 2013


Jean's Blog (Check out links to Guest Blogs in lefthand Column)


May 2, 2016

Tags: writing, novel, characters, Nile

A year ago, I plunged into my novel and stopped writing my monthly blogs, wanting to channel all the energy of my creativity toward the one goal that beckoned enticingly from the shadows. Now winter has passed, an astoundingly mild winter, but one that seems reluctant to cede its place to spring. Clouds race across the sky, propelled by an unseasonal wind. Storms and hail batter the middle of the country. Here we are, in May 2016, and the chill in the air still makes the crocuses and daffodils shiver along with the rest of us.
I spent a year of writing and thinking about writing. My novel is done, except for responding to advice from agent and editor. I have neither. I am stranded in the nether world of doubt and despair from which I rescued other writers for years. Who will love my brain-child? Who will make it all real? I wait. Answers will eventually come. They may not be the answers I so desire. I am not a patient person I discover, although I always thought I was.
I set out to write that novel, clear about where it would begin and where it would end. I knew the beginning. I knew how it ended. I was fuzzy, but hopeful that I would be able to sharpen focus on everything that needed to happen in between. What I had not anticipated was the way certain characters, just a name at first, struggled and elbowed their way to importance, and in doing so, unfurled infinite possibilities, influenced interaction with others, tilted the story differently and through their motivations and individual needs skewed the involvement with their environment and world events their way. I felt myself being dragged along to unpremeditated scenarios by the energy the characters themselves projected. It was a mind-blowing experience.
Now, like so many other writers of first novels, I sit on hot coals, pretending to do and say all that is expected of me in my real world, while the world and characters I created bang on the door of my consciousness, demanding to know what will happen next. The novel (tentative title, CHILDREN OF THE NILE), is finished, but not final, as I wait for responses.
This the mere beginning. But what of the people whose lives I explored, whose lives I lived as I wrote them? They became more real to me than flesh and blood. We lived together for so many months, shared Eureka moments, struggled against each other, flew above the clouds into the zone together and emerged dazed but triumphant to read words that wrote themselves, words I loved, and was unaware of having written.
Now there is only the pain of waiting.

The February Blues

February 3, 2015

Tags: hibernating, writing, groundhog day, John Gardner, Stephen King

Painting by Joyce Mosseri
available for purchase

Snow, ice, wind, storms, sleet and bone-chilling cold. That has been the recipe so far for this bitter winter. Even the stoics are shaken. For hibernating creatures such as myself, the days stretch, unwinding opportunity as I sit and contemplate the blank screen of my computer.
Groundhog Day came and went with no clarification as to how long this weather will hold us prisoner. The three warring groundhogs of the Northeast could not arrive at a consensus, so - weary sigh - we either have an early spring or five more weeks of winter.
I planned to hibernate, but I did expect to be able to poke my nose out of my burrow now and then to sniff the air.
Meanwhile, my life as a writer is taking me by surprise. I am learning that having made a commitment to my characters and the story they are weaving, everything I hear, see and read measures itself subconsciously against them. Everything around me feeds into my story. I am working internally far more than I expected and I am loving the process. My characters are growing wings and flying on their own. Only time will tell if their wings take their story into the minds and hearts of readers. They have made it into mine.
If anyone reading this is an aspiring fiction writer, I strongly recommend John Gardner's fantastic book, "On Becoming a Novelist." Along with Stephen King's engaging book on writing, it has spun a web of very useful insights into the process and reach of the imagination and its relationship to writing fiction, to creativity, and truth.
Other books have been somewhat helpful, but these two set my feet firmly on a path I am treading with wonder and delight, breathing in the air of discovery and marveling at the view, all the while hibernating and waiting for spring.


December 29, 2014

Tags: writing, azalea, imagination, winter

Winter at Stony Creek House: Firewood, Sunlight and Snow

Strange December weather.
Two azalea plants are flourishing on our city living-room window-sill, encouraged to spectacular bloom by the subtle wafting of warm air from the radiator nearby and the delicate winter sunlight sifting through the glass of the window pane. They bloom year after year, sometimes twice a year. Every new array of strong little buds comes as a charming surprise as the years go by.
Spring-like days offer gentle air and blue skies, but hidden in our cautious, almost disbelieving delight there lurks a sense of foreboding. Will we have to pay for this unseasonal gift with harsh and cruel winter months to come, as a new year moves in?
I am drifting slowly toward the moment when I will be able to sink into working on my novel without guilt. January begins next week. My year of transition is over.
I have not succeeded in staving off some of the words that have begun to crowd my subconscious. 15,000 of them now sit enticingly in my computer. Every time I dare to open the file, I am sucked deep into the lives of my characters, who are filling out in unexpected ways, gaining strong voices, past lives, and a destiny.
I feel that this forage into the realms of the imagination is what I was always meant to do. Time disappears. There are no hungers but the hungers of the individuals I have invited to live in my mind. I am merely a conduit and like a Jinn billowing from a bottle, I can offer them a future that only I can conjure into reality.
There is research to be done, and I am reading into the period when the novel is set, and into some of the background. I am so excited to be embarking on a new challenge, a new project that will push beyond what I know and enlarge my interior world. I so hope it will all come together to produce the shape and resolution of a fully realized work of fiction. I am stepping with optimism and energy into my writing life.
Onward, 2015! And a happy new year to one and all.

My Lost Egypt

September 28, 2012

Tags: Friendship, Facebook, Egypt, grandchildren, writing, memoir

I am constantly amazed at the serendipity of life. The longer I live, the more I see patterns and an architecture connecting and ordering the random moments that punctuate my days. In this unexpected season of white hair and stiff muscles, I see re-connections and closure in so many ways, voices from the past rising out of nowhere, or facilitated by the internet and emerging again to touch my consciousness and my life. Dorothy Wills-Raftery is one such. We met briefly some twenty-five years ago in Upstate New York, where my husband and I had just begun to reach out from our newly acquired weekend house to explore the community around us. Friendship was difficult to cultivate when we were there so little, and so absorbed in our young family, in reading manuscripts for work, and in dealing with the unfamiliar demands of a 200-year-old second home. Dorothy and I lost touch and went our separate ways. Years went by. Facebook brought us together, and Dorothy, deep into her writing career, having read SIPPING FROM THE NILE, included me in a blog-network to which she had been invited. Answering the same questions here that she answered in her blog, (her book is "Getting Healthy With Harley") I have now handed the torch to five other wonderful writers who will do the same.

What is the working title of your book?
SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt. Everyone loves the title, and I have my son-in-law to thank for it. The memoir originally had a working title, A FRAGMENT IN TIME, because the more I delved into my own past and the past of my parents and grandparents, the more I began to see myself as a tiny speck floating in a vast ocean of time past and to come.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
When I became a grandmother, I realized that I wanted to record some of my unusual childhood for my grandchildren, who were growing up in such a different world that they would never be able to find a path to mine. I wanted them to be able to find answers to questions they might not think of asking until I was no longer around.

What genre does your book fall under?
It is a memoir. I called it an impressionistic memoir when I first started to conceive of it as a book rather than a series of unrelated portraits and anecdotes.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What a difficult question. I suppose I would love Meryl Streep to play my mother! Who would be my father? My eldest son Alan, who is an actor in Hollywood. Me? There I stall. I cannot begin to imagine it!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Memoir of an unusual childhood in a vanished world, and the loss of that world after the Suez crisis of 1957.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It was initially represented by an agency ( not my own!) but after months of gazing forlornly at rave rejections, I decided to self-publish. Subsequently, Amazon Encore approached me and acquired the memoir, successfully taking it out into a much larger world.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I was working full time as a literary agent, and was also a busy mother and grandmother. I wrote many drafts in stolen moments, so it took a few years before I had a final draft. The first draft - very incomplete and shapeless - was done in about a year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
It is very hard to make comparisons, because every memoir is seen through the unique prism of one individual's story and recollections. While other books may explore similar territory, there is no real way to categorize a voice, a view of life, or the distant memories of a child. Mine is a coming of age memoir, but that could be applied to so many. A common thread of a lost Egypt can be found in Colette Rossant's MEMORIES OF A LOST EGYPT, and Andre Aciman's OUT OF EGYPT.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
My love for my grandchildren, and later, a desire for the world to understand the expulsion and losses of the thousands of Jews from Arab lands in the last half century. The losses were obviously material losses of property, but far greater have been the losses of close, large extended families scattered to the four winds, and a way of life gone forever. I had wanted to be a writer since I was nine years old, and as I began to give myself permission to explore the writing side of myself, I became totally addicted, and had to discipline myself ruthlessly so that other commitments would not fall by the wayside. Now that more time is actually mine, I know that when I am writing, hours fall away without my noticing. All I want to do is to continue to be able to express my stories in the written word and to work at the craft of writing. My next project is a novel, and I am wrestling with the problems of structure and story, and narrative arc. I have the story, the beginning and the end, but how to avoid a sagging middle?

What else about your book might pique the readerís interest?
It is almost easier to say what it is not. It is not a history, or a travelogue. It is a very personal story that unfolded within dramatic world events, seeking to present both the unique and the universal. My book is about a coming of age at a time and in a place that have vanished, never to return. While the Egypt of my childhood is not the Egypt of Tahrir Square, the seeds of revolution were planted then. The memoir offers a glimpse of a little-known international community of Sephardic Jews in Egypt, and the vibrant individuals who flourished within it and nurtured my life. It attempts to recreate the magic of a happy childhood. It is worth mentioning that a mere handful of Jews remain in Egypt from the 80,000 who had been rooted there for generations.

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