What are you working on?
When can we expect another novel?
I can’t wait for your next book.
I am flattered by questions like these, deeply grateful for the enthusiasm and affection of readers who want to hear more from me. I know how lucky I am, truly.
But because for some time now the answers to these billet-doux have been, respectively, “Nothing,” “Beats me” and “Please don’t hold your breath,” they can make me crazy. I mean cartoon batshit crazy, like there’s a gremlin popping out of a trapdoor on top of my head.
Whatever the gremlin is doing, I arrange my face into a smile and scramble for a relatively honest response. For the better part of a year, I would say, “I’m working on a novel but it’s too soon to talk about it.”
In the spring, I could cheerfully answer, “Nothing right now.” Cheerfully, because I had just published an update of my first book: “So many changes between ‘The New Jewish Wedding’ in 1985 and ‘The Jewish Wedding Now.’” This answer was both true and a form of misdirection, like when the magician gets you to look at her ear so she can lift your wallet. It was misdirection because the question is never about my Jewish guidebooks.
Eventually I had to say, “I was working on something, but it got to the point I was chasing my own tail, so I’ve put it down for a while to get some perspective.” This felt like a confession of guilt, but it was always met with absolution and encouragement.
Now that I have finally abandoned that “something,” my answer has been “I’m on sabbatical.” The response to this was some variation on “Good for you.”
It should be good for me. And perhaps it will be. But it’s no fun. No fun at all. And sabbaticals are generally time bound, aren’t they?
I have never considered retirement an option. What on earth would I do? I have no patience for games, not even Scrabble, and certainly nothing that involves flying balls or sweating. I have no hobbies. For every five books I start reading, I finish one — maybe two. I am easily bored. Writing is my hobby and my game. It provides all the distraction and challenge I need.
I was recently asked if I enjoyed writing. This time, the gremlin and I answered in unison. “No!”
My interlocutor looked surprised and disappointed.
I enjoy writing maybe 20 percent of the time. The rest of the time, I’m throwing away the five pages I wrote that day. I told her that while I don’t write for pleasure, it’s all I know how to do and I’m miserable if I’m not doing it.
Which is where I find myself now.
For the first time in 30 years, I don’t have an idea big or deep enough to commit three years (at least) to writing a book. I find myself up an unfamiliar creek, sans paddle, sans canoe, sans GPS, sans everything. The gremlin pumps a fist in triumph.
These days, I‘ve begun to admit, “I don’t know if I have another novel in me.”
Unfortunately, this triggers a rescue reflex. Artists and writers tell me stories about how they rid themselves of funks and blocks and got their creative mojo back. Civilians proffer advice about deep breathing, yoga or journaling (NOT A VERB). One suggested I think of myself as “lying fallow,” which sounded nice for a moment – until the gremlin sniped: “Or maybe starting to rot?”
Some try to help by offering stories they’re sure would make terrific books that I should write: a neighbor’s incredible Holocaust story or an immigrant housekeeper’s saga of terror and triumph.
And then there’s “What about doing another biblical woman? That was so successful.”
I’ve been asked that question for 20 years, given it serious consideration and even tried a couple of times. But having put that kind of puzzle together once, I don’t know how to start from scratch, which is where I have to begin. Besides, I guarantee that the fierce partisans of “The Red Tent” would be bitterly disappointed by whatever I produced.
This is not writer’s block. I just can’t locate the key to the idea store.
This isn’t the end of the world, either. I am healthy. I am loved. Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert keep me from pulling out my hair in these dark and depressing days. The dog worships me. But my closets are fit for inspection by that Japanese tidying-up lady, which is not a good sign.
I needed something to get a jump-start, fill the tank and take me somewhere new — but without actually going anywhere. I have appointments, commitments, a very elderly mother, the aforementioned husband, dog, etc.
A glimmer of deliverance came by way of an email from Actors’ Shakespeare Project, (http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org) announcing (among other things) the Shakespeare Workout, an acting class in which non-actors are welcome. I must have seen that listing many times over the years, but this time I read the whole description and didn’t delete the message.
Shakespeare was never a passion for me. I enjoyed going to the plays, though I always felt I was missing at least half of what was happening on stage. The Workout seemed like a way to fill in some of the blanks. I remembered the glory days of my high school acting career. Six weeks was a modest commitment. What the heck? I signed up.
When I came home after the first class, flushed and buzzing, my husband said, “I haven’t seen you this excited about anything in years.”
The class was a revelation and a hoot and the beginning of my Shakespeare crush. I am currently up to my nose in the Bard of Avon, seeing plays, watching videos of plays and movies of plays and TV shows about the plays and the playwright. I’m looking at videos of a very young Judi Dench and Ian McKellen in an acting class, and YouTube lectures by Harvard professors who know Shakespeare so well that they bring equal parts delight and pedagogy to the classroom. But I won’t be going deep into the academic side, because Shakespeare does not live on the page.
This was Shakespeare Workout, not Shakespeare Study Hall. And it launched me into a new orbit by getting me up on my feet, acting the fool for three hours at a stretch and risking those gorgeous iambic pentameters, out loud, in front of other people, just for the hell of it, just for the joy.
I am a fan of the poet Billy Collins, who occasionally features mice in his poems. In one, he asks students to explore poetry with a beginner’s mind..
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I am a mouse in Shakespeare’s house, probing and wandering through room after room. And because it’s so interesting, so meaningful, and so difficult, I will be writing about my Shakespeare crush for the foreseeable future– if only to find my way to the light switch.