12 December 2009

Scriptora Judaica

Writing, reader, is a strange exercise. It is my job. There is no way around that: whether I am a fiction writer, or an academic writer, or a teacher, at least 50% of my job involves picking up a pen or putting my hands on the keyboard and writing. And yet, unless I am commenting on a student paper, writing is always in some degree terrifying. Now, it is true that on a small number of occasions I am filled with the Muse (although, because there was no prose when the Muses were invented, my Muse would have to be Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry - that's her over there), and then the words come pouring forth, but even though at that moment there is no fear, there is fear on either side of that moment, because there's always the possibility that that won't happen again. I have had long periods of writer's block (LONG periods of writer's block), so I am familiar with that feeling.

I've never been afraid of the blank page, but I suppose that page is really a metaphor, a metaphor for the commencement. Only I've never really been afraid of the commencement of a piece of writing, either - in fact, I'm very good at opening paragraphs. What I'm afraid of is the long thickness ahead, the places where, after the good beginning, it all goes wrong and doesn't work, or can't be made to say what I want it to say, or to have the import I want it to have. "Terror" really does describe the feeling I have in this regard when I pick up the pencil (which is how I start most academic things I write, at least).

But sometimes, reader, after I pick up the pencil...it all goes right. This is not to say that the words pour forth, that I write for hours and hours until I've finished some golden production, but rather that as I get into the writing of that first paragraph I get a feeling that it's all going to be fiiiiiiiiiiiine. It feels that drawn out and smooth. That doesn't mean there won't be difficulties along the way, or that I won't at some points feel hopeless and as if I can't scratch through to what I want, but there's a moment's knowing that it's all going to be okay; it's going to work out after all. And that moment, with its combination of joy, relief, and a curious reminder of my own power, almost cannot be beat.

Meanwhile, it is the second night of Hanukkah. Now, I'll be the first to admit I'm not much of a Jew-y Jew, but for some reason Hannukah brings out the Jew in me. Perhaps because I light the menorah in the dark, and the quiet, and recite a prayer while I do it, and therefore am somehow in a meditative state, performing this action is the only time in my life that I feel a member of a community. In the real world I don't much care for communities, either - my childhood showed me that groups are pretty much always out to get you (although I was thinking at brunch this morning how very much I like looking across the table, and down to my left and my right, and seeing that everyone seated there is a friend of mine) - but on Hannukah I draw great satisfaction from the realisation that all over the world other Jews are, or have been, or will be, doing exactly what I'm doing at that moment: that I am a Jew, a member of the Jewish community - a survivor, a brick in an old wall, a member of an indestructible certainty. Yes, I'm proud of that, and restful in it.

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