Sunday, May 18, 2008

Writing schedule not just for writing

So, after the post last week in which I whined about not being able to stick to the writing schedule I had set for myself, I cut myself some slack last week and loosened the definition of "writing". I wrote a flash story, but my main "writing time" was spent at the First International Jerusalem Writers Festival, listening to writers talk about writing. I went to four session: Nadine Gordimer talking to Amos Oz, Nicole Krauss (History of Love, Man Walks into a Room) talking to Amos Oz, Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer talkng to Etgar Keret, and Niall Williams (4 Letters of Love) talking to Ahron Appelfeld. I didn't take notes, although many around me were doing so, I just wanted to listen and absorb. I will give a quick precis of my impressions.

Nadine Gordimer & Amos Oz

This was supposed to be a session on politics and literature - very apt because Nadine Gordimer had been under a lot of pressure not to come to Israel because of the political situation. However, after a bit of interesting talk about when her writing was first banned in South Africa etc..., Amos Oz unfortunately began a political rant about Israel and the Palestinians that seemed more appropriate to an election rally than a Writers' conference. So, end of that session.

Nicole Krauss & Amos Oz

After the previous session, I was a little wary of Amos Oz and his predilection for ranting. But this was a better session in that it was pretty much about writing, despite the always-asked question of Nicole Krauss about how it is to have a marriage in which both are (much hyped, young and successful) writers. (She gave the same answer I am sure she always does - they don't both write at home, and it's nice to have a partner who understands the kind of ups and downs of being a writer). What did come across strongly in this session was a sense that Krauss gave from her use of words like "suffering" and "distress" in describing the writing process that it was not something she particularly enjoyed. She asked Oz, now in his 60s and author of many books, if it "ever got any easier", and he told her that no, it didn't - but qualified this by saying that if you are a writer who is trying not to repeat herself with each book, who attempts something new each time, then it shouldn't ever get easier. There was not opportunity to ask questions (a major flaw in this festival) but had I been able to, I would definitely have asked Nicole why she wrote, since it seemed not to bring her much joy. Of course it is hard, but surely it has to also be wonderful, no? I do wonder whether it is the success of her first two novels that makes it hard - she has a lot of people watching her, waiting for her next book. That can't be easy.

Nathan Englander, Etgar Keret and Jonathan Safran Foer

Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer are often mentioned in the same breath (they have the same, very hard-working, agent in NY I believe) as the voice of the young American Jewish writer (Englander is 37, S-Foer 31). However, to me, as someone who loved Englander's short story collection and could barely get half way through either of S-F's novels, they couldn't be more different and this is a false grouping. Englander and Etgar Keret, Israel's hip young (40) writer of bizarre and wondrous short stories and film-maker, also often appear together, and this is a better pairing, I think, their work being slightly more similar, funny yet dark, tragi-comic, quirky. Here, Keret was the moderator, putting the usual questions to each. What stood out for me was S-F's answer about how he felt about writing. He isn't a great fan of the written word, it appears, he would rather there was a better way to get across the experiences he is trying to convey in his novels. He compared it to a frequent traveller to other countries. He said, "You wouldn't say that this person was excellent at airplane travel, the airplane is just the vehicle". For him, words are a vehicle for ideas. This explained to me why I can't read his books - I prefer writers who obviously are in love with the word, the phrase, the sentence. I am less into ideas than into poetry, music on the page. Interesting how you can be a writer, invest so much time and effort into it, and not be in love with writing!

Niall Williams and Ahron Appelfeld

This, for me, was the highlight of the week. Grumpy after the previous sessions, because of the lack of question time etc..., I didn't have high hopes. I had read Niall William's book Four letters of Love but didn't remember it very well. Aharon Appelfeld is the author of 40 books, and I had heard him tell his story, of how he escaped from a concentration camp at the age of 9 and wandered for several years through the woods of Nazi-occupied Europe until he arrived in Israel alone, an orphan, at age 14. I wondered how these two would interact. At first, it seemed like there might be several awkward pauses, the two men were from such different places (County Clare in Ireland; Jerusalem), different ages (50; 70-odd), but yet as they talked, slowly slowly they learned that they actually had similar writing methods and similar views on writing. Appelfeld is well known for doing all his writing in the same Jerusalem cafe; Williams writes at home. Yet they both spoke of the importance of the music of the words, the rhythm, and discovered that both will sit and almost sing their words to themselves as they work! And when talking about what a writer is, they agreed that it has nothing to do with being published. Williams compared a writer to a chestnut tree: as long as it produces chestnuts, it is a chestnut tree. One year the chestnuts might not be so good, the next year they might be excellent. The main thing is to keep producing. Appelfeld told us how every time he finishes a book, he thinks it is "dreadful", and his advice to the younger writer and the audience, was to put every novel you write "away in a drawer for three or four years" so that when you look at it again "it isn't your book, it is something completely different". I'll bear that in mind!

So, all in all, fairly inspiring week! This week I'll be working on my chestnut production.


Kerry said...

Thanks for posting this Tania, so interesting. Particularly Kraus' feelings about writing - I agree why do it if it is painful?

Also absolutely *love* the chestnut tree analogy. That is being written out and pinned about my 'puter, brilliant advice.

Women Rule Writer said...

Hi T
V interesting. It sounds like you were witness to a great conversation between Niall W and Appelfeld. I like the chestnuts analogy.
But isn't it always successful published writers who go on about how unimportant publishing is??!! Niall has the canniest agent in Ireland and great publishing success. Not so helpful to struggling writers who DO want to be published...

Tania Hershman said...

Kerry - it's a lovely image, the chestnut tree, isn't it. Glad it spoke to you.

WRW - how wonderful to have your insider knowledge! Yes, very true, he is rather successful, and yes they are both in the enviable position of being able to say that it's not being published that matters. Ah well...

Amber said...

I have to agree with Krauss - writing can be painful for me but once I'm in that place where the words are just flowing from my brain to the fingers it's so much easier and pleasurable. It's the revising and editing part that's easier for me because I'm not pulling words out of thin air.

I must admit to being envious you got to see Etgar Keret. He was here in Ohio a few weeks ago for a book signing and to introduce his film Jellyfish. My husband went and said I would have totally enjoyed it because he approaches all his projects like a writer and not like a filmmaker.