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Why I Write Fiction

I love the process of writing fiction, the joy of putting words down, the quick first draft and the tumbling out of thoughts as I try to find the right form, and then the harder work, no less joyful, of the deeper revisions, sculpting the words to form a pattern and arranging the material to shape a vision. I have always been drawn to the concentrated form of the short story in which nothing is extraneous. If well written, it is never slight. In its brevity and single focus it has the ability in a few chosen moments to illuminate an entire life and to explore a character as completely as if the reader had read a novel. Some of my favorite short story writers include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anton Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Bernard Malamud, Nadine Gordimer, I. B. Singer, and my late teacher, Gina Berriault, whose collection, Women In Their Beds is a classic of the contemporary short story. Stories such as Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Herman Melville’s, Bartleby the Scrivener and Kafka’s Metamorphosis have illuminated not only the human condition but also an entire age.

In my own short stories ideas may be generated by something I’ve read or heard, an incident in my own life, or someone else’s, encountering a stranger who reminds me of someone I thought I had forgotten, the shadowy forms within a house as I’ve passed by in the darkness, a dream that stays with me, music, poetry, a provocative essay or fiction by another writer that reminds me of a moment, or a time, often unrelated, that suddenly bursts into my own mind and is reclaimed. In short, anything human, from inhabiting the world and observing not only what is visible, but also what lies beneath the surface or is palpably felt, but not yet seen. Characters, like people, are complex. Something usually changes. I often see the entire story with a quickening desire to tell it as rapidly as possible before it disappears, but even so, it develops with byways and pathways I had never anticipated initially as I probe the material more deeply. I often don’t know the ending. More likely than not it will develop gradually until I know it is right, the only ending the story could possibly have as I have written it. Sometimes it feels as though it is a little bit like skating on thin ice as it grows out of the characters and the development of the narrative finds its way to connect to the heart of what I truly want to say.

The stories in The Girls of Jerusalem were written at different times and for different reasons, but they are all stories I could not turn away. Occasionally, I have done that and always regretted it, ignoring their pleas to enter my heart and mind and find a lasting place in the world.  I refused because I was occupied with something else or simply didn’t want to begin because I knew how hard it would be to complete. When I was ready, though, I could never recapture that initial feeling of excitement to push myself through to the writing and it always showed. I remember reading that Katherine Anne Porter was asked to play bridge with friends the night she wanted to begin Pale Horse, Pale Rider, but the power of what she had to say made her refuse. Perhaps had she followed the easier path, we would not have that literary icon of American literature that needed to be told. This brings to mind the way certain stories have kept tugging at me until I relented and let them in. I wrote some stories in this collection with joy; others with trepidation and sorrow at what I had to write. But the discovery of the real story, the story that needed to be told is what has always meant the most to me, the unexpected search to keep moving beneath the surface until I found it. Readers are always interested in material that is “real” or autobiographical, but once I begin the first sentence, I am totally part of what I am writing, whether it takes place two thousand years ago or today. There is something of myself embedded in the core of all of the stories in The Girls of Jerusalem that is totally true.

Some took years to come to fruition. Others came to me as a gift. I dreamed my way into “In The Time of Dreams,” and lived Anna’s life in Stalin’s Birobidzhan. A similar experience happened with “A Love Story,” which blends mystical elements with rationality in the story of a Torah scholar in the seventeenth century. Yet I felt that I knew him as well as I knew myself and saw in his story many hurdles that I, too, had been forced to overcome. I explored other lives in stories such as “Kreuzlingen,” Freud’s Anna O., Bertha Pappenheim, and her remarkable life as the first psychoanalysis patient and later, as a leader of Jewish women in Germany, while “Passion” took me through Spinoza’s cherem as I grew to understand the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities who were still recovering from the Inquisition. 

“Sudargas,” began as a family portrait from the early part of the twentieth century and became a meditation about the tragedy of the European past, while “Ghosts” blends knowledge with a leap of the imagination to bring the story alive. But even the filled- in detail rings with the truth about the Shoah survivors I have known. Many stayed in their own circles, often more comfortable with other survivors or those from their own country, an invisible separation between those who had not grown up here and native- born Americans. Each experience was different, of course, but all of them suffered in some way, taken from their homes and families, shut out of their schools and studies and even the countries where they had been born. It was only years later that I was able to write about them when I saw the story more clearly and knew what I wanted to say. 

 Each of the fifteen stories in The Girls of Jerusalem has a similar awareness behind it. I have learned something with each story I have written: they have literally been my teachers. It reminds me of the birth of a child. Something new is brought into the world and slowly unfolds like the petals of a flower, bringing gifts and perceptions that did not exist before its arrival. The unifying force of Jerusalem is felt, but so are the people, events, holidays, texts and prayers that followed us as we wandered the earth and continue to read and recite to this day. In the Hebrew Bible the world was created with words and so, it is not surprising that we have recounted our sorrows and joys, our hopes and fears in language from our earliest beginnings of a people. In our tradition the very letters are holy and the past is not distant, but as recent as the present moment, which is why in The Girls of Jerusalem and Other Stories I have tried to reinterpret ancient tropes to reveal new understanding of the singular endurance of Jewish history and memory.

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