Writers wondering what goes on in the minds of other writers

A couple weeks back, Kristen M. Ploetz posted several questions she wished she could have answered by other writers. The post has generated a bit of buzz, with replies by two bloggers I admire, Nina Badzin and Rivki Silver (which is where I first heard of it).

(And then Rivki made me cry happy tears by saying she admired my work. I love her site, so the feeling is mutual.)

I found both the original post and the follow-ups fascinating. A lot of what all three bloggers had to say was about self-identification as a writer. At what point does a person who writes become a “writer?” Another theme was how the writer — whose job is by nature often solitary — interacts with their social milieu, both in their personal lives and in their professional ones.

Here are the original questions in bold. I’ll add my responses below each of them.

1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet?

My husband reads most of my fiction for adults, and some of the fiction for kids. If I write a personal essay about him, or about anything that he might be embarrassed by, I usually run it by him before submitting it. Thank G-d, I write a lot, and he can’t really keep up with the volume I’m writing due to his own busy schedule. He rarely reads something I wrote after publication.

2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it?

I have a few friends and family members who are also writers — my sister and my best friend, for example, and the members of my writing group. They read a lot of my work. Other friends aren’t interested in writing, some aren’t even interested in reading, at least in reading the genres and topics I write. Some family members and friends are just too busy.

The people I mentioned above give me EXCELLENT feedback. However, there are a few people who I am close to who do read my work consistently, but don’t offer the “right” kind of feedback. It’s just like going to a writing group and there’s a person there who thinks everything you write is wrong unless it sounds like the way they’d write it in their voice. Over the years, I’ve learned to gently tell them that I don’t want specifics about how they’ve felt about my work. I have to sound like me, not them.

3. What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go? 

Once or twice, I’ve posted rejected pieces on my blog. I doubt it was more than that. Usually, I give the piece a good think. Why was it rejected? Did it simply not match the publication I sent it to? Is there a structural problem? Those kinds of questions get answered, then I rewrite and submit again to a different venue.

A few times, I have let pieces go. One turned into mush after multiple comments and edits by multiple editors, and it hadn’t been that strong a story to start with. I accepted a kill fee for that one. A couple times, I realized after the piece was rejected that I no longer really felt the way I did when I wrote the piece, or I saw that the piece was flawed in other ways. Occasionally, I just get worn down by a lot of rejections, and shelve the whole thing. But a piece like that never really lands in the trash, per se. It’s just shoved deep into a file cabinet.

4. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?

Thank G-d, I got an acceptance on a piece today that I submitted for the first time well over eighteen months ago, to a magazine who has published a lot of my work in the past. It got five rejections before the acceptance. The final piece was cut shorter to suit the new venue (which really was a better match for the topic and content, anyway), and really improved due to the editing. I chopped off the first six hundred words, for example, and I realized that that piece had been weighed down by it. What’s left is both funnier and more meaningful.

As I mentioned in Question 3, I almost always rework. Sometimes, it’s a venue change. Sometimes, I decide to fictionalize what happened. I generally accept rejection as a time to reflect and consider. It happens for a reason, and my job is to trace that reason and see if it can be resolved.

5. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?

I’m a voracious reader in almost any form. As a writer, I’ve been very inspired by Sarah Shapiro (who wrote Growing with our Children and edited the Our Lives anthologies), Ann Patchett (in her recent This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), and Erika Dreifus (who is not only a great writer, but curates so much amazing material on her blog and her social media accounts).

Hamodia columnists Rav Paysach Krohn and Rabbi Fishel Schachter, who in their other lives are storytellers extraordinaire, bring those experiences to bear on their essays on other topics.

Pretty much any time I see that Tablet’s published a piece by Ruchama King Feuerman or her husband Shimon Yisroel, I’ve got to read it right away. Both are excellent essayists (of course, Ruchama’s a wonderful novelist, too).

I also have to give a shout-out to Elad Nehorai for his recently ended (may it rest in peace) blog, PopChassid, and for his new creation Hevria, which I’ll be IY”H publishing an article about soon. All the contributors to Hevria are just amazing.

I’m also completely infatuated with Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I love most of the classics from the first half of last century, but am also a huge fan of the Ender books by Orson Scott Card, the Wizard of Earthsea books by Ursula LeGuin, much of Neil Gaiman’s work, Terry Pratchett, Nancy Farmer, and I’m starting to get completely hooked on Brandon Sanderson (which will G-d willing be the topic of a blog post in the next week or so). I also find Joseph Bruchac’s work just fascinating; the way he unites history and imagination just really speaks to me. And his work has such heart.

6. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?

Real life. And the crazy part is the most personal, honest stuff I write is usually lodged deep into my fiction.

7. Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?

Henye Meyer. She is just such a gifted writer, a brilliant woman, and a really special lady.

Truthfully, a lot of the writers in the Orthodox world don’t get a lot of notice outside the Orthodox world, even if they write material that could be appreciated by wider audiences: Yael Mermelstein, Batya Ruddell, Rhona Lewis all come to mind.

8. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?

For fiction, I think that Orson Scott Card and Robert McKee give useful advice, even if sometimes they’ll tell you opposite things.

For essay…well, you told me not to mention Anne Lamott or Natalie Goldberg. What am I supposed to do?

9. Have you ever regretted having something published? Was it because of the content or the actual writing style/syntax? 

Yes. Once, it was because the story was published completely unedited and poorly formatted, and I was horrified. It looked so unprofessional, and here I was, a professional writer.

The other time, I wrote something that I thought would be relatively uncontroversial, and I got a lot of hate mail. I had been prepared previously for hate mail when I published opinions that I knew people would disagree with, but this situation really caught me off-guard. I had actually hurt people’s feelings. Some people were offended. I felt a little better later when a couple people emailed me or pulled me aside to tell me they had found the piece really meaningful.

And now…Kristen suggested that we add another question to the list about what WE wonder about other writers. So here’s Number 10:

10. Do you tend to write the same genres? If so, is there a genre you’d like to write but never have? Why or why not?

Can’t wait to hear what people have to say here. Please comment!

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14 thoughts on “Writers wondering what goes on in the minds of other writers

  1. Becca, thanks for a really enlightening post. I really admire how you keep building and developing your skills. I love your humor and realism in your writing.

    Regarding new genres,I personally stick to personal essays and non-fiction. I would love to study fiction writing some day!!

    Btw, my 7 year old grandson reads your serial in Binah Bunch and loves it! And so does his grandmother (me!). Keep up your terrific work.

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  2. I also love sci-fi! And I’m very excited to have new writers to check out.

    I’m glad you took the time to answer the questions, and so thoroughly. Both interesting and educational (I was trying to find a better way of saying that, but the sleep deprivation is too strong!)

    Like Miriam, I mainly stick to personal essays, and also book reviews (though I have a lot of work to do on those, I think). I would also like to be able to write fiction, which becomes a more daunting task the older I get. Because when I was young(er) and foolish(er), I thought fiction must be so easy to write. HAHAHAHA. But that’s been my attitude in general about writing. I’m only now getting to a point where I see that I need to invest time in the craft to improve.

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    • Aren’t book reviews WAAAAY harder that you ever think they’re going to be?

      I think on your post, you mentioned having never read Natalie Goldberg. If I were going to start reading books on writing (and maybe someday unleashing the hidden fictionalist inside you) that’s where I’d start.

      BTW, I think writing essays can sometimes be harder than writing fiction! I think I’ve always naturally fantasized about alternate realities, it just pays better to write them down than keep them trapped in my head.

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  3. So glad you shared your answers! I’m a huge Erika Dreifus fan, too. She’s an excellent writer and one of the most generous out there with her resources. I think of her as a mentor. All of your other answers were so interesting, too. I hope we get to meet one day by the way. I’m imagining some kind of fabulous Jewish writers’ Shabbaton. How can we make that happen?

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    • The American Jewish Libraries association has a yearly conference, but it’s usually much more focused on teachers and librarians than on writers and is often scheduled at a crazy time of year — like the last week of school, or something. But I’ve always thought it would be the natural “pairing” for such a conference. I’ve also tried just to get a local-to-L.A. Jewish writers’ conference, but that’s never happened either. Whenever I bring such things up, people think, “Oh, that would be interesting,” but it’s never quite interesting enough for people to volunteer to help me. 😉

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  4. Glad to have found your blog Rebecca, through Kristen’s questions and Rivki’s lovely recommendation!

    I think your answers are so wise, #2 and 3 especially resonated for me. I think it’s so important that writers realize while some feedback may seem “good” it may not be good for your work. You have to know when to say thank you but no thank you.

    And #3 – your advice on looking closely at a rejected piece and figuring out the root of the issue is really helpful. Every editor has their own opinion and just because one says no doesn’t mean another won’t say yes.

    Happy to be one of your readers now!

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  5. So glad you answered these (and that I found you and got to read them). Thanks for sharing.
    I find #3 particularly interesting. I should probably rework pieces more often. Yes! For #6, I also felt that real life sparks a lot of ideas for my writing.

    Fantastic question… I often wonder about this. As for me, I am all over the map with my writing. I write a little bit of this, a little bit of that. 😉 I write what I enjoy and, whether that is goofy satire, flash fiction, or personal essays, it’s all good.

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    • I’m also one of those people who write lots of different genres! Keeps life interesting, doesn’t it? I’m finding that there are not so many of us out there, though, which is why I asked the question.

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