Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. The Jewish Book Council has just announced its 2019 winners. I agree with some choices, like Michael Dobbs’s Unwanted and, of course, Lesléa Newman’s Gittel’s Journey. But another book that won I thought lacked any authenticity. Sigh. I assigned sections of Unwanted to my America and the Holocaust course that starts on Jan. 27.
  2. I’m cramming in as much genealogy and writing as I can before the semester starts. I came across some information late last night that gives me a glimmer of hope that my grandmother’s sister may have survived the Holocaust. It’s a long shot. I’ve reached out to her daughter through Facebook. I usually don’t get responses that way, but at least I’m trying.
  3. A few of us Jersey girls from Gratz College’s Holocaust & Genocide Studies programs will be heading over some Sunday soon, I hope, to see the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s “Auschwitz” exhibit. One of our classmates is a docent there.

Have a great week, everyone!

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Two-in-One Author’s Notebook | Essie’s Revelation Summer by Deanie Yasner with Publisher Nancy Sayre

Author Deanie Yasner

Yasner, Deanie. Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer. Golden Alley Press, 2019, 241 pp. $8.99.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer captures so many historical (and emotional) details. How much of those came from your memory vs. research? How much of this did you personally experience?
Deanie Yasner (DY): Many of the historical details emerged from a combination of two things: memory first, followed by research to verify my childhood recollections of growing up Jewish and “different” in the deep South during the era of segregation. Even though the prevailing Jim Crow Laws were alien to my “old soul” being, they were very powerful and have had a profound influence on my perspective as an adult long-since removed from that unfortunate time in our history.

Because it was imperative for me to ensure the purity and honesty of the book before it was read by a single child, I worked hard to validate my memories by communicating with local Mississippi historians, childhood classmates and adult friends who still reside in the area. I also verified details utilizing online research.

The emotional details were from my memory. It is difficult to forget the daily events and struggles I either experienced firsthand or witnessed being faced by my dear Pearlie May and all of the black people. I cannot erase certain facts: Pearlie May not being allowed to sit with me at the local drugstore for an ice cream soda, or sit with me at the movies, or enter the public library. I will always remember the signs that read “For Whites Only—For Colored Only.” The very separateness that permeated my daily life will forever be ingrained in my psyche, not only from living under the rules of segregation but also from the fact that I was separate based upon my Jewish religion. What I personally experienced was the profound feeling of not belonging and of being in a place and time I did not understand, as Essie Rose said many times.

TWM: Please describe your writing process for this book.
DY: In many ways, this book has been writing inside me for years. I knew this was my story and mine only to tell—just how?

My very first attempt was to write a poetic novel in verse. I began with free-floating vignettes that focused on my friendship with Pearlie May and my feelings of knowing and sensing my differentness early on as a Jewish child being raised in an environment and climate that created a constant internal unease.

Simultaneously, I realized I needed to study the craft of writing in depth. I immersed myself in an array of technical books, studied authors who wrote in my genre, and sought advice from a writing teacher/coach.

Finally, I began the journey of transforming the vignettes into a story that took the form of an historical fiction novel, written as Essie Rose’s writer’s notebook. This felt right, as I was intimately familiar with my protagonist and her ways as an “old soul” observer. At this point I knew two definites that would become part of my book: the fate of Pearlie May, and that Essie Rose’s connection to Charlotte’s Web would be a sub-theme.

Then it was time to take on the task of becoming 10-year-old Essie Rose, writer and worrier, each and every time I sat down to put my words to paper. I discovered the necessity of letting go of my preconceived notions and ideas and to trust my characters to speak to me. This writing process, for me, was both laborious and glorious, even mysterious.

TWM: What were your greatest challenges in writing this story?
DY: The greatest challenge was becoming the 10-year old Jewish child, writer and worrier. I found it quite difficult, but ultimately rewarding, to realize that to achieve depth and authenticity, I would have to dig deep into my emotions. Especially the one that I experienced in all its ugliness: shame. I had to relive the struggles and emotional pain that were my story. In many ways I am still Essie Rose. It was imperative that I kept her voice from the first word of the story to the very last.

TWM: What were your greatest satisfactions?
DY: My greatest satisfactions were, first, that I achieved the creation of a strong and hopefully unforgettable character in Essie Rose Ginsberg and kept her voice throughout the entire book. The second satisfaction was, that while my book is Jewish themed, the story offers a universality that touches all children and adults. Essie Rose’s challenges of feeling different, of being bullied, of trying to find her voice and ultimately her courage, are the same challenges facing children today in our complex and divided society.

I also take great satisfaction that this book enabled me to pay homage to my real Pearlie May, and that I was able to honor the sacrifices my parents were required to make to sustain and nourish our Jewishness under difficult circumstances.

TWM: Please describe your process of revision and getting feedback for this book.
DY: Revision was a constant attempt to flesh out the characters, to make sure each scene (diary entry, in my case) moved my story forward. I was fortunate to have a circle of friends and a supportive teacher who provided encouragement and feedback during the entire process.

My final revision, accomplished in partnership with my editor/publisher Nancy Sayre, was immensely rewarding and proved to be an enormous learning experience. Working through our weekly real-time sessions to resolve specific issues and search for that perfect word or phrase was both challenging and exciting. Our commitment to this story blossomed and propelled us to the finish line.

TWM: Who inspires you?
DY: As a former special education teacher and behavior specialist/consultant, I am inspired by all the children who face daily challenges with perseverance and courage and their parents who advocate for them with the same courage.

I am inspired by those people who I witness daily doing tiny but significant good deeds just because it is the right thing to do. This is the first of Pearlie May Gibbs’ Half Dozen Words of Wisdom: BE KIND!

TWM: Was Charlotte’s Web a favorite book of yours? What else did you like to read?
DY: To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember the first time I read E.B. White’s book. I do know I read it several times prior to writing my story, not knowing it would become an important sub-theme. I continue to read it at least once a year along with another favorite book of mine, To Kill a Mockingbird. I am sorry to say that I do not recall many of the childhood books I must have read. I most likely read The Bobbsey Twins and The Ugly Duckling as well. On a lighter note, as part of our family weekly ritual growing up, I read the same Sunday comics Essie Rose enjoyed while my parents read other parts of the newspaper.

TWM: What advice do you have for writers who want to mine their memories through fiction and writing for children?
DY: I would say to any writer: If you take on this task, be forewarned that the journey might take you to places where you will experience intense emotional highs and equally intense emotional lows. If you want your story to achieve depth, clarity, and authenticity, pay close attention to both. I would also ask writers to heed the mantra I held close to my heart throughout the huge undertaking of writing Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer: Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.

It is interesting that you asked if there could be a sequel in the works. It has been so very heartening that many of my readers have asked the same question. To know they are so invested in my protagonist is a writer’s dream come true. The idea has crossed my mind, and I do find myself daydreaming about her new life. I am open and receptive, waiting for Essie Rose to lend her voice as to what the future holds.

Nancy, let’s turn briefly to you. What attracted you to Deanie’s manuscript?
Nancy Sayre: As a Christian, hopefully in the mold of Pearlie May and Moses, the Truth in Deanie’s book called my name the minute I read it. Yes! I thought. This is exactly what we all need to hear right now. What my grandchildren need to hear. And let me also say I fell in love with Deanie, herself, at the first word that came out of her mouth. She has a very sweet voice and is hands down the most grateful person I have ever met.

For more about Deanie, please visit her website.

For more about Golden Alley Press, please visit the website.

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. I received two invitations to teach: One to teach undergrad Intro to Creative Writing and one to teach undergrad Literature of the Holocaust at two different universities. Problem: They were both for Tuesday/Thursday at 2 pm when I’m already teaching a history course. I had to turn them down. But then Lit of the Holocaust was offered as an online option and I said yes. I’ve been working feverishly on a syllabus and getting onboarded. Class starts Monday.
  2. I have signed up for writing classes and mentorships to help me complete two manuscripts this year. I’m also working on a new short story that I think wants to become a novel.
  3. My beta reader gave me comments on my previously failed middle-grade historical. I am earmarking the revision for 2021.

What are  you planning on writing this year? Classes at The Whole Megillah (new fiction cycle starting January 26) and Writing Chai are still available. Please contact me below for more information.

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Writing Chai

With today’s post, I am starting a new The Whole Megillah feature: Writing Chai. This ad hoc feature will focus on the writing life, craft books, courses, the struggles, the triumphs. I look forward to your participation! I am interested in guest bloggers for this feature, FYI.

Inspired by reading Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, I took her book, Still Writing, out of my local library yesterday. I read it in one sitting, ignoring my usual Thursday night television shows. I tagged a number of pages.

Get Inspiration from Reading

Shapiro insists that to be a writer means to also be a reader. I couldn’t agree more. She notes she keeps certain books by her writing space. They include: Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and the latest editions of Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. This reminded me that I always kept Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River (she gave a reading from this novel at the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar on historical fiction and it inspired me to write my short story, “The Guardian”) next to my computer.

Apply the Five Senses

Shapiro reminds writers that we need to keep our characters’ five senses in mind. This brought to mind Robert Olen Butler’s craft book, From Where We Dream, one of my favorites.

Have a Routine

Shapiro keeps to a writing routine of writing three pages a day, five days a week. I have no writing routine, although I love the idea of one. Could I commit to one in 2020? That said, I am continuing to write one poem a week with my poetry mentor with the goal of finishing my rough draft of my contemporary YA novel in verse by year’s end. I also have a goal of finishing my rough draft of my genealogical memoir by year’s end and have signed up for a 10-week online course at Creative Nonfiction to give me deadlines. How I’m going to manage this with my doctoral coursework and teaching five college courses this semester, I don’t know.

Engage in Organic Writing

Like Robert Olen Butler and Julia Cameron, Shapiro seems to favor writing drafts longhand. So do I. Shapiro writes, “Pick a notebook, any notebook. If you compose well in it, you will become attached.” She prefers the messiness of writing in a notebook, making circles, striking whole sentences. I bought maybe twenty notebooks while they were on sale during the Back to School sale at the local supermarket.

Action Is Not Plot, But the Result of Pathos

Shapiro quotes Aristotle’s Poetics to remind us that stories get read and loved because they use pathos. Because we want to know what happens to the characters, because we grow to care about the characters. She writes, “If you have people, you have pathos. We are incited by our feelings—by the love, rage, envy, sorrow, joy, longing, fear, passion—that lead us to action.”

Take Risks

As writers, we get to play with time. I think about Julie Zuckerman’s The Book of Jeremiah and Dara Horn’s The World to Come. We also get to play with form. Are we taking enough risks?

Check out Still Writing and see what inspires you. Feedback on this and this new feature welcome!

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Mid-Week Notes

Happy New Year, everyone! Today is the first day of a new year and a new decade. Three quick things:

  1. Every December I assess my year-end accomplishments and set long- and short-term goals for the coming year(s). A tool I rely on to do this comes from Annette Gendler. Check it out!
  2. I set out yesterday to write a new essay about the effects of DNA testing on family dynamics. It turned into fiction, which is probably a better idea given the family sensitivities.
  3. Jack El-Hai’s latest blog post reinforces the idea of writing about history from our own backyards. This is something I was just talking about last night with a fellow academic. And, it has inspired me to pull a failed middle-grade historical novel out of the vault and see what I could do with it with fresh eyes. I don’t think I’ve looked at it since 2005 when it imploded during an overhaul.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, productive, and prosperous year!

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. I just received my January/February issue of Poets & Writers, an issue focused on Inspiration. Just by thumbing through submission opportunities, I think I found it!
  2. In that same issue, I spotted the name of a former Montclair (NJ) Adult School memoir class student who won a major literary award! That made me feel great as a teacher and colleague. Congratulations, Jung Hae Chae! (I sent her a congratulatory note via email.)
  3. I’m exploring inexpensive ways to get me writing in 2020. Any suggestions welcome!

Have a great week, everyone! And to all those observing Christmas, have a merry one!

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. I attended a performance of “The Sorceress” (“Di Kishefmakherin”) in Yiddish at the Museum of Jewish Heritage/National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene in New York City. Great fun! The operetta’s run ends December 29. It was written in 1878.
  2. Stay tuned to The Whole Megillah for an interview with memoirist and writing instructor Annette Gendler about her new book, How to Write Compelling Stories from Family History.
  3. I’m looking forward to my winter break to catch up on book reviews, manuscripts, and my own creative writing!

Have a great week, everyone!

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