Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Today's Wednesday Essay is the inimitable Leora Skolkin-Smith, author of the novel Edges, O Israel, O Palestine.

This essay first appeared at

Finding Structure
About five years ago, I was struggling to pull together three novels. What they all had in common was a sprawling, unmanageable length and structure, but a use of language in their telling which was, on the other hand, compressed, condensed, and urgently meaningful. Though some editors and agents had responded favorably to the "writing" in all three, the structure remained incomprehensibly complicated to them.

In "A Conversation With My Father," Grace Paley wrote:
"'I would like you to write a simple story just once more,' he (my father) says, 'the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.' I say, 'Yes, why not? That's possible.' I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins 'There was a woman...' followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised, not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life."

I had the gift of studying with Grace Paley as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence and then, later, as a graduate student. My arrival at her office with mounting pages all in chaos never seemed to daunt her. For Grace, it was a plight which could be made sufferable by some inner strength a writer needed those years to develop anyway. I admired Grace's work so much but I could not write a short story. I was stuck with the novel form because, simply, I could not tell my stories in shorter versions.

Here might be another reason why linear narrative and more tradition methods of telling could not work for me: My mother was born in the ancient city of Jerusalem in a Palestine not yet damaged irrevocably by war and terror. Her first language was Hebrew but she knew at least seven European languages as well as English. Later, my mother was required to identify herself only as an "Israeli", despite her more innocent moments as a young Jewish girl in a wildly sensual and exciting early, multicultural Jerusalem. The world of her childhood was presented to me in unusual, variegated impressions and allusions, a cacophony of language sounds, and a series of stories about interrupted, dislocated lives.

The news about Israel and the war there was constant through out my lifetime but after the first Infatida in the 1980's--bombings and death were being graphically shown on TV in monotonous, bloody, relentless and repeated reportage. Being political, Israel began to gain center stage in Grace's own life. She found some old scenes I had written a few years back and sent to her about early Jerusalem, my mother and her family--just about sitting around a dinner table in 1963, in Jerusalem when my mother took me there to visit as a child. I never expected any of these pages to be a "novel". But I knew I could finally offer something I had never felt as a writer. And then it became urgent to find a “narrative," a structure.

Sartre once said of the writer struggling with his or her material: "All thoughts and feelings are there, adhering to the canvas in a state of profound undifferentiation." It is that both the writer and the reader learn which ones to choose to bring into relief. Of course I was extremely lucky, as Grace eventually became my editor and publisher. Nevertheless all this makes me wonder, ask questions, imagine, perhaps, such a mentorship for others suffering through the late bloom of their writing, in an industry that certainly does not reward this kind of "lateness" or patience or intimacy with a fellow writer as editor. I wish, idealistically, for the experience of working like this again, not only for myself but for so many of us who can not seem to find a place another way.


Born in Manhattan in 1952, Leora spent her childhood between Pound Ridge, New York and Israel, traveling with her family to her mother's birthplace in Jerusalem every three years.

She earned her BA and MFA and was awarded a teaching fellowship for graduate work, all at Sarah Lawrence.

Leora is the recipient of grants from PEN American Center, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Patricia Kind Foundation, Con-Edison, The Robert Gage Foundation and Art Without Walls.

Recently Edges has been nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. The novel will be featured at this year's "Virginia Festival for the Book".

Links for the book are:
Leora's Website
Buy her book from Powell's Books
Buy her book on Amazon
Visit Glad Day Books


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