Soferet is an international newsletter for Jewish women writers (although men read it too). It’s available via email. To subscribe just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org Below are articles from previous issues. Hope you enjoy them!
Volume 1, Issue 1Newsletter for Orthodox Women Writers Summer 2000w 5760
A View of One’s Own
What is Soferet?
by Esther Susan Heller
Looking up from my writing desk I see the rounded peaks of the Meron mountains, their outline muted against the darkening sky. I feel calm and inspired. Daily life in Tsfat is relatively distraction free. I can walk to anywhere I need. Life is simple, slow paced and conducive to the creative process.
Sure sounds like ideal writing conditions, but there are a few drawbacks. Resources are scarce: although we have a small English language library, there are no literary events, reference libraries, writers’ conferences, used bookstores or contact with authors or literary agents. Except for our Tsfat Writers’ Group, as an author and editor, I sometimes feel isolated.
Risa lives on the East Coast of the US and knows many authors, editors and agents. She is up on what is being published and what isn’t. But when Risa wants to share her concerns on what it means to be a frum woman writing for the secular world, she has no one to talk to about it.
Carol lives in California where Jewish cultural events are numerous. There are Jewish writers’ workshops, conferences and contests. Recently Carol attended a literary panel in which one well known author went on in a negative and insulting manner against Orthodox Jews. No one in the audience objected.
Although writing is a solitary activity, there is no longer any reason for us to feel confined. Soferet was started so that we can transcend isolation and open up the gates of communication with one another, a global small town of like-minded women connecting with each other, sharing questions, issues, resources and techniques.
Soferet was started by women from the Tsfat Writers’ Group which has been meeting for the past nine years. Most of the authors in this first issue either live in Tsfat or have a kesher with someone living here. But we envision this as only a springboard for worldwide involvement.
This first issue is just the start of what will, bs”d, be an ongoing project of support, inspiration and education for Orthodox women writers around the world. We hope that everyone will share their thoughts, opinions, questions, dreams and plans with each other. Whether you are a professional journalist, freelancer, author, novice writer or interested reader, please think about what you can offer to others.♦
Contact us at: Soferet, POB 301, Tsfat, 13100 Israel
Writing: Obstacles and Pleasures
by Gita Gordon
Many years ago, before I was a grandma, when my older daughter was in high school, I saw an article asking for Jewish stories. Because my daughter displayed a particular talent in this field, I suggested to her that she send in a story. The conversation went something like this:
“Look, you could do this. Sit down and type something and I’ll send it off.”
“No, Mom, I just don’t have the time.”
“Oh, come on. It will only take about an hour. Just do it.”
“Look Mom. If it’s that easy why don’t you have a go?”
“Right, deal. We will each spend the next hour writing something.”
So, having fulfilled my part of the bargain I sent off our work and to my surprise, not only was my daughter’s work accepted, but so was mine. There was one drawback, however. My younger daughter, then at nursery school, was dismayed.
“What, your name will be in a book! Oh, I’ll be so ashamed. You are supposed to be a Mommy. What if someone sees it?”
So rather than let her worry I sent off a request that the name used for the story should be a combination of my Hebrew name and my maiden name. For many years after that I wrote. Each morning after taking children to school and clearing away the breakfast dishes I sat and wrote. Not everything was accepted, but enough was to give me pleasure and to encourage me to continue.
Now, many years later, the little one is in high school. The newspaper I write for is in her school library. Recently she said to me: “Why don’t you use your own name for your articles? It would be so nice.
“Writing: Obstacles and Pleasures” cont’d.
Everyone would know that you wrote those articles.” I think that this experience of mine is not unique. Religious women are expected to be mothers and housewives, and if necessary, to earn parnossa. This
idea of expressing oneself fits more comfortably into the secular world. Somehow it does not match the ‘image’ of the religious woman. This first problem of ‘image’ leads to another one and that is one of ‘time’. I think that religious women find it difficult to set aside a slot of time for writing.
I used to write during the time between clearing up from breakfast and preparing lunch. However, I was at home and when people wanted to visit for coffee (usually with a hidden agenda of pouring our their troubles), or when I was asked to collect someone who needed a lift, I was quite unable to say “sorry, that is the time I set aside for writing.”
Recently some of these concepts have changed. There are now more outlets for religious women writers and the idea of writing, of setting aside time to do this, has therefore acquired legitimacy.
There is one issue however, that will not change and that is the concept of Chillul HaShem. When we write we must always be careful that anyone who picks up our work will come away with a positive image of Jews. Other writers can paint all sorts of villains to contrast with their heroes. It gives dramatic import to their stories. We are our own censors, limiting our use of imagination. Yet, in spite of these difficulties there is tremendous growth of religious Jewish women writers.
I look forward to this new forum, where we can communicate with one another and gain strength from our common bond.♦
Gita Gordon is a pseudonym. Originally from South Africa, she lives in Netanya. She is a prolific writer, her work appearing in Horizons , Hamodia and Yated Ne’eman.
“Vetictov Esther – And Esther Wrote”
by Esther Rubenstein
I think we each have to ask ourselves a very basic question. Why do I write? And in answering that question, each of us, as honestly as we can, we may find some of our own personal answers to many of the doubts that we deal with daily; doubts over time management, what is morally okay to read, whose company we need to keep, etc.
The real question is: What’s my goal? Here’s one of my answers.
There is an old woman who comes to visit every so often. Our relationship is unique. We never speak, cannot, because time is both our barrier and our connection. Instead, we watch each other. And our meeting place, the only one where we can possibly meet, is in the dreams and memories of our shared mind.
I see her in my daydreams. She sits beside an open window, or sometimes it’s a porch door, white hairs slipping out of her kerchief, her shoulders draped with a sky blue sweater. Blue because that color has always brought life to her eyes. But I can’t see her eyes in my dreaming, because she is always looking outward, toward the trees, the patterns of light and shadow sifting through them.
And she, she looks backwards through time, and watches me. Her eyes gloss over the sun’s patterns, only her mind’s eye is sifting through the past. She examines the images called up to her, scrupulously searching for thoughts, feelings, but it is no use. Even her words are mostly forgotten.
All that remains are her deeds.
So because she is self-critical, she picks at them. Did she give fully, from her desire to give, or was it to please some self-image? Did she really control herself, because she was trying to improve a certain relationship, or was it because she was too overwhelmed to say anything anyway? Over and over, she digs and redigs, usually to be left with nothing but the elusive grains of lost memories.
It is always exhausting work, though, the work of re-piecing a lifetime, and finally she closes her eyes to rest. And wonders why she doesn’t leave it all alone anyway. There is nothing she can do to change anything now, but still, maybe, next time she will find a jewel.
And that’s when one last question worms its way through her mind. And she asks herself. Again. Did I appreciate it all? Hard as it was, painful as it was, did I pull some good out of it anyway? Did I enjoy my life?
This question haunts me now, too. A Jew’s life is filled with so many trials, doubts, difficulties. We have
“And Esther Wrote” cont’d
to try to do the right thing within our situation. To fear
G-d. But we are also suppose to be b’simcha. Appreciate the moment. Be happy with what you have
it is yours, all you’re going to get this time around. It’s irreplaceable.
Those who have been touched by death, whether through disease, accidents, or near death experiences are the ones who know, those who have been on the brink of having to give it all up. They are the ones that really know how to cherish this gift of life.
And so I write. To bring joy to that old woman sitting by the open window. So that when she looks back at herself she will find some sense of completion. Because as she sits there reviewing her life, a life that continues mostly in the realm of the past, it will not be the knowledge that she had published world-wide, nor that people have told her how talented she was, that will bring her comfort.
It will be the knowledge that she caught the moments of her life, touched the flow of G-d’s story through her pen, that will help her face the future. That by pulling the plots and themes out of her experiences, and capturing them through writing them down, she has loved the process called living.♦
Esther Rubenstein is a published short story writer and creative writing teacher.
Notes in the Margin
by Risa Miller
Well, it happened again. I thought I was a real writer so I procrastinated writing this article based on factoids of interior, personal time. You see, it was between yomin tovim, at the top of the week before Shabbos, I was on semester break from my teaching for another few days, and technically speaking I had all the writing time I needed.
That’s what I thought.
But in one morning, the frum Prometheus unleashed itself: My son telephoned from his yeshiva dorm (200 miles away). Angry red welts had popped up all over his feet and he had a fever of 102. My married daughter, who lives nearby his dorm, would drive him to the doctor. But how was she supposed to juggle her newborn and her infectious brother? The resolution took 15 minutes and three more phone calls. By then I’d lost some concentration so I ran to the bookstore to buy the new ArtScroll for my husband’s daf yomi shiur. On the way back home I heard those nasty words over the car radio: SNOWSTORM.
If I were smart I would run to tuck Shabbos staples into my freezer. But I punted on the food shopping. I went to my desk and returned some shidduch phone calls. Having a daughter in the parasha has buoyed me to Boston shidduch central and I’m mindful of her needs and the needs of others, and then thinking about the needs of others my mind drifted back to Shabbos and the milas of an empty Shabbos table versus a table full of guests. By then I had enough reason to punt on the writing too. Or, I could clear the decks for more time for me. My projects. Me. Am I a real writer yet?
Do I want to be?
A couple of years ago I attended a writers’ conference in Boston, selected, of course, from the myriad of conferences and retreats because it fit into my children’s school schedule and didn’t interfere with Shabbos. At the wine and cheese opener, I clung to my designer water, but by week’s end I made great and lasting connections. In between I endured comments like, “Are all the children yours?” Later that week, at a keynote session, a famous Jewish woman writer, effete and mini-skirted, shared a survivor’s tale of her own ‘balancing act’. Her son came home from school and appeared at her study door. She usually broke for his homecoming, but that day she was on a roll. When she urged him to go out and play or do something to leave her alone for another hour, that she had to write a little more, he said, “Mommy, why don’t you write me for a change?” While everyone else in the audience was laughing at the little boy, I was squirming. He just didn’t get it, did he? Or, did he?
As frum people we have every reason not to make kedusha out of our talent and our potentialities. We have lots of other responsibilities and, of course, a Higher Authority. And I’m not just referring to time management issues; of all things I seem to have conquered those. My first book was written between 4:30 a.m. and morning reveille. I really worry about some other things, though, including (not in any special order):
1. My writing buddies. Mostly, because of demographics, all of them are not frum and often not even Jewish.
2. Aroyos are a minefield for the neshama. But the question arises: Is it permissible to read contemporary literature for our professional growth and development?
3. What about my agony and my ecstasy? What’s the relationship anyhow, between hard work and results, good work and publishing, unrelenting ego and the drive to publish, hishtadlus and hashgacha?
4. What about my conscious decisions to portray frum life as positive? And what about my decision not to write anything in any way that will embarrass my family? But it’s the other stuff that sells and am I being unnecessarily righteous?
5. Who should I be writing for, anyhow? What purpose does this talent have in Hashem’s plan? Will I have to account for that too?
Fellow writers, do you share these concerns? And do those of you in Israel have the same publishing woes as we in chutz l’aretz?
“Notes in the Margin” cont’d.
In my next column I plan to bring some issues to the Bostoner Rebbe Shlita so that we may hear what guidance and chizuk he can offer us. Maybe when we’re done we’ll have a collection of das Torah on the arts. That may be a book in itself.
And, oh yes. I have a daughter who wants to be a writer. What do I tell her? ♦
Responses to Risa’s article may be sent directly to her via email. Send to: RMiller@Lasell.edu
Risa Miller has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and teaches writing and literature at Lasell College in Newton, Mass. She was one of two PEN New England Fiction Discoveries in 1999. Her agent is currently shopping her first novel.
by Roberta Chester
My first poems were not written, but sung to myself on long car trips with my family. It was my way of amusing myself. I don’t recall if anyone else in the car was amused, but I certainly had fun. I think that aspect of writing was always a major incentive for me. And today, too, if enjoyment is not something I feel as I am writing, I tell myself I should put it away and start again some other time.
Actually, I feel very strongly that there is some sort of mysterious reciprocity between my urge to write something and the urge of that piece of writing to be written. This is especially true of poetry which, for me, has always been a sacred task. I don’t, therefore, agonize over not having written, feeling as I do that if something needs to be written, the words will call to me as insistently as I call to them.
The other aspect, as far as poetry is concerned, is the fact that writing a poem is more demanding than almost anything I can think of. I have to be ready to devote endless hours to that process, constantly changing and revising. Although the initial rhythm and the basic tone and message is there from the beginning, all the rest demands the kind of refinement that takes endless time and energy. I have to be willing and able to let the poem dominate my life for as long as it requires.
As a mother of young children – and a single parent, as well – I had to wait until late at night to get any writing done. I guess that’s why my youngest daughter – now an artist in her own right – tells me that her favorite sound to fall asleep by is the sound of a typewriter.
As far as prose is concerned, I find that the writing is as much a matter of discipline as inspiration. I love writing stories for children and short essays, and find that – unlike poetry – it’s all coming more from the left brain than the right, insofar as I can pick up a piece and put it down without feeling I’ve lost the connection.
I’ve also been very involved with other people’s writing, meeting with them on a regular basis as an editor. It’s like being a midwife, helping them to bring their work into the world.♦
Roberta Chester is poet from Maine who lives in Jerusalem. Roberta and Felicity Amoch are working on a book (Not by Chance Alone) about the strange inexplicable things that happen to us that testify to Hashem’s presence in our lives. Please get in touch with them if you have a story to tell. email@example.com..
♫ Finding the Music
by Sheina Yehezkel
Exercise #1 All writing books say “Avoid cliches like the plague” and then every second page says “Show, don’t tell!” Why?
The point is that almost everything in your writing should do more than one job. If it moves the plot forward, great. If it adds to the characterization too, even better. If it enforces the setting as well, this is writing! All together it makes beautiful music. The ‘Show’ part is what this exercise is all about.
Part I: If we have a sixth-grader named Dina coming home from school we have a situation. Do a quick sketch of Dina and what she looks like, her school, the surroundings, and the season of the year. What is the year? (This may or may not be relevant, but why stick with now? What about just before the Holocaust or just before leaving Egypt? And maybe she isn’t coming home from school but from somewhere else. What is the weather like? Is she alone or with friends? Don’t make it too long, but open the inner camera of your eye and see Dina. This is some characterization and mostly setting. And it isn’t enough.
Part II: We have to know more about Dina. If she isn’t real to you she won’t be real to anyone else either. Beware of using people you know. A montage of different people is usually better, simply because we can be more objective about the one we invent, and we can be more honest. Write more about Dina. Who are her family and friends? How does she get on with the other girls her age and her teachers? What are her dreams (yes, sixth-graders do have dreams – remember when you were in sixth grade)? Extrapolate. We should have a good picture of Dina by now. This is really the characterization part.
Part III: To make it a story we need more than what we’ve got so far. We need what I like to call an ‘engine’, a drive, to make the story go. What is so special about Dina? If she is ordinary, there is no “Finding the Music” cont’d
story. She has to be extra-ordinary. She is going to begin a journey, true it might only be from the school to home, but something very special is going to happen.
And you have to set that scene up. This is where the gut feeling that makes a difference between good and average writing comes in. If you want to touch your reader, to make a difference, here is where to do it.
What is so special about Dina! This is what makes plot!
Part IV Write that scene. Tell me about the beginning of Dina’s journey, in 500 words or less, and without using any dialogue either internal or with other people. Show, don’t tell me about all the things we’ve discussed. Show me about what is so special about Dina. Let me hear the music. ♦
You can send your exercises (no attachments please) for critiquing to Sheina at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sheina Yeheskal is an artist, musician, as well as writer. She is working on a Jewish novel placed 13th century Central Asia,
Humor – the Cure!
by Danya Boksenboim
Living our lives in service of HaShem, we know that G-dliness is everything that is good in this world. We cannot properly serve HaShem without Simcha. According to Chassidus the heart must be open and receptive.
What if it isn’t? What if you are suffering from Tim Tum HaLev (coldness or hardness of the heart)?
“It is as if the heart has been turned to stone. The heart cannot be opened in prayer which is by definition the service of the heart.” (Lessons in Tanya, Volume 1, Chapter 29, p. 374)
One must fight the evil impulse. When the heart is dull, heavy, and insensitive this evil impulse cannot be fought. This state of being is very passive and still. It comes from Kelipat Noga (The Shining Layer).
This depression will engulf you and trap you into a passive stillness that must be destroyed.
Here is where Merirut (bitterness) comes in. “When one is moved to be bitter, this in itself is a sign of life. Bitterness is the weapon to use because it is active and vital. The subject will feel the stirrings of bitterness and anger at his having allowed himself to fall so low. If he does this in the proper spirit, all this depression and bitterness will be momentary. He will seek ways to extricate himself from his sorry state.” (Ibid. p. 408)
Humor is born out of this Merirut and is the vehicle to achieve Simcha. What does this mean? To take the bitterness and laugh it away is a healing process. Humor is the antidote to pain.
The writer of humor follows two essential principles:
1. Gross exaggeration, and
2. The element of surprise.
The humor writer achieves these by throwing herself completely behind the object of her frustration. At the moment of impact, when the idea comes together, and the writer is truly being funny, she does not feel funny at all. What she feels is relief. By grossly exaggerating an idea and creating a surprise ending she is banishing her own demons from her consciousness.
However, in the mind’s eye of her reader she has created an entire scenario that has brought laughter, empathy, comfort and joy. The writer and the reader have both achieved Simcha.♦
Danya Boksenboim is a comedienne, playwrite and songwriter. She produces, writes and directs plays for women, including “Rosalie: Undercover Agent,” “Peace in the Middle East,” and “Yehudit: The Chanukah Story.”
Literary Mazel Tovs!
Congratulations to our members:
Vera Shwarcz, finalist for The National Jewish Book Award in History for Bridge Across Broken Time.
Marketing Your Work
by Avriel Adler
Part I. Finding an Agent
Writing can be a means unto itself, an exercise in self-expression or a highly personal method of working through issues relevant to the writer. However, most writers at some point will wish to share their work with a greater audience. Marketing strategies for writing, as for other products, follow industry defined methodology. The more aggressively a writer markets her work, the more likely she is to succeed in publishing. The more closely she defines her market, the greater her chance to address her intended audience.
Authors often quip that it is more difficult to find an agent than it is to find a publisher. This is not true. However, it is the agent’s function to match the manuscript with the most receptive publisher, therefore the author is less directly involved in that process. This is not to say that it is simple to attain an agent. Agents reject about 98% of the opportunities presented to them, whether through query letters, partial and complete submissions or nonfiction book proposals. An agent’s income is derived primarily through sales and his reputation suffers if he does not consistently provide marketable material to the publishers. Nonetheless, no matter how successful the agent, there are only so many titles published per year, and many worthy manuscripts just don’t make it to press. This is especially true of works by unpublished authors, and for nonfiction in saturated categories. Thus many titles are agented but never achieve publication.
We’ve all noticed that certain books are poorly written and yet they sell well. What does this say about the author? Not that he writes well, but that he markets well. As in any other marketable product, the packaging more than the content attracts the attention of the consumer. Therefore it’s the author’s ability to create viable packaging for his product that furthers its marketability.
Crisp business-like queries are the first knock on the door to successful publishing. Think of your query as a sales brochure. Your hard copy is an agent’s first introduction to a potential gold mine. Do your homework and make every word count. No query letter should exceed a single page. It should be error free, single-spaced and printed clearly. Make it personalized. If you have networked with other authors, ask them for referrals. If your work is similar to someone who publishes successfully, send a query to their agent. (Look for an author’s earliest works – an agent is often the first person a new author thanks in the acknowledgments.) Agents like to have their egos stroked. A compliment on their success in marketing so-and-so’s material never hurts. It shows that you specifically selected them. A query should contain a brief synopsis of the material, a paragraph explicating your specific market, and a two-sentence biography including other work published. If you lack a direct referral, you might compare your work to that of a successful author of your genre, but don’t overstate it. Finally, always include a SASE.
Agents generally respond to queries in four to eight weeks. Unless the agent specifically states otherwise, multiple agents may be solicited. The query procedure can take many months. Agents make multiple submissions to publishers, and understand that authors too use similar strategies. Some agents do request exclusive readings. If so, the author may impose a reasonable time frame – perhaps a month for a non-fiction proposal and six to eight weeks for a full manuscript.
Next issue’s column, bs”d, will review strategies for finding the right agent for your particular material, what an author can expect from an agent, and how to determine a bona fide agent from the numerous fly-by-nights who prey on new and inexperienced authors.♦
Avriel Adler is a published author of religious mystery novels.