e-mail and correspondence courses

by Esther Rubenstein

It was my first story published in a widely read newspaper. I couldn't wait to get to the store, to feel the paper in my hands, to see my name beneath the title in black ink. Most of all I couldn't wait to hear what everybody thought of it.

I would show it to my brother, the nonfiction writer. And to my older sister whom I'd always looked up to. And what about the ladies in the writing group? Did any of
them get this paper? I tucked the paper into my bag, and nearly ran all the way home.

But when I got there, I realized it was late and I hadn't started lunch yet. I poured myself a cold drink, leaned against the kitchen counter, and glanced through the first few paragraphs.

Well, I glanced at the two full pages of the story and up at the clock. I could buzz right through it, I practically knew it by heart already anyway.

But then my eyes wandered from the clock to the hillside outside my window. How many hours had I sat with my porch door opened, how many hours had the rise and fall of those hills, the weaving of the glimmering road inspired me as I wrote? And now, with the finished piece lying before me, how could I just rush through it? I would wait a little longer. I'd find a quiet few minutes at work, as I waited for the candles-wicks I braided to make havdalah candles, to heat up. I would give myself over to it completely. Anyway, I thought, pulling out my chopping board, the candles they made were probably all for the better.

When Sarah knocked on my door a few minutes later, I gleefully invited her for lunch. She would be my first customer. I lay that newspaper before her on the table and went to sauteeing my vegetables.

"It's really lovely," she said halfway through the meal. But I'm not going to let myself cry over the food." I grinned proudly at her, and dished out some more rice. After a few moments she added, "is it rude of me to offer some critique, too?"

Critique? I glanced at my piece. "a bit late for that, but, why not?"

"Here in the middle when you start talking about this new character looking out the window, as if we've heard about him already? It's a bit confusing."

But I did introduce him earlier, back in the second scene. Here give me that." I glanced over the second scene. "I can't seem to…" then I read it again. "I don't believe this. They took it out."

"I knew you wrote better than that," Sarah said.

I pushed my plate away. "Enjoy the meal," I told her. "I'm going to go through the whole thing right now. Real slow."

I was still glumly rereading it at work two hours later. The candle wicks lay on the side of my heating board, untouched. I couldn't put my story away. It was like coming into your home and finding your best jewelry stolen. It was like opening up your heart to your friend and having her blithely change the topic. It was like…

"What is wrong, Esther? I have been hearing your sighs all afternoon." I looked up at Rachel, realizing suddenly that I'd been vaguely aware of her sitting at her table a few meters to my right, sending me worried looks every so often.

Slowly, I told her the whole story. She listened as I told her about each word that had been changed and worse, about whole sections that had been removed. She just kept nodding, with only the ghost of a smile on her lips. For some reason, by the time I finished, I was beginning to hear the sound of my own voice in my ears. And I didn't quite like it.

I looked at Rachel. She was a French artist who had moved to Israel due to a sense of conviction , and glad to start working in Tsaft Candles, braiding candles to supplement her income.

"Are you humoring me?" I asked her.
"Non, non," she said, smiling her gentle smile. I also know how hard it is when you put so much work into something, and it is taken from your grasp," she snapped her fingers, "like that."

I nodded waiting for the 'but' to drop.
"Esther. I want to ask you. Why do you write?"
"I am very interested to know, why you write. You must have thought about it many times, no, put your heart into something and it is taken from your grasp." She snapped her fingers, "like that."
"Does it make a difference right now?"
"Yes," she said her eyes wide. "I think so."
I grinned at her. "You mean beside my desire for fame and riches?"

I leaned back in my chair remembering how, years ago, I had sat with the other new writers around the table in Dov's Creative Writing class. It had been during the Gulf War, but when we entered that room, the war and everything else disappeared. The only real world was the inner ones we shared with each other.

"I guess I write because it gives me a sense of order, gives me the ability to perceive G-d's patterns, G-d's hand in the way people's life unfold."

So tell me," Rachel said in her hushed way, "where is He now?"

"Where is G-d now? Here in this very real story about how Esther worked so hard to say something very near to her heart and it was changed so much."

I stared at her. "Are you leading up to one of those lines about how everything is all for the good, etc. etc? Because if you are, save it please. I am not ready to hear any of that right now."

Rachel chewed her lower lip, studying me. "But what are we going to do with all this depression?"

When I did not answer her, she said slowly. "I have never read your writings, Esther, but I am sure you have talent. And G-d gave you that talent to express Him. We are only His tools. The whole world is only tools to express G-d." She looked at me and said gently, "And so often we forget this. We want things to come out only our way. We leave no room to see His way."

I glanced over her head at the huge waxed sign hanging over the dipping wheel, where the candles were made. "The Soul of Man is the Candle of G-d." I sighed. It was a holy conspiracy. "Well, maybe," I shrugged. "But still, next time I will be more careful."

Rachel smiled a little sadly and stood up. I think the break has finished. She paused a minute then put her hand on mine. "You know Esther, that I speak as much to myself as I do to you. This is a very hard problem."

"Do you have these kinds of things happen to you to with your art work?"
"Oh yes! The criticism, it hurts so much." She sighed. "But that is why I have thought so much about it." She put her head to one side, her big eyes studying me.

"There is something I do sometimes," she said in a very low voice.
"What did you say?"
She shrugged. "Maybe I have said enough."
"There's no turning back now. Tell me."
"Sometimes, when I finish a picture, I do not put my name on it."
"Why not?"

Her eyes smiled in that way that seemed to light up the rest of her features without them moving at all. "Why don't you try it one time Esther? You will see…" And she walked back to her candles.

It took me many months and a few more published stories before I wrote that secret piece. I knew as I was writing it that I would never put my name on it- it was too personal.

Would that count as the real thing, since my motives were not purely to keep it between G-d and me? I decided to show it to absolutely no one. Not even my publisher would ever discover my real name.

But things got complicated. After the publisher called to tell me that she would use it, she asked me where to send the check. I hemmed and hawed and finally decided what's the difference, she didn't know who I was anyway, would in all probability never meet me. I gave her my name and address reminding her to use the pseudonym on publication. "Don't worry," she assured me, "I won't forget."

And she didn't. Except for the name of my city, which was placed neatly below my pseudonym.

I opened the publication calmly on my dining room table, made myself a cup of coffee and sat down to read my piece. There was no one reading over my shoulder this time, it was just me and my story. I read it slowly, at first with the critical eye of a writer, but as it moved on I began to move with it, forgetting myself as I did with any other story I've ever read. I lost myself in its unfolding as if it had been someone else who had spent hours on every page, worked over every work. I read it as if for the first time and when I was finished there were tears in my eyes.

I looked up and out my porch door overlooking the hillside. And I was filled with gratitude.

A writer never has complete control over the things she writes. It is, if it is a piece that reflects truth, the experience that allows itself to be written. There is always a sense of wonder and a touch of anxiety as we reread something we've written. "Did I do that" Can I do it again?" But inside we suspect the truth. It wasn't ourselves alone that did it in the first place.

And so, I felt gratitude that I had been able to express an experience that touched me. And gratitude that I was given the chance to share it with others. As simple as that.
But the feeling it created within me was not simple. It filled me in a way that all the compliments that I'd ever gotten for my writings had never come near.

That's when the phone rang. It was Gail, one of the ladies from my writing group. She always called to wish me a mazel tov after I published something.

"Esther," she said immediately, "tell me the truth. Did you just publish this week?"
"What?" I said, stalling for time.
"I know it had a different name under it, but it sounded just like one of your stories. I won't tell anyone if it is yours. But is it?"

Even as my mind vacillated between telling her or not, I couldn't figure out just how to deny it. The giggle popped out of me.

"I just knew it," she said.
"Listen Gail, do not tell anyone. NO ONE. You understand?"
"Of course, don't worry. I have at least two pseudonyms, one for my semi-private articles and one for the ones I want to keep completely private."
"So tell me, how is it that I'm not so lucky?"
"Nothing. Tell me. How did you figure it out?"
"Well, when I read the name of the city, I said hmmm, never heard of this lady. I wonder if it's a pseudonym. Then after I read it, well. I can't miss your style."

"I tried to change it," I sighed.

The second phone call came the next morning from another co-writer, this one a friend with whom I usually showed most of my pieces. When she entered, she said, Esther, I have something to ask you…my stomach dropped. I knew that the deal between G-d and me was over.

Today, I still sometimes write stories under pseudonyms, but it's just not the same. And I know I will never quite feel the same when reading one of my pieces. Not if I am waiting for it. Inner joy is just not something you get when going after it directly with your external grabbing mind.

But sitting sometime over a story, I stop momentarily and looking out over the rolling hiss, I remember that moment, its uniqueness, and long for it all the more.


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