I’ve Been Gone a While

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Like a couple years. And I’ve been meaning to write for a bit now, but some technical difficulties intruded: I couldn’t log-in to the site. Now, after some technical support (thank you, Eva), I’m back.

So, what have I been doing since I wrote here? Well, I’m now working as the rabbi at Cedar-Sinai Park, a Jewish assisted living community and nursing home. I find the work deeply fulfilling and varied, everything from leading services to counseling those who are dying to teaching classes. And nothing makes you feel younger than working with a population whose children tend to be in their sixties.

In other updates, I’ve done some traveling, some photography (often together). Hey, want to see a blue footed booby? Look here:

Blue-footed Booby
Blue-footed Booby

 

I’ve been doing various kinds of work-like things: weddings, funerals, bar/bat mitzvah, some writing, some teaching.

And, time after time, I’ve thought that’s a great idea for a blog post, and then done nothing about it. So I’m hoping to be blogging more regularly again, putting forward a little bit of this and that. Putting out the ideas that make up my days and my life. A little Judaism, a little spirituality, a little photography, a little humor (as Eva might say, a very little bit of humor).

For now, though, the important thing is that the words are once again going on the (web)page, and being put out for your perusal.

Writing A Novel, Starting Tomorrow

November begins in roughly 10 hours. Which means, roughly 10 more hours of sanity (sanity being a relative term, in my case).

I have decided once again to embark on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in which I, along with many others attempt to produce a rough draft of a novel during the month of November. I last undertook this challenge in 2009, and blogged about it some. Unfortunately, while I did finish (or win, in the vocabulary of NaNoWriMo), I found myself dissatisfied with the ending. In fact, I remain dissatisfied with the ending, though I do spend some time, now and again, trying to improve upon it.

This time, however, I am embarking on a completely different type of novel: a young-adult spy novel. As opposed to my first attempt, this genre is much easier to satisfactorily end. That is one advantage of working in a more clearly defined genre. The danger, of course, is that the novel winds up feeling cliche.

But starting out with a rough outline (very, very rough), some character names and backstories, and at least 50,000 words ahead of me, I am filled with optimism. Check back as the month progresses as I discover just how crazy this is.

Teaching is Fun

After two weeks of teaching at Willamette University, I’m ready to declare teaching fun. I’m sure I won’t always feel as positive about it as I do right now, but I just finished going over my students first set of  “response papers,” an every-other-week writing assignment in which I ask them to react to the readings, the lectures, or their own reactions to the course. Designed to be more blog-post than academic assignment (my instruction was that it should take 10 – 20 minutes), the responses have been as diverse as my students, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

It’s my first chance to see what students are connecting to in the course, or being challenged by in it.  One reason I love teaching is that I love forcing people to think beyond preconceptions, to explore ideas at a deeper level, and many of these students are doing exactly that. Whether reflecting on how what they are learning affects their own faith (non-Jewish), or thinking about the contrast between studying history and studying the mytho-historic account of a culture (in this case Judaism), to reflecting on teaching style, or a very detailed reaction to a specific page in the reading, it’s all been great.

I’m having so much fun with these response papers, I’d love to make them weekly (relax, students, I’m not going to do it). Even though I suspect it takes me as long to write notes on these as it took many of the students to write them in the first place, the thoughtfulness shown in the writing, and the connections made between material we’re covering and the rest of the world makes it a fabulous exercise. Judaism teaches that we learn as much from our students as we do from our teachers. I’m honored to be learning from my students.

Stubborn Sermons

I’m working on my Yom Kippur sermons. Or rather, I’m trying to work on my Yom Kippur sermons. But they’re refusing to be worked upon.

They are steadfastly refusing to write themselves. Which frankly, just seems churlish of them.

To make matters worse, they won’t even tell me what they’re about. Is one of them about the Isaiah quote, “Is this the fast I desire?” Good sermon topic, and not one I’ve written previously, but I keep hearing that line in my head as spoken by a John Wayne impersonator, which I’m pretty sure is my brain adapting some stand-up comics bit about John Wayne playing Hamlet, and saying, “Is this a dagger I see before me?” None of which is helping me out at all, because I’m pretty clear that John Wayne and Isaiah have radically different voices.

I could talk about God. I like talking about God. Of course, I started off doing that for Rosh Hashanah, and wound up writing a different sermon entirely, because the God sermon was way too dry.

Prayer is a good subject. But, the problem with talking about prayer in a sermon is that the sermon comes a the end of the service–after the prayers have all been said. Which means it often feels like I’m explaining how to do what we just did. Feels a bit backwards.

The flip side of this is that some of my best sermons have been completely off the cuff. The flip-flip side, is that some of my worst sermons have been completely off the cuff. When I go in trusting that I’ll have something coherent and meaningful to say, 80% of the time, I do. It may not be quite as polished as I’d like, but it tends to be pretty good. About 10% of the time, I have something meaningful to say, but it doesn’t come out coherently, and meanders a little. It’s the last 10% of the time that I try to avoid: I start to speak and realize the sermon isn’t going where I wanted it to, and start rewriting an extemporaneous sermon in my head while I’m speaking. Those sermons tend not to work out so well.

So I’ll push through, and try to a least get some drafts out that I can react to: ideas that I can either develop or reject. And sometimes, in the process of putting down an idea, a sermon pops out, pretty much finished.

Thinking About Writing Versus Writing

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about writing. I’ve planned out many posts for this blog. I’ve plotted out various chapters of novels. I’ve even begun sketching out a new novel. I have, however, done precious little actual writing. In case anyone was wondering, this isn’t a particularly useful way to go about writing.

I see things in the world, and I think: that would make a good blog post. And then, somehow, I never get around to writing it. I get stuck in my fiction, trying to figure out how to solve a problem, and rather than writing my way out of the conundrum, I plan, and think. Except, that I never quite seem able to solve a problem without  actually writing it. Nonetheless, I wait for the solution to emerge before sending words to page (or screen, as the case may be).

Sure, there are good reasons why I haven’t been writing recently: Passover, then my grandmother dying and heading back East for her funeral, and then returning only to spend a week so sick a trip to the kitchen left me flat for hours. But I’m running out of excuses. Now, I’m just out of practice, out of the habit, and need to get back into writing.

So here I am, writing about writing, hoping it’s not overly boring, and that I can make it the beginning of a new pattern: balancing the writing with the planning.

Building the Writing Muscle

I’ve referred previously to writing as being like a muscle that you build. I’ve always known that as opposed to physical strength, my writing strength is actually pretty high. I’m never entirely convinced of the quality of the writing, but in terms of quantity and speed, I’ve always felt okay.

In the past two plus weeks of NaNoWriMo, however, I’ve been getting feedback from people suggesting I’m underestimating my speed (still not sure of the quality, and frankly, that strikes me as much more relevant). Writers whom I respect, who make their living off the written word, apparently are impressed by my writing totals. Which I find a little weird. Because, if this is impressive, shouldn’t it be work?

But it’s not. In the last week, I’ve had at least three days of 5000 word plus production. And if anything, it’s getting easier to write more, not harder. Perhaps a little addictive, as well. So what am I going to do once I finish the first draft of my NaNoWriMo project? Will I be able to settle in to editing, or will the drive to produce new writing overwhelm my ability to go back and fix the stuff I’ve already written?

I ask this now because I’m about a day away from finishing the story. One more chapter and maybe an epilogue, and I’m done. And I’m pretty sure that’s happening either tonight or tomorrow.

One other thing. I happen to know that one of the problems with my writing is that I assume things that are obvious to me (because I’m imagining the story as I write it, so I know what I mean) and forget to put them down on paper. I’d love to have a couple of people who would be willing to read what I’ve written and tell me where I need to fill in the gaps. If you’re interested, let me know.

Planning is the Secret

You would think I would have known better. After all, whenever I work with an individual, company, congregation or other organization, I always stress that I can help them achieve whatever their goal is, but we both have to be clear about that goal before we start. We have to know where we’re going before we start driving there, so to speak. So, as I said, you would think I would have known better.

Yet here I am, half way through National Novel Writing Month, already 50,000 words into the novel, and do you know what revelation I just had? I don’t know how the book ends.

When I started writing, I had a premise. I figured that I would figure out the plot as I went along. It would emerge organically. Which was working quite well for me, until I reached the 50,000 word goal, and realized I didn’t know how much more I had to go because I didn’t know where I was going. Oops.

A long walk later, some thinking, and I think I have the an ending. It’s somehow “bigger” than I was imagining. More over the top, but I think it sort of fits the tenor of the story. As I write towards that goal, I’m sure it will shift some, that it will morph a bit, change in ways both small and large.

What I find most fascinating about this whole process is how far I got without a coherent  plot. Most of what I’ve already written will, in fact, be used. In fact, one or two pieces that I couldn’t quite figure out why I was putting in when I wrote them now make far more sense. Most of what I wind up tossing will probably be things I wrote in the last day or two, when I felt a little like I was beginning to spin my wheels.

And while I’m enjoying keeping you all updated on my blog, I’m afraid I have to go now. You see, I have a novel to finish.

Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse

It’s been a bit of a while since I’ve blogged. When I’ve taken a bit of a break, it always feels like I need to have something relevant to say when I begin again. Which means I wait longer to write. Which means whatever I say has to have even more meaning. Well, I’m breaking that cycle. I’m blogging, whether I have anything profound to say or not.

For me, writing is a muscle. The more I use it, the stronger it gets, the easier it is to use. The more I do it, the more enjoyable it is. I hear people talk about exercise in a similar way, though that’s never been my experience of it (though I do hold out hope that one of these days I’ll discover that I love exercise, and I’ve just been doing it wrong all these years). Writing, for me, is not simply about self-expression, rather, it is about figuring out what it is I need to express. This is not as solipsistic as it may sound. . .I write a blog with a keen awareness that there is an audience for which I am writing, and I do hope to entertain that audience. But at the end of things, writing, for me,  is about the process, and about the discovery.

Writing is a giant Rorscharch test. I start with an idea of where I’m going, but as I write I figure out where I’m going. I figure out what is on my mind. The good news (for you all, and I suppose for me, too) is that there is usually something on my mind. Eventually, I tend to have a point. Usually, that point has some relationship to where I started. Rarely is it what I expected.

My sermons work in roughly the same manner. I almost never write out my sermons fully, but work from outline. Sometimes the outlines are fairly detailed, including points and sub-points I want to make, texts I want to quote, specific wording I want to use. More often, my outlines look a bit different, a bit more like this:

“I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14)

  • Says God
  • Says Popeye
  • Popeye =? God

And from there I’m off and running. When I give the sermon, I’ll probably wind up discussing mysticism, the Divine within each of us (as represented by Popeye), and asking what spinach represents (prayer? confidence?). The exact nature of the sermon will be based partly on what seems to be most interesting to those listening, partly on what I discover I have to say at that moment. This could be a 5 minute sermon or a twenty minute sermon (depending on the time I have to work with. . .I usually know in advance how long I will speak). For me, this moment of discovering what I have to say, and sometimes even the struggle to make sure I have something worthwhile to say, is a large part of the joy of giving a sermon. Ideally, by the end, I’ve come back around to where I started.

In this blog post, I started with a title, “Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse.” I assumed I would be writing about trying to mount a horse with a literary bent. But it turns out that wasn’t the case at all. It turns out, I had something to say about why I write.

Too Much to Write, So I'm Blogging Instead

So far this morning I have written:

  • A wedding service, including my talk to the couple.
  • About 1/2 of  a eulogy.

The bad news is that the things I have not yet written this morning include:

  • about 1/2 of a eulogy.
  • A sermon for this evening.
  • A brief Torah discussion for tomorrow morning.

You may note, that nowhere on that list does there exist the entry, “A blog post.” Yet I seem to be writing a blog post.  I’m sure you are as curious as I am to know why.

I don’t tend to experience writer’s block in the classic sense. One of the good things about rabbinic writing in general is that there tends to be a fairly deadline by which you simply must have your piece written. You cannot simply ask for an extension on a funeral. Couples tend to be singularly displeased when you inform them you’d like to postpone the wedding because your talk isn’t written yet. And Shabbat will arrive this evening whether I’ve written a sermon or not.

The sermon for this evening is actually not a problem at all. I do trust myself to be able to improvise a sermon, especially if I give it a little thought while driving down to Salem this afternoon. One of the great things about the Jewish tradition is that there is a lot of literature associated with it, and I can always find something in that massive library of text I studied in rabbinical school which will resolve itself into a sermon.

The other two types of writing are harder. They require a structure. Often I know, more or less, everything I want to say, but figuring out a way to say everything without creating a disjointed narrative (using narrative in the loosest possible sense) is the challenge. Figuring out how to structure what I want to say in way that will make sense to my listeners can be difficult. I know what I want to say about the couple or about the deceased, but how to do I  say it in ways which don’t sound trite, and which manage to describe a cohesive whole?

Often, blog posts are much simpler, not least because I tend towards the stream of thought school of blogging. So I guess I’m hoping by setting all this down on paper (or screen, as the case may be), I will clear my mind enough to figure out how to tie everything together in the rest of writing which needs to happen.

This weekend will be a busy weekend. There are shabbat services, a wedding and a funeral. In between all that I am teaching Sunday school, putting up a memorial plaque, having a meeting with the ritual committee. And to do all of these pieces well, I need to bring all of myself to each event. These are not things which work well when I hold myself back.  I need to be fully present. And I will be. But Monday, I think I will be tired.

Oh, did I happen to mention that we have a friend from Australia moving into our house for the foreseeable future? She arrives today. I’m really excited that she’ll be here, but was kind of expecting to get to see a little more of her this weekend than it looks like I will.

Life: Never boring.