On The Difference Between Writing and Publishing
I never intended to write a memoir. In my late middle age, I think I have lived deeply and I hope well; I have not lived remarkably. I am, first and foremost, a Jewish wife and mother, living in suburbia with my family. I am an attorney, and I had a satisfying practice in the public interest for many years. You would not hear my story and say, “you must write a book.” The sages teach us that one who is wise learns from every person, and I have no doubt I too have lessons to teach. But I do not believe that I have a memoir to write.
So when my friend asked me if I would be interested in taking a memoir writing class with her, at first I politely declined. To be honest, I wasn’t sure my friend had material for a memoir either – what was so unique about her experience as a woman and a mother that would lend itself to work that others would want to read? But she assured me that she had no such ambition. She thought only that it would be an interesting way to spend some time, something new to learn. The class fit into my schedule, so I agreed to go with her.
The first semester of the class went by easily and enjoyably. The professor gave us prompts, and we would write short memoir pieces – not necessarily connected – three or four or five pages long, that we would read aloud in the class. I was surprised, though perhaps I should not have been, that so many of my essays revolved around loss – loss of my parents, loss of a colleague at too young an age, loss of a mentor when I was a teenager, loss of my rabbi, loss (or more accurately, leaving) my job of many years. I have heard a talented memoirist say that the genre is not supposed to be therapeutic – you do not write to heal yourself, but rather to bring what you have learned to others. It may be true, but certainly self-healing must have a place at the memoir table.
By the start of the second semester of the class, we had gotten to know each other in a very intense way, albeit only through snippets of our lives. We continued to write, and the revelations became more difficult and the writing more nuanced and more artistic. Toward the end of the course, the professor challenged us to write “the stories you never thought you would share.” Over the next several weeks, we heard about one writer’s loss of his virginity as a teenager to an older woman, and another’s struggle with an alcoholic father. We heard of a mother’s pain over a betrayal by a child, and we heard about illness, both physical and mental. We heard about lost love. We wrote and we read and we cheered each other on: we became a community of writers.
It was difficult. When it was my turn to read, I stalled. I first submitted the pieces to the professor, who encouraged me to share, reminding me that we had created an environment where the writing would be critiqued, but the writer would not be judged. Eventually, I summoned the strength, reading my pieces almost without taking time to breathe – in a monotone that belied the rush of emotion, but which somehow fit the subject matter. Although I don’t have an abundance of confidence in my own style, I knew the pieces were beautiful – written in a tone and in language that broke down defenses and invited the reader to witness the transformation of the author.
But the classroom was still a secure environment; ten people whom I had come to trust because we had shared intimately, and we had learned together that the most private aspects of our lives could be cushioned by exposure within the cocoon we had created. Would the truth hold in the wider world?
I have since learned lessons about writing that could not be achieved in the classroom. I have learned the difference between writing for oneself, writing for loved ones, and writing that can be let out into the universe, like a grown child no longer under your control, with potentially far reaching effects that cannot be predicted. I have learned that writing has the capability of bringing the world together and making it a more forgiving, honest place, but also the power to destroy the boundaries of one’s own world. And the balance a writer is able to achieve is precarious at best – but a misstep is nearly impossible to erase.
In the rush of my success in class, I embarked on a series of submissions, sending various pieces out over the Internet to many venues. Two essays were picked up almost immediately. While they were personal – stories surrounding my mother’s death – they were stories I felt reflected my perspective and were mine to share, and that would not impact on either my own privacy or the lives of my family in a way that was damaging.
But publishing is intoxicating. And I knew that my best pieces, the ones that truly came from a place of vulnerability and which had literary merit beyond just the telling of a series of events, were the ones it had been so difficult even to share in class. In Judaism there is a concept of “cheshbon hanefesh” the taking an account of one’s soul. It is the process that I should have gone through, painstakingly and with the help of my loved ones, before I submitted the more revealing pieces for possible publication. But I didn’t. I sent the essays, and waited.
It took some months and many rejections, but eventually these two deeply focused glimpses into my life were, almost simultaneously, accepted for inclusion in both print and Internet publications. Initially, I was thrilled. Only when the reality set in, that these essays that I had barely been able to bring myself to share with a group of people in a closed classroom who had likewise let down their guard, would now be available to all, did I realize that I could not let these words go. At the eleventh hour, I pulled the pieces.
The respective editors of the two publications were angry, and rightly so. They called me unprofessional, explaining the difficulties I had caused and the time I had wasted, and they were justified in doing so. They exhorted me to be courageous, and to trust them. They reasoned and cajoled and compromised, offering to print the pieces under pen names. One of the editors sent me a piece that she had published regarding an extremely challenging period during her childhood that had continued to haunt her and have ramifications well into adulthood, but from which she had grown. She told me that publishing the piece had been liberating for her, and had brought her closer to both friends and strangers who related to her suffering. I believed her, and I was happy for her. But reading her article did not convince me to go forward – rather, it had the opposite effect; I wanted only to wrap my arms around her, as if she were my own daughter, and shield her from the prying eyes of strangers.
I spent a number of sleepless nights debating my own motivation in wanting to publish the pieces. Was I looking for recognition? understanding? a platform for publishing other writing in the future? None of it seemed enough to overcome the reality of no longer being able to choose with whom to share my stories – even those that I could recognize contained such truth and beauty that they deserved to be read.
The editors eventually came around, recognizing, I believe, that this wasn’t a frivolous decision but a painful, deeply embarrassing, but necessary one. Certainly, I have burned some bridges. I am learning what it means to be a writer.
Reyna Marder Gentin lives in Westchester, New York, with her husband of almost 25 years and their two wonderful teenage children. After over twenty years practicing law, Reyna is now pursuing other interests, including taking courses in memoir and fiction at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She has published in Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, and The Jewish Literary Journal, and is currently working on her first novel.