Q&A on Being a Jewish & Disabled Author

A patron of mine asked me some questions recently about Jewish identity, and writing while Jewish and disabled.

I thought y’all might find the answers interesting. Hopefully, I’m correct!

Are secular Jews overrepresented in the media?

I am personally a secular Jew. I suppose my first question in wondering whether we’re over-represented is — what percentage of self-identified Jews in America are secular? (It also matters what the percentage of secular Jews in media work is, but that seems harder to find.)

I found this here: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

“The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. ”

It goes on to say:

“Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. ”

I’m surprised that the percentage of people who think you have to believe in God to be Jewish is that high, actually. There’s a pretty lengthy historical tradition of Jews who participate in their communities without being personally religious. The article does say that Jews who identify as secular now are less likely to be tied into Jewish cultural organizations than other Jews, so I wonder whether there’s an increasing idea that being a secular Jew is the same as being an uninvolved Jew. (I should note that people who convert to being Jews are also definitely Jews whether or not they have the ancestry. Judaism is a desert topping and a floor wax.)

That said, I’m uninvolved in a lot of ways. My grandfather made a decision as a young man to sever himself from his Jewish past. I think this was his reaction to World War II. He never denied being Jewish, or changed his name, or anything like that – but he had no interest in his past as a Jew, or in any of the associated cultural traditions. Our family still exists in the shadow of that decision.

I could try to figure out more about the demographics involved — what percentage of great sci-fi writers, editor, etc, from Christian backgrounds are also secular? Is this a function of Jewishness, or a broader secular cultural trend among people in those industries?

But I feel like the more interesting questions are tangential. What could we gain from having more religiously Jewish creators?

Probably something. My friend Barry writes a series of graphic novels about Hassidic Jews. He himself is a secular Jew, but many Hassidic people have contacted him, grateful for representation of their community that is humanizing and generous. There are clearly religiously Jewish people who are not seeing themselves reflected, or are only seeing themselves reflected in ways that are inaccurate or unkind.

There can be pressure on secular Jews to put their Jewish heritage in the background, especially when antisemitism and white supremacy are on a resurgence. I’ve paid the price for being a Jewish female creator, and it’s a nasty one. So, there’s another point where I think there’s tension over secular Jewish representation in the media–in order to work in the industry, to some extent, we must blend in with Christian normativity.

I had a woman say to me, in all seriousness, in a critique group once, that she was annoyed I had included Jewish rituals in one of my stories. “If I want to read about that kind of thing,” she said, “I’ll just read fantasy.”

I’m not sure this resolves anything (in fact, I’m sure it doesn’t), but those are some of my thoughts.

What about your background and current ideas/beliefs/practices has contributed to your interest in Jewish sci fi?

Right now, I’m more interested in the theological questions of Judaism than I normally am because I have a good friend who is tipping over the border from secular to religious Jew, and his journey is very interesting to me. The way he talks and writes about his burgeoning belief (as opposed to the feeling of irresolution he’d had before) is fascinating; it helps that he’s a very good writer who is fascinating on many topics.

I think my interest in Jewish science fiction stems from my interest in Jewishness itself, which is probably related to my self-identification as Jewish. I’m not sure why I have a strong identification with Judaism — I didn’t have to. As the granddaughter of a secular Jew who tried to cut all connections, I could have just put it aside; my brothers have. Our father is from WASPy blood with deep roots in American history–we’re descended from one of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence–and I could have chosen to identify with that to the exclusion of my Jewish ancestry.

What are you writing about now?

I’m writing a lot about disability. As a disabled person, there’s a lot of rich material to mine–and I still have a lot of unreconciled thoughts about disability, and things I’m figuring out. I think a lot of good writing is produced when the author is still on the edge of revelations, instead of settled.

Many of my previous writing obsessions have been much more externally focused. Of course there’s a hideous amount of dehumanization and violence directed toward disabled people, but for some of us, there’s also an intense personal struggle of identity and self-knowledge that requires a deep investigation of the psyche. That’s where I am right now–fiction about selfhood and perception.

Open-Hearted Generosity at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Last weekend, I went to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. I was honored to be there as a presenter, and I taught workshops on Breaking the Rules and Detail & Image. I also had two blue-pencil sessions where folks scheduled appointments to talk briefly with me about short excerpts of their work. It was a nice opportunity to give people comprehensive line notes (which we almost never get to do in a workshop setting) while having time to interact one-on-one.

I really like teaching, and working with new writers is one of my joys. I like being able to bring something new, and hopefully helpful, to someone who’s looking to learn. I had a great time being able to do that for and with a bunch of enthusiastic new writers who were everywhere in their abilities from totally nascent to break-in ready.

It was a busy time, and I’m still recovering from one of those winter illnesses that kicks you in the sinuses (followed by a sinus infection that kicked me in the sinuses), so as fun as it was, I also had to spend a lot of time in my room sleeping. I didn’t manage to get to any of the other writers’ workshops, which was unfortunate; I’m sure there were many amazing things being bandied about while I was buried in my blankets.

For instance, some of the other presenters from the field of science fiction and fantasy included: Nalo Hopkinson, Cat Rambo, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Some of the romance royalty was there, like Diana Gabaldon. There were people representing most genres of fiction, from mysteries and thrillers, to literary novels, to memoir. If nothing else, I have a great reading list.

Also, the key note speakers were really, really excellent. When does that happen? Daniel Heath Justice in particular made me cry on the first day, talking about the need for people to stand up for themselves and their narrative space, even when the world can be hostile. We need transformative narratives, as he put it; we have to fight the disfiguring ones with our own language of compassion.

The most striking thing about the conference–the thing that made it stand out from anywhere else I’ve been–was how strong the spirit of open-heartedness and generosity was from everyone. Agents, editors, and experienced writers all seemed to come to the event with respect and care. From what I saw, the new writers were treated as equals and adults–not in the sense that everyone had equal experience, but that everyone was of equal worth, and had something to contribute to the world.

It’s easy for cynicism to infect an environment like this. It’s so hard to break into writing, and so hard to maintain a writing career. The endless, circling stress of that process can make people sharp and defensive. There are enough new writers who act creepily entitled or overbearing that some professionals are quick to put up their shields.

All of this can be reasonable behavior, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, the need for defenses are stronger for women or other sociological minorities; I can’t count the number of times that some resplendent, experienced author I know has been steamrolled by someone who thought “that woman” couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute. (That multiple Hugo Award-winner is probably a fake geek girl.)  Industry professionals like agents and editors also need space to talk about the wearing parts of their business sometimes, and blowing off steam isn’t always, and doesn’t always have to be, elegant or graceful. People can make unreasonable demands on their time and energy–like the overeager folks who used to contact an editor friend of mine over OKCupid to ask for special favors.

But the barriers of defensiveness and cynicism sometimes go up when they do more damage than good. For some people, they lapse into cruelty and mocking, where professionals can try to salve their own insecurities by denigrating new writers who are striving with open-spiritedness and passion. They may perceive new people as burdensome–not even in the sense of competition, but just that their very nascence and optimism can feel weary to someone who’s been struggling for a long time. And some professionals are just assholes of one stripe or another, just as every group of people has its asshole members.

In an environment where a lot of people are defensive, angry, and cynical–for good reasons or bad–it can spread to everyone. It can become a kind of palpable “spoil-the-barrel” energy that puts everyone on guard.

The Surrey conference was the opposite. The administrators established an atmosphere of open-hearted generosity which reflected through everyone. The agents and editors were eager to find new clients, and also to help nurture new ones. The professional writers treated the new ones like colleagues, not supplicants or intruders who would have to prove themselves worthy before being given respect. The new writers were excited and respectful of the professionals’ time and experience.

I think one thing that really helped foster the positive environment was the expectation that presenters join the attendees for meals and announcements. It got everyone used to being around each other, and reinforced that we were all in it together as people at that conference, sharing the goals of telling stories and making art.

Anyone can have a worthy story to tell. Everyone seemed to have a strong sense of that, and to respect it.

I think the administrators also chose carefully–and wisely–presenters whose native inclination is to come to new people with warmth. My experience of the colleagues I already knew who were there–Cat Rambo, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Nalo Hopkinson–bears that out. They’re all excellent teachers who are thoughtful and kind, and excited by teaching and learning. I can only aspire to match their generosity.

I rarely think that networking qua networking is useful. I generally promote the idea of just going and doing things you like, and meeting and helping people as you go. This convention felt like an exception–a space (at least partially) made for networking, which was also a space for kindness.

Of course, I only saw part of the conference, and of course what I saw was influenced by the fact that I was attending as a presenter. There may well have been grumpiness and cynicism, and broken hearts and tears, that were out of my frame of reference. There probably were; nothing goes perfectly for everyone. But from where I was, the conference was exceptional in its warmth and generosity of spirit, and I’m lucky I got to participate.

Surrey International Writers’ Conference

This weekend I’ll be in Vancouver (BC, not Oregon) at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Here’s my schedule, if you want to come to any of events or just say hi.

Fri Oct 19, 2018

12:45pm – 2:15pm “Meet and Mingle Luncheon” This is supposed to be a good chance for guests and attendees to meet and chat, so you should feel free to come up and say hi if you see me!

2:15pm – 3:30pm Breaking the Rules Workshop. This is the convention version of my online Breaking the Rules class (http://rachelswirsky.com/rules/)

3:45pm – 5pm World Building panel with Nalo Hopkinson, Cat Rambo, and Stephanie Stein, moderated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

5pm – 6:30pm Socializing at the hotel bar. Come say hi!

 

Sat Oct 20, 2018

10am – 11:15am Detail & Image Workshop (http://rachelswirsky.com/detail/)

12:45pm – 2:15pm “This Day We Write Luncheon” Another chance to come chat.

2:15pm – 3:45pm Blue Pencil Session This is where you can make a 15-minute appointment to have me read and critique 3 pages of your work (for free!). https://www.siwc.ca/blue-pencil-cafe/

5:30pm – 7pm Book signing. If you would like to buy a copy of my collection Through the Drowsy Dark, there will be some for sale at the conference. I’m also happy to sign loose paper or bookplates!

 

Sun Oct 21, 2018

11:30am – 12:45pm Second Blue Pencil Session

12:45pm – 2pm Closing Lunch. I may have to leave this one early to get ready for my trip home.

If anyone here is going to be at the conference and want to hang out, let me know!

My Life in Cats: Masque

This is Masque who belongs to friends of ours in Portland. We actually raised Masque from kittenhood at about three weeks when we found her and her brothers in our backyard. We bottlefed her, and weaned her onto solids, and wiggled the cat toys very gently on the ground so she could attack.

Masque lived with us for several years, but there was a lot of strife in the household by the end. After we got Masque fixed, she decided that she liked humans but she was no longer into the idea of other cats. Her brothers, with whom she had previously been very close, were very confused, and kept trying to play with and cuddle her. She was having none of it, so there were a lot of howling cats dashing around.

Since Masque moved up to Portland from California where we raised her, she’s become a floof. The winter has inspired her coat to become lush.

She runs away from me sometimes when we go to the friends’ house. I tell her that she’s ungrateful. “I raised you from a three-week-old kitten,” I say, and, “I bottle-fed you.”

If I stay long enough, she eventually comes to flop down next to me.

So, she’s like, half-grateful.

My life in cats: Kennedy

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This is Kennedy. She lives with my friend Jenna. Kennedy is quite pretty, and Kennedy is quite aloof. She really likes Jenna. The rest of us are not that interesting. Although, if she is sitting on her scratching post, then she is willing to accept gentle patting, perhaps.

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She may have been a rescue from a hoarder’s house, which perhaps explains some of her wariness.

Despite the lack of petting, I realized that Kennedy had decided we were people who belonged to her when my friends fostered another cat. Kennedy became jealous and demanded all the attention. Our attention included.

Kennedy sometimes gets very angry at the downstairs bathroom.

How do you handle writer’s block?

writersblock

There are a few different kinds of writer’s block.

One kind is medical. If one of my chronic illnesses is flaring up, I may not be able to write. It’s hard to write through a migraine, for instance. It’s also hard to work through things that are less acute than migraines, but last for a long time, like depressive episodes. It can feel like it’s never going to be possible to write again, and that the block is something you’re just faking, and could get through if you just tried hard enough.

I think one of the best solutions is to be gentle with yourself about it. Hammering yourself and making yourself feel guilty because of your health is in the way is only likely to make you miserable and increase your stress–which can make the health problem worse. It can be hard to be generous with yourself, especially when the illness is lasting a long time and you have deadlines. Do what you can–but when you can’t do more, keep it in perspective. You may be doing more work than you think you are, and mental work counts, too.

Mental work is the other kind of block that I find most often afflicts me. This is when there’s something wrong with the story that I have to solve before I can continue. For instance, in my current novella project, the main character is speaking in first person, past tense, so I needed to know what timeframe she was speaking from, and how she felt about events. What is she trying to communicate? Because the story lies in how she feels about what she’s “saying,” whether she’s literally telling someone else that or not.

While I didn’t know that, I couldn’t compose, because I couldn’t know how she’d feel about or relate events. I tried, of course, and I tried a few different angles on it. I talked about it with people and took other measures to deal with the problem intellectually. But in the end, I personally need to have an emotional connection with the story that I can’t just intellectually engage. A lot of mental work was happening in the back of my brain, and at some point, my subconscious was like, “Yeah, I’ve worked that out now. I’m feeling it.”

This is also a time to be generous with yourself and your pace. Tying yourself in knots about your progress can cause it to be even harder to have that psychological breakthrough. Mental work doesn’t always feel like work because it doesn’t produce words on the page, but it is work, and it’s necessary work. Give yourself credit for it.

Those are the primary types of writer’s block I experience. Do you experience a different variety?

My life in cats: Europa

Europa

For some reason, my friends’ cat Europa has recently decided that Mike and I are people who are supposed to be around. She’s acting much more friendly, and sometimes doing things like rolling around on her back to get my attention. I don’t feed her, so that’s not it.

It’s nice, though.

(By the way, she does not actually want to be petted on the belly when she offers it. Like most cats that aren’t our cats, she becomes all claws.)

My obsession with the show The Good Place

I am *so* into the TV show The Good Place. I love it when screenwriters can pull off something with such pinpoint precise structure and dialogue. It’s one of those pieces of media that you occasionally see, and think, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” I think I’d be really terrible at writing for TV, actually. So it’s a good thing that I didn’t write it.

The Good Place (if you don’t know) is a comedy show that takes place in the afterlife. It tackles philosophy in a way I haven’t seen on TV before. The show contains a set of scenarios that invites the reader to ask, “What is morality?” Like the actual literature, it refuses a simple answer. It overtly discusses many of the complex (and sometimes overly simplified) answers that philosophers have come up with.

I really respect media that can be both informative and entertaining. I never feel like The Good Place is preaching to me, but it polishes up/builds my knowledge of philosophy. It does another thing I really like also–the writers’ passion for the subject comes through so boldly that it makes me care about the subject, too, even if it’s not something I’m natively interested in. (The TV show Slings & Arrows does this with some Shakespeare tragedies; the writers’ love just saturates it.)

I watch a lot of TV because I’m addicted to narratives, but when I read anything in prose, my work brain kicks in. TV avoids the work brain. I usually judge TV with lower standards than prose, because I consume so much of it, but The Good Place is just awesome.

My life in cats: Henderson

Presenting Henderson, also called Sweet Lady Henderson, which is a great name for both a cat and a blues singer:

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Henderson was stray until recently when she made camp on my friends’ porch. They fed her through the winter, and eventually took her to the vet, where they discovered she was older than they’d thought, and really not suited to go back outside. (Some cats do just fine as fed outdoor cats–she was clearly struggling.)

Mike and I fostered her for a little while. She’s a sweetheart. She wags her tail when she’s happy. I can’t even deal with how cute that is.

She would like to be petted, please. Constantly, if possible.

The vet had to shave her because her fur was a mass of angry tangles. So, she looks a bit like a furless, pathetic goblin. A purring, furless, pathetic goblin with a wagging tail.

She seems to have rustled up a home. If you have to be a stray cat, it’s good to be charming. And since her home is with friends of ours, we still get to enjoy petting the furless goblin (who will eventually be furred) and watching gifs of her wagging her tail.

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My life in cats: Aurora

Aurora

Sometimes I think I should document my life in cats.

My friend’s cat Aurora is a very intelligent, very grand-looking tortoiseshell maine coon. She’s very self-possessed and polite to me–but not overly so, because generally when I’m over, it’s feeding time. And if it’s “time to feed the kitty,” then focusing on anything other than food is not on.

Aurora has some rare behaviors — for instance, she will correct her behavior when my friend reminds her to remember her decorum. When my cats hear us tell them things like “respect boundaries,” they look up with wild eyes, writhe around in a circle, and then bolt across the room.

Many of my friends’ cats are female, where all of ours are male. I don’t know how much there really is a behavioral difference between male and female cats, but it always feels like there is. Ours are energetic, ridiculous goofs. Aurora has this thing called dignity. I’d try to explain what “dignity” was to our cats, but then they’d just look up with wild eyes, writhe around in a circle, and bolt across the room.