Why I Wrote That

kenyon review, golem copy
The Golem of Zukow started out, the way all stories do, as an idea.

The essence of the story never changed; a confused young man who shows up in a girl’s room, stark naked, in the middle of the night. He thinks he’s the Golem. He becomes a figure of amusement for the whole neighborhood. Later, he saves them all.

Originally, I saw Shayna as a teenager living in an apartment building in the middle of town. But as I tapped the word “Wlodawa” into Google search, and images began to reveal the beauty of my mother’s native land, I fell in love with the landscape. At the same time, I was reading Holocaust memoirs from partisans who fought in the Wlodawa district. Shayna evolved from a bemused teenager to a tough working girl, trying to keep her family’s mill going.

As I began to write, the illness that would soon take my mother grew stronger, stealing her power of speech. While I learned more and more about World War II and Wlodawa, she withdrew further and further away from us. When she was alert, she was delighted with the nuggets of information I brought her from her former life in Poland; photographs of the town square, information about the Germans who had protected her. As she fell into unwaking, unending sleep, I found, to my sorrow, that there was no one left awaiting my discoveries.

Somewhere around the time that Shayna was driving her wagon into town to make a flour delivery to the baker, Mom passed away. Numbly, I made arrangements for the kids to be cared for while we flew to Chicago, numbly I walked through the airport, sat through the service, sat shiva in my childhood home. I was surrounded by rabbis, by aunts, uncles and cousins, by my siblings, by high school friends, by Mom’s Wlodawa lantsmen.

At night, I wrote. After everyone else went to sleep, I booted up my parents’ slow-moving Dell and typed ferociously into the small hours. I couldn’t get the words onto the screen fast enough.

A few days later, I returned to New Jersey. Life was different. No more rambling conversations with Mom, though for a while, I kept on picking up the phone to call her. For a year, I was an avel, someone who is officially in mourning. No music. No parties. No new clothes. A constant, ineffable feeling that pervades everything you do, a sixth sense reminding you that something important is missing, forever.

Trouble comes in threes. My Mac’s hard drive died, taking all my manuscripts and story ideas with it. Now I stole into my daughter’s room to write, pounding away on her ancient PC, putting the pages on a flash drive and printing them out on my husband’s computer. This story wanted, needed to be born.

Finally, I came to the last words. “Love is a kind of magic, too, isn’t it?” I didn’t know if my story was any good, but I had a feeling that it was. With a sense of embarrassment–look at me, I’m writing stories instead of folding laundry– I submitted it to Narrative’s Winter Story Contest. This was the first piece of writing I’d ever ever submitted, anywhere. When I received the congratulatory notification that The Golem of Zukow was one of five finalists, I was weak with astonishment.

My Golem would go on to be passed up by ten different literary journals. Carefully, I made my choices from Clifford Garstang’s excellent Pushcart Prize rankings at Perpetual Folly. Along the way, I received some very thoughtful and very flattering rejection letters, but they were still rejection letters. Was my story too Jewish? Too long? Too long ago? Not universal enough?

I still have the email from Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky at The Kenyon Review. An acceptance letter is a beautiful thing to behold.

There’s no moral to this story, not really. But here is my little checklist for getting started with submissions.

1. If you want to be a writer, learn to edit yourself.

2. Proofread, proofread, proofread.

3. Ask friends to read your story. (Facebook was made for this.) When they come back to you with suggestions, try not to be defensive. If three people are all unhappy with the same thing, change it.

4. Sign up for the Submissions Tracker at Duotrope Digest.

5. Write a good cover letter.

6. Read the submission guidelines at whatever journal you’re submitting to. Read them again. Then do exactly what they say.

7. Research the best journals that best fit your story. Submit to them.

8. Be as professional as possible, even when you are hurt, angry, or disappointed. Especially if you are hurt, angry, or disappointed.

9. When rejections come in–and they will–read them to see if they have anything useful to say. Rejoice in the personal rejections that tell you how much they like your writing, and that you should submit to them again.

10. Write when you’re happy. Write when you’re sad. Write when you’re bored. Write when you’re worried. Write while you’re waiting in the dentist’s office. Write when you’re waiting to talk to your kid’s teacher. Write during wind storms. Write when it’s raining. Write in the morning. Write at night. Write, write, write, write, write.

11. Inspiration is essential. But don’t sit around waiting for it.

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2 thoughts on “Why I Wrote That

  1. How sad to hear of your mother’s death, Helen. But clearly she played a big part in inspiring your hauntingly beautiful story. I loved hearing the story behind the story, and thanks also for the great advice!

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