Yael has just released her first short story collection "The Hidden of Things." Check it out!
On Writing, Spirituality and Being a Mensch
This piece is not an easy one for me to write. But it has an important message.
In 2009 I published a work of non-fiction (biography), but the publication of my second book in 2014 – a work of fiction – was the realization of a childhood dream. Yet fulfilling a dream sometimes brings some huge challenges in its wake.
As writers, our book is our “baby,” and we go to great lengths to ensure the welfare of our offspring. I, too, feel an abiding loyalty to my book and to the heart and soul I poured into it. That’s fine, but it’s accompanied by a powerful drive to gain as many readers as possible – ideally, most of them buyers. And this has led to a worrying trend in my behaviour.
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, wrote of I-Thou and I-it orientations to the world. In I-Thou, others are subjects, and we relate to them personally, with respect and love for their unique being. In I-It, others are objects, there to serve our ends. The latter often applies with people who are service providers: taxi drivers, receptionists, anyone from whom we need something. Though we should try to rise above that (as the subject of my first book, Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz admirably did), it’s natural and not the end of the world.
The problem arises when we are treating acquaintances, friends and family in an I-it manner. I am noticing that loyalty to my book, my desire for readers, coupled with the challenges of getting a book out there in today’s hypersaturated market, is having the effect of making me view everyone I meet as a potential customer, or at least reader. It has changed the way I encounter people, from an I-Thou place, open to their life story and to what will be given and received in our conversation, to thinking “How can I get this person to buy my book?” Being a published author is leading to less generosity of spirit and less patience. I am on a permanent crusade, always a saleswoman. True, since many people enjoy my book, I might be doing them a favour in letting them know upfront about my book and making it easy for them to buy it. Yet this shift in my approach bothers me greatly, I feel as if I have lost an important innocence.
I am working with this new situation. Partly, I accept it and recognize that being driven in this way balances out any laziness/shyness that would stop me from marketing my book properly, forcing me to interact with the world and put my stuff out there. And partly by consciously trying to curb its excesses – I prevent myself from doing anything that would be too pushy and destroy my social relationships or important sensitivities in me. Also, as a religious person, I pray for generosity of spirit, to remain a mensch and not transform, Kafka-like, into some monstrous marketing cockroach.
My book is actually entitled “The Hidden of Things,” reflecting my interest in what things should be hidden and what exposed. Now I need to prevent myself from types of exposure that would be damaging, psychologically or spiritually. A published writer friend actually made herself ill by crossing her psychological red lines. Each writer should know her or his own personality limits.
Even this blog, well-meant and sincere as it is, is driven by a desire for more exposure, if I am to be completely honest. (Again, this drive also works positively, as it has made me write this blog and share it!).
Great generosity exists in the world of writers, in willingness to help out a newbie or a fellow writer. An important spirituality exists in writing. Many of us put our souls into these books and are working (consciously or not) to increase soulfulness in a world overrun by shallow sound-bytes of facebook statuses and youtube videos, disconnecting us from ourselves, leaving us with fragmented minds. Curling up with a book reconnects us with ourselves; it is a meditative act. So writing a book is holy work (depending on the content!). It is a real shame for it to be accompanied by scarcity thinking and selfish pushiness.
Thus, I call on myself, and anyone who wishes to join me, to stay balanced, enjoy the process of sharing my book, let go of the need for any one person to buy it or read it, and have faith. To always strive to recognize the Thou in the people with whom I interact, writers and readers alike.
(And now the marketing line - :-) ) Yael Unterman has published books, reviews, stories poems and articles. Her first book Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Urim) was a 2009 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. Her second book is “The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing” (Yotzeret, 2014). For her upcoming appearances in
New Jersey, New York and
see www.yaelunterman.com Richmond, VA