How did you become a writer?
I became a writer right about the time when my childhood ended. I was about to turn thirteen. My father was European, the old fashioned type of father, the suit and tie type, to whom no back-talk was even remotely acceptable. My brother and I would jump up to greet him formally at the door when he came home from work. My father’s days were hard. He had come over to America the worst way – as a survivor of the Holocaust death camps, arriving here with no English, no money, and no family. He needed all his strength to build a new life, and his home was to be his sanctuary. Beseeching, opinionated American children did not fit into this picture. If we had something interesting to share, fine. Something we had learned in school, a grade to make him proud. But we were never to presume to question him as equals.
The day came when I really needed to open up and challenge my father. I was a now a teenager, with a teenager’s necessary hubris. Despite my new status (as I alone saw it), my father remained strict, almost autocratic. So I broached the subject of his treating me more like an adult. Like a peer. He demanded respect (his tragic life had denied him this over and again); I wanted some too. But even as I began to open the subject, my father’s face reddened and his eyes flared. I saw that he was on the brink of losing his temper. His anger was dangerous on all scores: He would explode in volcanic rages that I feared would kill him, or give my brother and me long silent treatments that made us feel annihilated.
I took the middle ground between my own rage and silence. I began to write. I wrote my feelings out, my dreamed-of conversations, my arguments logical and my arguments whimsical. “I’m a person,” I wrote, “and I’ll say what I think from now on.”
And from that time, I have said – and written – what I thought.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
My first influence was a high school English teacher, Mrs. Edith Schrank. Her motto was, “fall in love with words.” She trilled the imperative so passionately, I remember, that her curls shook. Some of the kids made fun of her – a middle-aged woman in a kind of artistic ecstasy -- and mocked her catchphrase. But Mrs. Schrank opened a door inside of me. Increasingly, I saw language as the most essential human gift – allowing us to connect not only to each other but through time.
Since my parents were immigrants to whom English was not a first language (I think it was their fifth), I’d always seen the relativity of words. By the time I was five, I spoke European Yiddish, the American English I heard on TV, and Hebrew, which I started to learn at my Jewish Day School. It was a great blend, and knowing that each idea could be said in at least three ways was fun and inspiring.
Years later, in college, I read verbally acrobatic authors like Joyce and Nabokov. My sense of possibilities grew exponentially. Both were exiles with agile, connective minds; both were geniuses who inspired me with their linguistic play and versatility.
When and where do you write?
Unlike those worthies who write by the light of the rising sun, I rarely start before mid-morning, and I write, even then, in bursts. Sometimes, I write late into the night, and others, I peter out and feel utterly stranded. It’s wonderful to write something with scope -- a novel or play – something to which I can return. It gives my days a continuity of purpose. Before a project ends, too, I try to think of a new one, so that I can get started soon after. Otherwise, there is a sense of bereavement along with the joy of completion.
As for location, I need a quiet place, a corner in which I can be completely alone. I need solitude and silence, no music, no background hum. Having that, I can write facing the wall or facing the window, on a wooden desk or a bland piece of formica. I used to write longhand, but now compose on a keyboard, which seems versatile, quick, and forgiving. A pen and notebook come outside with me, and I jot ideas on them. Sometimes, I’ll draft out chapters on index cards. But the computer is my closest creative ally, and I like to disappear into it. That’s my room with a view.
What are you working on now?
I am currently revising my next novel, which tells the imagined story of an anti-Semitic movie star, suggesting how he got that way. Was he besotted, long ago, by an unattainable Jewish woman, and does he still want her? The working title is DOWN UNDER, alluding to the secrets of the heart as well as to this celebrity’s Australian background.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don’t get “writer’s block” as much as I get “broken heart.” When manuscripts are rejected, or books reviewed harshly, I want to retreat into a corner of a soft bed, my head barely visible among the pillows and the aptly named comforter over the rest of me. Even critical success has emotional battery in it – the wistful way writers peek to see if their book is on the shelf, or on its way to disappearing. Come to think of it, the shelves and stores themselves are disappearing! But powerful words never really disappear. The fact that writers put them together in the first place is the true and enduring miracle.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My advice to new writers is to read, both fiction and nonfiction – in as many different styles as they can find. They should also take the time to observe, think about, and respond to the world around them. Do they have something urgent to say about it? Is their command of language such that they can say it? Once all that is in place, pour it out on the page without regard to any result. Edit ruthlessly when that is done. Put it away. And if you can stand to read yourself after a break of a few weeks, share it with someone kind whose taste you admire. Only listen to those who understand your voice and what you are attempting to say or do.
Remember that no one can take writing away from you. You don’t need permission. When you’re ready to write, consider that impulse to be permission granted. And there is no time limit. Great books have been written by elders. Writing gains by practice, and experience often buffs and shines our words and lives into wisdom.
Be patient and modest. You’re lucky if, in a lifetime, 1,000 people love your words. Each reader is an invaluable friend – someone who has taken the time to see your vision, to hear your voice. There is no higher compliment. If you can touch someone else — if your creative impulse transmits through your words — you know you have come to deserve the title of writer.
Sonia Taitz is a playwright, essayist, and author of MOTHERING HEIGHTS, IN THE KING’S ARMS (nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize), and THE WATCHMAKER’S DAUGHTER (nominated for an ALA Medal). Her essays have appeared in The New York Times and The New York Observer, and she has been quoted by PBS, O: The Oprah Magazine, and ABC’s Nightline. Her books have earned praise from The New York Times Book Review, People, ForeWord, The Jewish Book World, and Kirkus.
Her website is www.soniataitz.com; follow on Twitter @soniataitz.