Monday, May 6, 2019

My First Time: Julie Zuckerman

The First Time I Fell in Love with a Writing Prompt

The first time I fell in love with a prompt, I was in my second year of creative writing, with my second teacher.

My first teacher was big on prompts. She ran a small workshop in her home for small group of women each week, and she’d send us off with a prompt like “a mystery” or “a revelation” or “journal entries” and we could come back with a story, a poem, a piece of memoir, no longer than four double-spaced pages. I’d let the prompt swirl around in my head–in bed, during yoga class, while swimming laps–and somehow, each time, I came up with something to write by the following week. The workshop was a perfect place to kick-start my creative writing; everyone was supportive, and the teacher would write things like “amazing” and “wonderful” all over my pages. After a year, though, I felt a need to graduate to a different teacher and group who would give me constructive feedback instead of just “wonderful”s.

Much to my dismay, my second teacher, who taught in an MFA program and had recently come out with his first novel, wasn’t a big believer in prompts. I must have begged him to reconsider because by the middle of our 12-week class he’d leaf through one of his craft books and pick a prompt at random, though they were always optional.

The first time I heard the writing prompt I would fall in love with, I didn’t realize it would change my life. I offer it to you now. (You’re welcome, in advance):

“The main character should be someone who is definitely not you,” the teacher said, “And he or she should have a pastime, or maybe a job, that you don’t know much about, but you’re curious to learn more.”

I fell in love with the prompt because there was nothing more exciting to me as a fiction writer than to get out of my own skin. Discovering at the age of 39 that I could be creative was the most exciting thing about writing, and I thrived on making up characters from my imagination. I settled on a story in which the main character is a black woman with a landscape architecture business. I loved the challenge of writing from this definitely-not-me point of view, as well as the research I put into the story. Which trees and shrubbery would make sense for my protagonist to be planting in a landscaped yard in Connecticut? I don’t know much about gardening, but I did what research I could online and, since I no longer live nearby, I had my mother fact-check it with her local nursery.

It was after workshopping this story in class that my teacher took me aside and told me he’d changed his opinions of prompts. He loved the story and said I had real potential as a writer. These words of encouragement at such an early stage in my writing career made a huge impact, and I will always be grateful for them.

Since I loved that prompt so much, I decided I’d use it for my next story as well. This time I wrote about an 82-year-old widower, a semi-retired professor. Again, definitely not me. But I did make him slightly more familiar: he’s Jewish, as am I. His field of study is political science and international relations, as was mine, and the hobby he takes upon himself is baking, which I know a thing or two about. The aging professor I created on the page, Jeremiah Gerstler, is a lovable crank-pot. When I finished writing this story, “MixMaster,” I was filled with dozens of questions: what were the origins of Jeremiah’s crankiness? How does his family deal with his behavior? What kind of wife did he have?

I wanted to disassemble Jeremiah’s life. I wrote more stories, going back 15 years in his life, then 40 more years, then forward another seven, back again to his adolescence and childhood, until I felt I could see him at every age. Theoretically, the author should be able to truly understand her characters. But as I wrote, sometimes Jeremiah did things that surprised me. The question of whether any person can truly understand another is central to many of Jeremiah’s struggles in my novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah (which was released earlier this month by Press 53).

The magic in the prompt–“someone who is definitely not you”–and perhaps the reason I fell in love with it, and writing to begin with, is the permission it gives my imagination. To wildly, passionately, doggedly try to understand others and thus, ourselves.

Julie Zuckerman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including The SFWP Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Salt Hill, Sixfold, Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis, The Coil, and others. The Book of Jeremiah, her debut novel-in-stories, was recently published by Press 53. A native of Connecticut, Julie lives in Modiin, Israel, with her husband and four children. Click here to visit her website.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Author photo by Oz Schechter

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