"Making Stories” appeared in somewhat different form as the introduction to my third collection of stories, News from the New American Diaspora and Other Stories, published in 2005. I begin the essay by telling about the 70-80 page novel I wrote when I was 8 years old—and it still amazes me that I did. Of interest too: I never, until a dozen years later, thought of becoming a writer. Although I remained a voracious reader all through elementary school and high school, I did not do especially well in English, and scored below average on the SAT English aptitude test my senior year in high school. When I entered college, I listed as possible careers: architectural engineering and advertising. Once I was away from home, however (as a commuter to Columbia from Brooklyn on the IRT, an hour-plus each way), the passion for making stories returned. It was enhanced, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s blog, “Writing for my Life,” when, at 19, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. But there was this, too, I think: that in order to protect my deepest desire, I sent it so far underground that even I didn’t know it was there—not until I was, in effect, living away from home (spending as much time at Columbia as I could), and from those strains of our family life that I must have sensed would have aggrandized and taken away what was most precious to me.
by Jay Neugeboren.
When I was eight years old, inspired by Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books and Howard Garis’s Uncle Wiggily tales, I wrote my first novel. My mother typed the manuscript for me, the top halves of the words coming out, magically, in red, the bottom halves in black, and for several months I would stand in front of my fourth grade class at P. S. 246 in Brooklyn each Monday morning and read a new chapter of the book. The novel, made up stories that recounted the adventures of a family of pigs, ran to about seventy or eighty pages, and afterwards, at lunch hour, recess, and on the way home, my classmates would crowd around me and ask: What happens next?
My answer: I don’t know. Until I actually sat down and wrote--until I gave myself up to my characters and their lives--I never knew what was going to happen next.
Seventeen years later, I was substitute teaching in a Brooklyn Junior High School that had a largely black and Hispanic population, and was assigned to what the Vice Principal told me was the school’s most unruly eighth grade class (“Just try to make sure nobody gets hurt,” he advised). “You the sub?” a student called out when I entered the room. “Yes,” I answered, and I asked the class to please take out their notebooks and begin writing a composition about how they had spent their summer vacations. The students cursed and groaned, several of them packing up their stuff and heading for the back door, when--a survival instinct?--I shouted, “And you don’t have to tell the truth!”
This stopped them. You mean we can lie? a student called out.
“I didn‘t say that,” I said. “I just said that you don’t have to tell the truth.”
For the next half-hour or so, the students worked quietly and diligently. I was amazed (as was the Vice Principal when he came by to see how things were going). When the students were done, they brought their stories to me, I made corrections and suggestions, they worked on revisions, they read their stories to one another, and for weeks afterwards when I would meet some of them in the hallways, they would ask what I had thought of their stories, and if I would read new stories they had been working on.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the years during and after World War Two, I lived on the margins of two worlds, one Jewish, the other American. Both sets of my grandparents, and many of my aunts and uncles, were born in the region of Russia and Poland that is now the Ukraine. My father’s family (he had eight brothers and sisters, all married, all with children) were Orthodox Jews. They kept kosher homes, and observed the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays, on most of which days they did not ride, write, cook, turn lights on or off, or use the phone.
My mother’s family (she had four sisters and one brother, all married, all with children) was non-observant, and my mother was fierce in her belief that religions were the cause of most of the world’s ills. Although I attended synagogue each Saturday, and, starting at the age of thirteen, prayed in our living room six mornings a week alongside my father, first putting on my talit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (black leather straps I wound around arm and head), I also, on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, cooked, wrote, turned on the radio and TV, used the phone, rode the subways, played ball, went to movies, and worked at part-time jobs.
In my neighborhood, distant by about a dozen blocks from the Crown Heights neighborhood in which most of my father’s family lived, I was the most observant of my (non-observant) Jewish friends; when I visited with my father’s family, I was the least observant of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Thus, not only was I endlessly navigating the borders between the Jewish and American worlds into which I was born, but within my Jewish world, I found myself continually moving back and forth between two very different worlds, and wondering always: Which world was, or might be, mine?
Feelings, thoughts, and dreams engendered in my childhood by living in several worlds but feeling at home in none of them--these, along with the discoveries and joys that came from the reading and making of stories--shaped me as much then as, six decades later, they do now. Like the black and Hispanic students I taught, I too felt safe--and happy--when I could imagine a life different and more exotic than the life I was actually living. To be able, in my imagination, to be anyone I wanted to be, and to travel anywhere and do anything I wanted to do--this, then as now, both saved my life and gave me life, for the worlds that lived in my imagination were rich in ways the actual world was not, even if what both worlds were often rich in were misery and madness.
Through the years I’ve published books and essays in which I’ve written directly about my actual life--about living for several years in a village in the south of France; about teaching for three decades in a rural area of Western Massachusetts; about life-long friendships that helped save my life before and after a quintuple coronary bypass; about my involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements; about being a single parent to my three children; and about being caretaker, for five decades, of my brother Robert, who has been a mental patient during these years.
Although the places in which I set my fiction are usually places I have known first-hand, because I am often unaware of where the stories set in these places have come from--because they rise up from wells of memory and desire I don’t know exist until I write the stories they have helped generate--they are usually, for me, like remembered moments of dreams--more vivid and more deeply felt, more intense, mysterious, resonant--than my non-fiction.
All through elementary school, I would go to my local library several times a week, bring home four novels (the limit), and return them a few days later so I could take out another four. At school, I made up stories for my classmates and friends, and daydreamed so constantly that my parents were asked to come to school and talk with my teachers because, though my grades were excellent, I seemed alarmingly distracted much of the time.
My imagination was my best friend, and seemed the most real and safe place I knew because living in it I didn’t have to tell the truth. When I was reading stories or making them up, though I might be writing about loss, I never felt lost. Although I sometimes feared I might, like my brother, wind up living in a fractured, illusory world, when I was making up stories, I felt whole and safe--able, in words, to make sense of a world that often seemed to make no sense. Though I might conjure up stories about matters weird, dark, and grim, I could also, in the people, landscapes, and tales I created, delineate moments that suggested at least the possibility of joy, or happiness, or relief from pain.
And whatever else I have written since I wrote that early (and lost) first novel--memoirs, essays, screenplays poems, reviews--I have through the years returned again and again to my first love, and to what continues to inspire: the sheer magic that accompanies that crafting of lies that tell the truths stories tell.