Sunday, September 25, 2011

Best Writing Moment(s) of My Life Thus Far

Most of my writing has been academic until ten years ago when the opportunity to rewrite and publish my mother’s memoir created a turning point. My work falls into three diverse genres: sociology, creative non-fiction and food writing.

I co-authored and edited my mother’s Holocaust memoir, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, wrote an academic book about career attainment, numerous short stories, essays, and food articles. I’m completing research for a book and putting final touches on my short story collection due in 2012. My third focus is culinary writing. I co-host and

The Best Writing Moment(s)

Try as I might, it’s impossible to identify the single best writing moment of my life thus far. However, I identified three best ones! My difficulty is because my writing spans three extremely diverse genres - sociology, non-fiction short story, and culinary. Each contains a unique best feeling writing moment.

One perfect experience occurred while I was working on my Ph.D. I had far too many interests as opposed to too few and even after formulating my dissertation topic and defending the proposal, I couldn’t figure out how or where to begin writing. My committee chairman - also chairman of the Sociology Department at that time, was well acquainted with that roadblock. Sitting in his office staring across the desk, I watched his bushy white eyebrows rise,his signal for me to begin my complaints.

“I have my chapter list and outlines, my analysis are complete and my bibliography is great but I’m completely stuck. There’s so much good stuff but I haven’t a clue where or how to begin.”

He looked at me most seriously. Now the bushy eyebrow scrunched together in thought. “Bird by bird.” He said.

“I beg your pardon? Huh, what does that mean?” I asked.

He smiled and said, “Anne Lamott – her book, Bird By Bird. Go get it. Read it and when you’re done, go back to the library. That’s when you sit the seat of all your knowledge firmly down in a chair and write your dissertation.”

One week later, at a long library table, I sorted 3 X 5 note cards, piles and piles of them. Rosy pink for each of the eight chapter titles, white for chapter sub-categories, and Robin’s egg blue for critical footnotes. Next, I rubber-banded each pile then placed all my packets – that is, everything but Chapter I, into a shoe box that I stuffed into a miniature library locker.

During the next 2 weeks I worked on that one chapter, beginning with the first white note card, the first sub-heading of the chapter. Suddenly, an epiphany!

Suddenly, the writing was pouring out onto pages, flowing where a short time earlier it had been clogged up. Two weeks later, I retrieved card packet two – the next “bird,” from my stuffed locker. After shuffling through Chapter II cards, I wrote effortlessly and quickly. I realized it was my best writing moment ever –everything in harmony, everything making sense and my overwhelming thought was, “I really can do this.”

My next best writing moment – equally great but extremely different, occurred after Putnam’s Sons offered to publish my mother’s Holocaust memoir if I agreed to research, rewrite and edit it. They also asked me to write an “afterward” to the memoir she’d written 20 years earlier. At the time the publisher contacted me, my mother had been dead for 18 years.

What could I say in an afterward? What should it include or exclude? How extensive or brief should I be? The only way I could approach the task was by making a list of memories that came to mind about my mother. I began plugging them into a story web – an exercise I’d learned at University of Iowa’s summer writing program. I’d always been cynical about the process but I did it anyway. As soon as I’d finished, I began writing, page after page without hesitation.

It was a miraculous sensation. In what felt to be only 15 minutes was actually well over an hour. Besides wondering whether my pen was inhabited by a writing gnome or on fire, that became a “best writing moment”. It was especially significant because other than writing poetry when I was a young hippie, I’d never before written anything that wasn’t academically focused.

Several years ago a friend and I began a culinary website. It evolved as we managed hectic lives working full time, each of us raising 2 boys and married to men possessed of discriminating pallets. Looking for quick ways in which to minimize time at the stove, we also became appalled by the extent of food wasted in America. Each of us was bothered owing to our individual roots. My friend is a first generation American whose European parents narrowly escaped Hitler. I wasn’t born in the USA and born to parents who weren’t as lucky as were hers.

Having survived concentration camps and years of near starvations, wasting food was regarded by my parents as a mortal sin. Those events morphed into an idea that resulted in Our site is devoted to using it all, both for time efficiency as well as for serving a more ecological purpose. In the process, we were also serving up some tasty surprises! In response to overwhelming requests, we launched our associated blog next, In it we feature interviews with well known chefs as well as my spontaneous and seasonally relevant quick rescue recipes.

Currently, for example, my recent post focuses upon the problem of too many green tomatoes or left over crudités, and pickling them in jars filled with pickle “juice” but devoid of pickles. Food wise, my best writing moment arrived while I was finishing edits on an article for the Chicago Tribune entitled, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Toss That Out.!”

I read my words aloud and in that moment said, “Wow, that’s nice!” It was an amazing feeling that, several months later when the Chicago Tribune featured the article on the Dining section’s front page, I relived the sensation all over again.

Regardless of the genre in which I’m now writing, it’s that fantastic feeling – the one of everything lining up like an eclipse, I continuously strive to replicate. I really believe that if I can achieve those moments, then my readers will be receiving my best. Additional excerpts of my best moments’ writing can be read on my website

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Seren's Serenity Prayer

"What a waste!" my mother complained. "I rinse the dishes, load, then unload. I could have just washed them and be done with it!" Her rant focused upon the dishwasher my father presented her -a Mother's Day surprise. Yet, when life's difficulties intervened, her true self emerged: a pragmatist and survivor possessing boundless courage. Her diminutive size belied the stamina and cunning that lurked inside. To her clients, she was an elegant woman possessed of quick humor and remarkable dressmaking talent.
Three days before she died, my mother, Seren Tuvel, gave me the only knick-knack she ever displayed at her dressmaking salon. She was slipping away from me, perched on the divide between life and death, frail as a fledgling swallow encountering its first breeze. Her gift: a wooden box painted to resemble an antiqued book. Within its covers, a poignant message was printed in flowing script upon a background of Renaissance angels.

     "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr)

Growing up, I heard tales of Seren's courage from her old European friends, recounted with great relish at holiday gatherings, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. There also was incredible courage I witnessed as her daughter. A single theme ran like a raging river through her life -moral strength manifest as intense courage.

Three decades have passed since my mother died. I now comprehend the significance of The Serenity Prayer in her life. It gradually worked its way into mine. Seren was, by anyone's standards, remarkably courageous and determined—a woman whose influence upon me surfaces when life's challenges stump me.
My mother embraced courage as her life's philosophy. "Live courageously. No matter what, trust heart. What you know to be the truth will feed courage. Otherwise, how can you live with yourself?"
It was her mantra - one she recited to me during my teens and into my stressful twenties, a decade filled with career dilemmas, graduate school challenges and perplexing romances.