I’ve been thinking about how the religion or lack thereof in a writer’s childhood shapes their work.
This week, those of us who are Jewish celebrated the highest holiday of the year: Yom Kippur.
If you are observant, you fast from dinner the night before through the end of the service at around 5:00 o’clock. Then there’s a joyous meal to celebrate. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, because we are closest to G‑d and to the essence of our souls. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” as the Bible states, “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before G‑d.”
I grew up in a Conservative Jewish family that celebrated and from tiny-hood to thirteen sat in synagogue with my family, repenting, meditating, and asking forgiveness. My grandparents always hosted the breaking fast meal, always a huge feast.
After I was Bas Mitvahed at thirteen, the first female to be allowed to read from the Haf Torah in my temple, I decided that now that I was considered to be a woman, and not a girl, I no longer wanted to be observant. “Why should I spend a day repenting, when I seem to do it every day?” This is a good point, but in retrospect, I missed another point: the value was in the group doing it together that created the cathartic change. It was a big shul, and five hundred people doing something together was very powerful.
This past week, I’ve pondered how my religious exposure shaped me as a writer, and the short answer is: I have always felt close to G-d, Source, the Tao or whatever that larger power can be called. I’ve never questioned that feeling of connection, and when I would feel bad, I never blamed it on that larger power.
The point is that I only thought about this now, and learned something about the assumptions I as a person have always made. It made me wonder what assumptions my characters make, so I’ve been “interviewing” my new characters, asking, “How did your early religious experience shape your life?” I highly recommend the following exercise.
- Pick either your main character or your obstacle/villain, and pose the question.
- Set a timer for 15 minutes.
- Write non-stop in the voice of your character describing their religious experience in childhood. Allow other characters and aspects of their lives to enter the stream of consciousness style monologue.
- Stop when the timer goes off, and take a break before rereading.
- Repeat the exercise for the other character(s).
I had some great insights when I reread the exercises, and was able to improve my premise-question, dialog and tweak the plot.
Professor Marilyn Horowitz