Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Game of Writing: Literary-Mystical Puzzles for Writers

Jill Dearman

Letter Meditation Number Two: Beit. Is Home a Place?
The home row of the keyboard is the most important to the touch-typist. When at rest the typist's fingers are positioned, lightly, on the A-S-D-F keys for the left hand, and the J-K-L-; keys for the right hand. For writers in the modern world this skill is essential, But what if, like me, and so many users of the Mac iBookG4, the home letters on your keyboard have rubbed off? (Though mercifully my beloved semicolon refuses to disappear). That, dear scribes, is a rabbit hole I shan't go down! However, I think we all know the feeling of being right with the world when we are poised to write. Everything is possible as are fingers rest upon those keys; it must be similar to what a competitive runner feels as he steadies himself against the blocks before the shot of the starter pistol.

In the Hebrew alphabet, the second letter, Beit, contains within it (as all the letters do), a primordial meaning. Beit's meaning? Home.
Constructed of three "vav"s (the sixth letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, meaning connection) with the north side open, Beit explores the idea of finding not just a physical home but a spiritual one. For me, I can't help but connect that open wall to the North with the concept of finding one's North Star, one's home in the world. But what does that mean for a writer?

As writers we are very much like performers. If an actor shows up and plays his part on the stage, and no one comes to see him, did he really perform? Did the performance take place? Beit seems to ask that question as well, with its open "fourth wall", like the fourth wall in the theater, or on film.

We all know what it feels like when our writing, our art, kicks into gear, when we enter "the zone." Are we home then? No one is watching us "perform", we are simply channeling some part of ourselves, something greater than ourselves and we feel grounded yet liberated. (JD Salinger induces us to believe that he somehow understands this. He published works pure and true and then turned his back on publishing, though legend has it he continues to write) We may dreamily fantasize about an imaginary reader, for whom we are writing, the way a child talks aloud to an imaginary playmate (after all, within Beit's home three vavs, symbolic of emotional connection to others, are embedded), but we are ultimately alone and we are all right with that. We are at home within ourselves, at least in those moments.

Certain works of literature, film, music and art make me feel at home. There are probably (definitely!) too many to name, and like Hilary Swank at the Oscars (did she really need to win that second time?) I fear I may forget someone I hold close to my heart, but at the risk of offending the many I love, I commit now in the moment to these few:

For Further Reading, Listening and Looking and in No Particular Order:

An American Tragedy (novel) by Theodore Dreiser
The Talented Mr. Ripley (novel) by Patricia Highsmith
"The Lovely Leave" (short story) by Dorothy Parker
"In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" (short story collection) by Delmore Schwartz
"Nine Stories" (short story collection) by JD Salinger
"Fever" (short story by Raymond Carver)

Eyes Wide Shut (film) by Stanley Kubrick
The 400 Blows (film) by Francois Truffaut
Manhattan Murder Mystery (film) by Woody Allen
Double Indemnity (film) by Billy Wilder
Vertigo (film) by Alfred Hitchcock
Night of the Hunter (film) by Charles Laughton
Silence of the Lambs (film) by Jonathan Demme
Akira Kurasawa's Dreams (film) by Akira Kurasawa

"The Shadow" (painting) by Pablo Picasso
A painting I cannot remember the title of, but which I suspected is one of his Untitled, by Willem De Kooning (it's full of bold yellow, somewhat cubist, and full of negative space. anyone know?)

Juno Soundtrack (album by various artists)
Hounds of Love (album by Kate Bush)
52nd Street (album by Billy Joel)
Born to Run (album by Bruce Springsteen)
Making Movies (album by Dire Straits)
The Boy With the Arab Strap (album by Belle and Sebastian)
"Taking the Long Way Around" and "Voice Inside My Head" (songs by the Dixie Chicks)
"Satellite of Love" by Lou Reed
Fantasie in F Minor (composed by Franz Schubert)
Waltz 2 from Jazz Suite Royal ConcertGebouw Orchestra (composed by Dmitri Shostakovich)
A swirl of Burt Bacharach, Chet Baker and Cole Porter …

And the world of Yael Kanarek:

And now dear writer/reader I ask you to attempt the following

Jill Dearman - Letter Exercise #1 "Beit": Write one page in which you follow a character on a journey home. Try to capture the physical experience and details as well as the feeling of the journey. Inspired? Keep writing!

Puzzle of the Moment #1: Conjure up a few works of art (book, film, music, painting, sculpture, etc.) that make you feel at home. Use a character from one piece, an image from another and a sound from another to write a one page story about home.

AND …please write in with illuminating comments on your writing experience; the works of art cited, etc.

Jill Dearman, the "BLOCKS-Busting Writing Coach" is the author of the forthcoming book for writers, Bang the Keys. Her short stories, essays and journalism have been published widely in books, magazines and newspapers. Jill is a writing coach and editor as well as a part-time Professor of Journalism at New York University. Please visit her at and write to her at for more.


Anonymous said...

So much to think about! Funny how we can find 'home' in so many different places and in so many other stories and images. What writing (and Jill Dearman) have taught me: home is the pure contentment we feel in the struggle to find words that articulate the experience of that 'fourth wall,' and in our subsequent realization of its true existence.

Thanks Jill for your thoughtful piece.

Daleth Carey Hall said...

What I'm getting from this--and it rings very true--is that "home" is a feeling or confluence of energies, rather than a place. Even when it is a place, what feels like home is the memories and/or associations--that is, the feelings and energies--that the place brings out.

One of my great homes on this earth is a combination of place and art (in this case, literature): Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. I lived there for a couple of months 18 years ago and I still have dreams about it.

Holistic Doctor in New York said...

Home is wherever "anonymous" is. Hopefully she'll be watching Manhattan Murder Mystery.

grey cape said...

When I think of home the first thing that comes to mind is, I am six years old, barefoot walking down a dirt road and my Mother's voice is carrying a bit too well through the small neighborhood.I wonder if this is from the day I got caught looking in the neighbors window?

To Daleth Carey Hall- I love that bookstore too...home for any Yank in Paris.

grey cape said...

Also JD your recent comment about my writing-you said you think
"I have cracked the code" in helping me. Twice I have said that to myself painting the last couple days. I am stealing it:)

Jill Dearman said...

and as I write this I am leaving home to go on vacation to maine for 2 wks. woo-hoo!

Deborah said...

Daleth-That is one of the best bookstores in the world, and it does create a remarkable sense of place and home. The late lamented Gotham Book Mart used to do that too - the Strand in NYC has its own dusty dynamic, but it is a little overwhelming. I think home for me is where the books are, and when the 9 to 5 is too much, the best place to retreat is always a bookstore - it restores my self of home AND place. And vocation, come to think of it.