By Linda K. Wertheimer (Lexington, MA)
Why writers become writers is an age-old question. I was one of those boring all-around students in high school, acing the sciences and math almost as readily as English and history. Go into computers, my mother suggested. It was the hot field in the early 1980s. I chose writing. Why? My career path, in part, stems from spending part of childhood as one of few Jews in a rural Ohio town. Below is my attempt to explain why I write.
I sat there embarrassed, confused, and silent. A woman had just walked into my fourth-grade classroom in my new school and stuck a series of bearded figures on a felt board. She talked about Jesus and his disciples. Then she led the class in Christian hymns.
After school, my middle brother and I ran into our house and recounted the same story about this woman who taught us about Christianity in our public school classrooms. We were Jews, the only Jews in our rural Ohio school system in 1974. My parents protested the existence of the religious classes, but school officials refused to eliminate the practice. So, once a week, my teacher escorted me to the school library and told me to wait until the half-hour class ended.
Isolation. Ostracism. Experiencing both after my family’s move from western New York to rural Ohio set the stage for my becoming a writer. I ached to protest in some way, but did not know how. The religious classes ended when I reached seventh grade, but the sensation that I was different than my classmates continued. A youth minister roamed the cafeteria during lunch recruiting members for a Christian youth group. Pastors led prayer at school Christmas and Easter assemblies. Classmates questioned my religious beliefs, which were shaky at best. At age 12, I dropped out of Sunday school mostly out of boredom; I was tired, too, of the weekly hour-long drives to our temple. I identified myself as a Jew, but I knew little about what that meant.
“If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to go to Hell,” a classmate said.
“I don’t believe in Heaven, either,” I responded.
“But what happens when you die?”
I sat embarrassed, confused, and silent.
When the school brought pastors and a Christian band in for the annual Easter assembly, I usually slipped out of the auditorium. I grabbed my flute from my locker and went into a practice room and tried to heed my flute teacher’s advice as I shut out the rest of the world. Breathe, breathe, relax. Then play each song as if it were an unfolding story. I discovered beautiful stories in Mozart’s Concerto for D Major, in Debussy’s haunting Syrinx, and in Gluck’s Menuet and Spirit Dance. Well into high school, I thought of becoming a classical flutist. Something held me back. I could invent stories to go with the music, but wondered whether I could ever meet the composer’s intent. I wanted to create music, but lacked the talent and natural ear to compose.
I wanted a way to push out the feelings that sometimes overwhelmed me from 4th to 12th grade in that rural Ohio school system. I played on the high school basketball team and ran track. I acted in school plays. But it was never enough. I felt like the odd one out. I was still the Jew.
Basketball gave me a physical outlet. Music gave some peace, but not enough. So I wrote. I wrote in my diary. I wrote editorials that praised the obvious – like the merits of being grateful at Thanksgiving – for my high school paper. I did not in those days turn inward with my writing. I was more interested in observing and exploring the lives of other people.
During my senior year of high school, I wrote for two daily newspapers in Findlay and Fostoria, Ohio. I wrote about foreign students visiting a zoo, about tax increases, and school board battles. I wrote obituaries. I drove a van to the local hospital to pick up birth reports and to the fire station to pick up the day’s fire calls, then typed them up. Sometimes I wrote meatier stories about others’ struggles with huge life issues like alcoholism and domestic abuse. My high school English teacher tacked one of my first major feature articles to the bulletin board. Peers congratulated me. I had another title: writer. Tossing aside my dream of becoming a solo flutist – a pipe dream, considering the competition — I chose journalism.
For 20-plus years after high school and college, I worked as a full-time newspaper reporter and editor. In Rochester, NY, where I wrote for The Democrat and Chronicle, stories about a high school teacher and his eighth-period chemistry class in an inner-city high school prompted readers to comment that they now understood why there was no simple fix for urban education’s woes. In Florida, where I reported for The Orlando Sentinel, I dug up $20 million worth of problems with modular classroom buildings that led to mold and collapsing floors. The school buildings got fixed.
At The Dallas Morning News, readers filled the editorial page with letters in response to my narrative series about a college freshman’s financial, social, and academic struggles; the young woman, whose mother was on welfare, had been near the top of her class in the city’s worst high school. Her story highlighted the lack of college readiness among students in the city school system, and yet also inspired a mother to write me that she made her teen-aged daughter read every word. The mother was moved by my subject’s determination not to quit and determined that her own child would try college.
By intention, my last full-time job was at The Boston Globe, where I worked primarily as education editor coaching other writers. Journalism was an enticing and exciting profession. The rewards were often tangible. Write something one day and get a flurry of response – and perhaps even action – the next. But I wanted something more as a writer. In the spring of 2009, I took a buyout from the Globe. Leaving journalism gave me the chance to try to become the writer of my long-ago imaginings, a writer who might someday create words as lyrical as music. It also gave me the chance to stay at home with my first – and only – child, Simon, who’s now two.
In the past, when I wrote, a paycheck and byline were guaranteed. Now, there is no guarantee of regular publication or money, and even finding time to write is a challenge. By choice, I juggle caring for my toddler with writing. With no daily deadline and no singular boss except myself, I take more risks.
I am finally finishing a book I began in 1995 when I was working 40-plus hours a week as a newspaper reporter — a memoir about journeying through grief and getting closer to my Jewish faith. Before I finished college, my middle brother Kevin died in a car accident. The brother who had shared so many of the hard times with me in Ohio was dead at age 23; I was then 21. I wrote nothing publicly about my loss until nine years later. Shortly after I started writing the book, the Orlando paper ran an excerpt in its Sunday magazine, “Eulogy for Kevin, A final tribute to a brother – and a best friend.” I finished a draft of the book five years later – in 2000 – then set it aside. The first stab at the book was a catharsis – that chance to get the grief and the facts down about a deeply personal loss. Something – perhaps the element of universality that publishers crave – was missing. I decided just to let life continue.
In search of a way to fill the hole in my gut from my brother’s death, I became more drawn to Judaism. In 2006, at age 41, I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah – and chanted from the Torah for the first time. Faith and grief in my life became forever linked. The passage I chanted was about how Judaism establishes a circle of mourners obligated to mark the rituals for mourning, including observing a seven-day period of mourning called shiva. I observed none of the Jewish mourning rituals after my brother’s death, but this passage was an awakening. Someone who lost a sibling, according to my faith, deserved the same place in the circle of mourners as someone who lost a child, a spouse, or a parent. I realized that my book was not just about a young woman who lost her big brother. It was a story about loss, faith, and the community we need to foster in our lives so we do not have to weather tragedy – or experience life’s great joys – alone. Faith became a part of my memoir. So did music. So did those experiences in rural Ohio.
No longer working full-time in a newsroom, I became a bolder, more passionate writer. I found the voice that was often silent during my childhood. I became braver about sharing my work with other writers and seeking regular feedback from a growing group of writers whose opinion I value. Daily, I am more alone than I have ever been while writing – and yet when I need it, I have the richest company around.
Less than a month after I left the Globe, in late spring 2009, I spent two weeks alone at novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Cape Cod retreat for writers. I finished a major draft of my memoir. The solitude and the time by the sea helped me make the leap from journalist to freelance writer and budding author. During those weeks, I added something to my book, four essays I call a “Concerto of Words.” Those pieces were the music I knew I could never compose for my flute.
I want someday to see my name on the cover of a book, but fame is not my motivator. Hope is. There is hope that someday something I write will touch countless readers’ hearts.
For the first time in my life, I experience regular rejection as a writer. My byline – by choice – is no longer a regular presence in one publication as I aim for literary journals and magazines. Some magazines have said yes to queries and essays, but many have said no. Rejection hurts, and yet it does not matter as much as I thought. I am writing what I want to write. This is the happiest I have ever been as a writer.
Linda K. Wertheimer is a veteran journalist writing a memoir about journeying through grief and getting closer to her Jewish faith. She served as education editor at The Boston Globe before leaving in the spring of 2009 to pursue two passions – spending more time with her toddler and writing her memoir and freelancing.
“Why Write?”is reprinted here with permission of the author. It first appeared on her blog, JewishMuse, where you can find more of her work. You can check out her website for more info: http://lindakwertheimer.com