I’m always quick to mark my calendar with the date of the Jewish Women’s Writer’s Seminar (JWWS) in Yerushalayim as soon as it’s announced. The JWWS gives frum female writers a welcome opportunity to learn writing techniques from well-known and talented writers, meet with publishers, and fill themselves with inspiration, all in the company of their fellow writers. I have a warm feeling when I work at my computer while sipping from the swag mugs that I’ve received over the years. I look forward to this seminar all year long.
I first began attending the JWWS when I had just begun to dabble in writing and had just a handful of published articles under my belt. Until I reached the point of actually being able to call myself a writer, I would watch the excitement of the seminar as an outsider, similar to a child who sneaks out of bed and listens from the top of the staircase as her parents entertain guests in the living room. But through my participation in the JWWS, as well as other learning opportunities, I find myself slowly filling my writing toolbox. Presenters at the JWWS often share practical tips that can be implemented immediately to improve our craft. One of the most helpful meetings I had was when I sat with the editor of a prominent magazine who patiently read through a stack of my personal essays and gave me constructive feedback on each one. Her guidance impacts my writing to this day. Sitting in an environment where women, who typically engage in solitary work, can give to and receive support from one another is invigorating. I’ve finally reached the point where I feel comfortable in the room.
One of the many perks of attending the JWWS is that participants have a place to sell their books on the honor system: Anyone who is interested in buying a book can contact the author using the phone number left on the table and close the sale right there. I felt so gratified this year when, for the first time, I brought my own book to sell. I checked out the table and picked the perfect spot to lay my books in a pile, not too haphazardly so they wouldn’t look messy, but not too neatly so they wouldn’t look untouched.
This year’s seminar featured many interactive presentations about topics such as external and internal goals of characters, nuanced writing, plot, process, and brevity. The highlight of my day was hearing from Dina Neuman, one of my favorite writers. In her weekly column in Ami Magazine, The Back Page, she masterfully uses humor to give over a thought-provoking message to her readers. Her 20-minute presentation did not disappoint. When she finished her presentation, she sat down and, at that point, became a participant in the seminar, just like everyone else. So, there I was, listening to the next session along with “my colleague,” Dina Neuman. I soon noticed her browsing the books at the sales table. When we broke for lunch, I decided to go over and have a chat with Dina. I figured I would make a cute joke about her presentation and watch her reaction. I introduced myself and mentioned that I had noticed her perusing the sales table. She nodded politely but wondered where I was heading with that comment. Using the exact language that I thought I had just heard in her recent presentation, I told her that my external goal was for her to buy my book, while my internal goal was for her to read it and tell me how much she admired my writing. She laughed. How great that felt!
I sat back down with a smile on my face, but as I replayed the moment in my mind, a question began to gnaw at me. Had Dina actually spoken about internal and external goals or was it one of the other presenters? I racked my brain and soon began to feel the uncomfortable sensation of blood rushing to my face as my hazy recollection of the presentations gradually evolved into a clear memory. It was a different presenter who had spoken about internal and external character goals! Dina had been so kind and didn’t embarrass me at all. She even laughed along with me at my attempt at humor, but the joke was on me. What Dina had spoken about was “Nuance,” defined as a subtle distinction. There was nothing subtle here. I had taken the rare opportunity to speak with one of my favorite writers and used it to embarrass myself in a very unnuanced way. I no longer felt like Dina’s colleague. I wanted to go back and hide in the corner where nobody would notice me, the little kid eavesdropping from the top of the staircase.
I actually sent a draft of this article to Dina as I do whenever I write about someone else to make sure they approve of what I’ve written. Dina wrote back that she thought my article was cute and could totally relate to the experience I had described. She made a self-deprecating joke or two, complimented my book, and assured me that we really did laugh together during our interaction. And then she signed off “Your colleague, Dina Neuman.” I’m happy to say that we are colleagues once again.
This year, a few women from Ramat Beit Shemesh happened to sit at the same table at the JWWS, resulting in the creation of a new writing group. I have never been part of a writing group, but I can already see how it can contribute immeasurably to one’s professional growth. As we learn from one another and support each other, I hope to keep in mind that as nice as it is to get positive feedback from others, including the likes of Dina Neuman, we are best off when our positive sense of self does not depend on others but rather comes from a deep and strong inner place.