This morning at work I reflected that I make far fewer mistakes now than when I started. Then I made a whole shedload of mistakes today which made me wonder if I was too hasty. I spent much of the time doing database-printing again (and there’s a lot still to do) and I struggled with transitions whenever J interrupted me with a more important task that had just come up to do immediately (autism).
While printing I listened to some Jewish podcasts (I feel uncomfortable about listening to pop/rock music in a shul (synagogue), even on headphones). I tried the Orthodox Conundrum podcast. I don’t know why I hadn’t tried it before, as it is hosted by Rabbi Scott Kahn, who is the rabbi on the Intimate Judaism sex podcast, which I get a lot out of, and Orthodox Conundrum deals with equally controversial topics, just not regarding sex.
The first one I listened to was on art and music in the Orthodox world. It was OK. It reassured me a little that it’s OK to be creative and frum (religious Jewish) and that you shouldn’t stifle your creativity, even if that means doing less Torah study, but it also stated that it’s hard to make a living from your art. Much of this applies to writing, but I think it’s easier to be a hobby artist or musician than novelist. If you are quite good at painting, you might have something to put on the wall (my sister has a painting of hers on her wall and my parents have three of hers). If you are quite good at singing or playing an instrument, you can probably find opportunities to play for people. If you are an unpublished novelist, it’s hard to get people to read your work, given the extensive investment of time in reading and the difficulty of just leaving it “around” casually to be noticed. In other words, unless you can get published, or are very good at marketing on Amazon, your audience is probably going to be in single figures.
The podcast made me feel a bit better about the bittul Torah (neglecting time that could be used for Torah study) aspect, although I wasn’t convinced writing would improve my Torah study as was suggested. I wonder if there is an element of “moral luck,” a concept I was coincidentally thinking about this morning before listening to this podcast (if you believe in coincidences). I think it was coined by the philosopher Bernard Williams (Rabbi Lord Sacks’ PhD supervisor although that’s not relevant) to suggest some gambles are only justified retroactively, if they pay off. One example he gave is Gaugain abandoning his family to paint in Tahiti and becoming a great artist; if he had failed to become a great artist, would his abandonment of his family be less morally justifiable? Similarly, if I neglect Torah study to write unpublished novels, is my writing less justifiable?
What intrigues/worries me more is the question of what I want to create. The podcast guests were musicians and an artists and I guess this is less important to them, unless they go down the My Name is Asher Lev route and paint nudes or crucifixions. And the lyrics in frum songs are often quotes from religious texts or inspirational lines; frum song-writers are generally not, to my knowledge, writing love songs as I think some of the paytanim (Medieval liturgical poets, often rabbis) did.
I once had an exchange in the comments section of the Jew in the City website with the site’s founder, Allison Josephs, about writers in the Orthodox community. I felt that she was saying that frum writers should write at least in part to celebrate the positive aspects of the frum community. Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable with this outlook, which smacks of propaganda to me, and I think people would see through it.
As regular readers know, I am drawn to less pretty topics in my writing: mental illness, addiction, abuse. If there is one theme that unites my novel writing and my blog writing, it’s probably the feeling of not fitting in, of being on the edge of a community and not safely inside it, wanting to fit in, but not knowing how. I write about what I know about, so thus far the community has been the frum community, although if I ever write my satirical science fiction novel, I hope to broaden the scope. I’m interested in the not fitting in, the trying, but failing to fit in, the apparently fitting in, where people can’t meet the community’s standards for some reason or where they seem to meet those standards, but very different things are happening behind closed doors. I’m interested in this not least because that’s where I usually am and, rightly or wrongly, I sometimes find myself wondering about what other people’s lives are really like, whether they are also struggling. Statistically, out of X many people in a shul, some are going to be in failing marriages, struggling with mental illness or addiction, close to the breadline, struggling with questions of faith and so on. Doubtless some are dealing with abuse of one kind or another, or have done so (I’ve met, in person and online, abuse survivors and abuse perpetrators, in the frum community and outside it). This interests me a lot more than the “nice, frum, high achieving, well to-do community where everyone helps out” narrative, even though that is also based in reality.
Coincidentally (again), this actually fitted in with the second Orthodox Conundrum podcast I listened too, which I found much more interesting, about the drinking and especially binge-drinking problem that apparently exists among Modern Orthodox teenagers in the US (I should say that they thought that this might exist in other Jewish communities too, but they only had data for the Modern Orthodox ones).
I went to a Zoom shiur (religious class) in the evening on Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs). Afterwards E and I skyped. It was only supposed to be a quick call, as she had a headache and I was tired and it was late, but we ended up speaking for an hour. There aren’t many people I can speak to like that, without running out of things to say or the ability to “people.”