My writing desk is in a book-stuffed room where a small electric heater hums at my feet. Looking to my left is a stand of sumac trees out the window; to my right is a large bulletin board. It holds bits of literary inspiration for when I flounder, a few favorite family photos, chocolate bar covers matching my three novels (a wonderful marketing gimmick my publisher creates to delight readers), and folded origami cranes that figure in my work in progress.
The most important item on the board is a long piece of newsprint with a six-generation family tree. Members of the oldest generation escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the early years of the twentieth century and came to New England to make new lives. They built a cluster of homes on a rocky island in the middle of Penobscot Bay and their descendants multiplied over the next century. Some offspring left to find work and adventure elsewhere, but the islands are still populated by these folks and their made-up history.
Yes, made-up. These people live only in my imagination. My own immigrant grandparents settled far from Maine in Manhattanís Lower East Side and the wilds of Brooklyn. I have never lived in Maine but I feel very connected to the rocky island and its inhabitants who, over two decades, have populated a dozen short stories, three published novels and one still in progress.
Staring at that family tree recently, I realized that this imaginary world-making was similar to a favorite childhood game my sister and I called Neighborhood. In our grade school years, we arranged blank sheets of 8 Ĺ by 11 paper along imaginary streets on our bedroom floor, then filled the houses with families cut out of the old Montgomery Ward and Sears mail-order catalogs our mother gave us each year when the new one arrived.
We played with these cutout people for hours. We didnít care that the scale of family members was often mismatched, so the baby might be bigger than the grandma. It didnít matter that the fatherís legs might end at the knees if he had been modeling a flannel shirt, or that his right arm had been amputated by the edge of the page. We had those store-bought paper dolls with their irritating tabbed outfits, but preferred to sit cross-legged on the floor among households of homemade families, making up stories of school and sleepovers, of friendship and disappointments and dramatic calamities, for our imperfect and mismatched characters.
These days I use words instead of scissors, and my made-up families migrate from pencil on the bulletin board into my manuscripts. I still value the imperfect characters; one is missing a sense of humor, anotherís compassion is atrophied, and a third has never forgiven her cousin for something he said at Aunt Sophieís Seder in 1956. I work at writing characters who donít look or live like me or the folks on Saperstein Neck. Thereís something compelling about creating neighborhoods of characters who are luminous in their variety, their imperfection and their essential connections to each other.
Writing is often lonely work, but it opens the world. My job is to sit in this chilly book-stuffed room, spin stories made from generations of characters who are as abundant as the oceans, as real as kin. I believe that in terrifying times, in our separate rooms of writing and reading, characters can connect us to each other by propinquity and geography, by empathy and kindness, by imagination and utter necessity.