A Brooklyn Sojourn

Imagine my surprise when I opened my email a week and a half ago and found out I was a semifinalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize! I couldn’t believe it. I submitted a piece, Nana’s Table, which you can read here, to a contest sponsored by the Brooklyn Film Arts Festival.

It was Friday night, December 15th, and I was sitting at the island in my kitchen, with Gary, Daniel and Beth. Daniel and Beth had just driven up from New York City to spend the weekend with us. We would be celebrating Hanukkah the next day with more of the family coming to our house. We were chatting easily, I was mindlessly playing Text Twist on my computer, when a new email popped up. I saw the subject line ‘Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize.’ I swallowed hard and opened it immediately. When I saw that it said that I was a semifinalist for the prize, I held up my hand and said, “Sorry to interrupt, but you’re not going to believe this!” I proceeded to read the email to them. They were as excited, or more so, than I was.

The email explained that semifinalists were invited to read a portion of their story at an event scheduled for the following Wednesday evening (December 20th), which coincidentally was my father’s birthday. He would have been 85. Maybe it was a sign.

The reading would be held at St. Francis College, in Brooklyn Heights. I did a quick check of my calendar and saw that I had a hair appointment, but that could easily be changed. There was nothing to keep me from going. Dan and Beth said they would come, too. The email asked for an RSVP, so I sent a quick response saying I would attend. With more than 20 people coming for our Hanukkah party the next day, I didn’t have time to give it more thought. I had salads to prepare, potatoes to peel and presents to wrap.

Saturday passed in a blur, busy from the moment I woke up until I went to bed that night. My brother Mark had driven down to New Jersey to pick up my mother so she could attend the party. My in-laws were able to come too – in fact we planned to celebrate my father-in-law’s 95th birthday. Cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews mingled and ate potato latkes. I misjudged the amount of food – usually I have too much. Not this time. After the bowls of tuna and egg salad and the platter of lox were ravaged, I made more, and sent Mark out on an emergency lox run. In my family we don’t need a beer run, we need more lox.

Lying in bed after the party, exhausted, I started to think about the logistics of the next few days. I decided since Mark had schlepped to Jersey and back to get our mother, it was only fair that I should drive her home. In an unfortunate bit of timing, we had promised the use of our New York City apartment to a colleague of Gary’s whose daughter was having surgery in a city hospital on Monday. So, I couldn’t just drive Mom back and stay in the city for the week.

After leaving my mom at her place in Freehold, I had time alone in the car – my first private time since Friday night. I could finally think about the upcoming reading and what it meant to me.  I was surprised at how validating it felt. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think sometimes, in an effort to protect myself from future disappointment, I don’t allow myself to take pleasure in accomplishments. The refrain in my head usually includes messages that devalue whatever it is I did.  In this case, between feeling proud of myself (there I said it!), I thought things like: Probably nobody good entered the contest. Or, I have no chance. And, I hope I don’t embarrass myself. My brain ping-ponged back and forth.

The reading at the college was free and open to the public. I went back and forth in my mind about inviting people to it. Should I post something on Facebook? I looked to see if the Brooklyn Film Festival had it listed as an event that I could share. Finding nothing, I decided I didn’t feel comfortable creating something. I felt like I would be imposing on people. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be disappointed if no one came.

I drove back to Albany. I did my usual things, every so often getting hit with nerves at the thought of appearing in front of a bunch of strangers and sharing my story. Though I presented programs and trained small and large groups during my previous professional life, this was different. This was sharing a piece of myself.

In order to simplify things, Gary and I decided I would stay at a hotel Wednesday night. We didn’t want to ask his colleague to leave our apartment, he was already dealing with a stressful situation with his daughter. I was able to get a good rate at the Marriott near the Brooklyn Bridge and we decided I should think of it as a treat. The hotel was only a few blocks from St. Francis College on Remsen Street, it would be convenient, too.

I took Amtrak down to the city on Wednesday and arrived early in the afternoon. I hopped the A train and found my way to the hotel. Fortunately, they had a room available even though it was before check-in. I made myself comfortable, took a shower and practiced my reading. Although I didn’t put anything on Facebook, I did email Merle and another long-time friend who lived in Manhattan, Steven, to invite them – making it clear that I knew it was short notice and I would understand if they couldn’t make it.

Steven responded that he would be happy to come and he would meet me there. Merle wrote that she would come, as long as she had recovered from the bug she was battling. Happily, she did and she came to the hotel at about 4:00.

I got a text from Aunt Clair that she would come, too. I had a small but mighty rooting section: Dan, Beth, Aunt Clair, Merle and Steven. I knew my mother, Leah and Gary would be sending positive thoughts even though they couldn’t physically be there. I felt very lucky to have so much support.

Merle and I left the hotel and met Aunt Clair at the Burger King down the block. We walked together to St. Francis College. As we were about to go in, Dan and Beth joined us. We found our way to the Maroney Theater on the 7th floor. There were a few people in the theater setting up the podium and microphone. It was a small theater with a performance space at the front and rows of seats upward from there.

We took seats in the middle, not too close to the front, but not too far back either.

More people started to trickle in, including Steven. We all chatted and joked, and I tried to relax while taking it all in.

A young man distributed a sheet of paper that turned out to be the program.


I was slated to be the second reader of ten. I studied the other nine names and titles of their stories. I looked around the room – there was a wide array of ages, races and sexes. I wondered who the writers were.

The program was supposed to begin at 7, but we had arrived early. About five minutes before 7 the same young man who passed out the program asked for our attention. He wanted to take attendance to see if the readers were present. Several were still missing. We went back to chatting and waiting, more people arrived. The theater was getting pretty full.

At 7:10, it was decided that the program should begin regardless. The young man stepped up to the podium and tapped on the microphone. It was working. I was relieved because my voice does not project well and I have difficulty sustaining any volume. He introduced the first piece, but the woman wasn’t there. That meant I was going first.

I took a deep breath and went down the aisle stairs and took my place at the podium. I read Nana’s Table, fumbling only once or twice over words. I couldn’t see the audience very well with the white spotlight on me, but I looked up every so often trying to make contact with my family and friends. The room was very quiet, as I read. It felt like people were listening intently. Toward the end of my reading someone’s cell phone went off, but they silenced it pretty quickly. I didn’t let it distract me.

There was applause when I finished and I returned to my seat. And just like that, it was done. The young man introduced the next writer. Different stories of Brooklyn unfolded. A range of experiences were recounted. A young African-American man described growing up in the projects where gangs dominated, but he found community there, too. A Latina wrote movingly about her mother’s and sister’s struggles in Sunset Park, sadly known as ‘Gunset’ Park at the time. Another shared her story of taking a class at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsburg, the beat poet.  A retired police officer, who like me started writing when he retired at age 55, told his story of deep regret at not helping a childhood friend who grew up with him in Coney Island. Two other stories, like mine, focused on relationships with grandparents. A picture of a borough filled with people of different ethnicities, but similar pains and struggles, was painted.

After all the stories were read, all the authors were invited to the front. We received a nice round of applause and then the emcee announced the winner. The retired cop won the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize for 2017. I can’t lie, I was a little disappointed. But, the whole thing had been an enriching experience. Dan told me several times how proud he was of me. Leah sent texts with the same message. I knew Gary and my mother were eagerly awaiting hearing the result. Their collective pride in my effort was very meaningful to me.

Hearing the other stories, sharing mine, confirmed that I was on the right track, to borrow a phrase from my father-in-law. I was doing what I should be doing.

Everyone with me had enjoyed the evening immensely. Steven said, “Sign me up for your next reading.” I smiled and thought, “I hope there is a next reading.”

It was late by the time it concluded. Dan and Beth, who had work the next morning, gave me hugs and went back to Manhattan, as did Aunt Clair. Steven, Merle and I went out to dinner at an old-style Italian restaurant on Court Street. After enjoying several glasses of chianti, warm Italian bread and a variation on eggplant parmigiana, we parted ways. I went back to the hotel.

I woke early the next morning and took a walk. I hadn’t been in Brooklyn Heights for many years. I found my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which didn’t exist the last time I was in the neighborhood. It was a sunny, brisk morning. I marveled at how beautiful it all was. I counted my blessings as I walked.



A Visit to the Fenimore

I went to see an exhibit, Andrew Wyeth at 100: A Family Remembrance, at the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown earlier this fall. I am a huge fan of Wyeth’s work. I find myself mesmerized by Wyeth’s ability to evoke so much beauty in the most mundane scenes (see below).

I came away from the exhibit with some thoughts about writing. As with many artist exhibitions, studies were included along with the final canvas. There were sketches and paintings that led up to the final work. He also painted the same people and places many times over, capturing small changes in light and shadow. So, I wonder: Can the same apply to writing? Can I write the same experience several times over – picking up different details, emphasizing a different theme? Do we have only one crack at the story? I know there are books and movies where a story is told from different characters’ perspectives, but I am getting at something else. For example, I think I could write my memories of the day of Nana’s death again (maybe more than a few times) and write it differently. But, would it be interesting to readers? Would it just be an exercise for myself?

Obviously, writers return to their muse, or may be inspired to create multiple pieces based on a single experience of heartbreak. But, I’m thinking of trying something different – a more literal translation of what a painter does – what Monet did with his haystacks.

This is a half-baked thought, I will continue to turn it over to see if there is something there for me, to spark some creativity.

There were other exhibits at the Fenimore that I enjoyed. One artist, whose name I did not write down, evoked the interiors of religious shrines by using shards of color that looked like glass. The holy sites became abstractions of color, famous pagodas, mosques and churches were rendered in this way. I wondered if the artist was getting at some essential commonality – at least that it was I took from it.

Another thing I like about going to the Fenimore is that whenever I have visited, there have been different paintings by local artists of local scenery. It is easy to see why folks would be moved to paint the scenery. It is idyllic. Each time I have visited the museum I have walked down the path that leads from the building to Otsego Lake, called ‘glimmerglass’ for a reason. The water reflects the blue sky and lush hills perfectly.  (No, I have not been paid by the museum to write this!).

I left the Fenimore that afternoon struck by how much talent there is in this world – so much creativity – it boggles the mind. It is both intimidating and inspiring.

Another Week Passes in a Flash

Unfortunately I do not have a new blog post ready. It has been a busy week. I took a NYSSBA assignment that brought me to Attica (not the prison), the school district. And, I have two more assignments coming up in short order. I have also been working on a piece to submit to a writing contest that is Brooklyn-themed.

So, it was Monday before I knew it!

If any of you have thoughts about which of my Brooklyn-based blog posts really resonated or you thought was a particularly strong piece, please let me know! I am planning to use some of the prior blog posts as the basis for the piece (which can be 2500 words).

Oh, and one more thing, I did find out that the submission that I wrote about previously was rejected by a literary magazine. I’m oh-for-three. Discouraged, but not defeated.

I’ll be back next week with a new story.

Awake to Possibilities

Young plant

I submitted a piece of my writing for publication. I sent an essay to a literary magazine that was soliciting work on the theme of ‘starting over.’ It was a topic that resonated with me, so, months ago, I sent it in. I haven’t been rejected….yet.

Over the last two years and three months (but who’s counting?) that I have been writing, I have summoned the courage to submit three times. Once to a different literary magazine, once for entry to a writing class, and this most recent time.  The other two times, I was rejected.

One of the lessons I took from my first writing workshop, in July of 2015 (which I wrote about here), was that not all rejections are equal. Our workshop leader said that a rejection that came with a personal comment, beyond the usual form letter, shouldn’t be counted as a rejection. Yes, ultimately it was a rejection, but, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. He also explained that if you were published one out of every ten times you submitted something, consider yourself successful. That helped put things in perspective – and I took his words to heart.

The first piece I submitted, I got an email rejection that said this (I ‘bolded’ the key sentence):

Although we do not have a place for your work in the special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization, we wanted you to know that our readers read your essay closely. 

We received several hundred excellent submissions, from which we are only able to select a handful. We are grateful to everyone who took the time to think, and write, about issues of race, racism, and rationalization and had to reject many very good pieces. We encourage you to consider submitting this piece to other journals. This is not a conversation that should be confined to special issues. 

Thank you for sending us your work

I wasn’t sure how to categorize this. Was this a partial victory? I was tempted to reach out to our workshop leader and ask him to rate it since I had nothing to compare it to.  I didn’t know if everyone got the same encouragement either.  Alas, I didn’t reach out to him. I didn’t submit it elsewhere, at least not yet.

One of the interesting things that I am learning is that to be a published writer, there is another skill set, in addition to writing, that one needs. You need to have the energy and wherewithal to research magazines, editors and publishers. You need to have the energy and wherewithal to network and promote yourself and, in the jargon of the business, ‘build your platform’. I think it is fair to say that I am deficient in this – in fact, I think the same deficiency stunted my career in education policy.

This may sound like one of those flaws that isn’t really meant as a flaw (like saying ‘I’m too modest’). But, it truly is a flaw. I find it very difficult to sustain the enthusiasm and confidence it takes to promote myself. What I want to do is write. But, I do want to be in conversation with others – which means wider exposure. My blog allows me to do that to some extent. So, the question is, do I have the will and the desire to pursue this? Do I have the energy to do the things that might expand the readership of my blog?

This process, of writing, blogging and submitting pieces, has opened my eyes. When I was a child, I harbored so many hopes and dreams. They ranged from aspiring to be an Olympic figure skater (I loved Peggy Fleming!) to curing cancer or finding a way to eliminate air pollution. Early on I realized I didn’t have an affinity for science and my flat feet made skating painful. I moved on to other dreams. I wanted to be Barbara Walters. The idea of being a journalist, someone who interviewed famous people, wasn’t as far-fetched. At some point, though, I stopped thinking about those things. I moved on to an adult life – busy with graduate school or work, children, family, friends, the quotidian chores of life. My ambition was gone. I barely noticed when it left.

When I started writing, something happened. A sense of possibility was reawakened.

In a couple of different instances, I think at a Weight Watcher meeting years ago and then maybe watching an Oprah episode, the question was asked: what are you hoping for? What is a dream you have for yourself? I couldn’t think of anything and it wasn’t because my life was so perfect that I couldn’t imagine more. It was that I had stopped thinking about possibilities. Other than wanting to travel more, which wasn’t really the kind of thing they were getting at, I didn’t have hopes for myself. At the time, I didn’t know what to do about that, or if I was, in fact, missing out. I was just managing my life day-to-day.

Waiting to hear if a piece I submitted is accepted is nerve wracking, but exciting too. I am awake to the possibilities. It seems there is always that tradeoff in life. If you love, you risk loss. If you try, you risk failure. If you hope, you risk disappointment.

For many years I thought that the absence of my ambition didn’t have downside. It hadn’t been a conscious decision to give up on accomplishing more. The need, the desire, was just gone. I’m not sure that it is back, but I’m considering the possibilities.

Living the Dream


It’s no secret that I am trying to be a writer. I am not yet ready to call myself a writer, that would be too audacious. I’m not sure when I will be ready to assume the mantle, but this past weekend I took a step in that direction. I attended a writers’ conference!

I am a veteran of conferences – as an attendee and a presenter – but those were school board-related, where my identity was firm. I had a love-hate relationship with those conferences. I loved the learning – hearing experienced, knowledgeable professionals share insights gets my adrenaline going. I also enjoyed presenting information that I thought would educate and motivate school board members. The thing I hated about those conferences was the stress – juggling my stuff (I always seemed to have too many things!) without spilling coffee all over myself, making small talk with people I didn’t know, getting adequate sleep after exceptionally long days where I had to be ‘on’ for so many hours. The stress was a big part of the conference experience.

I wanted to further develop my writing, and improve my odds of getting published, so months in advance I ponied up the money and committed to spending Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in Pittsburgh to attend the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ conference. I even paid extra to get a half hour one-on-one session with an agent. I thought I was ready to take the plunge.

One would think, given that I was so invested in this conference, that I would plan my time so that I would arrive fresh and rested, ready to maximize the experience. One would be wrong. Here was my schedule, of my own design, for the week leading up to it.  I drove with my brother, Mark, from Albany to New Jersey on Wednesday night so that we could escort my Mom to Florida on Thursday. We were in Florida to attend my aunt’s unveiling (a Jewish tradition where the headstone is unveiled at the cemetery about a year after a death). We flew back on Monday, arriving in Newark at 9:00 p.m. We drove back to Albany that night, arriving at 1:30 a.m. I had Tuesday to do laundry and get organized. On Wednesday I drove to New York City to leave my car with Daniel so he and Beth could visit Leah over the holiday weekend. I took Amtrak back to Albany on Thursday. Gary met me at the station and we left for Pittsburgh. We arrived in Pittsburgh at 10:30 pm. The conference started with breakfast at 8 a.m. on Friday.

Not surprisingly I didn’t sleep that well Thursday night. It was one of those nights where you wake up every hour and look at the clock. I finally fell into a restful sleep at about 6 a.m. When the alarm went off at 7:30, I was disoriented, to say the least.

I stumbled around in the hotel room (the room-darkening curtains worked a little too well), trying not to disturb Gary, and managed to shower and dress without injuring myself. I got down to the lobby and saw that it was pouring so I decided to treat myself to a cab even though the conference was only a 10-minute walk away. The doorman hailed me a cab. I took a deep breath and thought, “Okay, this is good. I’m on time. I can relax.” Not so fast.

The cab rattled and bumped down the potholed streets. The driver, in a muffled, raspy, unfriendly voice, warned me that I should buckle up or hold on. I did as I was told. In anticipation of walking to the conference I had set up the map function on my phone, so a voice was giving directions – directions which the driver wasn’t following. I said, “Oh, that’s just my phone,” thinking he’d be wondering about the disembodied voice. He said, sounding defensive and annoyed, “Oh, people do that all the time. They use their phones and say, ‘Where the hell are you going?’ Not realizing that I’ve been doing this for 30 years and might know a better route than the damn phone.” I started to explain that I wasn’t checking on him, but thought better of it. Fortunately, we arrived at my destination within minutes. I was relieved to get out of the cab.

I found my way to the conference registration desk and breakfast. I even managed to find some very pleasant women to sit with– one from Missouri (originally from Long Island) and another from Texas – who were newcomers to the conference. It seemed like things were settling down when it was time to go to the first lecture. The three of us trooped upstairs to the ballroom for the session and settled into seats. I reached for my phone to silence it and couldn’t find it. I went through my purse, my briefcase, the conference bag, my pockets… multiple times. I went back downstairs to where we had breakfast. I retraced my steps. No luck.

I went back up to the ballroom, where the lecture had not yet begun. My new friend from Texas offered to let me use her phone to call Gary. “Please pick up!” I repeated to myself, thinking Gary would ignore the call since he wouldn’t recognize the number. Fortunately, he answered. I explained my dilemma and said I had a feeling that the phone fell out of my pocket during that godforsaken cab ride. After consoling me, he readily agreed to try and track it down. I gave him as much information as I could (white van, cranky cab driver, etc.). We made up to meet at the hotel room after my consultation with the agent, which was scheduled from noon until 12:30.

I still had time before the talk began to go up to the front of the room and ask the conference organizer if she would make an announcement about my lost phone. She did. Although everyone was being very nice, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a sign that I didn’t belong at the conference. It didn’t take much to derail my inchoate confidence.

I tried to concentrate on the speaker. I took notes, writing down articles and books that were referenced as stellar works of creative nonfiction. Following the opening lecture, there were breakout sessions. I went to one on research and fact-checking. I barely had time to think about the meeting with the agent. It was quickly coming up on the time for that meeting. I left the breakout session early to try and gather my thoughts. What was it I was trying to accomplish with my meeting?

Though I wouldn’t allow myself to say the words to myself, let’s be honest. In my heart of hearts, I wanted the agent to be so bowled over by me, she would ask to sign me up right there. My logical brain knew that wouldn’t happen, so I did think of some questions.

Our conversation was cordial. I briefly described my blog and that I had two goals: growing my readership and developing a couple of themes from the blog into a book. She shared some insight into what an agent looks for. She told me that having 40,000 followers will get a blogger noticed. Okay, then. While I don’t know how to interpret the numbers WordPress provides, I know I’m nowhere near that!

I asked a couple of more questions, she gave me a couple of suggestions. We made some small talk about the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She commiserated over the loss of my phone, and she took my card, at least I think she did. Who knows if she kept it or looked at it?

We shook hands, she wished me luck. I gathered my things and walked back to the hotel to meet Gary. I was in a funk. I was bone tired, disappointed and worried about finding the phone.

I opened the door to the room to some good news! Gary, after persistently calling my phone, reached the cabbie. Gary was similarly unimpressed with his personality, but at least he agreed to meet at 4:00 p.m. at the taxi stand in front of the hotel. He asked for a cash reward. We weren’t sure that he would show up, but we had hope.

I filled Gary in on my meeting with the agent; he was philosophical about it. “You know what steps you need to take. You just need to decide whether you want to.” True. He also pointed out that I should take some time to process all that had happened. There were no decisions to be made immediately.

Part of me wanted to get under the covers and go to sleep. That would be a decision. I didn’t, though. We had some lunch, he filled me in on the particulars of tracking down the phone. I revived a bit and went back into the fray. Gary would message me on my computer, which I had with me, to let me know the status of the phone. I returned to the conference.

I attended the sessions, still not fully present, but better than the morning. I checked my computer at 4:15 and there was a message from Gary; he had the phone! What a relief! And, the day was almost over!

The last session of the afternoon concluded, I met Gary. We went out for a nice dinner. I had a cocktail and regrouped. I got a better night’s sleep and went back for day two.

I’m glad I did. I met some more interesting people, most were making a living doing something else, but wanted to write. I met a massage therapist, an airline pilot, several teachers, a nurse practitioner, a publicist, a researcher on nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan! On that second morning of the conference, I sat down to breakfast next to a young man from New Orleans. He is in the midst of an MFA program. He asked about my situation. I told him I retired two years ago to pursue writing. He smiled, “So you’re living the dream.” “I suppose I am.”

After listening to author after author at the conference talk about their journey, I learned just how daunting this endeavor is: getting published isn’t easy and even if you are lucky enough to get published, it doesn’t necessarily get easier.

After all is said and done, it comes down to this: do I want to tell stories? Do I want to work on the craft? Right now, the answer is yes.