Myra Schoen, “The Romance of Wine, the Meaning of Grapes:
A Personal Reflection on My Writing”
A glorious Bach piano concerto fills my ears. I am transported to another place. A ballroom, perhaps, out of War and Peace or some Regency period idyll. Golden rooms, sparkling chandeliers, figures gliding across the marble tiles. Music sweeps over me. I feel its fullness course through my bloodstream. My fingers play a staccato on the computer keys. I sit with eyes closed, making lots of typing errors.
That’s OK for now. I let my fingers move, hoping to get beyond the banal, the trite, the used old images. Let me go deeper. Without direction, without control, I let my mind wander. I long to spin a web of a tale, of romance, intrigue, history, philosophy, truths I believe in, something bigger than myself, beyond me, beyond my little life.
I keep the fingers moving. Don’t censor, keep writing. The sweep, the breadth, the depth. That’s what I want. Where to start…
It’s a day in Israel and I’m living on Kibbutz Eindor near the Sea of Galilee, a long time ago, the summer after college graduation.
“Boker tov, boker tov,” someone yells. Good morning, good morning. The sound is like a barking dog. It is dark outside at three a.m., so dark, too dark to be getting up and to be awake. I slip on a pair of shorts and workshirt. Socks and work boots. I make my way to the bathrooms, so far away from my little cabin. My cabinmate Emma is still asleep, her blonde curls dark on the pillow. Emma is Polish. She is an actress, she says in a Yiddish I don’t understand. She is pretty. Not delicate pretty, or earthy pretty, but sensual pretty, with full lips and expressive blue eyes. The only way we can communicate is through a young Dutch man, Aart, who can understand her language because he understands German. Aart, who isn’t Jewish, came to the kibbutz a few years earlier because he wants to be a farmer. Emma has immigrated to Israel with her parents from Warsaw, where she studied acting.
As I make my way along the dark path, I wonder what Emma will do in Israel. Will Israel have a place for her acting aspirations? I won’t remain here, despite my enrollment in the immigrant Ulpan program that I learned about at the Jewish Agency in Paris. I’d been traveling in Europe with my boyfriend, when my money started to run out. Rather than return to Brooklyn, we found this alternative. My boyfriend was to join me later in the summer.
The Ulpan was set up to help immigrants adjust, to learn the Hebrew language. Here at the kibbutz, one’s time is divided between learning Hebrew in the afternoons, in a stifling hot classroom, while doing work in the mornings for the kibbutz as payback for room and board. For me, at twenty-one, this adventure is a prelude to returning to the real world of Manhattan commercial canyons and my future.
The moon is full but is already receding, slipping toward the horizon. Along the way to the bathroom, dim figures on the lawn pass me by, some walking briskly, others slowly and methodically, ploddingly, toward the dining room where we’ll be served a light breakfast before being driven to the fields. I’m on vineyard duty. I don’t like it and I’m working up courage to request a transfer.
The bathroom is dimly lighted. The stalls are clean. The tissue paper is gritty, thin. I wash my hands. The water is lukewarm. I return down the path until the fork in the road turns toward the communal dining room. The room is vast, with a high A-frame ceiling, and can accommodate several hundred persons at a time. Early breakfast consists of sweet and cold fruit soup, a menu item that is served at every meal, fresh raw vegetables, and a white grainy cereal like grits, which I sweeten with the kibbutz’s fresh grape preserves.
Not even ten or fifteen minutes later, a pickup truck arrives at the building and the driver calls out for the grape team to get aboard. The ride along the unpaved road is bumpy, but the sky is lightening, revealing a blurry horizon. It’s nearly four a.m. By the time we reach the vineyards, dawn has cracked the horizon like a broken egg and a yellowish coral light edges upward, like a runny yolk defying gravity.
In the distance, shadowy, spiny infertile hills circle the kibbutz’s irrigated green growth while blocking a view of the dry Arab villages just beyond.
We spill out of the truck, buckets in hand. Did I mention that I don’t like picking grapes? They’re sticky with spider webs. Worse, there are spiders crawling all over, and flies are stuck in the webs. Grapes hang in clusters, thick purple globules. What will the harvest yield? Wine, jam, preserves? The fields stretch out for acre upon acre.
We each travel a row at a time, plucking and picking, dropping clusters of purple globules into the bucket. The bucket grows heavier with each handful. Soon it’s full and it’s time to get a new bucket, to exchange the laden one for an empty one. I walk back along the row. My boots crunch, squashing stray fallen grapes. Their blood squirts out on the path, stains my boots. I pay no attention. Who cares about fat purple grapes, the treacherous fruit that makes a home for spiders? (Oh right, and sweet jam for breakfast.)
* * *
As I tap the letters on my keyboard today, I let my mind have free reign to travel over its far reaches and memories. It’s so laden with riches, and clutter, that I’m reminded of a compelling story about the Vietnam War by Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried is described on Amazon.com as “a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.”
O’Brien enumerates the many objects a soldier carries in his backpack, his kit, each item defined not only by its physical shape, but its meaning and purpose in his life. In no way do I compare the discomfort in the vineyards to a soldier’s experience in Vietnam. Only the inspiration of O’Brien’s approach to storytelling: the sharpness of details, memories, and their meanings.
Delving down the well of influences that informs my own writing, I’m reminded of Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which taught me to name things rather than to generalize. I’m reminded of my teachers at Florida International University, where I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, one of the proudest achievements of my life. I name my teachers here to honor and thank them: John Dufresne, Dan Wakefield, Les Standiford, Lynne Barrett, Meri-Jane Rochelson.
I had already had careers in book publishing and public relations, as editor and writer, when a trip to New Mexico in 1990 became the circuitous route to FIU. I had gone to visit a childhood friend who’d established a clinical psychology practice in Sante Fe.
On the evening of my arrival, Ellen invited me to a scheduled meeting of her writers’ group. I learned that the teacher was a protégé of poet Natalie Goldberg, who lived in Taos. I was blown away by the creativity of the twelve young women sitting around a conference table in a Santa Fe Zen Buddhist center. Their assignment had been to write about one red shoe. Each interpretation of the object and its meaning in the character’s life was stunningly intriguing, each original and unique. Later, Ellen told me how the group was influenced and inspired by Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, which, upon my return to Florida, I quickly bought at my local Barnes & Noble, and read and read and reread.
Ellen’s writers’ group inspired me to seek a writers’ group in South Florida, to come out of the isolation of my own woodwork. And that’s when I found John Dufresne, who I paraphrase here (forgive me, John), about what a story is: “A stranger comes to town (symbolically: introducing the protagonist). Finds trouble. Trouble changes him/her. It’s about the human condition.”
From John, I learned about FIU’s master’s program, where he taught creative writing. Although I’d been an editor for several New York publishing companies, including Ace Books, DAW Books, Pocket Books, and others, I felt I didn’t know how to frame a story. I’d edited and critiqued hundreds and hundreds of novels, short story collections, and nonfiction books. I marveled at the fact that I was paid to read, but I felt the writing experience and mentoring at school might help me to understand the framework of storytelling and give me the confidence I needed to turn my rambling collection of experiences into something worth crafting.
For my twelfth birthday my father gave me an upright, reconditioned Remington Rand typewriter. It was the best gift I ever received.
I’ve never been at a loss for words, but I have been at a loss for meaning. It’s the barrier I face every time I write. Like the Vietnam soldier, I’ve carried my own burden as I’ve moved from Brooklyn to Fort Lauderdale and now to Black Mountain, North Carolina: Cartons and plastic bins of every word I’ve ever typed or scrawled on paper. From stiff leather-bound and yellowing-paged childhood journals (one of which is still locked because the key is long gone); to adolescent musings on friendships, crushes, love and hurt; teenage poetry filled with angst and longing; started and abandoned stories and novels; travel journals describing places which are now dim in memory; and philosophical and metaphysical discussions with myself on life’s meaning.
And what does it come down to? Who cares about grapes with spiderwebs? Who cares who my audience is? Writing is what I have to do. In detail, in words. Because I’m in love with words. Looking for meaning, defining my life.
Thank you, Dad. You knew who I was before I did.
Myra Gross Schoen earned her BA at Brooklyn College. She was a caseworker
for NYC’s Department of Welfare; worked at the Council on Foreign Relations; was an
editor at Ace Books, then at DAW Books (now a subsidiary of Random House/Penguin
Books). In Florida, she was an editor at Nova University, then became an editor/account
executive in the public relations field. In 1991, she started her own public relations
agency, Myra Gross & Associates, Inc. (now Willow Pond Media).
She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at FIU. She currently resides in Black Mountain, NC, where she is a free-lance writer with Black Mountain News, writes fiction, and proofreads novels published by DAW Books. Her fiction includes Black Spot on the Sun, a YA book; Red Apple Rest, a coming of age novel; and numerous short stories. For more information, please visit willowpondmedia.net.