Discovering Hebrew narrative, Part One

i am a pantser. My modus operandi, writing-wise, is just to dive right in and find out how things work. i have always done this with my English writing. The joy of discovery is too great to bother with outlines; if i already know what is going to happen, what is the point? And i started my Hebrew fiction-writing career this way, too, almost as soon as i started learning Hebrew. What else is language for but storytelling? And when the very fibers of my being all vibrate with glee at words like “robiderant” and “lobidious,” when a story causes my mind to be constantly running away to make connections both internal and external, when i am confronted at every turn with the delight of ordinary cereal or hunger or travel reimagined into something alien and (literally) breathtaking, well, what else am i supposed to do? Write, of course, and the sooner the better. There’s no time to wait.

This week, i started my Hebrew narrative independent study. i’ve read two chapters in a great classic work—The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter—and am starting to realize what an audacious thing it was to write fiction in a language i hadn’t yet internalized. Ancient Near Eastern fiction has its own literary conventions! Nothing could be more obvious once they’re pointed out, but i had given no thought to this when i was starting my story.

Type-scenes, for example: Mini-stories that occur over and over again, in a certain sort of way, which leads the reader to expect how things will play out. We do this on a larger scale, repeating whole stories with wide variation (orphan-with-destiny, for example). Biblical type-scenes are smaller-scale, like the elements of the hero’s journey. But where the hero’s journey type-scenes are just templates (inciting-event, threshold-guardian, return-with-the-elixir), biblical type-scenes are very specific (meeting-one’s-future-betrothed-by-a-well, annunciation-of-the-hero’s-birth-to-his-barren-mother, epiphany-in-a-field), and every detail matters. The brilliance, of course, is in the many ways one can vary the convention to highlight or suggest or surprise or subvert. And now my mind runs away again, and i must run to catch it. What are the type-scenes in the Budge-Nuzzard? What about in its literary progenitor, Lovecraft? Can i use these type-scenes in my own story? Can i make them Hebraic? Can i identify any Hebrew type-scenes in the Budge-Nuzzard? Are there any ancient type-scenes which will serve my story, and can i make them nuzzardous?

And dialogue! Hebrew narrative, it turns out, is dominated by dialogue. The characters discover and reveal themselves through what they say, how they say it, what they avoid saying, how they spin and how they lie. This isn’t particular to Hebrew narrative, either; read any good literary novel in English and you’ll find the same thing: Subtext. Hebrew authors don’t tell you what people are thinking; they let their characters absolve or hang themselves without interference, and they employ quite a bit of subtlety and ambiguity in the process. This is a thing i want to work on in general, in Hebrew and English. One particular thing i neglected to consider in Hebrew is how to introduce my characters through dialogue. The first words out of their mouths should tell the reader something about them. What impressions do my readers have of Yaunsi, or of Smithers/Cheresh? What sort of men are they? Are these impressions what i intended? Do my introductions lead me, and my readers, further into the story, or will i have to work against these impressions, or even contradict them, as i develop my characters? What about expressing emotions and attitudes and bearing? What about speech patterns? Can i draw distinctions, deepen sympathy or reservations, heighten tension, by contrasting the way my characters speak to one another and to themselves? These are all things Hebrew authors do. Again, we expect this in English, but it does look different in Hebrew, and i had given it no thought before this week.

A week in, and i am already thinking of whether i should start over from scratch—a thought both exciting, because of what i am learning that i could apply, and frustrating, because i want to get on with the story and explore what happens next. And i haven’t even started the second week’s reading yet.

One of my goals for this semester is to develop a more authentically Hebraic writing voice. And one of the things i hear consistently around the Rabbit Room is that revision is not a threat to be feared but a friend to embrace.

i wonder what Yaunsi and i will be like when we’re finished. We might both need a little revision.

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