Etgar Keret: “Creative Writing”

01/09/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, January 2, 2012. (Translated, from the Hebrew, by Sondra Silverston.)

I’m a fan of fantastic stories that take place outside of reality (sometimes just slightly), particularly those of, say, Borges, Millhauser, or to a less successful degree, Saunders, for they often serve to expose something that might not otherwise be observable about the human condition in our world.  At the very least, consider, for instance, the type of mind or circumstance that would bring someone to write one of these stories. Such is the conceit behind Keret’s latest short, in which Maya, who has been fighting the depression of a two-month-old miscarriage, is encouraged by her mother and husband, Aviad, to attend a writing workshop. The plan is an instant success, with Maya immediately brightening, and also producing terrifically inventive stories that Aviad is able to correctly read into. The first, about “a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing,” is clearly speaking to Maya’s fears of pregnancy, and her heroine’s choice is to remain “splitless.” In the second, she writes about “a world in which you could see only the people you love,” and in which, consequently, the protagonist keeps being bumped into by the wife that he loves very much: in the real world, we see Maya and Aviad fighting, but they at least manage to resolve their problems and to maintain their love . . . although it’s with a caveat. You see, her final story, features “a woman who gave birth to a cat”: the husband suspects he might not be the father, and yet the kitten consoles him, acting as if he is. In our world, Maya is pregnant again — so the workshop has helped her to overcome her fears — and yet, her professor has taken an inordinate interest in her “work,” so Aviad is now left with doubts of his own.

Keret’s story is less than two pages long, and he might have left things off there, but even within his tight minimalism, he knows how to follow an idea through, and so the final, fourth section of his story turns now to Aviad’s mind, for he has secretly decided to take a beginners’ creative-writing class of his own. He is tasked with a free-writing exercise (much as in Keret’s recently published Harper’s story, “What Animal Are You?”) and the story he writes about is literally about a fish out of water: a wicked witch turns the fish into a human, and while the fish at first is desperate to have the curse lifted, he winds up being so quick and enterprising that he becomes a massively successful human, instead. It’s only one day that he suddenly remembers that he was once a fish, and longs to once again taste the “salt of the sea.” And that’s where Aviad stops, apologizing to his professor (and himself) for not having an ending. Unlike his wife, who has written her way into a second pregnancy (and perhaps a second husband), he doesn’t know how to get himself back to the place he longs to be, and despite all his success — for Aviad is a successful businessman — he worries that he is too late remembering what he really wanted out of life

Keret makes the most out of his brevity by leaving so many things vague: he trusts that we’ll spend the time that we might have spent reading a longer piece imagining all the possibilities for what these characters might really want, and in some sense, that’s better for us — particularly in a story that’s about creative writing itself. I don’t always appreciate this type of writing, for it’s often handled sloppily, with authors stepping back from resolution or development out of their own laziness rather than deliberate choices, but as usual, Keret executes this technique with a deft hand: you can read this one over and over again, for there’s just enough, and no more. And who can ever know for certain?

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