When I first started working with my coach, Joshua Townshend-Zellner, he was unlike any editor I’d ever worked with before. Probably that’s because Joshua isn’t an editor; he’s a theatre director. And I hired him because he understands “story” and I needed help wrestling this mass of raw material into a cohesive, compelling story. When we first began working together, Joshua didn’t edit my work. In fact, he never did. Instead, he gave me exercises that helped me master some of the elements of storytelling that were new to me, having only written information-based non-fiction before.
To build more tension between me and my mother on the page, Joshua gave me the following assignment: Make a list of twenty specific, concrete things throughout the history of your relationship with your mother that pushed the two of you apart. Then make a second list of twenty specific, concrete things throughout your relationship that brought the two of you together.
Here’s a partial list of things that brought us together. I’ve cut the ones that are spoilers for the book:
- Mom handing the Torah to me and me handing it to Eliza/Eli.
- Interviewing Mom in the StoryCorps van in Salinas when she was 80 years old.
- Going to see The Iceman Cometh in New York City together and then going out to dinner.
- Sitting on the bed as a little girl and helping mom learn her lines as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible.
- Getting stoned together in the blue living room when I was in my early thirties.
- Me getting my cancer diagnosis and then getting immediately on the train with Mom and the kids—age 10 and 14—she tended to them while I made frantic phone calls.
- Mom participating in Eliza’s blessing way ceremony…we’d reconciled enough at that point for her to be an honored, full participant at this celebration of Eliza’s birth.
- Filling out Mom’s Five Wishes form together.
- Going to John Kennedy’s funeral together…going to hear Martin Luther King give his “I Have a Dream” speech.
- Showing up at Mom’s 70th birthday party and surprising her, along with my brother and all three of her grandchildren.
- Working on the life history books for Mom for her 80th birthday party.
- Mom singing me lullabies when I was a little.
- Eating together at Freddie’s pizza.
- Watching the Oscars together.
- Mom showing up every time the kids were in a play.
- Singing together in the car when I was little.
- Mom comforting me when the little boy drowned at the Land Between the Lakes campground.
- Baking ruggelach
- Each Thanksgiving, calling Mom for directions about how to make a turkey.
- Playing 500 Rummy with Mom, anytime.
- Watching Masterpiece Theatre in the den in our childhood home: Elizabeth the Queen and The Wives of King Henry VIII.
And here’s a partial list of things that drove us apart, big spoilers excluded:
- Mom chasing me around the house with a bottle of perfume trying to make me more feminine.
- Mom wanting me to put a book on my head so that I’d have better posture.
- Mom taking me to the Asbury Park bra and girdle factory to buy a bra/girdle corset monstrosity to deal with my DDD breasts as a 15-year-old.
- Mom endlessly dragging me to schlock shops to buy torn and faded clothes when I was little.
- Me watching Divorce Court and refusing to speak to Mom about my feelings after my parents separated.
- When I wrote a letter to my grandfather about how we shared a passion for God—and how Mom held on to it for decades.
- Mom berating me for not dedicating my second book to her.
- When Mom stormed out of the seder on Locust Street because we wished for peace for the Palestinians.
- Mom yelling at me, “I hope someday you have a daughter just like you.”
- Me insisting on using my own name and naming my grandfather in The Courage to Heal.
- Mom screaming at Eli when he was a toddler and then denying it after it happened.
- Mom asking the Rabbi to “be like a father to me” after Dad left.
- Mom telling stories about me around the table—using my life as fodder.
- Mom making comments about my body and my weight.
- Mom drinking Scotch while I was doing my homework on the dining room table—dreading the clink of the ice cubes.
- Mom commented to Lizzy about her developing body.
- Mom criticizing Eli and Lizzy for not picking up after themselves.
- Mom criticizing us for not having a television.
- Me reporting Mom to the DMV for not being a safe driver.
I wrote about many of these (especially the ones I didn’t include in this sampling). Inserting them into the book helped me understand, feel, and portray the push-pull of our relationship over the decades. Juxtaposing the things that pulled us together and apart creates for the reader the visceral reality of ongoing tension in the relationship—the reality that occurs in many families when we love and hate the same person simultaneously.
The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.
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