Etgar Keret: “Creative Writing” from The New Yorker, 01/02/2012



It had been her mother’s idea that she should go to a creative-writing workshop. She’d said that a friend’s daughter had attended one and enjoyed it very much.

Hello, I am Zin! I do not usually comment on New Yorker stories (I am not allowed, they are too serious for me or something), but some people get overwhelmed when faced with multiple stresses like two reality shows in a row and impending painting and dentistry. Do not worry if you do not understand. It just means I get to talk about this story (and you can read it online, it is very short and very very worth reading), which is a good thing! At least I think it is, because it is a very Zin story!

Now, let me sort of take that back. It is a story composed of very Zin stories. A story told in stories. By stories. See, when you do that, you have to write two things: the story you are telling, and the stories you are using to tell the story. So you have to do two things well.

I think the stories used to tell the story are much better than the story itself. Except, the story itself has these people, these lost people who can not talk to each other, which is why they write stories! Without them, I do not think the little stories would mean as much! So this is synergy, or symbiosis, or some sy thing!

The overall story (you should really read it for yourself, it is quite short, please go read it, it is much better than reading a summary!): Maya has been quite sad lately because of her miscarriage. Her mom recommends a creative-writing course, and Maya has to be convinced but she tries it. Her first story “was about a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing…The heroine of Maya’s story was splitless.” See? A Zin story! Splitless! I want to read that story! No, that is not quite right – I want to write that story! And that makes me sad because the idea has already been taken! But we do not get to read the story, only the summary in the bigger story. But the pattern is set, and we get it.

Aviad, the husband, is not sure about her story, but her teacher and the class seem to like it, so he keeps his criticism to himself (wise man). He also does not seem to get the connection between the miscarriage and the story!

Her next story is even better: “a world in which you could see only the people you loved.” A man is convinced his wife no longer loves him, since she is stepping on him and sitting on him, so he shaves half his moustache to see if she notices. And of course she does not. I want to write this story too, and I can not! But Aviad still does not get it! We do, though: Maya is not in love with Aviad any more!

Next Maya writes a story about a woman who gives birth to a cat, and her husband suspects he is not the father. Wow, that is one bright husband, yes? Turns out, Maya finds out after she writes the story that she is pregnant again!

Aviad decides to take his own creative-writing class. Maybe he gets it more than he is letting on? Or maybe his subconscious gets it (the subconscious obviously plays a big part in this story)? His first story is about a fish who is cursed by a witch and turned into a man: “Since he was an especially quick and enterprising fish, he managed to get married… and even to establish a small company….” He does not have an ending for the story. Which is the end of the bigger story. I thought it was a pretty good ending. I thought it was a pretty good story, too, but I wish I had thought of all those ideas for the little stories. I wish I had some ideas to write. I have not written in a long time.

It is a story that made me smile. And it is overall about how writers write out whatever is bothering them – you can not help it! Not always directly. But in some way, the writer find him/herself on the page.

The Book Bench questions seemed uncharacteristically stupid to me (some did not seem like she had read the story very closely) but added a few interesting tidbits about Keret. We read a story of his from One Story, “Surprise Party,” and also in BASS 2011 Nathan Englander wrote a story “Free Fruit For Young Widows” based on an anecdote Keret told him (with permission!). For some reason I thought Keret was an old man; turns out, he is kind of cute, at least in the Book Bench picture, and he is extremely popular in Israel for his books, graphic novels, and films; and if his website is any indication, he has a great sense of humor (go see, the icons are fantastic) in addition to a wacky imagination.

Since we keep running into him in my favorite places, I think it is time to check out more of his stories!

Etgar Keret – “Surprise Party” from One Story, issue 146 3/15/2011

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Three guys, a banker, an insurance agent, and a dentist, go to a surprise party…No, it isn’t a joke, it’s the beginning of “Surprise Party.” They never get names; they’re identified by physical characteristics. The bank manager becomes Mustache, the insurance agent, Band-Aid (which brings to mind the Mayhem guy from those car insurance commercials), and Eyebrows is the dentist. They meet each other at the elevator to Avner and Pnina’s penthouse. They’ve been invited to a surprise birthday party for Avner, which is a surprise to them because they never knew they were his friends. Turns out Pnina invited everyone in his BlackBerry, all 300 names, and they are the only three who showed up, which tells you all you need to know about Avner and Pnina, I suppose.

From there, they react differently to the waiting room: Mustache finds Pnina attractive, Band-Aid doesn’t want to go home to his depressed wife and smelly child and is aching for some excitement, and Eyebrows can’t wait to get home. There’s a phone call, a trip to Avner’s office, a rumor about a gun, a swoon, a kiss, a slap, and everyone goes home. That’s about it. We never meet Avner. We never find out what happened to him. We see a little into the three gentlemen’s worlds and a very little bit into Pnina’s.

I kept thinking, maybe this is some kind of heavily symbolic Jewish tale, what with the three guys having different roles and attitudes. Or maybe it’s some kind of heavy-duty literary style that I’m not capable of grasping. But in the interview with Etgar Keret at One Story, I found out that it was conceived as a paean to writer’s block, which, he says, is like waiting for an honored guest to show up: all the energy is there with no place to go. And the shift in POV from the men to Pnina towards the end is the development of the story in lieu of a plot twist. I’m not sure I understand this. In fact, I’m sure I don’t – the POV shifts happen throughout, and I didn’t see the shift to Pnina as different from that of the gentlemen. We still don’t learn much about where Avner is, or why he is out, or why he does not have friends; at first I thought maybe he was dead, but surely between them his banker, insurance agent, and dentist would know that. Is he having an affair? Has he told Pnina he wants a divorce and this party is a last-ditch effort on her part to woo him back? Or is the separateness of their relationship, her loneliness and isolation from her own husband, the point? I’m not sure.

So this went by me. But that’s ok, I’m broadening my horizons. And it was an interesting read, if ultimately a less than satisfying one for me.

This story was translated from the original Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.