If I tell you, how will you know?
The above quote, taken from Zen Buddhism, is just one of the many wise maxims passed down to me by Governor General’s Award Winning author Helen Weinzweig (Basic Black with Pearls; Passing Ceremony). I met Helen in the early 1990s, when I was in my fifties and she in her late seventies, looking at eighty. At the time, she was working on a new novel.
Her raison d’être for writing never came with an eye toward publishing, but from a compelling intellectual curiosity and a need to explore life, experience and new approaches to form. That she was in the dusk of her life — though she lived to 95 — was not something that disturbed her, other than to make a point of conserving for her novel her dwindling energy. She once said to me, “I love old age. Every time I looked at life throughout the years, I found nothing there. Now, suddenly, it is what it is and nothing else. Old age has released me.” No more striving, competing, struggling to prove herself. She could simply be and do (write), and therein lay the intrinsic value, simply the process of living and toward no other end. At another time she commented: “Maybe if you discover the past in your writing, you’ll discover the past in your life. We write to understand, to work out the unresolved issues of our childhood.” And finally, perhaps her most profound statement on growing older: “Aging,” she said, “is the downward path to Wisdom.” You can understand why I considered Helen to be such a valued friend and mentor.
I came to meet Helen by way of a reference from a mutual friend. At the time, a trained classical pianist and new to the country and writing scene, I was seeking constructive criticism of my work and advice on publishing when my friend suggested I meet Helen, with whom I would share interests in both music and literature.
That led me to the most open, generous, smart, talented woman, with the most liberal and unique mind, I will ever meet. So sensitive was she about the challenge of “breaking into” an established community of artists, both as a musician and writer, that she called the very next day. “I know how anxious-making it is to wait for a response and wanted you to know that I’ve already begun to read your stories,” she said. “Artists tend to be protective of their own turf, it’s a competitive field.” She was keen to counter that attitude, keen to “give back,” to pass on a legacy. She offered some complimentary words and offered to work with me. That was Helen.
Helen had a unique ability to examine a story and go laser-like to the heart of what was working, what not, and why. “All the “stuff” of a good writer is right here,” she said, referring to my manuscripts. “But something is keeping these stories from being published.” And then she began, analyzing one script after the other. “So what’s the hochma (hockma)? she’d put to me. Because of the context in which she used the word, I deduced her meaning. An internet website, Abarim Publications, tells us that the word is the Hebrew version of the name Sophia, meaning Wisdom and that the Biblical concept of wisdom is much broader than our modern understanding of it; in order to determine what's wise and what's not, one would have to know what wisdom wants to achieve. The Abrahim Theological Dictionary says that not only does the quest for wisdom mark the old world literature but also its definition. Wisdom to the later Greeks was said to come from intellect and speculation; to the Hebrews it meant skill in practical matters, based on divine causes. It was not, then, theoretical and speculative, but practical, based on revealed principles of right and wrong.
Helen’s question, So what’s the hochma? forced me to determine, in one revealing sentence (or several should they be related) embedded in the story, what the story was about. Its essence; its wisdom, around which everything in the story must relate, or be seen as relevant. Not that the writing should be so rigid as to never deviate, fleshing out a character, an aside of humour, a brief memory, but not for long and always making its way back to the hochma. Amazing how the application of that one question can focus the writing, how much extraneous material can get discarded, giving shape and a through-line to the narrative
Helen was a master at moving effortlessly between past and present. Her observation: “In the unconsciousness, Time repeats itself,” though profound, its meaning is nevertheless somewhat abstruse. Yet, I believe it speaks to the notion of the seamless blurring of time shifts found in her text: “Use memory as if still a fact of the present. Look for phrases that take the mind back, not the event. Keep the event in the present; don’t break the narrative thrust.”
Her novel, Basic Black with Pearls, is replete with such instances. Shirley Kazenbowski, née Silverberg, is a middle-aged, middle-class woman who throughout the novel wears a basic black dress and strand of pearls. Walking the streets of Toronto, she searches for her lover Coenraad, who is always in disguise and a mysterious member of “The Agency.” Coded messages in the National Geographic leave clues as to where he will rendezvous with Shirley. She is led to a house on Elm Street where she wanders the corridors of the tenement and hears the various sounds coming from the apartments:
(Italics and [ ] are mine.)
“The television voice was clicked off in mid-sentence. . . . For several moments I stood there in the dark and breathed in the smells of the poor, thinking that Coenraad, were he with me, would take my hand and pull me out of this place, exactly as he did that time [we’ve slipped into time past] when our rendezvous turned out to be a hovel of a hotel in Manchester. He has [present tense] an aversion, which I do not share, to poverty. Coenraad refuses to reveal whether, like me, he once was very poor . . . I agree that in his line of work . . . he needs to be able to count on something. He can count on me . . . And yet . . . I am always drawn back to poverty. I am aware that there are [present tense and time] a dozen streets named Elm, in the suburbs, in Rosedale, in North York, still, on my first day back, I sought [past tense] the shabby streets of my youth [continues in past tense to the end of the passage but in present time). Suddenly what I thought was self-evident in the message now appeared vague and uncertain: did I really expect to find Coenraad here?”
Helen brilliantly keeps us feeling that we are in the present, even when her narrative takes us to a past memory. Even choice of phrases, such as “the smells of the poor,” “an aversion to poverty,” “once was very poor,” and “drawn back to poverty,” work as transitions between the past and present; in this case, the words “poor” and “poverty” serve as connecting doors opening to the before and now.
Because of the restrictions of length for a blog, I’ve given but one example. Should you be interested, you will find the entire Basic Black with Pearls, a work of memory in itself, to be a source of impeccable technique as it takes us into the mind and emotions of Shirley Silverberg Kuzenbowski, keeping us always in a present past.
I owe much to Helen Weinzweig and want to share part of her legacy with you. More on “What Would Helen Say?” and her use of Magic Realism to follow in a coming blog.
- Rhoda Rabinowitz Green, author of Aspects of Nature (spring 2016)
more on Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig here