Phyllis Schieber Author

Women's Fiction by Phyllis Schieber

Writing, Writing, Writing, and More Writing, and Yoga

The other day my friend sent me this quote: Forgiveness is abandoning all hope for a better past. I’ve been thinking about this quote for days now. The idea of forgiveness intrigues me almost as much as the the idea of how to incorporate the past, with all its losses and disappointments, into the present. Perhaps the message is that we can only forgive if we forget the past, but I’m not sure that is entirely possible or even reasonable. Still, I get it. We can’t change the past, or can we? Sometimes, I think that as a writer I have certain magical powers that only other writers have. I can take my past and reinvent in, reframe it, and use it to my advantage, or to my disadvantage. I’m never sure how it will play out, but I know what I can do with an idea and with words. I know that as I push forward, tentatively now, with my new novel (I don’t even really know what it’s about), I feel rather certain that it will give me the opportunity to draw from my past. I feel myself reaching back rather far as I begin to develop the characters and their conflicts. It feels as though this novel will ask something very different of me, and this novel will get something very different as well.

I know for certain that I cannot change how my past has shaped me. Nor can anyone else. And certainly each of us is informed by the unique legacies we inherit,  as much as we are by the color of our eyes or the various diseases we cannot escape. I made the decision to commit myself to yoga practice because I hoped to escape the legacy of my mother’s crippling arthritis. I think I have succeeded. My body has been cooperative in spite of intermittent resistance and occasional complaints. However, more often than not, I feel quite certain that my body is grateful for the reprieve I have granted it. After all,  I can do some extraordinary things with this almost fifty-seven-year-old frame, and I owe all that to yoga, as well as to my tenacity and to my trust in a new way of life.  So while it may be true that I cannot have a better past, I do feel quite certain that my writing and my yoga will encourage a better future. I don’t hope for it. I am certain of it.

February 13, 2010 Posted by | Thoughts From Phyllis Schieber, Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts From Phyllis Schieber About Writing

This past weekend I watched the documentary “Man on Wire,” the breathtaking film about Philippe Petit, the twenty-four-year old French self-trained wire walker who pulled off the “artistic crime of the century” in 1974 when he walked and danced on a wire suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center. For forty-five minutes, Petit performed a high-wire act without a safety net or a harness, mesmerizing the crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk 110 stories below. While I was fascinated by Petit’s skill and the daring feat that continues to amaze, I was perhaps even more taken with his attitude and response to the hordes of reporters who asked the same question over and over: “Why did you do it?” Petit’s frustration is almost as exquisite as his exploit. He responds, “Here I do something magnificent and beautiful and people ask why. There is no why.” And such is the response of that rare individual: a true artist, the person who creates and performs for the sake of art.

I am no Philippe Petit. I know why I write, but I understand what he means when he says, “There is no why.”  If someone were to ask me why I write, I would have to say, “Because I have no choice.” In the years between the sales of my books, I continued to write, and I would have continued even if my agent was unable to sell The Sinner’s Guide to Confession. I write because I am a writer. I write because it is the way I make sense of the world. And I write because whatever I see or hear or experience has the potential to be translated into narrative. I notice the way a woman holds her bread at the edge of her husband’s plate, so his beans will not spill over. I record the most subtle exchange of looks between friends when someone else at the table mentions a name. I am aware of how a mother and daughter resemble each other as they shop together in a department store. When I attend a dinner for a friend and the hostess tells the story of how her previous home burned down, I am eager to leave and jot down the details because it is likely I will want to use not only the story, but the narrator’s wonderful tone and good humor as she tell about the unfortunate event. I will be sure to make mention of her crisp blue eyes and her throaty laughter. Often when I ask someone if he or she noticed something that was so apparent to me, I get a quizzical look. Always, however, I am the one who is perplexed. How is it possible that such an unusual expression, or such a surprisingly harsh tone or such an unexpected movement could go unnoticed when it is as plain as anything to me? I am always listening, always looking and always writing in my head.

One of the most important lessons I have learned as a writer is that I am not unique. I remember once many years ago, I had a meltdown and phoned my writing teacher of many years, the late Hayes Jacobs. I wailed, “I’ll never be successful. I don’t have any talent. I’m wasting my time in your seminar. There’s no point.” He listened without interruption. When I was done, he said, “You too, eh?” I laughed, but I felt better immediately. Apparently, all writers anguish at one time or another. The life of a writer is a solitary and often frustrating. Still, I celebrate that it is my daunting destiny to recreate my perceptions, and then put them in a form that makes sense to others. Sometimes I struggle, and sometimes the words seem to dance onto the page. When the words dance, a rare occurrence, I worry that it is too easy. There seems to be a happy medium. Writing is always a consequence of extremes. Mostly, however, I feel blessed that I am able to string words together in a way that has an impact on others. The ability to make someone laugh or cry, or even both, is a thrill that little else surpasses.

Perhaps it is because I began to read early and never stopped that it feels as though what happens in books makes much more sense than what happens in real life. Books are simply a written record of the writer’s truth, and I have the wonderful job of delivering that truth to my readers. When a story begins to take shape in my consciousness, I always worry if it is a story worth telling. Is it original? Is it interesting enough? Once I move past that stage and allow myself to be swept along by the characters and their needs, I settle down to the real work of making the story come to life. I am in charge now, but not really. The story is in charge. I am merely its voice. I almost never grow tired of being a writer. There is always something that inspires me, or evokes a memory, or sparks an emotion. I sometimes have this image of myself holding a huge magnet, watching as all my thoughts and dreams come twirling at top speed, drawn to the magnet, eager to be captured and finally uncovered.

I am always on the lookout for a new story, an anecdote that can be turned into a novel, a few lines in the newspaper that catch my attention, or the way a couple holds hands on the train, staring wordlessly ahead. Something must have just happened. I study them surreptitiously for the duration of the ride, wondering, imagining, and planning. It is the beginning of chapter. There really is no why.

July 22, 2009 Posted by | Thoughts From Phyllis Schieber, Writing | Leave a comment

Phyllis Schieber Talks About Motherhood

As I was considering topics for this post, it occurred to me that one of the subjects I have neglected is how motherhood figures into the subtext of The Sinner’s Guide to Confession. As a preface to that discussion, I feel the need to address how motherhood figures into my life. I am the mother of a twenty-four-year-old son. One of my dear friends, the mother of five daughters, once told me that, “It doesn’t matter how many children you have. Once you’re a mother, you’re a mother.” I believe that is true.  Motherhood empowered me as nothing else in my life ever did. Nevertheless, women artists are typically placed in the unfortunate experience of having to choose how to divide their time between th Many years ago I read an essay by Alice Walker, “One Child of One’s Own” that had a profound impact on me.

July 22, 2009 Posted by | motherhood, Thoughts From Phyllis Schieber, Writing | Leave a comment

Phyllis Schieber Shares Her Thoughts About Being A Reader and A Writer

I do not think it is possible to be a writer and not be a reader. I have been a reader all my life. As a child, I never owned books. There was simply no money for books beyond the occasional selections I could make at a school book fair. I still have my tattered paperback copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It is held together with rubber bands, but I cherish it because it was one of the only books I owned. Although I may not have owned books, my mother took me to the library every week. Over the long summer break, we were allowed to take out as many books as we wanted, and I can remember going to the library with a shopping cart to load up with wonderful thick books like Marjorie Morningstar, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Brother Karamazov, David Copperfield. . . I remember them all. My taste in reading changed over the years, and I was drawn mostly to women writers. I love Fay Weldon. Her early books, Puffball, Down Among the Women, Praxis and one of my all time favorites, The Fat Woman’s Joke, are incredibly funny and sharp and almost relentlessly honest. Weldon is a keen observer of how women make their way in the world, and of how men can invariably bring despair of some sort even they do not mean to. Weldon makes me laugh. I never grow tired of her work.

I am also a great fan of Carol Shields. I have read all her work with great admiration, but I am most fond of Unless. There are lines in that novel that just sing. I am awed by her talent, her boldness, and her clarity. I have read and loved work by Rachel Ingalls, especially Mrs. Caliban. And I will never forget Dorothy Alison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. A book like that is a remarkable achievement. The story never leaves you. Anne Tyler’s work is so consistently good that even if the plot occasionally falters, the writing is just so clean, so disarmingly enough, that nothing else matters. I anticipate her books with joy. I have intermittently loved Alice Hoffman, particularly some of her earlier works like Turtle Moon, Second Nature and At Risk. I would be remiss if I did not admit that her work has influenced me. Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love and Good Will may be among the finest pieces I’ve ever read. And I enjoy Alison Lurie and Alice Adams as well.  The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard is a remarkable book. I love the short stories of Joyce Carol Oates and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They are flawless. Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand stories are beautiful, and I revisit them to remind myself of how less is more and of how difficult it can be to achieve that.

When I read, I want an “ah-ha” moment at least once. I want to close my eyes for a moment and say. “Yes, that is exactly how that feels.” It is what I strive for when I write. It is always my intention to be honest, to anticipate a reader’s connection with my words and to know that even if it is only once, I have achieved that goal.

July 22, 2009 Posted by | Thoughts From Phyllis Schieber, Writing | Leave a comment