Jessica Greenbaum

Why I Started Writing a Novel
October 24, 2020 Greenbaum Jessica

Why I Started Writing a Novel


Earlier today I started writing a novel out of the simple
desire for a story in which nothing bad happens to a girl
or woman. I wanted to imagine being in the normality
of that. Like just because you visit a national park
where the flies draw blood and the heat is abominable
doesn’t mean what’s normal for that park is less comfortable—
but that that national park is, wholly, abnormally uncomfortable.
So why visit? I just want to see Zion in the spring again
and, relatedly, I often think of an article by Kathryn Joyce
called “Out Here No One Can Hear You Scream”
reporting that certain male park rangers had dominated
the most sought out parks and rivers of the Grand Canyon
by threatening and harassing new female rangers stationed there­—
for years, continually absolved by the National Park Service’s
male administration. These guys actually felt entitled to
bully women out of natural, national beauty! But the piece
burned its way from The Huffington Post into a Best American
anthology and their little boat finally got tipped over
plus the administration was booted (sometimes good things happen)
so I wanted to write my own story without them ever existing
because as it is, no sooner do I start reading a well-regarded
American novel when some husband tells his wife “Shut up!” (p.4)
or some boy got a girl to think her life depended on
letting him fuck her—meaning he comes inside her
then treats her like toilet paper stuck on his shoe—and after
by-accident reading that, like by-accident ingesting the
sour milk just as you suspect it’s gone sour, I have to skip
to where the girl arrives safely at
her favorite aunt’s house. I try not to sit through brutality.
(Which I think is normal.) But then two chapters on, some
loser guy grabs a woman’s arm and tells her what she has to do
according to him. Whaaa? Frying pan, fire; frying pan, fire . . .
and even though the author surrounds these characters
with the well-meaning William Saroyan-type folk and
things-mostly-works-out-plot, it’s like I pay for a whole meal
but have to eat around the peas and then around the
hundred carrots. I just wanted to read a whole story.
Maybe sitting in Zion, in the spring. In that story, a woman
fears something—like failure, the flu, or maybe a very
high wave—but there wouldn’t be a page where a
young girl and an older man exist in the same room and you
have to worry. The drama will need to come from somewhere
else. I’ve worried enough about that girl to last a lifetime.

Jessica Greenbaum is the author of three volumes of poems, a co-editor of the first ever poetry Haggadah, and also of the forthcoming Tree Lines, an anthology of 21st century American poems. A recipient of awards from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Society of America, she teaches inside and outside academia including for communities who may have experienced trauma, and in synagogues around the relationship of Jewish text to contemporary poems. Her most recent book, Spilled and Gone, was recognized by The Boston Globe as a best book of the year, 2021.