Being tossed around like this professionally made me puzzle about my fate. What am I meant to do with this precious gift of life? Should I keep writing, when I was not building a sound career as an author? I wished the Oracle of Delphi was still around in Greece, just a short trip from Israel. But her prophecy was gone and the prophets that used to roam Israel were also long gone. Since I tend to be spiritually inclined, I made a study of the symbols on Tarot cards which supposedly connect to deep human themes in the universal mind or in Jungian terms, the “collective unconscious.” I began doing readings for me.
“Tarot, Please show me the meaning of my soul’s purpose!” I whispered these words for fear that one of my neighbors would hear me from her window. Since, this would be witchcraft which in the Old Testament called for death by stoning. I kept my spiritualist activities hidden.
I would have kept the spiritualist side of myself hidden away if it were not for Franz Kafka and a true teacher-guide who appeared in my life. For years I had been collecting catalogues from universities in Israel about their MA programs in English literature. When I turned fifty years old, a voice in my head screamed. “You wait any longer you are going to be frustrated and menopausal to boot.” One year later, I signed up for the Master’s program in Foreign Literatures at Ben Gurion University, not yet deciding if it would be the thesis track or the general track. The thesis track would allow me to continue on for a PhD and get into the academic world. The general track would not allow me to do either.
My first year, the professor I had for Victorian literature advised me not to do the thesis track. He said, “You won’t be able to write in a scholarly way. Your style is for diaries and novels.” I remember getting up from the chair across from him absolutely deflated. Why tell an eager person she can’t? Why clip her wings? Did it make him feel superior? For crying out loud, why?
My second year of studies, I took a course on Kafka with a distinguished American-Israeli professor who did his graduate work at Yale. After immigrating to Israel, Mark Gelber became one of the founding professors of Ben Gurion University. One day while reading the Kafka novella Amerika for his course, I encountered a paragraph that struck me to my core.
The main character is lost in a strange dark labyrinth. He sees a guide holding a lantern up high. The main character becomes ecstatic. Why? Because he is certain that this guide will show him the way out of darkness. I hurried to my pack of Tarot cards and flipped through them. I found what I was looking for. The Tarot card the Hermit with its symbol of an old man holding high a lantern. This symbol can mean a wisdom figure, a higher guide at this time can be found within the psyche and soul.
Excited, I decided to let my spiritual activity be known in my Kafka class. I made an oral presentation of what I had discovered for the semester project. Using an overhead projector and the plastic transparencies of The Hermit and other Tarot symbols in Kafka I had duplicated upon them, I showed them on the screen and explained the spiritual meaning. My professor was enthusiastic. He said I must do the thesis track and write my dissertation on this subject. He would be my advisor. This was something! He actually believed in me! In the hallways, I bumped into the other professor, the one who didn’t believe in me. How little he seemed.
Doing research for my thesis taught me to feel humble. Not humiliated as the professor who didn’t believe in me made me feel. To write about the Tarot in Kafka, I would have to put aside my own thoughts for the time being. I would have to cite scholarly articles and scholarly books about Tarot images in the works of other well-known writers. I could then spin off my theories about Kafka from these discussions.
So I hunkered down into the university stacks and discovered that doing research is as exhilarating as writing. The stronger smelling the scent of book, the more exciting. It opens up the psyche, makes the ego melt with minds greater than yours.
Nowadays I tell the writers I mentor: “Don’t rely only on what you know. Go research and get inspired by what you didn’t know and now you do know!”
More than that, doing research is humbling. Writing in a scholarly style is even more humbling. You can’t say, “I feel.” You can’t write, “I think.” You always have to refer to someone greater who said it before you. And everything has to be footnoted with a respectable book or article.
I got into the hang of it. I wrote my first academic article while I was taking a course on the Countess of Pembroke. In it, I compared one of Pembroke’s biblical poems to an interpretation by the medieval biblical commentator Rashi. I sent it off to a journal and got a rejection pointing out the weaknesses in my article. It was a peer reviewed journal. For those of you who don’t know what peer reviewed means here goes.
The editorial boards of these journals are very selective about what they publish. Still, the author, if his/her work is accepted, gets paid nothing. The reward is getting published in a prestigious journal. The more publications in such journals, the better are your chances of climbing the hierarchical ladder which can raise you from instructor, to adjunct lecturer, to senior lecturer. After that maybe then you can get onto the tenure track where it is possible to climb up to assistant professor then to associate professor, onto professor and then to the tippet top– Distinguished or Endowed Professor. The reward for me, merely a graduate student was this. Any article submitted to a peer reviewed journal is sent to outside readers for their evaluation. Should they reject an article, they make detailed comments for the author about their reasons why.
Well, I received one of these comment sheets for my rejected Pembroke article. So… taking their criticism absolutely seriously I rewrote the article based on their review and sent if off. It got accepted! And as I continued to write for academic journals and got my share of rejections with constructive comments, I also came to understand how positive an editor’s impact can be. I do not mean line editors who merely correct grammar and punctuation. I mean developmental or substantive editors who detect weaknesses in the very premise of the work. What is not said and should be said. Or that what is said is senseless and unconvincing. Or that what is said is unfounded. Or it is soggy. Or it is dull. It is not original. It is boring. It is wordy or water-logged. From them, I learned how to strengthen the premises from which a writers’ words spring.
All this I learned because I was living a life I had never planned. My original plans of becoming a fabulously rich and famous novelist and diarist had not panned out. I was living a richer life as my altered self.