He entered the room wheeling his carry on luggage. “This has never happened before,” he explained by way of introduction. We four students stood as he bowed prayerfully, hands together namaste style, and took our seats at the round table. He’d been traveling for 10 hours, our host explained, and “may need some time to get oriented.”
Our master was slight of build, soft blond hair, a tailored blue blazer and warm hand extended as we pronounced our names, each hoping he could tie us to our manuscripts, those which we’d submitted and won the right to sit with Israel’s great writer.
Two weeks before, when I learned of my place in the master class, I checked out all the David Grossman books our library held and began reading, alternately watching video interviews on youtube. A master worthy of the title, his work had been translated into 40 languages, his reputation marked him as a prophet, a man of soul, the greatest writer of his generation. This man had ten pages of my new manuscript. The master had lent his eye and brain to my characters Alessandro and Therissina, to Blanche my protagonist. How would he see them? What might he offer to inspire or crush me?
We discovered with the insight that comes from stepping into a puddle and feeling the wetness soak our soles, shoes, socks and feet, that our manuscripts had not been read on the long flight from Israel with a mug of strong coffee. Our manuscripts did not slide into the side pocket of his luggage, wrinkled from a close read, checks and yeses noted in the margins.
The words, “this has never happened before,” didn’t end with the late arrival. He hadn’t received our manuscripts. He arrived with his luggage, but not having read a word of our work. I could not hear the collective sigh that must have registered on each eager face.
Our manuscripts were to live for a moment, read aloud over a period of less than two minutes, within which he would pronounce our fate.
“You seem eager to go first,” Grossman said to a student. And the reader began, too fast. I could tell immediately that the student wouldn’t finish his scene. He wouldn’t get to the most intriguing section. He glanced up every few paragraphs until the master’s invisible hand rose to say, rest now. I have decided upon your work.
Before he spoke he asked for our comments. I didn’t want to comment. I didn’t want to hear the students thoughts about my work. Likely, they didn’t care to hear mine. We wanted the master. But he was orienting. I was called on first and spoke about authenticity of voice, details, something quick so we could move on.
I went second. I was prepared. I had a strategy.
For six years at the university I’d taught public speaking. I coached a middle school competitive speech team. I understood the importance of delivery. Here, in my first master class, I didn’t think I’d need to call upon these skills. And yet, it was precisely these skills that were needed now. I knew this from the quick reading of the first student. I had decided that when presenting to a jet lagged master for less than two minutes, that the quality of the delivery would make a difference in his ability to respond.
“There she is, barely walking. She drags her instrument along the rug, pulling dirt, though I keep my floors clean, like her brother might drag his stick. Always the box, my violin, she says, and plucks the strings, as if she knows what she does.”
I read two pages aloud, using voices best I could. I have no German accent, but I tried to convey one. Did I succeed? He listened. He heard. Even the conversation happening on the bench paused momentarily.
As students expressed confusion in that I didn’t add punctuation in the form of quotation marks, he disagreed. His works were translated with quotation marks for U.S. markets but otherwise, there were no quotation marks. He said that not knowing who a quote belongs to adds to the layering, and uncertainty. What if the comment was true to both characters, in varying degrees? What if it was also true to the society in which the characters live? I heard his remarks understanding that writing with a lack of attribution could help me find the soul of a character who speaks in her own mind and aloud without separation. I liked my characters as the master spoke of them and their lack of attribution. You won’t push me into quotation marks, quipped Blanche. At least not in this early draft.
I learned that Professor Grossman valued layering. That readers benefit from doubt. Situations need not be clear. The sense of uncertainty will play out. The reader must trust that action must lead to a grander internal process, that shifts in the right order (in my scene, the child taking control of the parents) add to that complexity. Action and emotion must present early in the manuscript.
How does one truly understand the character? How does a master achieve this authenticity?
Professor Grossman understands his characters not by entering their psyches. You must get to their souls, he said. And then the work follows. Get to the soul of the character and let her/his story play out.
My master class wasn’t what I’d expected. It ran 30 minutes short. The professor arrived travel weary without manuscripts. And yet he offered insight to inspire me back to the work. Did my reading aloud make a difference? I have no idea whether it mattered to him or his understanding of my work. And yet for me, proclaiming my characters aloud, giving them voices and personalities in the presence of a master was something to remember.
One day when I publish my novel I can say, “David Grossman was the first person I read aloud to.”