If anyone personifies “The Road Less Written,” it’s travel-writer and author Judith Fein who “lives to leave.” You can find her articles in nearly 100 different publications, and she and her husband, photojournalist Paul Ross, share their travel adventures at GlobalAdventure.us. And, she’s a co-founder of the group travel blog, YourLifeIsATrip.com, the “#1 website for experiential storytelling and narrative travel writing.”
Judith is also the author of Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel and a new memoir, The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands. I came to know Judith’s writing through the latter. Her voice and her ability to connect with the reader, her past, and well…everything else in her path, made me yearn to ask her a ton of questions. Being polite, I limited it to a few.
Judith Fein on…
Laura Hedgecock: People tend to think of memoir as accounts of extraordinary lives. Yet in The Spoon from Minkowitz, you tell the story of your grandmother, a woman you describe as someone who “was never remarkable to anyone but [you].” To what do you attribute your ability to make a story of an un-extraordinary into a compelling story?
Judith Fein: Ah, that is a wonderful question. To me, the excitement of life lies in small things to which you hold up a big magnifying glass. My grandmother was nothing special, but my relationship with her influenced my life, right up to the present moment. She was exotic. She came from a distant land. She wouldn’t talk about it. So there you have it: a gentle presence in an otherwise crazy family, a mystery, and six tiny clues I was able to glean from my grandmother. My life turned into a detective story. And I realized how many people know little about their own ancestors, their histories, and family secrets. That is what made me write the book. The motivation was this: come with me, and we will take a walk into my family and yours, my ancestry and yours, and the hidden histories that our families didn’t want to talk about. Let’s find out who we really are.
Laura: Memoirists struggle to strike a balance between honestly telling their story and protecting family members. When it came to your relationship with your mother, how were you able to decide what to publish and what to keep secret? Was it something you discussed with family members beforehand?
Judith: I wrote the entire book, and I knew something was missing. It was the truth of the relationship with my mother. She was ailing, and how could I write it without hurting her? Step One: I picked up the phone and called her. I told her about the book, and she said she had no interest in it or my grandmother. Step Two. I said there was something missing from the book, and it was the truth of my relationship with her. Step three: I said that if she didn’t give me permission, I wouldn’t write it.
To my surprise, my mother said, “Since when do you need to ask my permission about writing something? You’ve been a writer since you were five years old.” Wow. She was—uncharacteristically—being so easy. Then twenty seconds passed, and she began telling me, relentlessly, how everything that happened to me as a child was my own fault. I never said a word. She went on for at least ten minutes. Then I said, “Okay, ma. Don’t be upset; just have a good night’s sleep.” I hung up the phone and raised my hands in the air. YES! I had gotten permission!
In my opinion, if you are going to write, write the truth. Otherwise, it’s not worth it. Write from your guts. Write from your laughter and your pain. If you are going to whitewash the story, the reader will sense it right away. And you can inform your family, change names, ask permission. But you have to write the real story.
Laura: In The Spoon from Minkowitz, you repeat six facts throughout the story. This repetition strikes me, a dulcimer player, as a musical drone. Do you think that musicality in writing is something a writer can intentionally create? Do you think this stems from your past as a playwright?
Judith: You are a dulcimer player. So I am not surprised you get it. Yes, yes, yes is the answer. I hear the musicality of the words when I write. The words have life to me. They have pace, rhythm, tone. They can be quiet, or build to a crescendo. They leave you hanging, they resolve. When I write, only two things are going on: 1) I am in touch with my feelings and thoughts; 2) I am in touch with the reader. I am serenading the reader. Writing is not a solo act. It is a highly connected act.
You’re obviously good at connecting with your readers. What, in your opinion, enables an author to establish a rapport with their readers? As a travel writer, how do you convince them to go with you on your journeys?
Judith: Perhaps I got some help from my theatre background. I was a theatre director, playwright, and actress in Europe for almost a decade. Inside a theatre, there’s the stage, where you and other actors perform, and there is an audience. What happens each night is that the former connect to the latter. You learn to “read” an audience. You learn to “listen” to an audience. You derive great satisfaction from the interplay with the audience. The same is true of writing. Even though the audience is not physically there, I am connecting to them through space and time. I actually feel them. I write to their hearts, their heads. I become as transparent and truthful as I can possibly be, which makes it safe for the reader to come along with me on the voyage. Everything I write is an invitation to the audience. In a sense, I am “not there” when I write. I get out of my own way. I let the story write itself and present itself, truthfully, to the reader.
Laura: What genre do you read in your free time? Do you subscribe to the adage of “read what you write”?
Judith: I read non-fiction. Almost exclusively non-fiction. I want to learn. I want the world to open up for me. I used to read only fiction. But now, perhaps you are right: I read what I write. I am very cautious, however, about subscribing to any way of being, any way of reading. There truly aren’t rules. What works for you rules.
Laura: What advice would you have for an author or writer beginning their career?
Judith: Be fearless. Be truthful. Be as funny or deep or silly or mystical or lost or found as you want to be. The more you are you, the more you are true to you, the more successful you will be. There is no guarantee of money or fame or even droves of readers. But if you measure success by how much you like yourself, how proud you are of what you are doing, then being yourself—deeply yourself—is the path to success.
With that, I think Judith summed up the compass of the Road Less Written.
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