A session with Leora Skolkin-Smith
In 1969, Jane Alpert a good-looking upper-middle-class Jewish girl who was an honors student at Swarthmore College, conspired to bomb eight government and commercial office buildings in New York City. She was arrested when other participants in her group were caught planting dynamite in National Guard trucks. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy but, a month before her sentencing, she jumped bail. She went underground and lived in hiding until she resurfaced in 1974. Living underground, she was sheltered by now famous feminists and later she published “Mother Right” a feminist manifesto for the then-revolutionary magazine known now as Ms. magazine. After four-and-a-half years of wandering the country working at low-level jobs under false names, she surrendered in November 1974 and was sentenced to twenty-seven months in prison for the conspiracy conviction. Eventually, she was sentenced in October 1977 to an additional four months imprisonment for contempt of court because she refused to testify at the 1975 trial of another defendant in the 1969 bombings.
I think of her for two reasons. First, and most important to me, because I am writing a book set in the early 1970’s and trying so hard to capture a young student at Sarah Lawrence making her way through such a violent time when dislocation and discontent were at the soul center of many. Second, because her background—Jewish, suburban, upper middle class, and an honors English student—matched my own characters.
In Sartre’s Being and Nothing, he talks about the “being-in-itself” and “being-for itself.” He proposes that the being-for-itself is a constantly emerging sense of identity, a being in process of self-identity, while the being-in-itself is intransmutably itself, a finite and concrete object such as a chair. However, he points out that consciousness is always consciousness “of something else outside the self.” According to Sartre, our being is never more vital and alive than when it exists in history, in objective history. Writers invent and reinvent themselves while writing, as positioning one’s self in history gives depth to identity. Consciousness outside self, paradoxically, gives meaning and contour to consciousness of the self. It was fascinating to feel the being -for- itself as I went up against the times I had lived in as an adolescent and the times we now, too often, have relegated to a non-relevant past. That is, the facts of the bombing conspiracy and the surrounding trial were intransmutatable events in real history, but how they helped me process my character was being-for-itself, a being in the process of definition and redefinition.
The question about writing and novels occupies me daily. Is writing then the being-for-itself, the being that can actualize and create an identity even in the remote historical times in which we set our fiction? How do the two come together? Because as fiction writers, we are not bound to history as fact except in the slimmest sense—we must have the time, dates, and facts right and the general flow of historical events accurate, unless we are writing fantasy fiction. But beyond the cursory fact-telling, a self-identity, a being-for-itself is forming whenever real history invites us into a new way toward self-understanding. In what way, I asked myself, was Jane Alpert like me in her anger and naiveté? In what sense did the violent times define my otherwise placid adolescent world and form me as an adult? Can I reach to such a remote and different person in real life to help give life and definition to my fictionalized self and character (which is of course, an expression of my actual being and identity)? These are weighty questions that of course can’t be answered in an essay—they are too deep, too personal and too broad—but it’s the question itself that truly interests me.
In my new novel, I wrote, “Allegra tried to bury herself in her new novel about Jane Alpert, getting to the college library to research the sources until it closed, trying to write in the first person as someone with high moral purposes, taking on Jane Alpert’s voice and imagining herself with Alpert’s babushka and lean angry figure which mirrored Allegra’s wish-fantasies about herself.” Here, I was writing of my character’s experience of being-for-itself, identifying and connecting with her times and a real-life figure.
One afternoon, Allegra saw a gathering outside the library’s windows. A small crowd had besieged the administration building. She hoped that Faith Hale was there somewhere. They were holding up anti-war placards and distributing leaflets. Some were shouting, some were silent, all were young women, most in John Lennon caps and dungarees. She thought, I am the only one alone on this whole campus. A beautiful young woman with startling red hair hair was shouting through a megaphone, and the others, who seemed to be a bunch of students who would not let themselves be separated from one another, applauded. And then the crowd slowly, none of them remaining or running fast, made their way toward the driveway where Allegra was sure a bus waited to take them to a larger anti-war demonstration in New York City. A demonstration she was sure Faith Hale would be at. She had been too crushed and driven to excel here at the college to join, she thought. Perhaps they all had had easier lives, that they could scream out their anger and rage. The girls were more prepared to act and shout with such abandon and they must feel themselves as solid presences in the world which Allegra did not.
This is an admittedly brief example of what can be achieved if a fiction writer’s imagination struggles to grasp the larger canvases of character development of a real figure in history, the being in history helping form a fictional being-for-itself, a self-identity. I hope to explore more about this being-for-itself created by historical positioning in fiction writing in the coming weeks. But I would like offer two exercises, in case others feel this particular approach is helpful in developing character.
Pick an event in history happening at the same time or before your character’s life. Make sure this event is something you can feel identification or sympathy with. I could never ever commit an act of terror or bomb a building, but I identified with a young person being drawn to extremes. (It’s important to note that no real human lives were ever endangered in Jane Alpert’s actions. The building was completely evacuated.) Identify something in that historical example that amplifies or, by contrast, illuminates your character’s identity. In my example, I picked the angry, lost Jane Alpert. Though violent and active in the world at-large, so unlike my main character who is a college student feeling despair and anger at having found herself in the middle of the 1970’s with its violent and turbulence ambience but drowning in her own personal problems, the juxtaposition throws light on Allegra’s own inner life. She, like Jane Alpert, feels helpless and angry. She fantasizes about not being passive as she is in her own very personal life but being, instead, like Jane Alpert, having a purpose and moral action. The two play off each other, bringing my main character into relief.
Find an event in history happening at the same time as your character’s life in the book. For example, if you’re character is contemporary, you might pick out the Orlando bombing attack or Donald Trump candidacy. Write that real-life event into your fictional text and make it part of the story. For example, “[main character] walked into a Donald Trump protest on the streets. She was pushed by one of the protesters by mistake and felt angry for being mistaken because, of all the candidates, she despised Donald Trump the most and did not want to be taken as a supporter. The chaos and community anger brought her back to college memories of the Nixon election when she was younger and more involved in the world outside her.” Write how this real event affects your character or the progress of the story.
Factual history, which can often be intimidating at first, can, I am proposing, illuminate and further characterization. It can be startling how much we are, as human beings, capable of being part of a universal, timeless flow. Even in a novel about a personal conflict in the character, reaching for and toward the larger canvas can show us and our readers the infinite and boundless.