Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 3, 2000Volume 28, Number 23

Cynthia Ozick

Writer describes her passion
for her craft at master's tea

Cynthia Ozick read from her forthcoming book, "Quarrel and Quandary" (Knopf, May 2000), and spoke about her craft to a packed room of fans at a Morse College master's tea on Feb. 24.

Her face framed by wavy white hair, with black reading glasses perched precariously on her nose, Ozick read from two essays, "Learning" and "Lovesickness," alternately titled "Logos" and "Eros." Both are based on incidents in her life that touch on why she became a writer.

The first piece traces the friendship and rivalry that developed between two freshmen at New York University who were "besotted with literature," gifted, intense and idealistic. Placed in a class of older, more pragmatic World War II veterans, the 17-year-old narrator and her even younger male double ("He was myself") were pitted against one another by their freshman composition teacher.

The second piece is based on the narrator's obsession with the husband of her old friend, a fascination that developed suddenly at the couple's wedding. She traced, over and over again, the words of a postcard he sent her from the honeymoon, until she could duplicate his handwriting flawlessly. Many years later, Ozick learned that the bridegroom, who was a chemist in real life, had lost his hand in a laboratory accident.

Ozick poked fun at herself and made light of her accomplishments. Asked why she became a writer, she said, "I can't do anything else. I don't do arithmetic. I never go to the bank. I don't have my hands on the ropes of the world." Then she admitted, "I've always known I was a writer." Before she learned how to put words on paper, she used to dictate poems to her mother, she recalled.

"It's hard to write," Ozick said, admitting that she can spend an entire day polishing a single paragraph. She perfects as she goes, and never revises, she said. She writes longhand, and admits she has a favorite kind of pen.

"Interruptions are very hard," she acknowledged, which is why she works mostly at night, when the telephone doesn't ring. When she's working intensely, she says, she sleeps in her clothes -- or, looking at it another way, writes in her pajamas.

"Life interrupts," said Ozick. "Writers who are passionately enclosed in what they are doing feel constantly interrupted by what, for most normal people, are joyful life events." She called herself "an unnatural grandmother" and deadpanned, "This is a monster you're looking at." The best thing about motherhood, she said, was that she got to read children's books to her daughter.

Ozick's life is centered on the written word. She has no hobbies, she said, adding, "I wouldn't dream of gardening. I hate vacations and I never take them." Reading, on the other hand, is an important pleasure, she noted. "I do more reading than writing. It's much easier to read than to write." And, she admitted, "in moments of deep catatonia, you can find me glazed in front of the television. After all, I'm an American."

Her recent reading has included a run of biographies, including Peter Gay's "My German Question" and biographies of J.P. Morgan and Lewis Carroll. Saul Bellow's "Mr. Sammler's Planet" currently sits on her desk as a talisman.

Ozick said she doesn't like labels. She doesn't want to be called a feminist writer or a Jewish writer. "My fundamental identity is writer," plain and simple. "The writerly brain is androgynous," she contended, rejecting the "sociological notion implied by the phrase 'woman writer.' "

Even the traditional advice to "write about what you know is too circumscribing," she argued, saying a Jewish woman writer can choose any point of view at all, even the "leg of a chair."

"It comes down to the cadence of the individual sentence," said Ozick. "The central identity is the sentence."

-- By Gila Reinstein


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