Personal Artifacts: Researching Your Own History

wall3I was on the phone with my dad the other day, and just before we hung up I said, “Yalla, bye!”

This was strange for a number of reasons. First, “Yalla, bye” is a weird phrase. Yalla means “let’s go” in Arabic, yet the phrase “Yalla, bye” is used chiefly by Hebrew speakers as a casual way of saying goodbye, despite the fact that there is already a Hebrew word, lehitraot (literally “see you later”) that fulfills the same function.

Mostly though, it was strange because I haven’t said “Yalla, bye” since I was seventeen years old and living in Israel.

This has been happening to me a lot lately since I started the Novel Incubator. Spending so much time in my novel (and specifically its main setting, Israel) has produced some interesting side effects. Aside from the Hebrew phrases that have been sneaking into my speech with startling frequency, I’m also listening to a lot of Israeli pop music, and I’ve started eating tahini on my toast instead of peanut butter.

Researching one’s own history for fiction is an odd, immersive business. Instead of the library or the internet, you’re tasked with mining your own memory. But like any research, you have to cull it down to what will actually serve the story. Which details will add interest, and which are you-had-to-be-there moments that read better in your journal than in your novel? Which characters can you fictionalize and which do you need to create from scratch? How do you turn your memories into fiction? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

In an attempt to answer some of them, I recently took Jenna Blum’s novel outlining class (along with fellow former incubee Kelly Robertson). It was both effective and completely overwhelming; effective in that I left class with a complete outline, and overwhelming because that outline reminded me how much material I had left to write. When I got home, I stared at the outline for a solid half-hour, unable to face translating it into actual prose. Eventually I gave up on writing and decided to outline my first act again, only this time instead of words, I was going to use artifacts.

I unearthed a cardboard box of pictures and other detritus I’ve kept for one reason or another over the years, and separated out things from Israel. I became an archeologist, brushing off fragments and analyzing them to determine their significance. Some of them were just rocks to be thrown out. But some of them became pieces of the same mosaic, to be rearranged until eventually — hopefully — all these cracked pieces come together to form an imperfect but complete story.

And so I begin the painstaking work of separating the trash from the treasures. A coaster from a bar I used to frequent reminds me to include the greenish glow of the Carslberg sign in a pivotal scene that takes place in the same bar. A picture of a foil gum wrapper sticking out of the Wailing Wall turns into an idea for a scene about identity confusion. An article in which the Prime Minister is referred to by his nickname inspires a badly needed bit of comic relief in the middle of a tense scene. A movie ticket reminds me of the long lines outside the cinema as IDF soldiers checked women’s purses. All of these artifacts are part of the larger story I’m trying to tell but still, I can’t seem to actually write it.

My writer’s block lasts until my dad calls me and without thinking I say “Yalla, bye.” It reminds me of the bad days of the war, when saying lehitraot seemed like a jinx so we said “Yalla, bye” instead, a phrase that was safer in its meaninglessness. I remember what I collected all these artifacts for in the first place, why I wanted to turn them into a story. And then, finally, I can put them away, go back to my desk, and keep writing.


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