When Eli Zuzovsky '21 landed at a summer writing workshop, he found a new routine for his work and learned a little something about "the writer's life."
By Guest Blogger Eli Zuzovsky ‘21
Eli Zuzovsky ’21, an affiliate of Dudley Co-op, joint concentrating in English and Visual & Environmental Studies, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to attend the New York State Summer Writers Institute Workshop for fiction. His first short film, Tonight You Belong to Me, was part of the Short Film Corner at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. During his mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces, he worked as the editor of Bamahane, Israel's oldest weekly magazine, and covered the 2014 Gaza War from the field. At Harvard, Zuzovsky directed his original play Minotaur (which won Best Play at the 2017 Jaffa Spring Festival) and an original adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Kaddish. He hopes to pursue a career as a director and writer. His blog post on his ADF experience this summer follows.
The first thing I do when I arrive at the New York State Summer Writers Institute is go for a run. I leave my suitcase in my room, change my clothes and head out for an hour in the woods. When I return, panting and sweating from every known part of my body, I realize that this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The month I spend in Saratoga Springs turns out to be surprisingly regimented, exceeding even the three years I served in the Israeli army. My days quickly become a series of rituals that I follow with the fervor of a pious Buddhist.
Every morning, I drink a glass of water, brush my teeth and go out for a run, during which I listen to an episode of This American Life on WBEZ. When I return, I take a shower. I eat breakfast in the d-hall (peanut butter, banana, cup of coffee) and write in my room until lunchtime. At noon, I eat, read manuscripts and go to Workshop. Dinner is usually spent in the company of Madeline and Eleanor, my new friends and fellow Buddhists. We eat together, pilfer cookies from the gluten-free fridge, and go to a reading or a literary panel, depending on our mood and the Institute's varying offerings. Every evening ends solemnly at a reception at the Case Campus Center, where we eat sliced pineapple, drink free wine and talk about our (tragically predictable) plans for the following morning.
My new routine fills me with joy, even though—and maybe because—my life has been so transient in the past few years. Diverging from my rituals makes me melancholic. Waking up after eight a.m. feels like a moral failure; mornings without Ira Glass’ voice leave me dizzy and despondent; and pineapple-less receptions turn my day into an utter tragedy.
In class, on the lawns, at Q&As, I hear the noble phrase “The Writer’s Life” over and over. Each author I meet offers me pearls of wisdom regarding his or her preferable writing routine. Some work every day; some, every other evening. One day I spend an entire afternoon talking with a friend about famous writers and their writing idiosyncrasies. We discover, much to our surprise, that Victor Hugo wrote naked; that Jane Austen started the day playing the piano; that Joan Didion simply can’t write without an hour alone before dinner and a drink.
My month in Saratoga makes me understand that being a writer means defining and redefining what you want your life to look like on a daily basis. It gives you the power to find your own answers to fundamental questions regarding the nature of your craft and change them whenever you feel like it. And, as Spider-Man already taught me at a tender age, with great power comes a great responsibility.
I spent the first seven years of my life on a steady diet of living room shows, which I wrote, directed and performed single-handedly. But, as second grade came to a close, I went through an existential crisis. Following a traumatic blackout at my year-end show, I realized that I was not made for the stage. Standing in front of the blinding lights, mumbling, I felt like a stray gazelle moments before it’s hit by a speeding vehicle. My acting career was nipped in the bud. From that moment on, I insisted that I was simply not the audience-loving type; I’d rather dwell behind the scenes.
So when, 17 years later, Amy, the associate director of the Writers Institute, asks me if I would agree to participate in the celebratory student reading, my answer is clear.
“No, thank you.”
Public readings have always befuddled me. It’s not that I have anything against them. Quite the opposite. I’ve enjoyed a great deal of the readings I’ve attended throughout the years. But I have never felt an urge to participate in them actively.
For me, writers who like to read their work in public are like people who are excited about mayonnaise: I respect their passion, but I just don’t get it.
Writing is a beautifully intimate form of communication, unlike any other. When I write I feel naked; that’s why I rarely do it in the presence of people. For me, part of the magic of a book lies within the fact that it occurs somewhere in the mysterious space between the author’s mind and that of the reader – his or her invisible addressee.
But Amy is vehement and doesn’t seem to care about magic and invisibility. “Trust me, Eli,” she says. “You want this.”
“Do I?” I ask, visibly skeptical.
“Of course. If you don’t do it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Trust me, I know. I’ve been doing this for years.”
Easily pressured as usual, I agree and immediately forget about the whole thing.
Three days later, I find myself standing in front of dozens of people at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs. For the first time, I am about to read words publicly that I wrote. My mouth becomes a desert, dry and empty.
“Hi,” I say.
The audience chuckles collectively. Is my hair disheveled? Do I have something in my teeth?
“My name is Eli, and this is the opening of a novella I’m working on.”
I look at the people in the front row and, after the mandatory throat-clearing, start getting undressed (metaphorically).
The reading goes significantly better than I anticipated. I don’t stutter. I don’t faint. I don’t say anything particularly stupid. I pronounce all the words clearly and correctly. When I see my friends taking photos, I smile and even get some laughs from the audience in the right moments of the story.
An hour later, the event is over. I sneak out of the reception and start walking back to my apartment with an older lady I recognize from the audience, a fellow student.
“Nice reading,” she smiles at me.
“Thanks,” I say. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t remember yours. Did you read anything?”
“I didn’t,” she responds. “And damn, Amy was right. I already regret it.”