Category Archives: Personal Essays

Victory Day time machine

I feel nostalgic towards my birth country twice a year. Due to current and historical reasons, none of which I am going to discuss here because of both space and your sanity, I never think of myself as Russian. I left Moscow long ago, have no plans to return, and only enjoy Russian food when prepared by my mother and no more than once a year.

But today, on the 9th of May, I feel Russian. It’s not really a choice I consciously make but a feeling that overtakes me when I log into my Facebook account. Even though my friends’ list is international, on this day my newsfeed is overwhelmed with posts from those either born in Russia or now working there. And most posts are about World War II.

Every year on the 9th of May Russia marks its victory over Nazi Germany. It celebrates by putting on a military parade worthy of the Oscars, the Emmys, and the Golden Globes combined. The reasons are purely political and those have been examined to death in other, more high-brow outlets. Which is why I am not going to focus on that or any other ridiculous exhibition of might that today’s Russia employs to make its people feel good. It’s not news to me — I already know about those tricks. I’ve lived through them.

But that’s not the reason that makes me feel Russian on the 9th of May. I feel Russian because remembering that war transports me directly into my childhood. The childhood in which we didn’t learn only the historical facts of that war (heavily edited by the Communist Party, of course) but we learned to identify with it on a primal, almost visceral level. I’ve been now away from Moscow for longer than I lived there but I still get goose bumps when I see clips of Soviet war movies and hear melodies of war songs. And I am not the only one. Those religions of the world that have trouble spiritualizing their followers should research how the Soviet propaganda machine turned World War II into the reliquary for the masses.

First as a young girl and later as a teen, I spent every 9th of May in Moscow’s Gorky Park with my grandfather. He fought in the war, survived it, and went to Gorky Park every year to see his former comrades-in-arms. Regardless of the weather, on that day the grounds of the park filled up with people young and old. Old, scanning the crowds for the names and numbers of their Red Army units, and young, walking from one group of veterans to another, thanking them for their courage, and giving out flowers to everyone with a medal on their chest. It was a day of profound sadness and profound happiness—both at the same time.

This would probably be an appropriate spot to break into criticizing the role that Russia is playing in the world today and the way Putin’s been using World War II for his rhetoric on Ukraine and Crimea. But I’ll save it for another post. The post that I can write on a day when I am not thinking of my grandfather, his fellow servicemen and women, the red-carnations-full Gorky Park, and the time when everything seemed much, much simpler. My childhood.

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Writing While… Part IV — writing while receiving rejections

Writing while receiving rejections

I am not going to pretend to come up with something original here. In fact, everything I’ve planned to say in this post had already been said in hundreds of other posts. Which is why I am no longer going to say those things.

Instead I am going to build a rejection wall and stare at it lovingly when I finally do land an agent, and a book deal, and a super-successful movie in which I’ll act, produce, cast, and be the one to receive an Oscar.

You’ll probably recognize some of the elements on this wall in which case you are welcome to stare at it lovingly too. Because you too at some point will get your book/story/brilliance published and feel sorry for all those who rejected you. And yes, I know, this is not a very healthy attitude to take but what the hell. I am allowed to make some unhealthy choices once in a while. It’s not only wheatgrass, tofu, and green tea life, is it?

In a truly Olympic spirit I will divide my rejection wall into three categories: bronze rejections, silver rejections, and gold rejections. What are the judging criteria, you ask? Just one. I am going with the “ouch, that hurts” standard and I am awarding gold to those whose rejections made me want to stop writing forever.

GOLD

  • “…I thoroughly enjoyed reading your sample material but, … we didn’t feel that the writing of the prose itself was quite strong enough to be able to successfully place it with a publisher.”

SILVER

  • “Unfortunately this is not right for us. We are replying as soon as possible to give you the best chance of finding the right agent. We specialize in commercial fiction and non-fiction tailor made for the mass market and therefore we have to be confident of substantial sales quantities before taking on a new project.”
  • “Thank you for sending us this material, which we have now read and considered. But we are sorry to say that your novel is not something we would feel 100% confident of being able to handle successfully.”
  • “We read your piece carefully, but unfortunately we have decided not to publish it.”
  • “Thank you for sending your work. We have decided against selecting your work, but we appreciate your interest in our magazine.”

BRONZE

  • “We’re sorry we don’t have better news–but thank you for sending us your work. While we enjoyed your writing, unfortunately, this submission isn’t for us. Do please consider sending more work to us again in the future.”
  • “While this particular submission is not quite what we’re looking for at the moment, please know I enjoyed reading it and was impressed by your writing. We receive a large number of submissions and unfortunately can only publish a small percentage of them. I wish you the best in placing this piece elsewhere and hope you’ll consider sending us more of your work in the future.”
  • “We have read your submission, and unfortunately we are not able to use it.  Please do not take this as a comment on the quality of your writing; we receive so many submissions that we are able to accept only a small fraction of them.”
  • “Unfortunately we have decided not to accept it. We wish you the best of luck finding a home for your story elsewhere.”
  • “Although we did enjoy looking at your material, in the end we felt it wasn’t quite right for us.”
  • “As a small agency we take on very few of the many writers who approach us each year and, having considered your work, we do not feel we could offer to add you to our list.”
  • “We’re sorry we can’t use … We have received a great deal of work by writers who will not be included in the final selection, but certainly deserve to have their voices heard in other publications.”
  • “Unfortunately, the piece is not quite a perfect fit for our upcoming issue, sort of like when you find a puzzle piece, and even though it’s like, the best puzzle piece ever, it doesn’t fit perfectly. Sort of an “it’s not you; it’s me” thing.”
  • “We’re going to pass on this one, but please send more in the future!”
  • “Unfortunately, this piece isn’t the right fit for us. Please consider us for future submissions.”
  • “Thanks so much for your query.  Unfortunately,  I’m afraid I’m not the right agent for this project.”

The good news is that I only got one gold winner… so far.

The bad news is that writing-while-receiving-rejections means writing this blog post instead of something else to submit.

See also:

Writing While Submitting (Part III)

Writing While Trilingual and While Not Being a Native Speaker (Part II)

Writing While Walking or While in the Pool or Any Other Body of Water (Part I)

Writing While… Part III

Writing while submitting or looking for representation

You finished your novel. You’ve edited it several times, re-written parts of it to flush out the characters, and even had several readers sing your praises (who, just to clarify, haven’t only been your family or friends). You are ready to begin the next step of your literary journey. The submission process.

So you look for an agent. You scout websites of literary agencies searching for the one that will be interested in the book you wrote. You find her. She sounds fantastic—exactly like your type of agent. She is looking for books in the genre in which you write, she says she loves working with new writers, and she may even have something in common with you. Perhaps she went to your alma mater, or perhaps she dabbles in chess, or maybe she is a friend of your cousin’s daughter’s friend’s former brother-in-law. Whatever it is, she sounds like she is the agent for you.

You send her your query letter. And the synopsis. And the first three chapters of your manuscript or whatever else she requires in her submission guidelines. And you feel great. Because what you are feeling at the moment is the emotion that makes everything worthwhile. You are feeling hope.

Then you wait. You check your e-mail ten minutes after you sent the letter. Then you check it in twenty minutes. And then in one hour. Then you need to go somewhere so you stop checking your e-mail and engage in life outside of your computer. When you come back two hours later you check again. Because two hours is a long time to be away from your mailbox especially the mailbox that surely has good news.

But there is nothing. Your hope diminishes in size but it’s still there. Because it’s only been a few hours and even the most eager-to-represent-you-agent has a life. So you keep checking every ten to twenty minutes for the next several days.

Until you stop. Because your I.am.writer! (at) gmail (dot) com mailbox continues to be empty. You get no e-mails. Not from that special agent and not from other special agents you found prior to that one. The submission table you created to track down all submissions looks eerily empty in the “Responses” column. Your mood takes a nosedive. You wonder why you are even writing in the first place. You writing gets blocked. And you stop writing.

Until the next time when you browse the internet again and find that other special agent whose bio reads like she is waiting for your submission.

Writing While… Part II

Writing while tri-lingual

I am not trying to brag  (although feel free to post your admiration in comments and send flowers to the address you see below) but speaking three languages fluently is somewhat of an accomplishment. Yet, as I am discovering in my journey of a writer, a bigger accomplishment is remembering which words belong in which language.

When I am in the flow, words just appear. They seem to tumble out of an area of my brain that literally has a feeling for what is needed in that particular sentence. But that area doesn’t seem to distinguish between languages. As a result, I produce sentences with foreign words in them and I don’t even suspect it until one of my readers says: “Err, what does this mean exactly?” Needless to say, I am eternally grateful to those readers – Nicola, Julia, Clare, Miriam, Andrew, David, Sue … you know who you are.

And then there are times when my brain pushes out a foreign word but in this case I am aware that it’s foreign. Yet when I try to find the equivalent in the language I am writing in, it goes all amnesiac on me. So I take that word and I plug it into Google translate. But, alas, as with all things Google—and especially road trip estimates—results are approximate. Which then sends me on a chase through various Thesaurus sites in order to try to find the exact word I feel needs to be there.

Writing while not being a native speaker

I write in my second language—English. Mostly because I never learned how to write well in my mother tongue. The educational system in my birth country valued math, physics, and chemistry above all else. The only writing we did was in our classes of literature and even then we copied everything we wrote. No one wanted to be called stupid for doing it wrong—out teachers’ preferred method of instruction—and so we scouted libraries for forgotten introductions and epilogues. Since there was no internet back then and no way to get caught, we got away with it. But we also never learned to write.

Because I write in my second language I can never actually tell if what I’ve written makes sense, sounds fluid to a native speaker, or even merits reading. But the worst by far is trying to find a metaphor and unknowingly ending up with a cliché. If I had a penny for every time one of my readers pointed out a cliché in my writing I’d have been able to buy a small island already. You see? Even here I could not resist.

And then there is one more thing. I feel terribly self-conscious about my writing—and especially now as I write this post. Because all I am hearing in my head is this:

“Yeah, I can totally see she isn’t a native English speaker.”

And this:

“Her writing sucks.”

And this:

“She’ll never make it as a writer.”

Which is why the next installment of Writing While… will feature “Writing While submitting and getting rejected.”

Writing while… Part I

Lately I’ve been doing a lot more writing.

In my head.

I am lucky if any of that writing ever makes it onto a page or a computer screen simply because I cannot keep that many ideas in my brain at the same time. The idea for this blog post, for instance, appeared about a week ago and it took me seven days, five hours, and fourteen minutes to start recording it here and now. So I am wondering if any of the following ever happens to you and what you do about it?

Writing while walking

Some of the best ideas come to me when I am either in a hurry somewhere or in the pool (more about that down below). I’d be walking down a street to a meeting or a class or some other event that has taken me away from my computer and I’d be thinking about the various topics I’d want to write about. During any one walk I am capable of thinking up at least three topics but I am not at all capable of recording them.

Before you ask – of course, I carry a notebook. And I even carry a smart phone with a handy notes app where I can record my ideas just as easily. But it never happens. Mostly because I am usually running really, really late or because things that I’ve recorded in my notebook in the past never make any sense to me when I read them again. It is almost as if my brain enters a different realm when my legs are moving. But as soon as I sit down at my desk and look at those ideas, I go – eh? Why would I want to write about that? And what does “cousin—&—wiping table with paper—&—jamon” mean anyway???

Writing while in the pool or any other body of water

My gym has a spa that features at least four different pools with various jet streams. Not to mention a sauna and a steam room. So, in short, there is a lot of water—which actually is the reason I chose that gym in the first place.

It happens without fail every single time. As soon as I put on my bathing suit, squeeze my head into a ridiculous swimming cap, and enter any of the aforementioned bodies of water, my brain begins to fire off ideas. New ideas, ideas to help me with pieces where I’ve been blocked for weeks, ideas that seem to come from the left field completely, and ideas that aren’t even mine.

I have nothing to write any of those ideas down and even if I had – I am wet. So instead of relaxing, which is what I am supposedly paying for in this gym, I am sweating trying to memorize the most useful of them. By the time I leave the spa, I am so stressed that I am lucky to remember where my locker is, let alone anything I thought of.

Please tell me I am not alone! Does this happen to you too?

I have a few more of Writing while… so stay tuned for the next one!

The Power of We at a Cellular Level

The cells in our bodies already understand the power of we. They work together every day to make sure that every one of them gets enough nutrients and disposes of waste properly. They work together every day to maintain the delicate routes of communication between the various organs and to ensure that each one of them contributes to the well-being of the entire organism. They work together every day to maintain our body’s equilibrium and to ensure that we continue to live.

If some of our cells go rogue and decide to take over, a cancer develops. Which eventually can kill the entire organism and, thus, kill those cells.

We can learn from our cells. We can learn that working together far outweighs competing against and destroying each other. We can learn that helping each other isn’t against our interests but for them because it benefits the entire humanity. And we can learn that self-regulation for the sake of the whole isn’t about socialism, capitalism, or some other economic system. It’s about survival of our whole organism — the Earth — and our survival on it.

There are about 100 trillion cells in the human body.

There are about 7 billion humans on Earth.

Surely we have it much easier — there are a lot less of us. Where do you want to start?

 

Synchronicity of the Day

I am planning a book. I don’t know exactly what it’ll look like or what form it’ll take or what narrative it’ll assume.  All I know is that I want to write it.  And I have wanted to write it for a long time.

People say that one of the best ways to get a feel for the shape of your book is to read similar books.  Since I have a vague idea that this book will have something to do with my life experiences, I decide to browse some biography books.  And perhaps collections of personal essays. So I head to the local bookstore and stand in front of a biography shelf.

Not immediately but soon thereafter I find three books that sound like they would be fun to read.  All three are in hard cover. I am not in a position to buy three hard cover books at once but I decide I should start somewhere and I buy one of them.

Later that day at home I am going through my own library of books picking the volumes that I no longer need and that I can donate to my building’s library. When I bring them downstairs to the common room that serves as the library I, of course, browse for what I can also borrow to read.  And what do you think I find?

You guessed it.

I find the two books I didn’t buy a few hours earlier and another book that would be perfect for research and fun reading.

The Universe works in mysterious ways and little synchronicities abound.  They are all around, begging for us to notice them.  What for? Well, I have a theory.  And while this isn’t proven statistically, I believe I am really on to something.

I think synchronicities often happen when the Universe is trying to tell us something, push us somewhere. And that somewhere most likely has to do with our purpose in life – our reason for being here on this planet.

  • Have you been wanting to write a book, but never getting around to it? No problem – here are a few books, FREE!, for you to get inspired.  And while you are at it, here is a handy workshop right in your area that will teach you how to start.
  • Or have you been thinking of traveling somewhere but it’s never a good time and money is tight? Not an issue. How about running into people who just went where you’ve been dreaming to go on a shoe string budget and can tell you all about it? Plus, that gym membership may not be your best investment anymore now that you are running outside? Maybe save some cash and go?
  • Or .. what is this university course brochure doing on your desk again? You’ve been throwing it in the trash for the past few years yet it somehow keeps making its way into your mailbox.  Sure, there is a course in there you’ve been drooling over but this is not the right time.  Or is it?

You see where I am going with this?

Open your eyes and ears.  Look and listen.  Pay attention to what happens around you and what happens to you. Do it every day. And then share — what’s your synchronicity of the day?