Connecting through an essay Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity Connecting through an essay

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 197 ~ October, 2013

Many times when preparing to write my monthly essay for PIF Magazine, days before deadline one or two vague ideas begin floating in the back of my mind as possibilities, only to find a momentary “click” later and I’m off writing something completely unexpected. That’s what happened this month, and it all came after talking with a Russian woman in Missouri about an essay she submitted to an online journal where somehow I was asked to help in accepting pieces for its upcoming Winter issue.

Since there are so many submissions, I tend to skip over introductory letters and go right to the work, which may be good, because I start off with a blank slate in terms of the writer. In the case of this particular essay, while I was aware the writer was a woman, and the writer had a Russian name, and was a grandmother, and a librarian, none of this was in itself germane to the essay, which was written in a concise, pleasant, flowing style. The essay was about this Russian librarian living in Missouri going to an “Unleash Your Imagination” happening at the local library.

I instantly agreed with how she viewed the women in the group, and particularly how she felt toward the leader of the group. I also have difficulty with workshop leaders instructing me on how I should feel, especially when asked to do nonsensical exercises to make me feel a certain pronounced way, so I identified with the Russian writer from the beginning.

The essay was fine, read well, and I enjoyed it, with the writer remaining an individual in the midst of the other women who followed the group norm as if they were members of a benign cult devoted toward creativity. I could see the workshop instructor telling everyone to jump. and all but the Russian woman, and myself, if I had been there, immediately asking, “How high?” I believe my new Russian writer friend and I would have both asked, “Why?”

I have never been a great proponent, nor participant, of doing things for the sake of doing things under the guise that such activity is something other than it really is, and for me, at least, this usually means killing time while convincing oneself whatever one happens to be doing is beneficial. God bless, anyone who loves what they happen to be doing, so long as it isn’t hurting others. I’ve found many, however, and there’s nothing wrong with it, who have to keep moving, have to be involved with something, always in the process of doing something, almost anything, so if you ever ask what they’ve been doing, he or she has a ready, automatic answer. A friend of mine, a member of the New York State Assembly for years before simply concentrating on his legal practice after becoming a husband and father later than most, called just before I talked with the Russian librarian in Missouri.

The former Assemblyman has a penchant for spending countless hours in traffic in the New York City area, using such time to try and check in with folks on the phone.

His first words are always the same, “What’s up?” To which, I almost invariably respond, “What are you doing?”

“I’m on my way home from a street naming,” he said.

“I hope it was a good street,” I said.

An automatic voice coming from his car interrupted, providing directions for him.

The former Assemblyman then told me the name of the Italian community leader, who is no longer with us, and was best known for running a bingo hall in a previous movie theater, that the street was named after. He left out the part about how the Italian community leader, a euphemism for whatever one wants, won a bitter, protracted, legal battle with a Protestant Church of some 600 black parishioners, who wanted the same space, because they were stuck holding services in a basement community room beneath a row of stores in a small ‘Mom & Pop’ shopping center, laid out in mini-strip mall style, with not nearly enough parking. The Italian businessman’s possible ties to organized crime were never mentioned in more than a whisper, and only in safe company.

The former Assemblyman has always wanted to write a book, but has never written more than a few letters over the decades which were published in the New York Post and the Daily News, and once in The Wall Street Journal. The Russian librarian, on the other hand, has constantly been writing over the years, but mostly in isolation, with not much, if any, interaction with other writers.

I generally think of myself as just me, and thus, when talking with others, I rarely to never feel I’m anything special. I sent the Russian woman an email saying I wanted to publish her essay, if it was still available, and I would like to talk with her about it over the phone, but not to get nervous, there was nothing wrong with her work, I simply had a few suggestions that might make it read a bit smoother. My goal was to make the good, better, though I certainly had no intention of commanding her “to do this, or else!” It was her essay, and it was fine.

I called Svetlana, and was somewhat self-conscious she felt I was someone special simply because I was working as an editor at an online literary journal.

She was on the defensive at first, then quickly realized I was not calling to mercilessly criticize her essay to no good purpose, and that I did indeed like her essay. In fact, since I didn’t read her introductory letter, I had no idea English was her second language until we started sharing stories about our backgrounds.

I made a couple suggestions about her essay, a couple instances where the rule “less is more” applied, and I was able to point out in a general and then more specific way a couple examples where she was able to see I probably knew what I was talking about, and what I said made sense to her.

Her writing was similar to mine, simple and direct. I told her when one writes clearly, and what you are saying and doing appears easily comprehensible on the  page, then it’s much easier for the “professional” criticizers to have a field day, if they so desire, a process I have endured many times more than I needed when first starting out.

Her essay was a snapshot, and a good one, of an afternoon, an incident, one in which an individual spirit was questioning the unwavering obedience of the norm. Her imagination took her back to her family, and memories of them on a specific outing, while the others in the library imagination group were straining to be creative, letting out gentle, ecstatic moans and drawing “rather complex scenes with trees, waterfalls, and butterflies.”

Svetlana lived in Columbia, where the University of Missouri is located, and she has a master’s degree in library sciences. Her husband, who recently retired, taught linguistics at the university, and Svetlana sheepishly confessed to me that he had gone over her essay to help with the grammar, which seemed perfect to me, and maybe even an extra good basis for marital bliss in these so-called modern times.

I often can get a good feel for people after a quick conversation, or reading an essay, and from Svetlana’s essay, I knew she had not lived what one would consider an ordinary life. So, it did not surprise me when she said she had written a memoir about her early years in Russia before coming to the United States. She told me her childhood was bleak and unhappy, and she said she opened her memoir with a nightmare, something I could relate to from childhood, though I was nowhere near Russia, instead frequently waking up crying and screaming at the age of five in my bed in Flushing, Queens in New York City. I should add my nightmares came from within, whereas hers were based on the reality of the oppressive environment, based on the true fear, in which she lived on a daily basis.

Svetlana told me she was about to give up on ever having her memoir published because all she received were short, formal rejection letters from potential publishers. I didn’t want to share the many horror stories and anecdotes I knew about writers trying to get published — the all star writers who are somehow automatically catapulted and marketed in the commercial stratosphere, and then the many quality writers, many who teach in MFA writing programs, and publish significant novels which usually have a modest readership at best, but deserve more, and then, of course, those like Svetlana, who continue to write in isolation and are not on anyone’s radar, yet.

I suggested she send a portion, or all of her memoir to me. I feel too young to suffer such maladies but I’m scheduled to go into the hospital for a major operation later this month, and if all goes well, which, of course, I hope it will, I should have plenty of time to read, especially since I will be forced to take a break from the political conflict surrounding me all day, everyday, running a weekly newspaper in the Bronx, where many lose perspective and the world becomes reduced to a parochial, all consuming fight, one in which the goal is complete victory, with no taking of prisoners.

Svetlana was genuinely grateful, but I was embarrassed when she told me I was the first real editor who had ever talked to her. I’m not sure that’s what I am, I was simply talking as a writer about an essay I liked, which happened to be written by someone else, in this case, her.

Since my parents were both born and raised in Ontario, moving to New York City after graduating from the University of Toronto and getting married, I always felt like I had a dual perspective growing up — the United States of my birth and Canada, where all my relatives were from. Svetlana identified, though her situation was a bit different; early years in Russia, an oppressive experience for her, and then the life she created in the United States, which turned out better than I suspect she ever imagined.

Svetlana and I are close in age — she’s two years older than me — and neither of us seems to blend naturally with the contemporary scene in culture, entertainment, television, or electronic gadgets. She understood what I was saying when I told her I felt as if I was part of the World War Two generation, despite being born after the war was over.

I did, however, discover that Svetllana keeps a blog, though entries are not that frequent. A couple clicks and I was able to fill in some more information about her, more specifics about the interesting person I had been talking to on the phone for well over an hour. She starts by saying on her blog that she’s “a Jewish immigrant from Russia who was born in Moscow in 1951 and who moved to the United States in 1990.” Quite a contrast, she was born while Stalin was still all powerful and came to the United States after George W. Bush, the elder, had become President after Ronald Reagan. In Russia, Svetlana was an engineer and then an editor for the Soviet Encyclopedia, something I admit I had never thought of before, but for no particular reason. She always wanted to write, from an early age, but fear of truth, especially in an atmosphere where children were praised for denouncing their parents for having original ideas, was certainly not conducive to creative writing.

I checked out her description of her memoir and am looking forward to reading it, and I’m also using it as a life affirming goal in the face of my upcoming operation, something positive waiting for me on the other side of my date with the surgeon. Her memoir is apparently written in a series of stories recreating the Moscow of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the influence on her family of the Second World War, Stalin’s Great Purges, everyday anti-Semitism, and government propaganda in a true totalitarian state, with all its resulting limitations on freedom of movement and speech.

I’ve learned over the years, everyone has a story, whether they know it or not, and I’m pleased to have ended up reading Svetlana’s essay, and then talking with her, and suspect her memoir will tell a poignant story of the survival of a young Russian girl in Moscow who is now a retired librarian in Missouri with a quiet, yet strong, dignified character, and a life that is content, which is more than many can truthfully say.

  • Gilbert Youmans

    Thanks for this essay. All of us who enjoy good writing would like to think of ourselves as belonging to a community of letters, although, writing, unlike conversation, is by nature a solitary act–which makes it all the nicer to hear about a case in which the written word has led to a conversation. As E.M. Forster once said, “Only connect.”

    Your readers wish you the best on your upcoming operation.

    Gilbert Youmans

  • Barbara Bassett

    What a pleasure to be able to “sit in” on such a warm, human exchange between writer and editor. I have been on both sides many times, and I know this quality of communication is what we should all strive for, but it so often gets lost among the deadlines. Thank you for the good example!