Monday, September 22, 2014

Trying to Write Like a Russian Male

Having extended my Moscow adventure into a second year under the pretext of finishing my novel, I feel like I need to finish this thing posthaste lest I find myself staying for the duration of my three-year visa. I recently passed an important novel-writing milestone, that being that I finally showed it to people other than myself. Letting people read my writing has become marginally less terrifying over the years, but still makes me feel like I am opening up the most private and vulnerable parts of myself for judgment and ridicule. But that’s how everyone feels about their line of work, right?

My three most trusted editors (my sisters and Nadya) are familiar with my fragile writer’s ego—they know I can take criticism, but that I also need a few compliments to keep me from pulling an Anna Karenina and throwing myself in front of a train. Their responses were encouraging enough that I haven’t set fire to my laptop, and Melissa gave perhaps the strangest feedback I’ve ever received on anything in my life ever: “I liked the scene where … I don’t know if it is the extreme lack of sleep that I’m undergoing or my period, but it made me tear up.” I don’t remember writing anything of any emotional depth, so it’s entirely possible that it was the low quality of my writing that made her cry.

It would seem my biggest problem is my two main characters, whom I don’t seem to know that well.  I think I can figure out the heroine, but my protagonist has proven more problematic, probably because he is a Russian male and I am not. I’m now on a quest to tap into my male character’s inner psyche, and my strategies thus far have ranged from creepy to insane.

First, I decided to start a journal from his perspective. I already keep a daily journal, so this meant I was now writing a second one – as a dude I invented. He’s really not the journaling type, but he sucked it up for my sake and jotted down some feelings. We made it through three pages before I started feeling like a schizophrenic and decided it was time for a new approach.

My next idea was to find a real male with a lot in common with my main character. After wracking my brain, I settled on a Russian who we’ll call “Anton.” He is a friend of a friend, and we once had dinner together nearly four years ago. Though we haven’t seen each other since, that hasn’t stopped me from shooting off the occasional email with pressing, novel-related questions like, “Are you circumcised?” (No, I am not writing a romance novel.)

Anton is currently on vacation in Asia, so when I called him yesterday afternoon, he was sitting on a beach eating pad Thai and drinking a mango shake. I was worried my questions might be too invasive, but he spent an hour and a half answering every question I posed to him – from “were you teased when you moved to the US?” to “do you shave your armpits?” It would seem that there are some Russian customs that men left behind when fleeing the Soviet Union, armpit shaving being one of them.

Armed with seven pages of Anton’s male insight, I decided to make yet another attempt at starting my fourth draft. I walked down to Gorky Park, where I made myself comfortable alongside the Moscow River with a notebook and a cold glass of kvas.  Ignoring the Russian couple making out a few meters away, I wrote the first sentence of my fourth draft for the millionth time. If this beginning doesn’t stick, it might be time a sex change – for my main character, not me.


  1. Be careful! Not only will you understand them maybe you'll become a Russian man in the end!

    Good luck! I know you can do it!

  2. I know you can write this novel not become a man. However, if you wanted to. All the more power to you! hahaha