Saturday, December 6, 2014


In fifth grade, my teacher decided to have all of the non-native English-speakers come to the front of the class and teach the rest of us how to say “hello” in their languages. There were three Russian girls in my class, so that meant we all had to learn how to say “Здравствуйте.” She had them write it on the whiteboard, but even seeing “zdravstvuyte” in Latin letters wasn’t much help. We made a valiant effort, repeating it over and over until the classroom was awash with consonants.

“Is anyone saying it right?” asked our teacher.

The girls made us go around the classroom one-by-one until all 28 of us had thoroughly butchered their mother tongue. At the end, Anna turned to our teacher and said, “Jessie’s the only one who got it right.” I beamed with overachieving pride, unaware that this would be the last time I’d ever pronounce the Russian greeting properly.

A few months later, Anna and I were partnered up on a classroom task. She was wearing shiny, pointy-toed black shoes—the kind that Russian men are still partial to today. Apropos of nothing, I said, “Your shoes are stupid.”

“Yeah, well you need new jeans,” she fired back, pointing at the massive hole over my knee. And there it was, my first lesson in not messing with Russian females. They will always win and you will always feel inferior in your fashion choices. Now I wish Anna had taken me under her wing and taught me how to dress like a Russian girl back when I was 11—it would have saved me so much trouble now.

The mid-90s were bad for everyone (I’m in the middle)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

An (Emotional) American Mountain

In Spain, a roller coaster is known as a “Russian mountain” (una montaña rusa). The “Swiss mountain” atop Monte Igueldo in San Sebastián is an exception—legend has it that Generalissimo Franco himself chose this unconventional nomenclature because he didn’t want to name anything after the Russian Communists. Meanwhile, here in Russia, you might think a roller coaster would just be called a “mountain,” but you would be wrong. To really confuse me, the Russians say “American mountains” (американские горы), and I  still haven’t found a Spanish mountain.  Whatever you want to call it, a roller coaster is the best metaphor for how I have been feeling about writing lately. It’s like, “Well this sounded fun at first, but now I can’t really get off because I’m plummeting toward the ground, so I guess I’ll just vomit instead.”

Spain’s Swiss Mountain (“mountain train” in Basque)
Photo credit: Donosti’s newest resident, the lovely Marti Buckley Kilpatrick

For the last month, I have been getting farther and farther behind on my writing schedule. The end of the week rolls around and I have yet to re-write another chapter. I go to the library, Lenin’s faded portrait looks down at me mockingly, and I stare at page upon page of mediocre writing that looks to have been written by someone who has never read a book in her life. It kind of feels like I’m attempting to put together a puzzle without the box that shows you what it’s supposed to look like—except I have 60,000 words instead of puzzle pieces. And I hate puzzles.

A friend asked me if I was suffering from Writer’s Block, which I don’t even know if I believe in. If I had to diagnose my affliction, it would be more like Writer’s Depression or Writer’s Low Self-Esteem. Or maybe just “Not Actually a Writer.” Whatever it is, it’s the kind of emotional state that makes me want to light my laptop on fire. I very well may have done that if not for the fact that the woman who monitors Hall 2 at the Lenin Library would likely light me on fire if I tried doing that on her watch.

Then last Wednesday, just as I was about to go to bed, I got an email from my first male critic that included feedback on the first 60 pages. There was plenty of stuff he didn’t like, but there was also a lot he did like—and even more surprisingly, plenty that I liked as well. I discovered sentences I don’t remember writing that were actually quite good, and some bad ones that I realized I knew how to fix. I spent the morning of Thanksgiving incorporating his changes (and hopefully making my male hero a little more masculine) and actually felt excited about writing for the first time in weeks. We’ll see how long the ascent lasts before I’m back to wondering why I ever decided to get on this stupid ride.
“Every so often I get a tug on my sleeve [to write fiction]. It’s kind of awful. It’s so hard. It means you’re going to be immersed in it for a very long time. When I get that nudge, I kind of feel like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ Because it means it’s going to be two or three years, and I’m going to have terrible self-esteem the whole time, until I get to the very last draft.” – Anne Lamott
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” – George Orwell