You know how sometimes you have a week that starts so disastrously you wish you could hide away in your room for a week and emerge in time to re-do the whole thing seven days later? The nice thing about having a grant in creative writing is that this sort of thing is actually encouraged, and I took full advantage this week.
My problems were largely transit-based. Russian public transit in the winter means a couple of things. You will be elbowed, sharply and maliciously in the face and come within inches of losing consciousness. This is not subjective. It is proven fact. You will be squashed against windows, rails, doors, and other people. You will be trampled on the way into the bus, and trampled harder on the way out of the bus. You will become keenly aware that there is an unspoken hierarchy, a while set of rules about who may stand and sit in which part of the bus, and everywhere you go will violate those unspoken rules. Violation of the unspoken rules will result in glares, nudges, shoves, and the aforementioned elbowings. Worst of all though: the sense of constantly being in someone else’s way, which is frustrating. Thicker transit skin, I’m going to have to develop. That, and some sharper elbows.
After all of this fun, I lost my phone—on my way to pay my phone bill. The nice thing about cellular service in Russia is that voice, text, and unlimited data costs me about eight bucks a month.
The not-so-nice thing is that the same governmental tactic (chiefly, deregulation, with a sprinkling of privatization) that makes phone service inexpensive is also the tactic that makes it impossible to find something lost on city transit.
Why? We’ll there’s not a city bus company. There are dozens of independent bus companies that contract with the city to run bus lines on the town’s various routes. As best as I can piece it together, some of these companies are large, organized groups with dozens of buses, an office, a Web site—the works. Others are a guy who bought a bus and drives it. Lost a phone on bus route 13? Well, unless you’ve got the license plate number of the exact bus, Mr. Samsung and his friend Mr. Transit Pass (which was tucked into the case for convenience) are gonners.
With that start to the week, I became a hermit.
From Monday to Friday, I left my flat three times: once to teach a class and twice to attend Russian lessons. The rest of the time, I spent feverishly working to wrap up the publisher’s edits on my debut novel. More that 70 hours went into that this week. There were a few other smaller projects which got some attention, but most critically, my moderate agitation (and minor wounds) from trying to get around town gave me a perfect excuse to park it at my desk and wrap up what has been a three-month process of trying to re-order, re-arrange, and enrich the text of Pine Gap, my book about an eastern Kentucky mining family.
One of the things I’ve learned during this revision process is that the most difficult character to write is the single mother of young children. In this text, a character named Rebecca is the single mom of two-year-old twins. Now, the book is about the entire family, but there is a scale of importance for the characters, and Rebecca is fourth place.
As such, I didn’t imagine spending nearly as much time as I have considering not only her, but her children. Those kids affect every character, throughout the veins of the text. Even when they’re not explicitly addressed in the text itself, I have to keep track of where they are, who is taking care of them, for how long. Have I left a spare character for kid-watching? When I send the mother to meet with another character, what happens with the kids? How do financial and time limitations come into play? Sometimes, I wrote scenes in which the character did things that the children ultimately rendered logistically impossible. There were also some character-based possibilities that I got to explore because of the children.
Authors often talk about permission: who has the tacit permission to write from a certain perspective. In this book, for example, three of the four most important characters are female. The family lives in a type of community I’m quite familiar with, but that I’ve never personally lived in. For some, there is an argument that I shouldn’t be writing from perspectives I can’t personally understand.
Those arguments, though, are largely based on audience perception.
If art is an artist’s personal exercise in exploring the world—and that’s what I believe it to be—then this book has been an incredible, multi-year effort in exploring communities and perspectives I could never have inhabited so fully in any other way. It has enriched me, changed the way I think about people, communities, regions, industries, and faiths. If an audience happens to benefit in coming alongside me to explore the tensions these characters faced and how they struggled through the difficulties of daily life. An hour ago, I sent off a newer, richer, more complex draft—thanks to the thoughtful notes of the editorial staff at Peasantry Press—and I’m excited about turning my attention more fully toward the stories I’ve been developing and cultivating in connection with my current geography.
Next week, as I embark on these new projects, I will leave my flat (I promise!) and as a result, there will be photographs once more.
The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.
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