Postcard from Siberia

Pictured above is one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a 1947 postcard sent from my grandmother in Siberia, addressed to her husband and children. It was sent to a town in Massachusetts where we had relatives, though at the time my grandfather and his kids (my father among them) were living in the UK. My grandmother wrote their church’s address from memory, I think, and sent it off as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to reach her loved ones.

Amazingly, it made its way out of Stalinist Russia and into the hands of distant cousins in the US. From there, the card found its addressees: my father, my two aunts and grandfather. It was the only moment of communication my grandmother had with her children between 1941 and 1955, when regular correspondence between Siberia and the West became possible.

The back of the postcard reads:

1947.II.16

My Dear Children Birutėlė, Janutė, Algutis and Antanukas [the latter, her husband, is addressed as one of her children, because she had told Soviet authorities her husband was dead],

It made me indescribably happy to learn that you were alive and well. I’m healthy, I work on a farm. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you.

The priest, my uncle, is still alive and lives in Liepalingis [Lithuania], as before.

Write to me, all. I await your letters.

Your mother,
Ona Šukienė.

After weeks of working my way through my travel notes from Siberia, I’m now back to my archives: reading my grandmother’s letters, and travelling in my mind across languages, time, space.

My grandmother wrote letters to her children from Siberia from 1955 to 1958, then from Soviet Lithuania from 1958 to 1965, when she joined her family in Canada. The above card marks the first step in their long process of return to one another. For me, now, it marks the beginning of my next stage of writing.

While working through my Siberian travel notebook over the past few weeks, I wrote a great deal in a very short span of time. It was going so well that I didn’t dare stop, question, or even re-read too much. In fact, I was working so fast that I  became uneasy, and started bracing myself for the other shoe to drop.

Well, crisis averted. With the complex tasks of weaving past with present and of melding my life with that of another back in my sights again, the familiar feeling of wading through mud has returned. Writing hurts again and the book resists.

All is well with the world in this regard.

Onward. (Squish.)

[Photo: J. Šukys, Ona Šukienė’s Siberian postcard from 1947, private collection]

On Literary Friendship

It’s grant season, so I’m writing my yearly emails asking friends and mentors to act as references in various competitions. I’ve been particularly overwhelmed by the encouragement and unqualified support I’ve received on all fronts, even from writer-friends I’ve never met in person and only know through email. All this literary love, as it were, has gotten me thinking about friendship.

It’s a lot easier to put your head down and keep working when you know you have supporters behind you.

One of my first real literary friends (not counting my husband and my friend, Mark, who reads all my manuscripts) came into my life about two years ago when I published a short piece from my now forthcoming book, Epistolophilia.

It was a bad time. My writing was stalled and I had begun to despair at whether I would ever finish the monster that had already eaten up some six years of my life but whose end was not at all in sight. Then one day an email arrived from another writer, a Toronto novelist, saying that my piece was the most exciting thing he’d read in a particular journal for years.

This note from a perfect stranger who had taken the time to track me down for no other reason than to extend himself in friendship gave me a boost that may just be responsible for my having finished my manuscript.

Literary friendships can be harder to come by than you would think. Writers are loners and they are competitive. We suffer from schadenfreude and pettiness, but our worst vice is, without a doubt, envy. And envy coupled with self-doubt is a very bad combination indeed.

It’s been over a year since I consciously started to try and follow that Toronto novelist’s example, and to extend myself to other writers. To do so, I had to work on conquering my jealousies.

I decided that when another author got an agent, I would be happy for her. When a writer I knew signed a contract, won an award or got a grant, I would celebrate his accomplishment. I would take the success of others to mean that I too could succeed.

I don’t know if it’s the new outlook, or if my work has actually gotten that much better, but there’s a lot more literary love in my life since I made the change.

So, to my writerly friends: thank you.

Because of you, I am less alone at my desk.

[Photo: Jenser (Clasix-Design)]


Life-blood: Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Random House, 1994.

Perhaps you know this book already. If you’re a writer, chances are it’s been recommended to you, or you’ve come across it on lists of good books on writing. I know this, because it’s been on my horizon for years. I finally decided to familiarize myself.

I read my tattered second-hand copy this week while navigating through contract negotiations for my second book. (Because of this, Lamott’s description of a New Yorker cartoon struck me as particularly funny: “We’re still pretty far apart,” says a writerly type to a ‘normal’ person at party. “I’m looking for a six-figure advance, and they’re refusing to read the manuscript” [162].) I’m happy to report that negotiations have gone well.

But reading the book on the heels of completing a major project has allowed me to bounce Lamott’s description of the writing process against what I’ve just lived.

Even though she most often appears to be addressing relatively green and unpublished writers, I found many echoes of my own solitude, frustration, demons and necessity of faith and discipline, as well as confirmations of  hunches about the need for truth, honesty and mining  your past for material. Someone recently told me that if I wanted to get published in a “real” magazine, I had to stop writing about myself and start writing about others. Lamott, it seems, would disagree, at least to a certain extent.

In some ways the book is a how-to manual. There are practical tips about how to organize your time (sit down and write every day, even if you feel like you have nothing to give), how to narrow your focus (to the size of a one-inch picture-frame) if overwhelmed, to listen carefully to the world around you (and take notes on index cards), have friends read your work, and write in letter form to loosen stubborn ideas.

In other ways, the book serves as a warning. Writing is hard work and for most authors it reaps few material rewards. Fame, fortune and even publication may remain beyond reach for many, but, Lamott stresses, “the literary life is the loveliest one possible. [. . .] One can find in writing a perfect focus for life. It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment. We see our work as vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood” (232).

This is a book writers recommend to other writers perhaps because it puts the act of writing (not publishing or book promotion) at its centre. It reminds of the dignity of our work, and reconfirms its importance to culture at large.

For Lamott, writing is a gift to her child, her father, a dying friend, and probably herself. And, for her, writers (despite what the character Julie of the film Julie and Julia might have us believe — “You’re not a writer unless someone publishes you,” was it?) are people who write.

[Photo: TalayehS]

The Writing Life

A writer friend of mine asked me recently how I keep going when things aren’t going well, and what I do when I become blocked.

The most useful thing I do when I feel empty is read. I turn to authors whose work I want to emulate: Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, Assia Djebar, Joan Didion, for example. I try to feel their rhythms and learn from what they do. I also read for content, and try to learn more by following a trail of bibliographies and footnotes. Lately (and weirdly, for me), I’ve been reading anthropologists. Even though these books look nothing like what I write or want to write, a fresh perspective and a hit of learning is always good for a frustrated writer.

Next, when a text isn’t working, I’ll try something formal to shake it up: I change voice from first- to second-person (two of the articles I’m most proud of are written in the form of letters), I change tense, or cut a text up into very small pieces and start rearranging. Often, I do this literally, sitting on the floor with tape and scissors and paper fragments. Proust’s archived manuscripts are apparently full of pasted-in bits that fold out in all directions. It’s a time-tested technique, and there’s something about physically cutting something up that works differently for me than cutting and pasting on screen. It’s easier to see the crap for what it is, and to tease out the good stuff.

Finally, if I have nothing to write about, I do something. I travel, I go in search of something (I’ve written about visiting the Paris apartment building Šimaitė lived in and travelling to an Iowa town named after an Algerian national hero). The journey is a classic frame, and it works for me.

My next trip will be to Siberia to find the village where my grandmother was exiled for seventeen years. What do I hope to find? If nothing else, the sky she saw and the earth she walked on. That alone will give me something to write about.

[Photo by austinevan]