L. Bordetsky-Williams ~
As I struggled over decades to write and rewrite my novel, Forget Russia, I tried to comfort myself with the examples of some of our greatest writers. Walt Whitman spent his life writing Leaves of Grass. His devotion to that manuscript still moves me. He never stopped tinkering with it, and though he left us many editions of his masterpiece, I still somehow prefer the first 1855 edition, self-published and criticized by many at the time. Or I thought of Virginia Woolf’s artist Lily Briscoe, who begins her painting of the Ramsay family in the first part of To the Lighthouse. But she doesn’t complete the painting and have her vision until the end of the novel, in the third part of the book. Time, ultimately, has to pass. Woolf names the second part of her novel, Time Passes—two words that sum up so much of what we experience in our journey through life.
But if life is a journey, I have come to realize that books have their own journeys, too. Decades ago, when I was a senior in college, I took a trip that changed my life. At the height of the cold war, I spent a semester abroad in Moscow at the Pushkin Institute. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, I had the opportunity to meet many of the young Soviet Jews living there—many of them were Refuseniks, Jews whose visa applications had been rejected and then were subsequently fired from their jobs. Others told me they could never leave because their mothers had a “secret job,” that would prevent them from ever getting an exit visa.
Most of their grandparents had been Bolsheviks, and they struggled with the legacy of Stalin’s terror, telling me stories of murder and exile. My own grandparents had left—one before and one after the Revolution—both my grandmother and grandfather had to deal with one of their parents murdered in Russia due to Anti-Semitism. And even with this legacy, my grandparents returned, drawn back to Leningrad in the 1930s; my grandfather wished to support the Revolution, and took my melancholic grandmother and my mother and aunt, ages five and three. They stayed nine long months before returning once again to America.
So, here I was, looking into a mirror image of what could have been my own life as I spoke to these young Soviet Jews in Moscow. I felt as if I had been waiting my entire life to meet them and have this dialogue, which was abruptly interrupted when the semester ended, and November and December brought Reagan’s election and John Lennon’s murder.
When I returned and graduated from college a few months later, I started to write about my journey to the Soviet Union as a memoir. I enrolled in a writing workshop with the amazing Jewish feminist writer, E.M. Broner, who encouraged me to get the manuscript done. She even helped me attend the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, so I could sit for many hours a day with the stories, and just write. I did create a manuscript of about 100 pages, but somehow I just couldn’t quite capture the force and drama of what my experience in the Soviet Union had been. I wrote and rewrote it for the next five years.
At one point, I became so determined that I quit my full-time job and worked twenty hours a week as a college admissions counselor, embracing my life as the broke artist, so I could continue writing. I wanted to capture how these acts of violence in Russia that my ancestors had endured had affected my own life. Are the effects of violence inherited just as genes are? I wanted to write of the three generations that had journeyed back and forth to Russia / Soviet Union and the USA in search of a home. No matter how much I wrote and rewrote the story, I never felt satisfied with the manuscript. I put it away, and went on to graduate school. But it was always there, tugging at me.
I got a Ph.D. in English, worked on poetry and published some of it, and would intermittently take a look at the manuscript. I also wanted to capture the drama of three generations of Russian Jews obsessed with Russia, but the structure always eluded me. I tried it so many ways, but it always seemed to fail.
Life moved me in different directions. I got a full-time teaching job and discovered I loved the classroom. I worked on other writing. I published an academic book on Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf, and I even wrote a memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf, and published it with a small press. But the Russia book was part of my soul. It was my failure that I couldn’t accept.
Fifteen years ago, I decided to dust off the pages of the manuscript and write it as a work of fiction. This happened after our beloved Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, came to Ramapo College as a commencement speaker, and I gave her a copy of my memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf. When I saw her again at a Morrison conference, she told me she liked my book, found it interesting. Her praise was such a boost in my heart that I more than redoubled my efforts to get this Russia manuscript to work. I wrote, and rewrote, sent it out, got many rejections, went back to it, and changed it some more. I spent many long and exciting hours researching life in Leningrad in the 1930s, as well as the turbulent Ukraine before and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
I had so many copies of the manuscript spanning so many years, it seemed endless. I would think it was done, and then decide I could make it better. That’s when I concluded I simply could not finish it. Perhaps I didn’t want to forget and leave Russia behind either. And then I found a writing community of amazing readers and editors. Time had, as Virginia Woolf says, passed, and more distance was created between me and my fictional characters.
I restructured the novel, and figured out a way to get the three generations to come together, which the novel form gave me. I hung on to Emily Dickinson’s words, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I continued on until yes, one day it was finished, and after getting so many rejections I could wallpaper a room with them, Tailwinds Press, an outstanding independent press, accepted the manuscript. Forget Russia was published by Tailwinds on December 1, 2020.
My advice when you can’t seem to finish your novel is absolutely don’t give up. Try to write something else, but come back to it. Books have their own journeys, and let yours wander, but don’t ever let it go.
— L. Bordetsky-Williams
L. Bordetsky-Williams is the author of Forget Russia, published by Tailwinds Press, December 2020. She has also published the memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf (Hamilton Books, 2005), The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf (Greenwood Press, 2000), and three poetry chapbooks: The Eighth Phrase (Porkbelly Press 2014), Sky Studies (Finishing Line Press 2014), and In the Early Morning Calling (Finishing Line Press, 2018)). She is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey and lives in New York City.
Forget Russia website: http://www.forgetrussia.com