Some days as I struggle with excuses for not sitting down to write, I think of June 2006 when I traveled to Russia to attend the Summer Literary Seminar (SLS) in St. Petersburg—all in the name of writing!
It would be a two-week sojourn in a city that, at that time, wasn’t on my short list of places to visit. I would be traveling with my friend and fellow writer, Marge Barrett. We were co-teaching a Chekhov class and shared a desire to know more about Russia and its incredible literary history.
The seminar offered a feast for writers: morning workshops with our writer of choice (Gina Ochsner, Padgett Powell, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ann Lauterbach and others); fascinating literary walks (Dostoevsky Walk, Pushkin Duel Walk, Mad Monk Walk); and lectures with Russian scholars and contemporary writers. We would stay at the Herzen Inn in the heart of St. Petersburg only blocks from the Hermitage. We would visit neighboring villages and see the palaces of the tsars. We would eat our fill of borsch with ice-cold vodka chasers while chatting affably with fellow writers in delightful Russian cafes.
And so I was swept up into the exotic glamour of it all. How starry-eyed we become when we fantasize about the heady pleasures of being a writer: imaginative soaring, writer soul mates, new details to fill the pages of notebooks, a time to focus on writing for two solid weeks.
Visa: At that time, you didn’t just go to Russia, you had to be invited and this involved a lengthy application process and a cryptic visa application. Then we waited and waited, with the visa showing up a day or two before we were to leave.
Packing: Did they really want us to bring a fan all the way to Russia? We decided: No. Better to bring our books. So our suitcases were full of heavy literary tomes and a few clothes that could be washed in the sink. No hair dryers. All decisions to be regretted later.
Travel: “What do you mean you’re going to fly Aeroflot?” said our friends. We arrived in Moscow blurry eyed. Marge’s brown leather bag was lost. We found out that the terminal to St. Petersburg required a bus ride to another terminal several miles away, and we negotiated the transfer without being able to decipher a single sign in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Accommodations and Classrooms: The Herzen Inn on the main drag of Nevsky Prospekt turned out to be an upgraded hostel. The heat was unbearable in our room. One night we decided to leave the door of our tiny refrigerator open all night as a mini-air conditioner. We learned why the manual said, “Bring a fan.” The classrooms where we met were sad reminders of a not-too-distant Russian past. The dust and mold set off an allergy attack.
Fellow Travelers: The lack of sleep (no one sleeps during the White Nights of July because it never gets dark) inflamed the irritations that buzzed around a bunch of writers in a distant land. Insecurities surfaced: why did I choose this story for the workshop? why did I say that about another writer’s work? Then add in the pressure of lurking in the shadows of Dostoevsky, Anna Akhmatova, and Joseph Brodsky.
The heat, the lack of sleep, no hot water, don’t drink the water, sore feet, a horrible cold, lost, tired, sick, alone—the grim realities of the dark, yet often comic, complexities of the writing life were intensified in Russia.
Yet in the middle of all this, we were afforded moments of intense beauty. We stood on Griffon Bridge on Griboyedov Canal (one of the many canals that make this city the “Venice of the North”) and saw the remarkable view of the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood. We huddled under a ledge on the steps of the Winter Palace with Russian couples and families waiting out an afternoon rainstorm and looked out over a glistening courtyard where Russian history unfolded to see a rainbow fill the sky. We wrote haiku in the Summer Gardens and hunted through an antique store for Russian postcards to serve as inspiration for a short story. We met other writers who were sharing our ecstasies and agonies. Our friendship grew deeper. Marge listened to me cough and blow my nose for a solid week without killing me. We found the Internet café and sent frantic e-mails home. We read our work to each other in our shabby-shabby room. We discovered an Albanian restaurant down the street. We laughed and appreciated our little refrigerator because it held our bottle of vodka. (“Is it time for our vodka yet?” I asked in the middle of a long lecture.)
Filled with memories of the enigma of Russia, I returned to the solid ground of home. I stood at the bottom of the stairs leading up to my study and said to myself, “If I can go all the way to Russia for my writing, surely I can climb these stairs to my office and sit down at my desk and turn on my computer to begin a new story.”
Like Russia, the Muse does invite me in but not always as quickly or as easily as I might wish. I often don’t have what I think I need for the trip—more ideas, fewer doubts. The irritating buzz of everyday life will not disappear, yet I’m not alone. I can call a friend who knows what it means to go as far as Russia for writing. And I know there will be laughter and beauty along the way. And maybe even a new story.
About Summer Literary Seminars (SLS): These renowned writing seminars are no longer held in St. Petersburg, Russia, but continue on three continents: North America (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), Europe (Tbilisi, Georgia), and Africa (Nairobi-Lamu, Kenya). About the seminars, George Saunders, a participant when I attended, said: “SLS is one of the most exciting and important intellectual venues in the world right now; absolutely the most important seminar of its kind… SLS is at the center of a discussion I am hearing more and more in the US, about the moral role of fiction… well, what I’ve heard students say is that they have never felt more artistically alive, more convinced of their own potential to find the beauty in life and write about it… The beauty of the program is that it makes for a kind of two-way diplomacy.”