How Far?

         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.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

          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.

         Then reality!

        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.”


An Old Poet

That’s part of John Knoepfle’s e-mail address – “old poet” – and that’s a fitting introduction to his poem, “thinking back these eighty eight years,” which I discovered in the current issue of New Letters.

I’m neither a poet nor qualified to review poetry, but I fell so deeply in love with this poem that I’ve been thrusting it into other writers’ hands, commanding them to read it.

Perhaps I love it because I’m from the Midwest, and one of John’s awards is the Mark Twain Award for Contributions to Midwestern Literature.

Or perhaps because “thinking back” is written the way memory works – “what do you remember old fox . . . what else quarterback sacked punt blocked/failed promises factory work” – and I write about memory and identity.

Or perhaps because he is a witness to history in this long, six-page poem – “and one sundays awesome silence/steaming the straits of solomon . . .I can tell you about shrapnel/how it drowns you in your own blood” – and I tell members of my Over-50 Writing Workshop that they must record, and pass on, the history they witnessed.

On his web site, John says, “I try to reflect a common quality that I have found in persons   . . . This quality does not reveal the aesthetically beautiful or the diamond-like intellectual fireworks that man is capable of, but it does reveal something basic and handsome about him.” In “thinking back” he reflects that quality in an old pastor, a clairvoyant, a hindu surgeon, the woman in selma, the kennedys, doctor king, the bus driver, and many more.

I would, if I could, thrust the entire poem into your hands. If you can’t find a copy of New Letters, let’s hope that “thinking back these eighty eight years” will appear in John Knoepfle’s 21st book of poetry.





Writing an Enticing Cover Letter by Arlene Mandell

I smiled, with both appreciation and recognition, as I read Arlene Mandell’s guest blog. I, too, have been amazed that people in my workshops have not given thought to their cover letters. Take a good look at her #4. And remember that you’re writing to human beings, people who want to be appreciated for their journal/website/whatever as much as you want them to appreciate the work you’re submitting.

Thanks, Arlene, for being our guest blogger this week.

Writing an Enticing Cover Letter by Arlene Mandell

Groan. I have to write a letter? Can’t I just email this brilliant essay? Or squander a 44-cent stamp and add a perky Post-It with “Please publish ASAP”? No, you cannot.

Having written 3,200 cover letters in the past 20 years, I haven’t wanted to spend too much time crafting each one, yet I want the editor to feel acknowledged and respected.

1. Create attractive letterhead on your computer. Don’t embellish with little feather pens or winsome kittens. Save it.

2. Write a basic bio of 50 words in third person, another of 75 words. Save them. Unless you’re applying for a scholarship, you need not mention where you went to college. If a publication specializes in the domestication of wild animals, you may add, “Onoria Jones raises Bengal tigers on her quarter-acre estate in Petaluma, CA.” Revise annually, adding more impressive credits, i.e., Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

3. Reread the submission guidelines, underlining key elements: genre, number of poems, and, most importantly, the deadline.

4. If you have actually read the publication—a really good idea—mention specifically what you enjoyed before stating: “Thank you for considering ‘My Little Margie,’ a 700-word essay for your fall issue. If you are submitting several works, list them in a column. And if you’re submitting for the spring issue of Conifer Quarterly, don’t send photos of snow-covered cedars.

5. Now assemble the components: letterhead, introduction, specifics, and third-person bio. This should fit neatly on one page. As a postscript I always add: “Please recycle” since a coffee-stained, rumpled poem cannot be used again. Print two copies. One is for your files, as you will rarely remember the specifics of the submission. Proofread. Enclose SASE.

And now, I invite you to return to your writing, confident you have behaved in a responsible, professional manner.


Arlene L. Mandell, who lives in Santa Rosa, CA, has published more than 500 poems, essays and short stories. Her chapbook, Scenes from My Life on Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir, is available free at



Susan Surman: From Actor to Writer

Susan didn’t intend to be a writer. She trained to be an actor and, as Gracie Luck and Susan Kramer, Boston-born Susan had a 25-year career in London’s West End, The Fringe in Edinburgh, and the Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Opera House.

Her transition from acting to writing came about in the 70’s. She was in rehearsal for a TV show and, with her lunch in a brown paper bag, had to take the train from Waterloo Station in London to a church hall in the countryside. That same week, she was to meet a producer about a screenplay she had just completed. She was picked up at her flat by a chauffeur-driven, white Rolls Royce and taken to lunch. Writing was where it was at, she decided.

Susan Surman

In between acting gigs, Susan wrote screenplays, plays, and revues, some of them optioned, some of them produced. Her first book, Max and Friends, was based on a cartoon about a rabbit that she had written years earlier in Australia.

Her next book was about a dog, Sacha: The Dog Who Made It to the Palace, inspired by her own dog’s visits to Buckingham Palace with a friend who was the royal florist. Susan offered a copy to the Queen Mother, an offer accepted by one of her staff, with specific instructions as to what time she was to arrive at the Palace, which door she was to use. Susan says that when she herself “made it to the Palace,” she went by bus to a side door, but still . . . A few days later, she received a thank-you note: “Her Majesty was interested to learn that the book tells the story of Sacha’s adventures that finally led the little dog to meet Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.”

Susan’s later novels have people for characters, not animals, and draw upon her extensive travels and her show biz experiences. Acting proved to be great training for her writing – learning to “be” someone else, to imagine that person’s life before she comes on stage, to know what she is thinking, why she moves and talks as she does. Dancing at all the Weddings, her latest book, follows an actress for 28 years from Boston to New York to Hollywood.

Our first meeting was over lunch, and we didn’t stop talking until mid-afternoon. When it became obvious that the restaurant would like to get rid of us, we walked across the street to a park. A cool May day, so we sat down on a bench in the sun. And immediately stood up, both of us laughing uncontrollably. We had never intended to be “old ladies” sitting on a park bench in the sun. We’re thinking now of collaborating on a play in which that stereotype is challenged.