Monthly Archives: February 2014

Power of word combinations

Words have certain power. They can motivate, they can hurt, and they can provide comfort. But only when they are set in certain chains, combined in certain special way.

We can hear wise words and agree with them. Some of the sentences and phrases we hear touch our hearts deep within. These words combinations stay with us and help us immensely.

Here is a bouquet of words I discovered yesterday, and which made me see the things I heard and realized before, in completely new light.

“Seeking strokes puts others in an awkward position, so if you do it, stop. Pause regularly and take pride in all your hard work as you go along. Then move on.” Christina Katz in “The Writer’s Workout”

We all search for praise. I’ve caught myself many times imagining how other people would praise me for what I have accomplished. And I worried and was disappointed if people didn’t praise me the way I imagined it. Then I thought I wasn’t good enough. But I forgot to realize that many people were often busy seeking for their own pat. They looked for appreciation as much as I did. And all those worries stopped me to continue doing what I had to, even if it was something I really enjoyed to do.

The wonderful sentences by Christina Katz provided me with a sweet and helpful mantra: “Take pride in your work. Then move on.”

During the last two days, I noticed several times how I wanted to fish for compliments and appreciation. Then I smiled, took pride in what I did, and moved on. This moving on included appreciating my loved ones and other people around me.


Courage to keep on track

I promised to share my writing experience with you here in my blog. I must admit that I was afraid that as an unpublished author I had nothing to say. Two things helped me to overcome this fear.

The first was that by sharing my experience while I am gathering it, I could help my fellow authors, who go through the same at this very time, who are in the same boat with me, even though an ocean might be separating us, to feel understood and not alone.

And the second was a wonderful post, among many other inspirational posts by my friend and author, Menna van Praag on courage. She opened this post with the following sentece: “Courage is vital to living a fulfilling life & fulfilling your dreams”.

So, I decided to take some courage and to tell you what I wanted to tell.

My post today is about staying on track. You will see in a moment how this is connected to writing a novel.

In the last few days, I started to re-write my first novel.

I’ve edited various snippets here and there on different occasions, but now I came to the beginning.

One of the critique points and advices coming again and again, among other by Menna, and by my niece and best friend, Mihaela, as well as numerous books on creative writing, is to make the main theme, the main goal of the protagonist visible on every page, starting with the first paragraph, through every scene and until the very END.

The protagonist of my novel is based on my father. And the novel about his quest to find his family, which he lost as a child.

A thought struck me: I couldn’t possibly write the same sentence on every page : “I want to find my family”. The hints to this main thread had to be more subtle.

When I started to think of separate scenes and immersed myself into the words I have put on page in the first draft, the solutions appeared almost by themselves.

In the prologue, when Misha, my protagonist, was a child, rescued by a stranger, the solution was very simple. I just had to make him exclaim: “I want to my Mommy and Daddy!” or to ask “Are we going to my Mommy and Daddy?”

But in the first chapter he is in his twenties and the thought process is more sophisticated at this age. And above that, thoughts are not enough. As Menna told me after reading the first three pages of this chapter, I needed “to balance the internal story with some external action”.

So, I took time and put myself into the same room with my protagonist.

I asked him: “What could be there, or what should happen to make you think, yet again, about searching for your family and not pay attention to what was happening in this room?”

And then I saw it. It was a letter addressed to my protagonist from a person and a group of people, who devoted their time to bring families together, who lost each other during World War II.

Just before the start of the book, my protagonist wrote to them to help him with his search. And this letter might have had some news about his family.

This person, real by the way, or rather her letters appear later in the novel as well.

The funny thing is, this letter, in this scene, appeared so naturally. And there was no doubt about it. I shared this idea with my niece, and she said: “Yes, this is it!”

But how do such obvious and yet sometimes unbelievable answers come to a writer. Is there a clue?

I found the answer when I recalled what I was doing when I found the solutions.

What I did was the following. I joined the characters inside their scenes, inside the setting and I just was there. I listened, I watched. I let my imagination flow without stopping it, without analyzing it. And there was only one way it went. The way toward that best solution.

If we try to analyze it, then this probably sounds pretty weird. Just be there. What kind of answer is that?

But this is all I can say and it is as simple as it sounds. Visualizing the setting, getting the situation in front of my eyes, seeing this child craving for his parents, later seeing this adult in his twenties, starting out to find his family, all on his own. This helped me.

I was there, I was aware.

And just as happy coincidence wants it, I have discovered yesterday another wonderful quote in the blog The Kill Zone, posted by James Scott Bell, titled “Writing Wisdom From An Old Pro“, where he brought the following quote by a Hollywood screenwriter, Wells Root:

“A story maker’s urgent priority should be awareness.
A writer is always in his working clothes.”


Picture: Staying on track in Alps, 2007.

It depends how you look at it

On a long and utterly enjoyable train ride last year from Hamburg to Alessandria, I have discovered the following:

The world outside a moving train moves both fast and slow. The pace of this movement depends on what you focus. If you point and adjust the objective of your vision on the closer objects outside, like trees, building and turnpikes framing the tracks, they haste by and you feel being in a race competing the world outside. But as soon as you widen the objective range to panorama setting and include the farther situated objects, the world slows down to a graceful dance full of harmony.

You can have both. Haste and grace. But not at the same time. At any given moment you have to choose on what to focus: to be fast, not noticing the world around you and trying in vain to catch the details of the blurred images rushing by, or to slow down and enjoy every single detail of your surroundings, no matter how far they may reach.

There are moments when you need to be quick. But focusing on yourself doesn’t allow you to be quick in time. Because, the close-by world just rushes past you and blocks your view onto the wonderful world behind those hills spreading with their infinite possibilities and colorful adventures in time and space.

Picture: A happy attempt to hug the whole world, Vienna, Sep. 2013.


Favorite treat

Many of our childhood experiences and impressions accompany us through our lives. Some of them even affect how we react toward the ways the life is showing up. And some memories give us always a warm, cozy feeling when coming back.

Like those of special gifts. A favorite toy, or something special that only adults would get. Like real tools or real big and dangerous construction machines. This is what my son wished for until recently. He didn’t get any of those and most probably won’t soon. So, I am thankful that his current wishes are toy-cars. I must say, I am quite curious what would be for him his special treat from his childhood, which will make him smile when remembered.

This contemplation made me ask myself what was my special treat? The answer came pretty fast. I grew up with quite a few toys, inherited and new ones. Maybe this is the reason why, it’s not a particular toy I still cherish. It is a combination, a package of three things: a piece of Moscow salami, a loaf of dark (black, as we used to call it) bread and a little packet of cream cheese.

I spent the first and most memorable part of my conscious childhood in Algeria. My father taught physics of semiconductors at the University of Annaba, a wonderful city on the Eastern Mediterranean coast of Algeria. We spent three years there, and I was between six and nine years old. These were the first three years of the school for me. The time when the school is still so new and exciting.

The reason the dark bread, salami and cream cheese were so special is quite simple. Because you couldn’t find and purchase them in Algeria. So, whoever came back from the Soviet Union, as we did from summer vacation at home, brought them along and they were saved as long as possible. And of course the first to get some small portions of these precious treats were we, the children.

Every one of us, kids, got this special gift on the day when we became young pioneers. There was one Russian, Soviet, first-to-eighth grade school in Annaba and most foreign children were going there. All of the good pupils were eager to become a young pioneer among the first. Only the “bad” ones were not chosen or had to wait one year until allowed to get the honor. And the youngest had to wait too. And to my bad luck, I was one of the youngest. So, I was one of the last in our class to become a young pioneer. Today, I smile fondly at my eagerness then, but at that time this late ceremony was a bit of a tragedy.

Nevertheless, there was something I could boast about and most of the kids from my class couldn’t. I got the special gift twice during our stay in Algeria, while most other Soviet children got it as a gift only once.

We were living in poorer quarters of the city during that time and our apartment had been very wet, which meant frequent outbursts of pneumonia for me. Long days in bed were quite boring, so I became shortly curious when my Mom told me that someone, from the recreation center of our small Soviet community in that part of the city, was looking for a child who knew some kind of verses or could sing or perform something nice. I should also say that this was around November 7, the day of Communist revolution, which was a special holiday in the Soviet Union.

After the first curiosity sat down and I realized that I had to do something, I became reluctant to go, but then still did as asked.

When we arrived, we learned that the little performance was organized for an admiral and sailors from a Soviet military ship, which docked for only one day in Annaba. This visit was unexpected, so the reception for the admiral and his crew was spontaneous and humble.

When I recited the poems, we all saw the admiral wipe away a tear. Most of the poems I learned at that time were about heroes of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) and their fallen comrades.  The admiral was one of those who came back alive. After I finished reading the poems by heart, the admiral whispered something to one of his sailors, who hurried out of the door immediately. Then the admiral approached my mother and me and we had I nice chat.

I don’t remember much of this event, just some snippets. Most of the events were restored by my mother.

But I remember, how someone entered a while after, how he approached the admiral and gave something to him. And how the admiral turned to me and how I looked down and saw my old beige rain-coat, which I had on because of my fever and also the unheated rooms. And on that background, two hands appeared wrapped up in gold-rimmed black sleeves of the Soviet marine uniform. These hands placed salami, dark bread and a brick-like parcel with cream cheese into my embrace.

Each of these pieces of an ultimate taste of home, were so much bigger than what everyone got when becoming a pioneer.

The pride I felt then still fills my heart today with warmth and makes me tell this story again and again.

This experience of touching the heart of a strong person, made me follow my mother’s advice and go to recite those poems to our neighbors at home, who were veterans of the Great Patriotic War. It did it several years in a row on May 9th, the day of the Great Victory. I did get some treats at those times as well. But the greatest gift to me was to see the warm tears of their gratefulness and appreciation of the gesture. Even through my juvenile embarrassment. I will always be thankful to my Mom for teaching me to make such gestures of humanity and gratefulness to those who highly deserve them and need to know that what they did was invaluable.

Picture: me on the day I became a young pioneer. I wasn’t too happy, as you can see.