Everybody Can Write One Good Book

DIGG THIS

In 1990 or thereabouts, I was a student at the Moscow Linguistic University, studying English, translation and interpretation. Our teachers encouraged us to freelance, especially take jobs as interpreters for Westerners visiting the Soviet Union. It was regarded as a good way to brush up on your language skills as well as make a little money on the side.

Since it was still the centrally planned economy (albeit dying), most jobs were available through state organizations such as the Soviet Peace Committee, the Intourist (the official foreign travel company of the USSR), the Union of Soviet Journalists, etc. One of my favorites was the Union of the Soviet Writers. They often had extremely interesting visitors — writers, literary critics, college professors, etc.

For those of you who may not know it, the Union of the Soviet Writers was a very important and influential organization. Unless you were a member, your chances of publishing a book were slim to none. Also, you had to be a member in order to claim writing as your occupation — this needs some explaining. Every adult male in the USSR had to hold an officially recognized job. Otherwise, one could be convicted of "goldbricking" (тунеядство). Married females were exempt — housewife (домохозяйка) was considered to be a valid occupation. In practice, it meant that a great writer (e.g. Solzhenitsyn) could be convicted and imprisoned if he (a) was not a member of the Union of the Soviet Writers or (b) did not hold any other job. Hence, many dissident writers held day jobs as janitors, custodians, etc. — anything that would keep one out of jail as well as leave plenty of time for writing.

But I digress. Once, I worked as interpreter for a group of American literary critics. Our group had a meeting at the Union. After the meeting ended, we ran into Vladimir Karpov, a well-known Soviet writer. At the time, he was an important functionary in the Writers Union (I think he was the chairman but I am not completely sure). He was a WWII hero, a reconnaissance officer. His teams' specialty was to cross the front line under the cover of darkness and capture a German soldier, or, preferably, an officer. These captured Germans were known as "tongues" since they were interrogated to obtain tactical information. Karpov was reportedly involved in capturing over seventy "tongues." For his valor, Karpov received numerous military awards. After the war, Karpov wrote an autobiographical novel titled "The Fate of the Reconnaissance Officer" (Судьба разведчика) which was a big success. He went on to write numerous other books and had a successful career as a functionary; however, his other books are mostly forgotten.

Our meeting was brief. Karpov said a few commonplace sentences about peace and international friendship; soon thereafter, he pointed to a button on his jacket and said that he was a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (Council) of the USSR and had to go to an important meeting. I have never seen him again.

The next time I was at the Union, I asked lady clerks working in the international department about Karpov. We all agreed that The Fate of the Reconnaissance Officer was a good book — not because it was a great novel per se, but because Karpov really had a wealth of fascinating war experiences and he shared those in his best book. We also quietly agreed that his other books were just glorified propaganda… those ladies may not have held important positions, but they certainly knew their literature!

During out conversation, one lady shared a simple yet profound thought. In a nutshell, she said that most anyone can write one good book, or at least a few interesting and insightful articles. Most of us have quite a few interesting experiences under our belts.

The problem they often encountered at the Writers Union was a "been there, done that" person who had written an autobiographical book, which had some success, and then decided that he or she was a true writer. All too often, a person had enough interesting stuff to fill one book… but no more than one. Subsequent manuscripts would more often than not contain no original material. Of course, once a person decides she is writer, she is extremely difficult to dissuade. Unfavorable reviews and rejections would trigger (it being the Soviet Union) complaints to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, accusations of surrender to capitalism, etc.

At the time, I didn't appreciate this revelation, but I haven't forgotten it either. The point is that while most of us will never rise to the level of Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, we still have a few interesting ideas and/or experiences to share. So don't just let your stories simmer inside your head and eventually die with you — share them with the world! Write a blog or, better yet, send them to a respected Web site such as LRC! If Lew chooses to publish your story, you will gain instant visibility; many intelligent and thinking individuals will read it. You will experience the sense of pride (as I did) of seeing your work published alongside illustrious LRC contributors. You will receive insightful responses from thoughtful readers and the feel the incomparable satisfaction of knowing that you made a contribution (although perhaps a tiny one) to the cause of human freedom and dignity. Even if all you do is amuse and entertain the reader, it's a worthy contribution too!

Even if Lew rejects your article, it's no cause for despair. He may give you some valuable hints. Perhaps, it needs a little more work. Perhaps, LRC is not the right outlet for it, but it might be a great fit somewhere else. But the most important thing is to remember that, for the first time in human history, the voice of a common person can truly be heard. The Internet has no Union of the Soviet Writers presiding over it. Nor is it controlled by the wealthy mass media owners, such as those who own major newspapers and TV networks, pushing their special agendas. Find a place that is good for you and make the world hear your voice. For millennia, hundreds of millions lived and died without leaving a trace of their minds and souls. In this day and age, we can finally reverse this unfortunate trend!

April 2, 2007