Thoughts on Ukraine

Red Cross volunteers with Ukrainians arriving in Paris © Croix Rouge Française

For the last month, friends and family who know my background as former Moscow correspondent have been asking what I think about the war in Ukraine. I found replying to be difficut — I couldn’t find the words. Then a high school classmate heard that I’d started working with the Red Cross to help Ukrainian refugees as they arrive in Paris. He asked me to write about it for his newsletter. Here’s what I said.

First, I am very grateful to the French Red Cross for giving me this opportunity. Hundreds of Ukrainians fleeing the war are arriving in Paris every day. In the face of such a massive humanitarian disaster, it is a blessing to be able to help, even in a very small way. I don’t speak Ukrainian, but I do speak Russian, and that’s enough to get the job done. So this is how it works. The refugees are passing through four major Paris train stations. So far I’ve worked at three of those stations, all about 10 minutes away from my place by bus. My job is to talk with the Ukrainians as they first arrive, find out what the want to do next and translate for the Red Cross people. Some wish to stay on in Paris, but most are going on to another destination – many to Spain, some to Portugal, Italy or Switzerland, some to other towns in France. Under a European Union plan, the refugees are entitled to an onward train ticket, with the Red Cross providing shelter for those who need an overnight stay and channeling those who wish to remain in Paris to an organization that helps them get the papers needed to reside and work in France. Those arriving are for the most part very calm – I’m tempted to say stoical, given what they’ve been through – and are grateful to find someone who understands them. It’s mainly women and children, but there are men as well, and also quite a few non-Ukrainians who happened to be in Ukraine when the bombs started falling. It’s somewhat chaotic, organization not being France’s strong suit, but one way or another we are managing to provide these desperately unfortunate people with the help they need to wait out the war or start a new life. The vast majority say they want to go back to Ukraine, but only when it’s safe. Most are well educated, Westernized people – people like you and me who suddenly had to uproot themselves due to Putin’s criminal war.

Second, probably because of the five years I spent in Moscow as a journalist, I wasn’t surprised when the psychopath in the Kremlin followed through on his troop buildup along the Ukrainian border by invading a peaceful country that wanted nothing other than the right to exist within its internationally recognized borders. Although Putin said the troops had been sent there merely for exercises, once he started sending blood supplies to the front, in late January, it became clear that he was lying – as the only reason blood would be needed is to treat wounded soldiers, and soldiers don’t get wounded during exercises. What did surprise me is the brutality he has unleashed on Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. Putin said in a speech just before the invasion that he wanted to restore the Russian empire of tsarist times – i.e. to make Ukraine, and probably also other former Soviet republics that are now independent, part of Russia. If that is the case, why is he blowing the place to smithereens? It is incomprehensible, and the upshot is that the formerly brotherly peoples of Russia and Ukraine have been irreparably alienated from each other. The hatred will persist for decades. Meantime, thanks to the sanctions imposed by the United States, Europe, etc., Russia is finished as a world power. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the Russian economy will not recover as countries look elsewhere for energy supplies, and the enmity Russia has earned as a result of this war will keep it excluded from the world community for a very long time. Those Russians who understand what is happening – artists, intellectuals, scientists, etc. – are already fleeing in droves. It is hard to imagine how average Russians will feel when they finally wake up to the fact that Putin has been lying to them, i.e. that his so-called special military operation is actually a criminal war. However long that takes, Putin has damned them to a hopeless future in a pariah state.

Third, on a more personal note, I’d like to mention how I got involved with Russia in the first place. It’s all the fault of my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Houston. I had no burning desire to learn Latin – my father forced me, saying it would be useful – but Mr. Houston opened a door. Through him I discovered I loved learning languages. I went on to study French and Spanish, then started Russian at UW Madison. When I moved to Paris and became a reporter, it was only a matter of time before someone spotted Russian on my CV and shipped me off to Moscow. Having grown up in Wisconsin in the shadow of a Nike missile base at a time when we had to do Cold War bomb drills at school, going to Russia for the first time was like seeing the dark side of the moon. I spent two and a half years there as a Reuters correspondent during the Gorby era and returned in 1992 as the editor of a small English-language daily. Over time I learned to read between the lines of official pronouncements and gradually gained some insights into the psychology of a people who had been under the sway of first tsars and then corrupt communists for centuries, i.e. enslaved. They often dealt with it via jokes, the need to keep one’s private thoughts hidden from the secret police having given the Russians a finely honed sense of irony. For example, a Soviet citizen is asked by a foreign reporter to explain communism. “It’s very simple,” he replies. “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” The official line was one thing, the truth was something else, and no self-respecting Russian could fail to see both.

Which brings me to a question: Why, after a month of genocidal war, are most Russians still buying into Putin’s lies that his forces are “protecting” Ukrainians? Of course there’s propaganda, but the real answer, to my mind, is linked to Russian history. The Soviet Union was a vast power stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific across 11 time zones. When it collapsed in 1991, Russia found itself amputated from the 14 other former republics of the USSR. At the time, the majority of Russians welcomed the change, which ushered in their first taste of democracy. But the euphoria quickly wore off as they came to grips with their new, lesser status. For example a Russian friend of mine wanted to go to a Latvian beach in 1992, as she had done every summer, and was shocked when the Latvians told her she had to apply for a visa. “But it’s ours,” she complained. Not anymore, the Latvians replied. To understand her mindset, imagine if California suddenly seceded and residents of Wisconsin had to apply for a visa to go there. It would just feel wrong. Well, this feeling of being wronged is so strong among most Russians that they’ve lost their bearings. They want to see Russia restored to its former grandeur, but by backing Putin on Ukraine they are destroying their own nation. That’s the irony – but in this case they just don’t get it. As the death toll rises and the body bags come home, maybe they’ll figure it out and stop supporting this senseless, immoral war. It’s our only hope.

On Adopting

People often ask me whether it wasn’t hard adopting in France at the age of 50. No, I reply. It was much easier than waiting 30 years for a man to agree to have a baby with me. I am from the first generation of women who had real choice about when and if to have a child, with the corollary that men also had real choice. I’ll get back to that. But as for adoption…

Djeneba age 8Adopting in France is a simple matter – at least it was at the time, 15 years ago, when I had the joy of being entrusted with a very small girl from Mali, my daughter Djeneba. At the time, I had recently lost my mother, who succumbed to cancer at the age of 75, four years after my father passed away. My theory is that, in his absence, she lost the will to live.

I had always wanted children, but it hadn’t happened. And my parents had not been very supportive of the idea of adoption as a single parent. So I let the matter ride.

One day, while I was still grieving for my mother, I learned through a chance conversation here in Paris that it was possible in France for single people to adopt. I went along to an information meeting, terrified that I might be rejected on grounds of nationality (American) or age (49 at the time), and was surprised to find that I was neither the only single person at the meeting, nor the only foreigner, nor the oldest.

What I learned was that single people and married couples may adopt, but not couples who are living together. I believe this is changing now as France rethinks its policies on a range of lifestyle issues including gay marriage, surrogate mothers, etc. At the time, it was a firm policy – and, happily, one that included me in.

The rest of the French phase was very simple, a matter of filling out forms, visiting a psychiatrist and a social worker, and waiting for a document, known as the agrément, that would authorize me to adopt. It usually takes nine months – ha ha – to obtain the agrément, but in my case they gave it to me in just six months, perhaps speeding things up because of my age, or perhaps, I like to hope, because they thought I’d be a good mother.

And this was major. For the first time in my life, I was being certified as a good prospective mother. After years – no, decades – in the trenches of the sex wars that ensued when women began demanding equality, after three long-term relationships with men who wanted and then didn’t want children, I was finally being given permission to satisfy my heart’s deepest desire. It was just fabulous! I would be a mother.

With the agrément in hand, I was able to proceed to the next stage: applying to adopt a child. In order to adopt a French baby, you had to be both French and married. As I failed on both counts, I was channeled toward international adoption.

This meant appearing at an office on Boulevard Saint-Germain to meet with a woman sitting behind a computer. She fed in my personal data and out came a list of 17 countries where I met the criteria for adoption. Great!

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but in fact there are only three where you stand a chance of success – Russia, Romania and Mali.’

‘Hang on a moment,’ said I. ‘What about some of these other countries on the list, Chile for example?’ I had friends who had adopted in Chile and were very happy.

‘Well,’ said the woman, ‘you can apply to Chile, but they have a rule saying that adoptive parents can be no more than 40 years older than the child. This means you would be adopting a child of 10 or older.’

Everyone I’d spoken with about adopting, including the psychiatrist, had said it was best to adopt a baby if at all possible. And I liked the idea of accompanying a child through the earliest stages of life’s journey. Exit Chile.

‘What about the Philippines?’ I asked. I had worked there on a journalism fellowship, and knew that there were many children waiting for adoption.

‘No,’ she said. ‘You can apply, but unless you are Catholic you have little hope of success.’

Once I’d understood that there were really only three countries, my decision was easy. While posted in Moscow as a journalist, I had visited orphanages and found the conditions frightening. The children awaiting foreign adoption had psychological or physical problems and were receiving minimal care. By all accounts, the situation in Romania was far worse. As a single woman, I didn’t feel prepared to take on a child with problems beyond the basic fact of abandonment. I wanted to give a chance in life to a normal child.

Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, was the obvious choice. Its West African tradition of extended families, I hoped, meant that the children awaiting adoption were more likely to be surrounded by tender care. As it turns out, I was right.

I mailed my application to Mali’s Ministry of Women, Children and Family. One year later, I received a call to say that Djeneba was waiting for me. I flew to Bamako and met my daughter – a beautiful, loving girl who was suffering from serious malnutrition. As soon as I began to feed her, she perked up like a little flower that needed watering. It was by far the most moving experience of my life.

The entire adoption process took 18 months – the span of two pregnancies. It was easy and very joyful. Absolutely nothing hard about it.

Now Djeneba is a teen, with all the issues that go with it. But I am happy to say that she adopted me as her mother as quickly as I adopted her as my child. Our bond is very strong. She is the light of my life.

Now then – getting back to men. My generation of women, born not too long after World War II, was the first to experience true sexual freedom. It was fantastic, but while the pill empowered us, it also empowered men to avoid the fundamental consequence of sexual love: conception. Like many other women, I wasn’t strong enough to counter a man’s refusal to have children. I wanted a full partner in childrearing. I didn’t cheat. I took the pill.

This is how I ended up childless, and very sad, at 50. But, as they say, a door closes, a door opens. Without that experience, I would not have considered adoption. My darling girl would not be in her room sleeping, as she is now, after partying last night with a boy she wants to date. It’s heading toward noon. Soon she will get up and tell me about it. My life is very full.

This article was originally published in Panache, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Paris Alumnae Network.

Notes From Underground

We all are familiar with that moment in a new relationship when, no matter how well things seem to be going, we feel the need to stop and analyze it. Does he/she really love me? Is this just a fling or something more lasting? Do we have what it takes to go the distance?

Yes, and we’re just as familiar with that sinking feeling that occurs when the mere fact of asking those questions – of interrupting a process in order to impose mental order on it – slows the momentum of the relationship or, worse, brings it a grinding halt.

carrotsMany years ago, in similar circumstances, I sought counseling as a love affair teetered. I’ve never forgotten the words of my very wise counselor: ‘You can’t pull up a carrot to watch it grow.’

This is one of those lessons in life I’ve tried to apply to many situations – among them, of course, my writing. Are you tempted, as I am, at various stages of the writing process to stop writing and start analyzing your work? What generally happens next is that pages are torn up or tossed into the computer trash bin. You start to question where you’re going, and next thing you know you’ve killed your fledgling novel/memoir/essay by imposing a critical eye too soon.

Here’s another lesson, this one from the leader of a brilliant screenwriting workshop I once took: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ In his quite extensive experience, he had seen far too many first-time script writers finish ‘Act I’ of their movie, stop to analyze it, and decide to start over again. Wrong tactic, he said. As counterintuitive as this may seem, the right strategy, in his view, was to stop thinking and keep writing. Just keep going – you can revise later.

Well, of course he didn’t actually mean to stop thinking. But in the creative process, rational thought can all too often interfere with the surfacing of a deeper kind of thinking. Let’s call it intuitive thinking, the kind that allows an idea tucked away underground to rise to the top.

When I’m in the initial stages of a writing project, I seek out situations that favor this kind of thinking. In my personal lexicon, I refer to it as ‘dream time’. Get on a bus, look out the window and don’t think about anything much at all. Or head into the shower and let the water flow as your mind wanders any which way. And then, suddenly, an image will appear that removes whatever obstacle you may have been struggling with.

By not thinking too hard, you’ve opened the gates to a different part of your brain, the part where creativity blossoms.

‘Dream time’ also functions in a literal sense, I’ve found, when faced with a thorny writing problem. Very often, as a journalist with a big feature to write, I’ve gathered the facts and quotes but then struggled to find a way to present them most engagingly. I’ve got the story but I haven’t got the intro, known in the profession as the lede.

What to do? Sleep on it – i.e., stop thinking. Then in the morning, when you’re least expecting it, just making the coffee and not fully awake, an image will pop into your mind. And there you have it – the perfect lede.

A recent article in The New York Times described another way to address this issue. To unleash your creativity, Gretchen Reynolds wrote, ‘take a walk.’ She cited a recent study showing that ‘walking markedly improved people’s ability to generate creative ideas.’ In other words, stop thinking so hard. Do something else to allow your brain to tap into its hidden resources.

My latest experience with this phenomenon happened just this morning. I sat down to write this blog post and used the word ‘carrot’ in the title. After writing a few paragraphs, I got up to fetch some something from the kitchen. While walking back to the computer, a new idea sprang up. Dostoyevsky had been the last thing on my mind, and yet there it was – ‘Notes From Underground.’ The title that best captures the thoughts I wanted to express.

Our minds work in mysterious ways. We cannot always unearth what we want to say by consciously digging for it. We have to leave the creative process alone to allow our ideas to grow. And by making this effort, we are very often rewarded.

As writers, we need to resist the temptation to get everything right on the first draft. Of course we need to go back and revise – to take the sculpted object and refine and polish it. Sometimes to remodel it more extensively. But not too soon.

‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ For me, that was a great piece of advice. Do you agree?

This post was originally published on She Writes, a great site for women who write.

Sex and the Single Writer

Here’s something funny. The cover quote on Erica Jong’s groundbreaking Fear of Flying calls it “the most uninhibited, delicious, erotic novel a woman ever wrote.” That was in 1974 and the praise came from John Updike.

Fast forward 34 years, when Updike – no stranger to erotic writing – won a Lifetime Achievement Award for bad sex in fiction. The Literary Review, which bestows the dubious distinction, said in 2008 that Updike had received four consecutive nominations for passages from The Witches of Eastwick. Phrases sited included the following (and if you’re offended by porn-ish writing, please don’t read on):

“She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin.” (This is a minisample. For the full passage, click here.)

Few would say that Updike, who won the Pulitzer for Fiction twice, is a lousy writer. And yet, in at least this instance, he failed when writing about sex. He is hardly alone. Other recipients of the Bad Sex in Fiction award include Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Nancy Huston.

pommeSo the question arises: Why is it so hard to write about sex?

I had to grapple with this question when writing Desperate to Be a Housewife. It’s the story of a young woman coming of age at a time when the sexual revolution was in full flower.

The writing was going along well when suddenly, in the third chapter, I found myself describing my heroine’s encounter with a sexy East European graduate student. I wanted to make it true to life, and the scene was hot – so hot that I had to quit writing and go get some air, three days in a row! And there was more sex to come.

When I showed the first draft to a friend, herself a writer, she cringed.

“Be careful when writing sex scenes,” she warned me. “The sex needs to move the story forward. If it amounts to ‘insert tab A into slot B’, you’re on the wrong track.”

On the other hand, she added, if one waxes too flowery or romantic, “there’s always the danger of being compared to a Harlequin when writing about sex and relationships.”

So there we are, the double bind. If the sex is too graphic, it will be viewed as porn or simply trashy. If it’s coy, the work risks being classed as romance fiction.

Maybe this is why many literary writers fall back on the old Hollywood solution – a long kiss and a fade-out, leaving what follows to the reader’s imagination. They hint at sex without actually describing it.

As I set out to revise my first draft, I decided that this solution would not be right for my book. My heroine’s sexual encounters were key to the narrative as she tried to figure out what counts most in life – is it love or freedom, or a combination of the two? These are questions that affected an entire generation, and the tremors they caused are still reshaping the sexual landscape today.

Kiss-and-fade-out wouldn’t cut it in the story of an era where women were exploring the new possibilities that had opened for them on many fronts, including sexuality. I wanted my readers not just to imagine what happened, but to feel it. To feel the longing, the flood of desire, the power that drove women – once the pill made it possible – to experience the pleasure offered by their bodies. With all the risks that entailed.

But how to achieve the “uninhibited, delicious, erotic” writing for which Updike praised Erica Jong – without qualifying for the bad sex awards?

There is no easy answer to this question. But here are some thoughts.

First, the sex needs to advance the plot. If it’s a gratuitous scene, cut it out. Second, it doesn’t have to be serious. Humor can play as much a role on the page as it often does in bed. Third, what happens during sex – and before and after – can illuminate aspects of character. If a protagonist evolves as a result of the experience, the scene is crucial.

As a society, we tend to compartmentalize sex. It’s in a private world, not to be spoken about. But as authors, we need to challenge ourselves to break through those boundaries.

When I’ve read from my book at readings around Paris, people often ask about the sex scenes. Were they hard to write? And why include them?

Why write about sex? That’s an easy question, and I always give the same answer.

Because it’s part of life.

Do you agree?

Is This a True Story?

When you sit down to write, how much is truth and how much fiction? If you’re writing a personal story, should you call it a memoir or a novel?

Or, to put it differently, what constitutes truth in creative writing?

I gave this matter some thought after completing a short piece about Chernobyl during a writing workshop in 1995. I had been to the site of the nuclear accident in 1987, one year after the explosion and fire, and wrote about it then as a news agency reporter for Reuters. It was the usual wire service dispatch – a description of the exclusion zone created by the disaster, the tall pines withered by radiation, clothes still on the line because the people who fled had no time to bring them inside. Factual, dispassionate, newsworthy – and true.

Eight years later, the workshop leaders asked us to write a piece using long sentences. For some reason, the Chernobyl experience came back to mind. This time it was a different story. More true, I felt, because it better conveyed the emotion of the experience – our dread upon entering the radiation zone, the unspeakably sad beauty of the silent Ukrainain spring. To my mind, it was a far stronger piece than the news article. Creative, but not fiction.

What I learned from this experience is that there are different ways to tell a true story. By setting aside journalistic objectivity, I had allowed a more subjective reality to shine through.

The question of truth came back in a different way last year when I was finishing a memoir, Desperate to Be a Housewife, about a young journalist on the trail of a story with a happy ending. Ahead of publication I was handing the manuscript out to friends for comment – and a number of them testily informed me that I couldn’t call the book a memoir because I’d changed the names of all the people portrayed, including my own (in order, I like to joke, to protect the guilty). Here’s a comment from one of them, a writer himself:

‘Thinking about your magnum opus in the middle of the night, I felt that it really is against the rules for someone writing a memoir to then hide under a pseudonym. The purpose of a memoir is exposure. If it is a book by Meg Bortin about someone else with another name, then it’s a novel, not a memoir.’

We argued about the possible merits of changing the genre to ‘autobiographical novel.’ And there were pros and cons, given the content.

It’s the story of one woman’s path through the minefield of changing roles for women at a very specific point in time – after the pill and before AIDS. The sexual freedom we enjoyed came at the price of casting aside many of the values we grew up with, and many of us struggled to reconcile our lives as independent women with our longing for happily-ever-after.

Because the heroine is a journalist, the story is set against a backdrop of historic events, from the Vietnam War protests in America to the Soviet Union and … Chernobyl. It’s also packed to the gills with sex (more on that in my next post). Because the story is so personal, I didn’t feel I could write honestly about my misadventures with men if I used their real names. So why not call it a novel?

Well, for one thing, it’s a portrait of a world-changing era, and I wanted the events recognized as fact. As a journalist, I wanted the power of a true story. As a woman, I wanted to pass along to younger generations an account – warts and all – of the struggle of my generation to forge new possibilities for ourselves as women. Of the passion, the heartbreak, the obstacles, the joy, the many mistakes we made along the way.

In the end, I decided to stick to Plan A and call my book a memoir. My own name I changed to Mona Venture – a play ‘my adventure’ in French and, in that sense, true. But was I right to make that choice? So many novelists use true stories and tweak them only slightly, giving themselves more literary freedom in the process. So which genre to choose?

As creative writers, we all face this dilemma. When sitting down to write, I concluded, the main thing is to remain true to oneself. And how that truth is expressed depends on the story.

Memoir or novel? Tough choice. How do you see it?

Coming soon…

What are the issues a writer faces when sitting down to write?

In a series of blog posts starting next week, I’ll address some of the questions I’ve had to ask myself in a lifetime of writing — as a journalist, author and blogger.

Questions like when it’s appropriate to change the names of people portrayed in a memoir. Or how to write about sex without qualifying for the Bad Sex in Fiction awards. Or whether it’s okay to use fictional names when writing oral history.

november 2013These are just a few of the issues that have been on my mind in recent weeks. If there are questions you’ve asked yourself when facing the blank page, I’d like to hear from you. I hope this blog will generate some interesting discussions.

— Meg Bortin