Composing, Revising, Finding the way to the Finish Line

Composing, Revising, Finding the way to  the Finish Line by Frank Thoms

Composing, Revising, Finding the way to the Finish Line

Guest post by Frank Thoms

Thirty-three years ago, June 1987, a few days after I’d resigned from twenty-five years of teaching, I sat before the keyboard of my Mac in an upstairs corner room in a farmhouse overlooking New Hampshire fields, the home of Mayme and Lafayette Noda, two Quakers who invited me to live with them, which I did for a year and a half. In that time I transcribed nearly one hundred hours of clandestine cassette tapes from my first three ventures to Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union––and I began to draft a manuscript.

When I joined a tour group for my first two-week tour of Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev in October two years earlier, slipping behind the Iron Curtain became the fulfillment of a dream. The dream had first appeared in fourth grade, later in lectures on Russian history at college, and then when teaching eighth grade in the 60s, 70s, and 80s where I returned to Marx, the Russians, and Soviet Communism; each decade a different focus. Once behind the Iron Curtain, it did not feel a big deal to be on the other side. I observed historic sites, people, busses, cars, metros, shops. And I penetrated areas verboten to tourists. I had lunch in a flat with a family, dinner with black marketers in a private restaurant, and visited a school not on the tour. I was having my first taste behind the Iron Curtain. I yearned to come back!

Four years later after further trips to the former Soviet Union, two to Russia and two to Kazakhstan, I revised the manuscript many times only to put it aside after Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, 1991. Who would believe what I’ve written, I said to myself, as pundits were predicting the end of Communism would bring democracy to Russia. I never believed it. Three years later when I returned to the new Russia in 1994, I saw a Soviet Union redux. 

Fast forward to 2016 and the Russian interference with US elections. I resurrected my manuscript, but only one-third of it I had printed out; the information on my floppy disks had faded. But I was no longer the young but seasoned teacher-writer who had been eager to thrust himself into the fray surrounding Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika. I wanted to focus on the Russian people I met, to promote empathy and understanding about them.

I reread the remnants of what I had written, but the writing was discursive, awkward, and highly descriptive. I needed to begin from the beginning. I combed my files, letters, papers, memorabilia, and photographs, searching to recover memories of that remarkable time. Returning to the manuscript, I struggled to find a title that would guide me and my readers. My first one over thirty years ago had been Encounters with Soviet People, which reflected my desire to write a book about the Russians coping with Gorbachev’s new Communism. It was to be about my observations and understandings about the people and their culture; I would take a back seat. I tried another title, A Sense of Belonging: An American Teacher in Soviet Schools, which would center around on what I learned as a teacher of English to Soviet students where I had spent most of my time. 

Now more than thirty years later, I searched for a more poignant title. I tried first, Russians as People: Voices from the Last Days of the Soviet Union. Then, An American Teacher’s Odyssey in Gorbachev’s Russia. Both supported my desire for the book to focus on the Russians. I did not want it to be a memoir, which for me at the time seemed to be books often about people who experienced trauma, often in their childhood. 

I kept writing and rewriting, composing and revising––I could not sit in front of my Mac and write a first draft. I allowed my writing to tell me where to go. Ideas would arrive, sometimes in the early morning that set me on a new path. I drafted, redrafted, rewrote, self-edited…countless times searching for a meaningful account of my understanding of Russians. 

But the book seemed distant. My working titles were not pointing me in a good direction. I searched for more creative ones. A Teacher in the Rye: An American in Gorbachev’s Russia, which was based on a US reporter’s quote about me when I was teaching in Leningrad; it was then I began to include myself in my encounters. Later I came up with Inside the Matryoshka: Seeking the Russians; the matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls, put me on the path to incorporate this metaphor both for knowing the Russians and for knowing myself.

The writing progressed. Still something was missing. A little history may help here. When I had first arrived in the Soviet Union in October 1985 with a tour group, we were to be guided by Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency. We would be placed on a bus to behold what our guide directed us to. Except I intended to see what I would not be invited to see. I wanted to find “real Russians.” Twenty minutes off the plane in Leningrad, a young, attractive Russian mother with wild curls and two small children stepped in front of me. I was meeting my first Russian before I met Nina, our Intourist guide! By the time this mother and I departed, I had a scrap of paper with her telephone number. Two days later, I took a metro on my own and found her flat. It was not the only time I got off the bus.

When deep into rewriting, I had an epiphany: From my first moments in the Soviet Union I had been seeking to see behind what I came to understand was a “red veil”: my concept of the face of Communism that the Soviet Union projected onto its citizens, foreign visitors, and to the world at large. Intourist placed tour groups in international hotels, where Soviets were not allowed; conveyed them in special busses to historic sites. In my first trip, we went to to Moscow’s Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and Lenin’s Mausoleum; Leningrad’s Hermitage, Winter Palace, and Peter & Paul Fortress; and Kiev’s St. Sofia’s Cathedral and St. Michael’s Golden Dome Monastery. Our guide also provided a private tour to an Orthodox church. And Nina made sure that we went to beryozka shops to spend dollars. And red omnipresent, everywhere, everywhere!

Having determined my title, Behind the Red Veil: An American inside Gorbachev’s Russia, put me on the path to the book I completed. The red veil metaphor provides a theme that reappears throughout. Along with it, the matryoshka metaphor that enabled me to probe into inner layers of Russian life and thought––and into inner layers of my own matryoshka. Soon the book was ready for an agent, then an editor, who would take the writing to a more readable level and be ready for a publisher. Behind the Red Veil: An American inside Gorbachev’s Russia is the narrative of this American in his search to know himself as he sought to know the lives of Russians in the last days of Soviet society. He hopes readers will be eager to stay beside him throughout.

Composing, Revising, Finding the way to  the Finish Line by Frank Thoms

After forty years as a teacher and twelve as a consultant and keynote speaker, Frank Thoms became a writer, publishing four books on teaching and one on his experiences as an American in Soviet Russia. He is on the faculty of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival and serves as its Ambassador-at-Large.


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