Write Start: Elena Gorokhova on the Compulsion to Write Her Heart Out

Elena Gorokhova © Lauren Perlstein

Editor's Note: Elena Gorokhova grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia. She is the author of A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Daily Telegraph, on BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines. For Signature's Write Start series, in which authors share advice on how to start writing, Elena remembers how she tried in vain to avoid writing, but the calling was inescapable. 

Back in tenth grade at Leningrad school # 238, my Russian literature teacher Nina Sergeevna announced that before any of us made the reckless decision to venture onto the path of creative writing, we should consider Chekhov’s dictum: "If you are able not to write, don’t write." This was a warning -- to anyone who entertained the idea of becoming a writer -- against both the financial perils of the trade and the dangerous consequences of digging too deeply into the muck of the human soul. It also made it clear that writing was not a pastime but rather a necessity fueled by an inner drive so strong that a writer couldn't resist it.

As a Russian respectful of her literary classics, I took this advice seriously. For years, I tried not to write, but in the end, I couldn't fight the need. I wrote snippets of stories and piled them in my desk drawer, feeling guilty for taking the time from more practical and serious things: cooking, teaching, reading Russian books to my daughter. But I couldn't stop because it was a compulsion, an urge, a necessity. It validated me. It made me happy.

Yet, even despite this inner need, I still have to regularly chain myself to a chair in front of the computer in my office on the second floor of my house, where I stare out the window at my neighbor’s shaved lawn. An occasional car passes by. Every few hours my neighbor comes out and tosses a ball to his dog. Facebook and email taunt me. But I sit and wait and once in a while something happens: the characters take life and words begin to arrange themselves in sentences that don’t make me cringe.

When they don’t and the neighbor’s lawn has preoccupied my view for much too long, I take action. I have a glass of wine. I lean over the keyboard as if I could compel the keys to start typing by themselves. They don’t.

Then I switch from an empty screen to paper, from typing to longhand. At these moments, writing with a pen seems more primal, creating a physical connection -- through my body, from my head to my fingers -- between the thoughts and the words. Writing literally becomes writing instead of typing. I write ideas on index cards and scraps of paper, their texture smooth beneath my skin. This process allows nonlinearity, which makes every day a possible new beginning.

It also makes me think that this was how Chekhov wrote. With the muscles of his hand and fingers, he channeled the energy from his brain through the wires of nerve fibers, the heel of his hand moving across the blank sheet of paper before him, his pen filling the emptiness with words as simple and real as life itself.

Check out more in Signature's Write Start series.