All posts by Masha Levinson

First “Manuscript”

I will use the term manuscript loosely because… well, because this is my post and I feel like it.

The year was 1981 (yes, ’81.. I’m old).  I was sitting in a second grade classroom listening to the teacher speak in a language I didn’t understand.  I had only been in America for a month.  In a small deep Midwest town, I was probably the only foreigner in the school.  No ESOL programs for me.  Sink or swim.  Sitting in Mrs. Magruder’s second grade class I was bored.  And so I wrote a story, complete with pictures on every page.  About a lonely little girl who left behind her life to come to a new country, where she didn’t speak the language, didn’t have any friends and had a very bleak outlook on the future.  I don’t remember the plot, the exposition, characterization or metaphors.  I don’t remember the dark moment, the turning points, the scenes or the chapters.  I don’t remember the secondary characters and whether they supported the hero and heroine.  Hell, I don’t even know if there was a hero.  I don’t remember if it was in first person or third, whether there was deep POV, symbolism or too many adverbs.  I don’t remember whether there were clichés or passive voice, the worry whether I would get an agent, whether anyone would read it, whether I would get a contract.

But there are things I do remember.  Clearly, distinctly, nearly 40 years later.  The small bubbles of joy as I quietly pulled the ever-growing sheets of paper from the pouch beneath my 1980s school desk.  The feel of the thin, lined grayish paper that waited to receive my words.  The slide of the crayons, mostly dark colors, in the square box above the Cyrillic script etched in pencil, depicting a scene from the page.  The staples I carefully inserted along the home-made spine.  Reading and re-reading the Russian words, knitted together, that released the cauldron of emotions I was unable to articulate in any language, other than on thin gray paper.

Was it a “manuscript?”  Who knows.   Who cares.  It served its purpose.

Writing Nowhere

Where do I write?  These days, nowhere.  Not in my head, not on my keyboard, not in a creative nook, not in a fancy writing office with a cantankerous cat.


Life has gotten in the way.  Not an excuse for some, but it is for me.  And I’m okay with it.  This is the first time I’ve touched the keyboard in months.  How many, I don’t know.  Lost count, to be exact.  And so that’s where I am.


Not developing new story ideas.  Not creating new characters.  Not writing fast drafts.


Except is that really where I am?

I stop by my parents’ house.  My gaze falls on a poem I wrote to them, years ago.

We still remember where we came from
The withered birches standing tall
The dachas with their secret gardens
That rolled from summer into fall.

As children we knew very little
Of all the hardships they endured
They did not want us bearing witness
To those same struggles, as we matured.

Around the many kitchen tables
They pondered when they would live free
And during many whispered evenings
They plotted, how and when they’d flee.

While soundly we slept like children
They chose whether to leave their lives
Because they knew that staying in Russia
Would only lead us to demise.

They quickly packed up our belongings
Then took us far away from home
So that we’d never know the struggles
They had had sadly always known.

It was not Fate that gave us choices
Nor was it Her that gave us life
It was our family’s act of courage
That gave us freedom without strife.

So where am I?

Living in freedom to write about being nowhere.  That’s not nowhere.  That’s somewhere special.

I Got a $5 Coupon for Valentine’s Day

“You know we’re not doing anything for Valentine’s Day,” I say in a sweetly menacing voice as my husband and I pass each other in the hall. He rolls his eyes. “Yes, I know. Not my first day on the job.”

It’s not by accident I make sure we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day. Early in our relationship, when we were still figuring things out, I said the same thing. But then came Valentine’s morning and there they were on the table: roses, chocolates and a trinket. “You didn’t get me anything? Not even a card?” he asked with a look of bewildered incredulity. “But we said nothing,” I mewled. “I thought you meant nothing big,” he replied A quick trip to the store and I spent a load of money to wipe the stench of disappointment I had smeared all over him with my lack of sentimentality. But that was in the early throws of dating.

It’s not that I hate Valentine’s Day, I hate what it represents. A fist down the throat dictate by the greeting card industry of what to buy, when and for whom. I don’t want my husband standing with a crowd of bewildered men pawing through the remnants of Valentine’s Day cards that have been fondled more times than a woman in labor. I don’t want him paying a 400% mark up on roses that looked like they’d been chewed and spit out by a grazing bull. And I certainly don’t want him feeling like he has to buy me a piece of jewelry on the 14th of February to show me how much he loves me.

The best gifts he’s ever given me were surprises I wasn’t expecting and didn’t need. There is the small trio of bath oil, lotion and gel that still stand by the edge of the tub, unused fifteen years later. We hadn’t been dating long when he gave them to me as a gift. “The bottles looked antique and I know you like antiques.” He scratched his head. “To be honest I’m not really sure what antique means or if you even like them, but I saw them and thought of you.” The second best gift he gave me was a little elephant sitting on its hind legs with his trunk in the air. A wedding ring holder he brought back from a business trip. No reason, just because. I think about him every evening when I slip them down the elephant’s trunk and every morning when I put them on. I don’t remember when he bought it, but I know it wasn’t on Valentine’s Day.

A few days ago, I was in the bathroom washing my face when he dropped my mail onto the growing pile on my nightstand. “I thought you’d want this,” he said putting a large rectangular card on top of the pile. “What is it?” I turned off the water and took my hair down from the bun it’s been in since 5am this morning. “It’s a $5 coupon to La Madeleine,” he says putting his watch on the nightstand near the elephant holding my rings. “I though you could get a cookie next time you go.” My hands plucking the tangles from my hair still. He looks at me, perplexed. “Isn’t that where you go to write every Sunday morning?” Silently I nod. “I was thinking it could help you write.” Mutely, I stare at him. My eyes begin to sting. Downstairs children scream, the dishwasher beeps that it’s done and he is in the middle of an umpteenth chore that comes with a house, kids and a twelve year marriage. And during the insanity, as he sorted mail, he thought of me. And my writing. And how important it is to me. And it wasn’t even Valentine’s Day.

Cannot Write Without… My Sanity

Edgar Allen Poe said, “I am a writer. Therefore, I am not sane.” I think I agree. Sanity is twenty shades of complicated. For me, it’s the ability to think and behave in a normal and rational manner. When life gets tough, or when sanity is tested, writing can be an outlet.
Except this is not one of those times.
This time I can’t write. And it’s happening during NaNo. When everyone is furiously squirreling away words, the inability to write becomes a miasma of frustration and self-recrimination.
But not this time.
This time I am allowing myself not to write. And not to feel guilty. There are a number of downsides to not being published. But one of the upsides is that the only deadlines I have are self-imposed.
Yes, it’s NaNo.
Yes, I’m not writing.
Yes, I’m okay with that.

Editor and Agent Recommendations.. Go!

It’s that time of year. The Easter Bunny is tiptoeing through the tulips, April showers are sowing May flowers and Masha (yes, I’m referring to myself in the third person.. shows you how much I’ve been working in 3rd POV) is getting ready to bombard unsuspecting editors and agents with her (mostly) edited manuscript. Hence, the request. If anyone has an editor or agent recommendation, swing on by your keyboard and throw out some details. Since our pond plays host to friendly fishies, please no negative recommendations. Only glowing reviews from personal experience or the gossip mill. Any and all feedback is much obliged.

I Did It

A few months ago I wrote about how I went to the Bethesda Writer Center in the hopes of reading my work aloud.  In front of humans.  Living humans.  And I chickened out.  Well, I’m happy to report that I went back for another helping of terror pie and this time, I did it.

There were about 20 or so people in the room.  A few faces I’d seen last time.  I took the last seat in the farthest corner of the room and pulled out my papers. Earlier that day, I’d gone through which poems and narrative I was going to read.  You get anywhere from four to seven minutes, depending on how many people sign up.  I think I was number 12.  Person after person went up to the mic.  I sat, listening to their words.  I didn’t feel anxiety or fear.  Actually, I didn’t feel anything.

That should have been my clue.

Before I knew it, it was my turn.  And then it became real.  I’d have to walk, from the back of the room, to the mic and stand there.  And read.  And not throw up.  Or pass out.  I forced my feet to move, one, then the other, carefully blotting out any peripheral vision.  They’re not there.  They’re not there.  Or so I told myself.

I began to speak.. and then heard, “Can you speak up?  We can’t hear you.”  I kept my head low, but upped my voice.  I knew the words were coming out too fast.  But I didn’t care.  And then I heard gasps.  I lifted my head.  And saw faces.  Eyes, mouths, noses.. all focused on me.  And they were listening.  The gasps came at the right point in the story.  I knew there were listening.

I slowed my pace, enunciating the words.  At points, I even looked up.  I heard snickers and then some laughs.  Again, they came at perfect timing.

When I was done, I went to my seat, tuning out clapping (everyone claps for everyone).  And sat.  Recovering from my ordeal.

A while later, it was over.  I began to collect my things when a man came over.
“Good job,” he said.  “You spoke a bit low and fast at the beginning.  But I liked your work.  Hope to see you again.”

Yes.  Maybe I will see them again.

Best Lines Ever… Go!

Sometimes an author writes a line that sticks with you.  Here are a few of my favorites, including one of my own (yes, I know, presumptuous).   What are your favorite lines from other authors, but especially yourself?

For Sale:  Baby Shoes.  Never Worn.  Earnest Hemingway (a six line story competition)

“Sometimes a woman needs a man for company, no matter how useless he is.”  Lisa Kleypas, Sugar Daddy

“I have sex,” Grace shrugged.
“I meant with a man,” Claudia said dryly.
“Now why would I ruin something so good by inviting a man along?”  Sarah Mayberry,  All Over You

“You signed me up for an orgy?  My own mother signed me up for an orgy?”  Masha Levinson, Cruising for Love



Life is about perspective. Or so we hope. Or maybe, so we are reminded. A number of years ago, I stood in front of my mirror, trying to lump my hair into something that didn’t resemble a villainous Star Trek character.  To no avail.  The strands refused to cooperate, as did the rest of my appearance.  A frumpy outfit hugging a poochy belly.. green tinged skin glowering under fluorescent lights.  Bloodshot eyes pegged into a puffy face.  And a nice hint of a double-chin laughing at me from its less than obvious hiding place.  I hated what I saw and was angry at all the maladies I felt had been unfairly heaped upon me.  Why, oh why, I bemoaned, must I look like a freak show in a fun-house mirror?  It wasn’t fair.  Others didn’t have to go through this.  Why did I?  As I scrubbed my teeth, I silently grumbled about the days when my hair cooperated, my clothes fit and my face wasn’t a replica of the Grinch.  I turned off the water, placed the brush on the counter and was about to shuffle from the bathroom when something caught my eye.  A droplet of blood on the white tile.  As I stood there, puzzled by where it came from, another splashed on the cold surface.  Then another.  And another.  And then, before I knew it, blood poured down my legs.  Big, gloppy clumps, churning as if someone forgot to turn off some unseen spigot.  And at that moment, everything ceased to exist.  My hair, my clothes, my skin.  I hugged my belly with one hand, while with the other tried to catch the blood.  As if somehow that was going to halt time.  But of course, it was too late.  The little being that had caused me all that silly angst was lying in a useless heap on the cold bathroom tile.  A girl, as I would later find out.

She, is what it took to gain perspective. I wish I could say I always carry perspective with me.  But I don’t.  I get frustrated and annoyed and irritated at the little things in life.  And make more of a big deal than is relevant or necessary.  But then, there are times, when I get a hefty slap of perspective upside my pointy little head.  For example, last week, I was riding the subway, minding my own business, when a woman stepped on my foot with her stiletto heel.  Ouch, didn’t describe the pain.  But like any self-respecting masochist, I refused to go see the doctor.  Ignore it and it will go away; the Russian Field of Dreams.  But under threat of ice cream cut-off from my hubby, off to the doctor I went.  Fractured, of course.  A wrap and a hideous half boot I must now wear; the latest in glam ortho gear.  I grumbled and bellyached about the atrocity I had to lug around.  How hideous I would look. How uncomfortable.  All the way home, I kept my head lowered, convinced everyone was looking at me and my hobbled hoof.  As I sat at my computer that night, I still groused about my stupid foot, the stupid woman, the stupid subway.  Until I got an email about a dear friend.  A terrible tragedy.

I don’t know why it takes a tragedy for me to gain perspective.  To stop focusing on silly things, like an ugly shoe on a foot that will soon heal.

I know I can’t right the wrongs, stop the wars, heal the sick, but at least I can focus on the important things and bring a positive perspective.

Gentle Endings

There’s no good way to end a relationship, especially if one party doesn’t want it to end.  But how to react when the relationship never got off the ground?

A friend of mine is swimming in a tarn of internet dating.  And I’m along for the ride.  We have lawyers who can’t spell lawyer.  A world traveler who has never heard of Machu Picchu and one bozo who only wanted to discuss the dimensions he would bring to the relationship.  Yes, those dimensions.  Within this jambalaya of bachelors, there are of course, nice, sweet guys, who by all accounts look good on paper, but just don’t have that “something” that connects her to them.  So then the question arises, how to let them know, it’s just not there.

Asking me for advice, less so for my dating experience (ahem, 10-year wedding anniversary coming up) and more for wordsmithing, I give her my .01 cent of advice.   Be nice, be gentle, but be honest.   Something like, Mr. Bachelor, you are a wonderful person with amazing qualities but I don’t feel we should pursue anything more than a friendship.

Easy.  Nice.  Gentle.

How can anyone not like that response?

And then it came in the mail.

“Dear Masha.  Thank for letting me read your submission.  While you definitely have a way with words, I didn’t feel connected to this project and will not pursue requesting anything further.  I wish you the very best in your future endeavors and I know you will find a right home for your work.”

Easy.  Nice.  Gentle.


Using and Abusing the Mermaids

Okay Mermaid gals and beloved visitors, I’m letting it all hang out.  I’ve taken off the make-up, the Spanx (for those who remember one of my previous posts) and the Wonderbra.  I stand before you in my all unglory.  What in the heck I’m talking about, you ask?  Here goes.

In a spurt of insanity, I’m putting my first 300 out for commentary.  Myself and an unnamed Mermaid are taking a Margie Lawson class and unlike the unnamed Mermaid, I’m confused.  I’ve been getting such contradictory advice on my opening paragraphs that I have decided to take my confusion to the Mermaids.  Who better to help?  So I’ve included two versions.  Version #1 was the original opening.  However, a few editors didn’t love it.. said not to start with an opening sentence.. give a bit of the character.  So I created a quick infodump.  However, the peanuts from Margie’s class didn’t like the infodump and said to start with the opening sentence.

Any and all thoughts are welcome, including but not limited to:  1) one version works better than the other, 2) both versions suck, 3) who is this?, 4) go back to where you came from, you illiterate foreigner.   (Just a few suggestions.)  So, my friends, have at it.  All thoughts are welcome.


“My client is not a pimp.” Jessie Parker’s voice flew like a well lobbed arrow through the judge’s chambers.  “She’s a victim.”

The man seated to her left shifted in the leather chair, like a lizard finding a more comfortable perch before striking its prey.  He brought his hand to his mouth and gently cleared his throat.

Jessie dug her thumbnail further into the pockmarked pencil.  By now, she knew when assistant district attorney Jack Stanton cleared his throat, he wasn’t trying to evict a frog.  He was readying for a fight.

“Your honor,” he began, with the usual, this conversation is beneath me, drawl.  “Teri Willis has been arrested four times for prostitution.  The last time, arranging the meet.”

He stopped speaking.  It was like he knew his words were dipped in platinum.  Like it was beneath him to form a cogent argument.  Like his mere presence was argument enough.

The judge slipped his gaze toward Jessie.   Rebuttal?  He wordlessly said.

“The evidence is circumstantial and the witness unreliable,” she said.  “True, Ms. Willis has been arrested more than once for prostitution, but that does not make her a pimp.”

Her nail ventured back into the pencil.  Her cuticles, like her writing implements, looked like they’d been manicured by a barracuda.  It happened when she got nervous.  A leftover habit from her party-girl self she had yet to punt to the pavement.

She was about to continue her soliloquy when she heard something akin to a hiss.

Either someone indelicately snorted or the judge had a snake under his desk.

She zeroed in on Jack.   And there it was.  A hint of smirk, almost indiscernible beneath a granite slab of jaw.     Suspended somewhere between the Roman nose and irritatingly perfect cleft.

So that’s how it was going to be?  A speedy graduation from mutual unease to derisive snorting?

Their interactions have always been apprehensive.  As public defender and states’ attorney, it was natural they had a mutually wary relationship.  Except it was more than that.  Jack Stanton had it in his power to build or break her future.  Thank God he had no clue.


Jessie Parker’s life began with a bad date.

Some would argue it began when her mother’s egg granted entry to the sperm of a never-to-be-mentioned man.

But to Jessie, it was on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, on the cusp of what was to be a very bad date, when her life truly began.

It was after that date she stopped dying her hair putrid shades of rainbow.  Stopped wearing skirts the size of napkins.  And stopped skulking with deadbeats.

And started studying.  Hard.

But since her bad date had the misfortune of taking place during the middle of junior year, no amount of round-the clock cramming could make up for eleven years of slack.  And so, off to community college she went.  From there, a four year university and then law school.  Not bad for first in her family to finish eighth grade.

And that’s how she found herself in the office of the public defender.  Helping those who didn’t wish to help themselves.

“My client is not a pimp.” Jessie flew like a well lobbied arrow through the judge’s chambers.  “She’s a victim.”

The man seated to her left shifted in the leather chair, like a lizard finding a more comfortable perch.  Before striking its prey.  He brought his hand to his mouth and gently cleared his throat.

Jessie dug her thumbnail further into the pockmarked pencil.  By now, she knew when assistant district attorney Jack Stanton cleared his throat, he wasn’t trying to evict a frog.  He was readying for a fight.