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We've Got a Great New Word to Inspire You!

For my birthday, my husband did something unconventional this year. Instead of a material gift – a pretty top, a little bling, a nice dinner – he gave me some inspiration. It came in the form of a five-year-old NYT Magazine article, printed out on plain paper and placed into a clear binder. No frills, no professions of eternal love, not even a card.

On the cover was a picture of a grizzled and intellectual-looking Slav. The kind of man who writes novels, then gets put in prison for it. His eyes seemed to burn with subversive thoughts.

It's the guy in the picture.

His name was Aleksander Doba, and he was not a writer, or any kind of artist for that matter. He wasn’t even really much of a thinker, at least not in the classical sense.

What he was, was a man of action with a mission. A nearly deaf, retired mechanical engineer who had kayaked alone across the Atlantic Ocean three times – the last being in 2017 at the age of seventy.

In his quest for conquering the ocean, thumbing his nose at all the nay-sayers out there, and vanquishing his own fears, he was forced to confront disasters that rank on a Biblical scale.

Like hailstorms of flying fish – “Do you know how fast they go? This does not feel good.”

Getting thrown from his kayak during a fierce storm (one of many he’s survived, sometimes barely, on the high seas) – “I woke up on the shore to the sound of screaming – my own.”

Hunger, sunstroke, sleep deprivation, salt-induced blisters and rashes, hallucinations, loneliness, and a level of fatigue that defies description – “I did it with no stuntman.”

You may be wondering, as I did, why my husband thought I would find kinship in Doba’s adventuring. I’m not a kayaker or extreme sports enthusiast of any kind. I’ve had a lifelong fear of deep water, and the thought of spending weeks alone, in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by sharks, gives me the heebie-jeebies. “Scaredy-cat” probably best describes my approach to anything from finding a spider crawling up my leg to partaking in quasi-life-threatening activities like riding roller coasters.

But there was something about the word Doba used to describe his outlandish journeying that holds the answer to why he and I may share more in common than it would appear. And why you probably share something in common with him, too.

That word was katorga. It’s a simple-sounding word, as far as Slavic words go. Three syllables, lots of hard consonants. The kind of word that forces your jaw open and pulls your face down when you say it. In Polish, it’s also the word for forced labor in Siberia. And over the years, as gulags in arctic climates have largely faded from memory, katorga has also taken on another meaning. Roughly, according to the NYT piece, it is an experience of suffering repurposed as contrarian self-determination, and one that gives an existential thrill.

When put this way, my husband’s unorthodox birthday gift begins to make more sense. Especially when put into context with what we do here at Book Geeks Media.

You see, I do have my own katorga. And because you're even here, I suspect you dotoo. 

Mine begins every time I start a new novel – especially one that’s part of a series. It ends…well, it really never ends if I’m to be honest. Because like Aleksander Doba, I’m already thinking about my next odyssey before I’ve finished my last. I’m rewriting the bleak memories of my trials and tribulations as deeds of brain busting daring-do, existential thrills of the imagination.

Sound familiar?

Maybe you've invented a mind-blowing plot twist that you're struggling to write your way through, threatening to lay waste to hundreds of finished pages? Or deciding whether a beloved character needs to die a horrible, agonizing death, thus risking the ire of your readers? The wrong editorial decision can destroy years of work, putting into peril future books in the series. It can also engineer a bestseller.

We've all run out of creative juice on some days and experienced a paralyzing crisis of confidence on others. At times, the monotony of editing and the line-by-line fixes of persnickety continuity problems has gotten to even me - and I love the editing process! Errors that seem small, like discovering that a heroine’s shoes are cream-colored at the beginning of a chapter, but lilac-hued by the time they were described again in the next chapter, can take a reader out of the story. Then it’s on to the next novel on their nightstand.

I recognize these are hardly the sorts of audacious feats that would inspire The National Geographic Society to bestow upon any of us its annual People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year Award, as it did in 2015 on Mr. Doba.

But in the place of such a distinction, I’ll happily accept simple encouragement from readers who seem to genuinely love the work we do here. I’ll take pride in the reviews that spring up on Amazon and other platforms. The ones that swell the hearts of the authors we work with and make it all worthwhile.

As for Aleksander Doba, his own sense of motivation comes not from awards, or even pats on the back from admirers, but from a common expression in Poland: “I do not want to be a little gray man.” It is a reminder to himself that he has no interest in dying in his bed.

With this ethos in mind, he begins the process of redesigning his kayak to withstand bigger waves and more violent storms, he makes lists of extra efficient foods to take with him and tries to invent new ways of exercising his legs, so that he doesn’t lose muscle tone (in the past, he’d tried swimming, but that attracted sharks). As he tackles the problems that vexed him, nearly killed him on previous expeditions, his fears and frustrations actually begin to subside. They’re replaced by a deep longing for the turtles he liked to commune with, whose shells he would tap as they swam by, and the birds who would land on his kayak, refusing to leave. Friends on the open sea.

He starts to look forward to seeing them again.

It is exactly this kind of re-imagining of our drudgery as triumph that makes those of us who are perhaps a little obsessive continue the fight. Katorga is a tyrannical mistress for sure, but we can’t help but love her, and wait like fools for the kind word, the wink, the nod she throws our way.

With Mr. Doba, one of his katorgas did end up having her way with him. In February of 2021, he died while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was not in an avalanche, or from exposure during a freak storm, or from a fall. After summiting, he asked for a brief rest before posing for a promised photo op. Then, according to eyewitness reports, he sat down on a rock and “just fell asleep.”

I expect my katorga will have the last word on me, too, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Would you?

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