Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 (or possibly 1757, such is the fickle mistress that is history where even the first line of a life ends in an asterisk) on Nevis in the British West Indies, to a father that abandoned him and a mother that died with Alexander in her arms. Alexander Serebriakov was born two centuries later in 1964 in Moscow, the Soviet Union, to a mother whose father abandoned her and a father whose own father went missing in action in the Second World War. These wisps of similarities are woven through all of us allowing us to find brotherhood across the centuries and continents. The two Alexanders combined for just over a century of life, forging in their own allotted halves of this time two very different legacies. In 2017, one Michael Serebriakov, born in 1986 in Budapest, Hungary, to two bright university students who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, had his life profoundly shaped by the two men.
My father had a typical Soviet childhood. Both his parents were in the workforce so he was mostly raised by his grandmothers. But normality was tossed out the window for the rest of his life when my grandfather earned a foreign business post for three years in a port city on the west coast of North America. For a Soviet child, three years in Vancouver had turned his life upside down.
Hamilton had a similarly transformative experience by sailing west. At the age of 17 (or 15, as previously mentioned) he arrived in New York to a country on the brink of revolution. It inspired a young mind to work for the prosperity of his nation, and his service during the American War of Independence and then in the cabinet of George Washington as the Secretary of the Treasury earned him the title of an American Founding Father and his face on the ten-dollar bill.
My dad earned no such accolades, but he was no less of a dreamer that would beat a path to any goal he set for himself. After three years, when his father’s posting expired, he was told to let go of any fantasies that he may have indulged in. It was the mid-seventies, and a capitalist country was simply out of reach. If the three years felt like a dream, that’s because they were, and like with any dream, it was time to wake up.
Stubbornness was a trait that came early to my dad, and he held onto to his boyhood fantasies. Vancouver was home. Canada was the place where he would forge his future. He held onto this for the 15 years it took for the Soviet Union to fall. And then another five years before he got a chance to vacation in Vancouver, revisiting all of his old favourite places with childlike glee. And then he took that determination into an immigration process that lasted three years. A quarter century after he was told to forget it, Alexander had moved his wife and two children to the country of his dreams, to the place he knew all along that their lives would flourish. He would be given less than twenty years to enjoy the fruits of his success.
My dad passed away in May of 2017, just days after his fifty-third party after a battle with cancer. And battle it he did until the very end, always trying to put his concerns for his family ahead of himself. One of the last coherent things he said was apologizing to my grandmother for leaving her daughter, his wife, all alone. That’s the kind of man he was. Full of caring for his loved ones, even if it that caring had the ability to overwhelm the object of his affection.
Any way you spin my feelings, his death had left a massive crater in my life. Father’s Day came and went, so did the start of a new hockey season, and then the premier of the next Star Wars movie. Each jolt a painful reminder that he was gone.
I spent months in confusing oscillation between grief and anger, with brief spurts of calm that would be quickly trampled by another gloomy stretch. Everything I had strived to improve in myself over the last few years fell completely off the map. I stopped writing, stopped exercising, stopped learning Spanish. I filled my time with junk like aimlessly scrolling reddit just to keep my brain from getting too stimulated. I had dug into my rut, and was quite comfortable in it, thanks very much.
That had all changed because in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a New York-born composer, lyricist, playwright, and actor of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage had premiered his newest musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. My awareness of Hamilton the musical trickled into my life slower than I would like to admit. Through some online discussions and articles I’ve heard whisperings of a musical that had cast a black person to play Aaron Burr. Knowing what I know now I think it’s a great disservice that that’s what was talked about, and not the entirety of the colour-conscious casting choices that were a big part of why the musical has become so inspirational.
In early 2016, I missed the Hamilton question in the online Jeopardy audition test, not knowing which musical the song “The Election of 1800” appeared. Funny, two years later and I’m singing along to the words with my four year-old son. And then I saw it in the news again when the Broadway cast called out American Vice-President elect Mike Pence and his administration for the atrocious ideas that they represent. There’s really no excuse for me not to have gone off and learned everything I could about the musical at that point, but that’s neither here nor there, and it at least put it firmly on my radar at that point.
Fast forward to September 2017, when a series of events lined up in such a way that I had a lot of time during my morning commute, so instead of wasting it on whatever frivolities I was into at the time, I listened to the whole Broadway cast recording on Spotify. I never expected a piece of musical theater to blow me away but there I was, putting the soundtrack on at home for the whole family to listen to.
My wife had already started doing so ages ago, because she’s generally ahead of me in these things, but now Hamilton was a real presence and even my son started saying no to the usual Disney playlist and insisting that we play Hamilton on repeat, even in the car.
This all reached its crescendo in early November. It was about a week after my birthday, and the holidays were fast approaching while I sat under my own personal storm cloud feeling anything but jolly. I was working from home and in the other room I heard my son playing and singing, though in a voice that bordered on yelling: “Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton! ALEXANDER HAMILTON!”
I thought had struck me. Internet searches were performed. Discussions were had. Questionable financial decisions were made. And suddenly my wife and I found ourselves in possession of two Hamilton tickets in Seattle in March. The Hamilton exposure at home went up. That entire weekend was spent listening to nothing but the soundtrack during any available moment.
And then something happened. Something I didn’t notice until almost a month later. I brushed the dust off my unfinished short stories. I started playing catch-up in my Duolingo and Memrise apps. I read more diligently. I was able to focus more at work. Whatever inspiration was contained in the musical, and trust me, if you’ve listened or watched Hamilton you know inspiration is contained in every other line, it had awakened something in me. It began to clear the fog out of my mind. It set me back on my path and made me remember myself.
The key to all of this isn’t even one of Hamilton’s lines, it’s one sung by Aaron Burr, delivered so powerfully by the talented Leslie Odom Jr.
“I am the one thing in life I can control.”
And so I did. The musical reminded me that for all of life’s unexpected setbacks, for all of its twists and turns and tragedies that lead men like Hamilton and my father to build legacies in lands so far from where they were born, one must never cede control. Alexander Hamilton fought against his political enemies, the most dangerous of which was probably himself. Alexander Serebriakov resisted the currents of history and kept his dream alive for his children. Both affected the world in their own unique ways.
To my father, thank you for inspiring me to put family first. If there’s any piece of your complicated self I will carry forward with me it’s that. And to Alexander Hamilton, thanks for inspiring Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose efforts to present your life with a contemporary lens have given me the strength to carry myself into the years ahead.
Inaugural entries seem disingenuous. It feels like saying hello to someone who’s not there. But at the same time I think they’re necessary, otherwise I’m blasting away without as much as an introduction and that’s just rude.
I grew up in Moscow, my first years spent in the dying light of the Soviet Union, so naturally Russian was my native tongue. But my flirtation with the English language began before I started school, mostly learning the name of colours and vehicles from a Richard Scarry book. One of the earliest home videos of me is sitting at the dinner table at my grandparents’ Budapest apartment repeating “I want an ice cream” ad nauseam, which tested even my grandfather’s grandparental patience.
My parents provided me with my first big break in life by putting me into a private English Immersion elementary school which at first operated out of a couple of rooms in Bauman Moscow State Technical University. On my first day of school, the most English I could scrape together was “Can I go to the toilet?” When I was repeatedly asked “Do you speak English?” and couldn’t respond (though in hindsight, you’d think my initial silence would be answer enough), I asked to call my parents, who, gently but firmly, told me to suck it up. By Grade 2, I was the main distraction in the classroom because I refused to shut up. There are plenty of things about me as a kid and teenager that I’m not proud of, and I’m sure I’ll get to more of that later.
My inclination towards fiction started early. In second grade we had a workbook where every week we had to write a tiny short story on a topic of our choosing. One week, we were asked to write about an event that actually happened to us, which I found boring and so I wrote this totally true account of a man getting hit on the head by a falling firework casing and our whole family visiting this complete stranger in the hospital for some reason. Thank you Mrs. Searle for never calling me out on it.
Fast forward a couple of year and our Grade 4 class gets an assignment to write a short story that we get to read in front of the whole class. Suddenly this was my time to shine. While others put together two pages about a lost birthday cake, I burned through two notebooks chronicling the ice hockey career of a child of an alien who crash-landed in Siberia while hitching a ride on the Tunguska meteorite. Seconds after he won the Stanley Cup he was beamed up to come home to his mother’s native planet of Pluto. Unfortunately for my class, they never go to hear the epic ending to a story that took great liberties with the rules of hockey and the universe, because my tale was taking up too much class time. Whatever, I knew I had found a sort of addiction.
The following year, inspired by a dream that made no sense, I started work on a new project that also made no sense. In this tale, which I called “Black Ants”, all the characters were my classmates, and I was friends with a kooky inventor scientist, which Back to the Future led me to believe was an ordinary occurrence for your typical teenager. The plot of the story was pretty standard fare. I mean, what ten year-old doesn’t fantasize about him and his friends being the only ones capable of saving the world from a secret organization that possessed the formula to invisibility but needed to steal classroom sharpeners in order to maintain their supply of doomsday metal? No, I did not take any drugs as a child.
By Grade 6, Black Ants had gone to the purgatory of unfinished novels, so I will never know how we managed to stop the villains from raining radioactive metal rods on the unsuspecting populace. At this point, I wanted to write about our encounter with “Insectoids”. I mean, what grade school kid doesn’t fantasize about him and his friends being the only ones capable of saving the world from an invasion of parallel dimension-dwelling but also alien insect creatures which suspiciously resembled the Shadows from Babylon 5? I will continue to insist that this was homage, not plagiarism.
In 1999, when I had only recently turned thirteen, our family moved to Canada, and my life changed in more ways than I could understand. As a commercial lingua franca, English had not exactly been exotic at that point, but it was combined to its spheres: music, satellite TV, school, and the background noise to the terrible Russian dubs of Hollywood movies. Now I had become steeped in English. It surrounded me. It swallowed me whole. For so long it had only been a visitor in my head, summoned only when I needed it. Suddenly there was no getting away from it. The Russian inside my head struggled for survival as English replaced vocabulary and grammatical structures, thoughts, ideas. The Russian survived in the end, though a little worse for wear. Conversations plod along with great effort, my brain desperately searching for vocab words that are just below the surface of memory, like ice fishing without a hole.
English was my native tongue now, and Russian had its spheres: my parents’ home, books, the New Year’s specials. It was a process that was both terrifying and exhilarating. I felt comfortable with English. It fueled the creativity that lay dormant for more than a year as I was pulled out of school in an anticipation of our move to Canada. The first victim of this outburst of creative energy was my first friend in Canada, Bajer, whom I somehow conned into taking turns writing a sci-fi epic with me. I mean, what teenager doesn’t fantasize about him and his friends being the only ones capable of defending from monsters their spaceship city which had been pulled into an unexplored corner of the galaxy by a mysterious alien. Fans of Star Trek: Voyager and especially Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy would rightfully point out that I was still iffy on that whole homage/plagiarism dichotomy.
Bajer put up with my micromanaging like a champ, although when I decided to loudly talk to him within earshot of the entire class about why this will make us famous, he politely asked me never to speak of it in public again. Given my own rock-bottom popularity in Grade 8, I now understand Bajer completely and don’t blame him for it one bit.
For the next couple of years I jumped through new schools, which turned out pretty great for me since this is how I met the girl who would eventually become my wife, and also met a few friends to torture with my new writing project. I mean, what high schooler doesn’t fantasize about him and his friends winning an all-expensive paid trip to Turkey? Okay, granted it’s not exactly the vacation destination every teenager lusts over, but hey, the trip was free, so what are their hypothetical selves complaining about? By the time this bloated disaster had died on the drawing board after almost reaching 50,000 words, I had covered only the first three days of what was supposed to be a three-week trip. Just to illustrate how this could have possible happened – three quarters of a page were dedicated to a detailed play-by-play of a rock, paper, scissors match.
Despite digging desperately through the bottom of the teenager writing barrel, around this time is when some of my more serious writing started to crop up. Novels still appeared and then died ten pages later, but I started seeing more and more short stories to completion. Some of these were terrible, some decent for my age. I tried to get some published, but naturally it was to no avail – I was nowhere near ready. But childhood fantasies gave way to attempts to explore more complex topics like genetic engineering and grief-driven revenge. These short stories, and my friends’ interest in reading them as a favour to me, sustained this continued effort to improve my craft.
It was sometime in high school when the idea that would eventually shape my first novel first came into existence. It churned and was refined in my head for years until it was finally put to paper, and it’s made several long trips to the realm of unfinished works since then. But in the end it persevered, and two years ago made it to the first full draft. I’m currently working on the third draft, still far from the finish line but I now have a clear idea of where it’s going to end up.
It’s been over a decade since I lived vicariously through my writing, and yet I don’t feel that writing has become any less fun. Sure, editing is a pain sometimes and writers block will occasionally find me and either prevent me from finding that perfect word or will derail a search for plot altogether. These are the challenges that define the art, and the art itself is what gives me joy. The ability to create worlds, characters and stories is what fuels my passion. Storytelling is one of the most ancient of humanity’s pastimes, and I want to make my modest contribution to this proud tradition. I hope you can join me for the journey.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.