Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Alan Paul

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

Be sure to leave a comment to be entered in today’s BIG IN CHINA GIVEAWAY!!!

I am very excited to welcome Alan Paul to Writerhead Wednesday. He’s the author of the recently published and wildly popular memoir Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing. In addition to being a writer, he’s also a dad, a musician, and a repatriated expat from China. He’s also from Pittsburgh…my own hometown (go Steelers!). In short, all evidence points to the fact that Alan is a pretty cool guy who’s written a spectacularly entertaining book.

I met Alan on Twitter, cornered him (Twitter-fashion) for an interview, and was delighted he said yes. Here’s a peek into his writerhead.

(Be sure to leave a comment so you can be entered into the giveaway contest. Details below.)

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

There is absolutely no formula for getting there. It can happen in a flash or it can happen in a long, drawn-out process. I can spend a day laboring over a few paragraphs, carefully constructing sentences, or I can spend a day surfing the internet, reading, drinking green tea and listening to music and then feel the inspiration strike out of the blue, sending my fingers flying across the keyboard in an exhilarating rush.

When that happens I never stop to think or pause, or even correct typos. I try to let the energy fly through my brain and my fingers and later go back and see what I’ve got. Sometimes it was as brilliant as it felt—and there is, of course, no better feeling. Other times, I realize that I just ran down a long road to nowhere. I don’t let that discourage me too much because that feeling of inspiration is exhilarating and almost always returns soon in a more productive form

I was really forced to move away from any idea of a perfect writing environment while working on Big in China. We signed with a contractor to gut our house about a week before I signed my book deal. These were both long-developing projects and I panicked when it became clear that both were actually going to happen simultaneously. My wife suggested putting off the construction until after I had finished the book. I contemplated that for a day, but I thrive on chaos so I decided to let this run and see where it took us.

Not only did I have to oversee this huge job and make a million decisions while writing my book, but we had to move out of our home, living crammed in with remarkably accommodating relatives. I also lost my office and preferred writing space. I wrote huge chunks of Big in China in libraries and cafes, including the sterile one at my gym. I never could have pulled any of this off without the $400 Sennheiser headphones that pumped music into my ears and allowed me to enter a new world—my own world, the world of writerhead.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

My writerhead gets interrupted all the time. It’s a fact of life. I don’t live in a writers’ colony. I live in a house with three children and constant motion.

When I am really on a roll I, have been known to let all kinds of things slip: making dinner for the kids (we can always order in), getting to band practice (the guys can wait), putting children to sleep (they’ll be fine). Ultimately, all of these things have to be dealt with, however. Then I just hope that I have laid down a solid enough foundation beneath whatever I am working on to be able to pick it back up and more easily find writerhead.

Once I have a really clear vision of what I am trying to say with any given piece of writing and find the voice that will take me there, the hardest work is done and I can usually get back to it without as much struggle. So I don’t worry about the interruptions too much.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

When I’m in writerhead, I feel exactly the same as I do when I am playing in a band and we have found the elusive groove and everything is clicking from thinking to soaring. In both cases, I just try to stay in the picket and do my thing, always remembering what B.B. King once said: “You better not look down if you want to keep on flying.”


Whoop! Whoop! Today–Wednesday, April 20, 2011–I’m giving away 2 copies of China expat Alan Paul’s new memoir Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing.

RULES: To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment right here on this post. Wish Alan well. Tell him what resonates with you about his writerhead. Send good writerly/readerly vibes. Tell him that you ordered thirteen copies of his book. If you’ve read Big in China already, tell him what a fantastic read it is; if you haven’t, tell him you cannot wait to do so. Ask him a question (which he might pop in to answer personally). Show him some love.

*Comments must be posted before the clock strikes midnight on April 21, 2011. (That’s Eastern Standard Time U.S.)

**This contest is open internationally.

***Winners will be drawn on Thursday, April 21. Be sure to check back here to see if you’re the big winner of Big in China.

****Though I welcome all charming comments, only one comment per person will be counted in the drawing. (This isn’t American Idol.)


Alan Paul is the author of Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing (Harper). The National Society of Newspaper Columnists named him 2008 Online Columnist of the Year for “The Expat Life” columns he wrote for WSJ. His blues band Woodie Alan, featuring three Chinese musicians and one other American, was named 2008’s Best Band in Beijing and performed throughout China. For more information, visit www.alanpaul.net or follow him on Twitter: @AlPaul.


23 Responses to Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Alan Paul

  1. Ooh, am I the first? It’s good to hear from someone who can write in different environments; most writers seem to have their ritual settings to write. For those of us without a “room of our own” it’s encouraging that someone can write successfully amidst chaos. I look forward to reading Big in China!

  2. It’s always heartening to hear some of the same things I experience. Like there being no formula for entering Writerhead. Right now I’m struggling with just a few paragraphs. (Oh wait, right now, it seems, I’m surfing on the Internet!) Hoping the flash of inspiration comes soon!

    I’ve heard much about this book – would love to get my hands on it!

    • Yes, Sion, there should be a rulebook that comes with the Internet. This free-for-all, pop-on-whenever-you-want thing is for the birds.

      Thanks for stopping by. The drawing for BIG IN CHINA is tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed.

  3. It’s interesting to know about Alan’s memoir – more I would like to learn about China, more books are added to my list. Thanks Kristin !! Now, it would be great to get a copy of his book and find out more !!!

  4. Loved this: My writerhead gets interrupted all the time. It’s a fact of life. I don’t live in a writers’ colony. I live in a house with three children and constant motion.

    Best of luck.

  5. I instantly liked several things about Alan: He’s from the ‘burg, he’s a musician, Dad & writer. Many hats. He’s the imperfect picture of a true balancing act. I mean “imperfect” in only the kindest sense. Makes him more real to me.
    Currently going through a move myself, prepping my house to go “bing” when prospective buyers pull up to the curb & walk in the front door, all while my hubby’s working out of town & I’m Mom to two young ones—I related to the fact that there’s no “perfect” work environment. I especially like the comment “I don’t live in a writer’s colony”. I like learning how he keeps his creative juices flowing while he thrives in a constant state of chaos.
    I appreciated Alan’s comparison of being in writerhead to playing in a band. The aspect of getting in a groove. What an artist!

    Alan, thank you for the inspiration. I look forward to reading your book….and hopefully winning a copy!

    Go Stillers!!

  6. I loved hearing about Alan when he appeared on APM ‘The Story’ – you should mention this too!

    What I loved about his interview was his regret that he ended up leaving China just when the band was getting hot. This is so typical of our expat lives – just when we find the groove, things change and we need to re-invent ourselves again.

    And, as he says, we can create amongst chaos. So what if dinner’s a bit late.


  7. Alan Paul received a 2008 first-place award for online columns in the annual contest of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. We had six categories that year so he was among six first-place winners. (http://www.columnists.com/?page_id=6637) The NSNC has a Columnist of the Year award but is presented intermittently. (http://www.columnists.com/?page_id=7562) . We would be glad to see Mr. Paul enter the annual column-writing contest again!
    Ben Pollock
    National Society of Newspaper Columnists

    • Thanks Ben. That is correct. I will send Kristin a note asking her to change. It has popped up like this in several places. Not sure where it started. I am no longer actively writing The Expat Life column, but I hope to revive it – or some other column – and enter again. The award was a very welcome acknowledgement and has helped quite a bit.

  8. Another great interview Kristin! I just checked out Alan’s website and read a few of his blog entries on WSJ. Expats, no matter where they are or what their circumstances always have a common thread. Ohhh and of course I hope I win the book–fingers crossed!!

  9. Hi, Alan, and thanks for this glimpse into your writing process and your muses. And thank you, Kirsten, for providing us with a fresh take on an expat writer I’ve admired for some time.

    At this very moment, I happen to be composing a short article for the new blog I’ve started up with a couple of expat writing colleagues, The Displaced Nation. The theme of my little piece is the concept of home for expats. 

    I’m referencing a video recently released by Joanna Penn, who runs The Creative Penn, one of the top ten blogs for writers. She is also the author of a thriller called Pentacost

    Joanna is in fact an expat — has been living for the past 11 years in New Zealand and Australia. She announced in this video that she’ll be repatriating soon to the UK, and went on to discuss what “home” means for writers.

    What intrigued me the most about what Joanna had to say is that her concept of home is in fact divorced from her expat homes. It has to do with where she feels at home spiritually. In that sense, there are just two places for her — and therefore for her writing: Oxford and Jerusalem (the two cities are in fact connected in her mind thanks to her love for Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). 

    So I’m wondering, Alan: where’s home for you? From the tenor of some of your responses, it sounds as though home might still be Pittsburgh, despite your long stint in China.

    But is China also a spiritual home? Will it feature again in your writing?

    (Kristin, I’m wondering this about you, too!)

  10. And the winners of the BIG IN CHINA giveaway are…Jen Karin and ML Awanohara! (applause) Congratulations.

    Thanks everyone for reading and talking. And thanks, Alan, for sharing your writerhead with us.

    • What, me? I never win anything! I was feeling bleary eyed but am now wide awake, ready to embrace whatever comes my way — which could be almost anything in the curious, unreal world of the repatriate… Thanks so much, Kristin!!!

  11. I didn’t win but your blog & Alan’s comments made me so interested in the book I may just have to buy it! Thanks Kristin & Alan!!