Happy New Year: 11 Things I Learned And/Or Relearned About Life, Love & Writing in 2011

Usually on Saturdays, I post an “Expat Sat” post…you know, “Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.”

BUT…since today is New Year’s Eve (whoop! whoop!), I’m stepping away from tradition to share a few things I learned (or in many cases, relearned) in 2011. Ready?

  1. The seeking and finding of oneself happens again and again in life. Stay open.
  2. I AM here to live out loud.
  3. Writing is not a solitary endeavor. (Relearn, relearn, relearn…)
  4. Paul Simon & I are alike when it comes to rhythm and symmetry and the breaking of symmetry.
  5. Despite the fact that as I get older, my eyesight gets worse and worse, I see things much more clearly.
  6. Just when I believe I see things clearly, they shift out of focus.
  7. Missing Shanghai is an ongoing feeling, as is my longing for each place in my life with which I’ve connected deeply.
  8. Journal, journal, journal. (& when in doubt, journal!)
  9. I love teaching writing to freshmen. I love how damn fresh they are.
  10. Steve Jobs
  11. Writerhead rocks! And it’s beautifully different for each writer. It can be like:

 

How about you? What did you learn (or relearn) this year?

Happy New Year, all! See you in 2012!

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Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writerhead Wednesday: Writing Lessons from a Canine Friend

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.


For the past couple of days, my sister’s dog, Trixie, has been a guest at our house. She’s awesome–an old, stinky, loving boxer who is doing a great job reminding me why it’s so important for a writer to have a dog.

  • First, a couple of times a day, I’m forced out of my home office to take Trixie for a walk.

Lesson #1: Writerhead happens while I walk.

  • When I get stumped by a sentence or a scene, Trixie is right there demanding a belly rub or a fresh bowl of water.

Lesson #2: Stepping away from a manuscript = a positive thing.

  • As I write, Trixie snores and farts beside me.

Lesson #3: The imperfect is often the most perfect.

 

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Image: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mojo Monday: Inspiration, Intuition & Imagination

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.


The 3 I’s: inspiration, intuition, and imagination.

Without them, nothing (good) gets written. Not a short story. Not an essay. Not an acceptance speech. Not a novel. Not a poem or a grocery list or a song.

Not a gosh darn thing.

Even the venerable Albert Einstein agreed: “I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

Amen.

 

Expat Sat: Merry Christmas, American Style

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


Bruce Springsteen is as American as apple pie, and if anyone can rock “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” it’s Bruce.

Enjoy, friends around the world. Merry Christmas, if you lean that way. Happy Hanukkah, if you lean that way. Happy December if you don’t lean at all or have your own private leanings.

 

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Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writerhead Wednesday: In the Car…

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.


As you can see, I’m taking a holiday-inspired break from my normal Wednesday author interview about writerhead, but no pouting because I’ve got some spectacular writers lined up for January…as well as a few writers I’m lusting after and luring in. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’m prepping for a bit of change around here.

If you’ve followed me for a long time (and if you’ve read this blog of mine and that blog of mine), you know I spent nearly five years living in Shanghai, China, and that I repatriated to the United States in October 2010.

If I’m honest, this past year—The Repatriation Year (and if you didn’t read that phrase in a deep, Darth-Vader-like voice, please try again)—has been one of my toughest ever. Tougher in many ways than the year in which I moved to China…which seems totally insane and impossible if you’ve ever actually moved to China. Without boring the heck out of you with my personal angst, I’ll just say that returning and adjusting to a more settled existence in the United States hasn’t been easy or comfortable.

But as I’ve sat with these uncomfortable feelings over the past year, I’ve gained a good bit clarity about where I am as a human and a writer. And here’s what I know…2012 is going to rock!

Some wonderful things are already happening:

  • I’m giving my first Writerhead workshop at the 2012 Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster, PA. (Whoop! Whoop!)
  • I’m also speaking at the 2012 Write Stuff Conference.
  • I’m preparing to launch an online writing workshop. Yes, for expats. Yes, for travelers. Yes, for all writers around the world who are inspired by place.

Of late, I’ve been keeping in mind something Buddha once said:

“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth…

not going all the way, and not starting.”

 

As for the title of this blog entry—In the Car—here’s this:

Yesterday my almost-four-year-old daughter dozed off in the car after a harried visit to the hardware store for some last-minute presents. As I pulled into our driveway, my first instinct was to tease her awake and move both of us into the house for some much-needed Christmas cookie baking. After all, it is the holiday season and there are THINGS THAT NEED TO BE DONE. But then I remembered that I had the new issue of Poets & Writers magazine tucked beside me…and that this particular issue is devoted to inspiration. So instead of waking my little one, I cranked up my heated seat, opened the magazine, and began to read.

Although I hadn’t planned it, within minutes I was transported into writerhead. All my angst about not-yet-bought Christmas presents, unbaked cookies, and what-have-you evaporated and I was thinking/feeling/dreaming only about an essay I’ve been working on for the past few weeks. Soon I was scribbling on a piece of scrap paper, oblivious to the concrete world around me.

It was glorious.

Writerhead—however brief, however fleeting, however inconsistent—is glorious. And I’ll take whenever and wherever I can.

Happy Holidays, my friends!

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Image (Buddha): Lavoview / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image (Car): winnond / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mojo Monday: Happy Hanukkah

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.


On December 3, 1994, Adam Sandler performed “The Chanukah Song” on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” for the first time ever. It’s since become a classic.

Happy Hanukkah to all those celebrating this year!
 

 
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Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: Hula-Hooping With Homesickness

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


As an expat, managing homesickness during the holiday season can be as challenging as keeping a hula hoop spinning on your hips.

My advice?

Shake them hips. Embrace your friends and your host country. Hold ’em close. Make special plans for your holiday. But most importantly (it is me talking, after all), WRITE IT ALL DOWN! Put all those feelings, observations, missed traditions, new traditions, longings & whatnot in your journal.

And while you’re doing all of that, keep this in mind:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain

 

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Image: Master isolated images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Ann Mah

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.


So excited to feature Ann Mah, author of the novel Kitchen Chinese, on Writerhead. After all, her debut novel features all my favorites: China, expats, hot-pot, cultural confusion. Feels like home…

Now, readers, please proceed quietly. As you’ll see, writerhead doesn’t come easily to Ann…so if she’s in it, we do not want to disturb her.

Let’s go…

The Scoop About Kitchen Chinese

After a career-ending catastrophe, Isabelle Lee leaves the magazine world of New York for the magazine world of Beijing, one that’s considerably more limited, given her rudimentary knowledge of Chinese. Despite being Chinese-American, Isabelle only knows the kind of Chinese that is spoken in the kitchen.

Fortunately, this includes the language of food, and soon Isabelle immerses herself in Peking duck and Mongolian hot pot, when she’s not engulfed in pea-soup pollution and culture shock. There’s also the challenge of reacquainting herself with her older sister, Claire, now a high-powered lawyer living the expat lifestyle. But, as she learns more about Claire, Isabelle begins to suspect she’s not the only one who’s run away to China.

After many moments of cultural confusion, Isabelle can’t help but wonder if moving to Beijing was a mistake. Or is this frenetic, vibrant city of the future the perfect place to figure out who she really is?

The Buzzzzzzzzzzz

“The vibrant depiction of Beijing, lush descriptions of sumptuous Chinese meals, and Isabelle’s struggle with how others perceive her distinguish Mah’s first novel.” ~ Booklist

“Ann Mah’s sizzling portrait of life in Beijing serves up more than just scrumptious banquets, identity crises and fraught, intercultural romances. It’s a story of how people find and nourish ourselves in unexpected ways and places, so delicious that I took breaks from reading only to dash to the phone and order Chinese.” ~ Rachel DeWoskin, author of Foreign Babes in Beijing

“Ann Mah’s richly detailed Kitchen Chinese is humorous enough to make you laugh out loud, and so delicious you are sure to begin craving Peking duck and dim sum. A true tale of reinventing oneself in a new and foreign world.” ~ Patricia Wells, author of Vegetable Harvest and We’ll Always Have Paris…And Provence

First Sentence

“My first meal in Beijing is roasted duck, or kaoya as it’s called in Chinese.”

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And now, Ann’s writerhead

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

I have to admit that I don’t achieve writerhead as often as I would like. Like exercise, I don’t love writing, but I love having written. On rare occasions, however, I have pictured a scene so vividly that I had to sketch it before it disappeared. I write down a tumble of words, a bare outline, the words of dialogue that are reverberating in my mind, and then I go back and fill in the rest. This usually occurs somewhere near the end of the day, when I’m panicking that I haven’t gotten enough done, and my husband is due home from work in the next twenty minutes.

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.)

Honestly, writerhead happens so rarely for me, I’m not sure how I would react. Instead of writerhead, I’m usually squeezing out words one by one, using the Pomodoro technique (set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on one task for the entire time—no internet!). That being said, I do believe there are two types of people in the world: those who call you in the middle of a sentence, and those who call at the end of a paragraph.

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

For me, writerhead is like finding a baby panda in a bamboo forest. It is that rare—but when it happens, it’s enchanting.

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Ann Mah is a food and travel writer and author of the novel, Kitchen Chinese (HarperCollins, 2010). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, the International Herald Tribune, Fodor’s travel guides, Washingtonian magazine, the South China Morning Post, and other publications.

She’s been interested in food since the age of five, when she climbed on the counter to watch her father chop garlic. After graduating from UCLA, she moved to New York to pursue her other love—books—eventually becoming an assistant editor at Viking Penguin. In 2003, she moved to Beijing, China, where she worked as a staff writer and dining editor for That’s Beijing, an English-language entertainment magazine. She’s lived in Paris since 2008, where she’s currently writing a nonfiction book about French regional cuisine.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ann and her work, skip on over to her web site. She’s just launched a monthly newsletter so be sure to sign up for all the scoop from Paris. You can also say hello on Twitter (@AnnMahNet) or Facebook.

 

Mojo Monday: Ann Patchett’s Spontaneous Speech

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.


New York Times bestselling author Ann Patchett recently opened Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee. Like most writers, Patchett is wildly passionate about books, bookstores, words, sentences, readers, writers, etc. Check out her spontaneous speech on opening night and get inspired:


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Image: vichie81 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Expat Sat: 3 Reasons Expats Should Keep a Journal

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


Earlier this week in a Facebook status update, I wrote:

“Why keep a journal? Because when you’re writing an essay about the winter you spent in a pieced-together fishing shack on the Gulf Coast of Texas in 1999 and you think you have a finished draft, you unearth your journal from that four-month period and discover a treasure trove of details that deepen the essay in ways you hadn’t even imagined possible (like the fact that Mrs. Garrett–the passionate fisherwoman for whom the house was built–had used fishing line for all the light-pulls with buttons tied at the ends and had installed a paper-towel holder on the porch so that when you pull that unbelievably heavy 28-inch redfish from the San Antonio Bay, you can clean up a bit without mucking up the house).”

I’ve kept a journal since I was eight years old. I’ve got boxes and boxes of them. Much of the stuff is embarrassing gobbledygook about boys and longing to be published and crap like that. I’d be mortified if anyone other than myself read them. BUT those journals are also full of rich details that f’in blow me away.

As an expat in China, I wrote detailed blog entries (here and here), but I also kept a journal. Handwritten…usually in a black Moleskin journal (most often, this one). And so, expat writers around the world, should you.

Why?

  • No matter how amazing your memory is, you’ll never remember everything. You’ll forget the details…the ones that will deepen your work. The fury of the wind. The color of onion. The intonation of the shopkeeper. The tilt of the stairwell. If you write the details down in the moment (or shortly thereafter), you’ll have them forever. Years later, when you’re working on a novel or essay or memoir, you’ll be able to crack open your journal from October 2007 and go right back to those moments you would have otherwise forgotten.

 

  •  Keeping a journal will help you maintain your sanity. Anyone who has lived outside of her home country knows that no matter how awesome it is, it can be bloody challenging as well. Write it down. Complain on the page. Work it out. Work it through. And voila! A precious bit of sanity. (And to answer the burning question, no, no, no, you do NOT have to keep a handwritten journal. Write entries on your computer, your iPad, your phone, your arm, the bottom of your foot, as an email, etc. Whatever works for you. Just make sure to back up your work.)

 

  • And finally, keeping a journal makes you a better writer. The more you write in your journal, the more closely you see the world. It teaches you to pay attention.

To get a little inspiration, check out the journals of famed diarist (and expat!) Anaïs Nin (pictured right). Her journals are a testament to why writers who are passionate about place should be keeping a journal. Here’s an excerpt from an entry she wrote in “Winter, 1931-32”:

“Louveciennes resembles the village where Madame Bovary lived and died. It is old, untouched and unchanged by modern life. It is built on a hill overlooking the Seine. On clear nights one can see Paris….

“My house is two hundred years old. It has walls a yard thick, a big garden, a very large green iron gate for cars, flanked by a small green gate for people. The big garden is in the back of the house. In the front there is a gravel driveway, and a pool which is now filled with dirt and planted with ivy. The fountain emerges like the headstone of a tomb. The bell people pull sounds like a giant cowbell. It shakes and echoes a long time after it has been pulled. When it rings, the Spanish maid, Emilia, swings open the large gate and the cars drive up the gravel path, making a crackling sound.” [The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume One, 1931-1934]

The whole damn entry makes me ache to go there. To Louveciennes. To stand at that gate. And to pull that bell. God, I love that friggin’ cowbell sound.

 

Q4U Expats: Do you keep a journal? What do you write down? How does it play into your writing process?

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Image: nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net