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.