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

Expat Sat: I Want to Write a Memoir But I Don’t Read Memoirs

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.


Today, an expat writer asked me a question I get asked a lot: “How do I write a compelling memoir about my experiences living abroad?”

To my first response–“Practice”–the writer was receptive. I could feel her passion for her story and for writing through the keyboard as we corresponded.

But my second response stumped her. “What memoirs are you reading?” I asked.

“Reading?” she said. “I don’t really like to read memoirs.”

“But you want to write a memoir,” I said.

“Yes.”

(long pause for reflection)

I gave her two tips:

  1. If you don’t like reading memoirs, don’t write one. Write what you love to read. If you love to read personal essays, write personal essays. If you love to read short stories, write short stories. If you love to read poetry, write poetry. If you love to read cookbooks, write cookbooks. (You get the picture…)
  2. If your heart is set on writing a memoir, start reading memoirs. Hole up in your room and read memoirs. Read memoirs as you’re walking to the subway. Read memoirs as you’re riding the subway. Read memoirs in your favorite tea shop or favorite bar. Read a memoir a week for three months. Read a memoir a week for six months. After you finish reading a memoir, read it again.

To which she asked, “Which memoirs should I read?”

To which I said:

Read Jen Lin-Liu’s Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.

Read Rebecca S. Ramsey’s French By Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France.

Read River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler.

Read Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez.

Read Alan Paul’s Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing.

“But,” I said, “don’t limit yourself to expat memoirs because there’s a lot to be learned from non-expat memoirs as well.” And of course, I gave her a quick list:

Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

Sy Montgomery’s The Good, Good Pig

Andre Dubus’s Townie: A Memoir

Of course, all this reading is in addition to the writing. Nothing–not even reading the best memoir ever written–can take the place of writing.

So…expat writers…which memoirs are YOU reading? Which are your favorites?

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Image: meepoohfoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”

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.


For those of us writing about cultures—our own and others—you’ve got to watch this TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. Her books include the Orange Prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun and the collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck.

Here Adichie “tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice—and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”

Such an important talk for all writers—expat writers, writers who teach writing, writers who teach writing to young writers, and all of us interested in finding our authentic voice and telling the authentic story.

Writerhead Wednesday: The “Tell Me About Your Writerhead” Giveaway

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.


This week, Writerhead Wednesday is all about you.

Yes, you!

Yes, yes, you, the writer in the red shirt.

You, the writer in the tweed jacket.

And yep, you, too, sleepy writer still tromping around in your pajamas.

All about you and YOUR writerhead.

Here’s the scoop:

This week, I’m giving away a $25 Visa gift card…with the hope, intention, and understanding that the lucky winner will use it to buy necessary writer-related stuff—books, pens, paper, a shiny new stapler, one-third (one-fourth?) of a much-needed therapy session, a thumb drive, business cards, a couple of double-shot lattes, a few hours of babysitting time, a bottle of Jack, etc.

And all you have to do to win is share a little something about YOUR writerhead. Tell us what writerhead is like for you.

If you need a bit of inspiration, check out these recent writerhead interviews with authors Eric Olsen, Alma Katsu, and Diana Abu-Jaber.

Easy peasy.

If you’re new to this site (welcome!) or need a refresher course on what exactly writerhead is, keep reading:

Writerhead is “a (usually) temporary state of dreamy concentration and fluctuating consciousness during which a writer is most creative, productive, and artistic.”

You know…the purest moments of creation. Those beautiful (sometimes excruciating) sh, sh, sh, ssssssshhhhhh, I’ve got to get this down moments when words are bubbling, popping, zinging, and swinging. The ones when the “real” world disappears behind a gauzy cloud (insert sucking sound here…) and the imaginative world takes on firmer lines and brighter hues.

Some writers call it “the flow” or “the zone.” Some call it “hell.” Others refer to it as “writerland.” I’ve always called it writerhead.

(“Sshshh,” I growl at my husband if he tries to talk to me in the morning before I hunker down to write. “I’m in writerhead!”)

For example, perhaps your writerhead is something like this (lucky you!):

Or maybe, on a tough day, more like this. (Don’t worry…we’ve all been there.):

So get moving…post your description of your writerhead in the comment section below. You’ve got until midnight on November 22 to do so.

Good luck! Can’t wait to read about your writerhead!

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GIVEAWAY RULES & REGS:

*To enter the giveaway contest, please leave a comment about your writerhead.

**Comments must be posted before the clock strikes midnight on November 22, 2011. (That’s Eastern Standard Time U.S.)

***This contest is open internationally.

****A winner will be drawn on Wednesday, November 23. Be sure to check back to see who wins.

*****The winner will be drawn randomly by the highly scientific method of my 3yo pulling a name out of a hat (or some other convenient container).

******Though I welcome all charming comments, only one comment per person will be counted in the contest.

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Image: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: 5 Culinary Things You Can Write About Right Now

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.


Ready to write?

Stumped for writing material?

Here you go. Five things you can write about right now.

Get your pen poised.

Ready?

Go!

1.  a piece of fruit from your host country (mangosteen, lychee, mulberry…)

2.  an observation of a person eating (I love, love, love doing this!)

3.  a memory of the first food you ate in your host country (good or bad experience…)

4.  the longing you feel for a particular food from your home country that you can’t get in your host country (come on, we all have one…)

5. a culinary how-to (how to make fried rice; how to use chopsticks; how to eat with your hands; how to track down the ingredients for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in your host country…)

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Image: 7thsens / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Eric Olsen

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.


If you write—and like me, love talking about writing and writers and the writing process—you need to read Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer’s We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1974-1978). It’s like being a fly on the wall at the Iowa workshop. Great storytelling. (In fact, I can’t seem to get this blog post done because I can’t stop reading the chapter about John Cheever, who was teaching at Iowa at the time.)

So read the book. But first, read about Eric Olsen’s writerhead because, like the book, it’s kinda brilliant. (Just wait ’til you get to his answer to question #3…)

(FYI…today I’m giving away a copy of We Wanted to be Writers. Leave a comment to enter the giveaway.)

The Scoop About We Wanted to Be Writers

We Wanted to be Writers is a rollicking and insightful blend of original interviews, commentary, advice, gossip, anecdotes, analyses, history, and asides with nearly thirty graduates and teachers at the now legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop between 1974 and 1978. Among the talents that emerged in those years—writing, criticizing, drinking, and debating in the classrooms and barrooms of Iowa City—were the younger versions of writers who became John Irving, Jane Smiley, T. C. Boyle, Michelle Huneven, Allan Gurganus, Sandra Cisneros, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jennie Fields, Joy Harjo, Joe Haldeman, and many others. It is chock full of insights and a treasure trove of inspiration for all writers, readers, history lovers, and anyone who ever ‘wanted to be a writer.'” [from amazon.com]

The Buzzzzzzzzzzz

“As a longtime fan of many of the writers who have passed through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I was thrilled to discover We Wanted to Be Writers. I had hopes that it would speak to avid readers like me as well as to writers and writing teachers, and I wasn’t disappointed. I read the entire book aloud to my husband on a nine-hour road trip from Oregon to California. Both of us were delighted by the clarity of the individuals’ voices as they spoke with candor and insight of the influences that have informed their work: the events that led them to Iowa, their experience in the workshop, and the vicissitudes of a writer’s life after they left.” ~ K. Girsch (amazon.com review)

“The scuttlebutt about life at the school is a pleasurable diversion while reading the good stuff about writing.” ~ Schuyler T. Wallace (amazon.com review)

First Sentence

“In 1977, sixty days after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a master of fine arts in imaginative writing, I was a stockbroker trainee in Beverly Hills.” [Chapter 1, “The Creative Enterprise,” by Glenn Schaeffer]

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And now, Eric’s writerhead

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

We talk quite a bit about this in We Wanted to Be Writers, how we get into that state of mind when the words are flowing and that pesky internal editor has shut up for once. For a lot of us, me included, it seems as if the state of mind we hope for, long for, and organize our writing space and time around is that moment when the work begins to write itself, and we’re just along for the ride. Or as C. G. Jung put it, “The work in process becomes the poet’s fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust which creates Goethe.” T. S. Eliot said something similar: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” The irony here is that artists of all sorts are known for their outsized egos, but what they often crave above all else is to escape that ego, lose control.

Jung offers a poet as an example, and Eliot himself is a poet so maybe they’re both talking about poetic inspiration in particular, but I think inspiration is inspiration. Of course, when I’m working on nonfiction, it’s usually for a buck and with a deadline, so it’s not as if I have the luxury of coaxing some particular state of mind. I just crank the stuff out. Still, even then, sometimes the work seems to take on a life of its own and carries you along; I live for those moments.

When I’m going to work on fiction, which for me is a somewhat different process from nonfiction, I’ll light a St. Jude candle. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. St. Frances de Sales is the official patron saint of writers, but St. Jude seems more appropriate, if you ask me. He had his head lopped off in 65 CE in Lebanon. St. Jude is often depicted with a flame around his head, or coming out of the top of it. This flame is meant to indicate that he received the Holy Spirit. I think of the flame as symbolizing that inspiration we all hope and pray for. There’s something rather writerly about that flame, and the decapitation, which is a little like a rejection slip for all your troubles.

I blow out the candle when I’m done working for the day. Thus these candles can last for days, or weeks, a sorry commentary on how often I work on fiction. The idea of the candle is to remind me that I’m not writing fiction because I hope to sell it and make a buck but because, well, I guess because I can’t help myself. Anyway, it’s my little attempt to set the time I work on fiction apart from other time. It’s a little sign for the Muses that, OK, I’m ready, I’m waiting, bring it on….

I have the candle right in front of me at my desk, and also a retablo of St. Jude hanging on the wall, so I’m always looking at the poor guy no matter what I’m working on, and so at least I’m thinking about my fiction, even if I’m not working on any at the moment. It’s helpful to have that little nagging reminder….

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.)

I lack the discipline to turn off my phone and the little annoying “ping” my computer makes when a new email has plopped into my in box, so I’m always getting interrupted. But that “zone,” that state of “flow,” when the work it carrying me along, is such a tenuous and fleeting thing at any time that it always comes and goes on its own, and I guess I’ve learned to accept the interruptions and shifts in mood or state of mind as part of the process. The really important thing for me is to keep my butt in the chair and put words on the “page.” Even when the words aren’t coming, or they’re coming and my internal editor is telling me they suck, at least I’m making myself available to a good idea. So I don’t have a lot of ups and downs.

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

As I mentioned, I think of this state of mind as “going along for the ride.” You’re standing by the side of a two-lane country road out in the middle of nowhere, thumb out, waiting for a ride, and along comes a 1957 Cadillac convertible, pink, and driving it is a beautiful young woman (the Muse, of course), and she pulls over and tells you to get in, and you ask, “Where you heading?” and she says, “We’ll see.” So you get in and you’re not sure where you’re going but you don’t care because it’s wonderful to go along for the ride, and you settle back into that plush leather seat and watch the countryside flow past through half-closed eyes. But it doesn’t last long. Just as you’re getting comfy, the beautiful young woman pulls off the road and parks in front of a rundown one-pump gas station with a big, faded Coca Cola sign on top and goes inside, and a couple minutes later she comes out with a bag of butter-toffee peanuts. She tosses the car keys to you and tells you to drive. She gets in on the passenger side and opens the bag and starts eating the peanuts. She doesn’t offer you any. You’re driving now, but you have no idea where you’re going.

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Eric Olsen was born and raised in Oakland—go A’s!—California and started college as a pre-med student at UC Berkeley, like all ambitious young freshmen at the time. His interest in medicine lasted about halfway through his first quiz in “orgo.” He finished college many years and false starts later with a BA in Comparative Literature (Classical Greek, a long story and we won’t get into that here). He received his MFA in fiction in 1977.

With Glenn Schaeffer, he co-founded in 2000 and then directed the International Institute of Modern Letters, a literary think tank that helped writers who were victims of censorship and persecution. Eric also helped establish the first American City of Asylum, in Las Vegas, an Institute program. The Institute also ran programs to support emerging writers in this country and abroad.

Prior, Eric served as executive editor of custom publishing at Time Inc. Health, a TimeWarner company, and he worked as a freelance journalist.

Eric has published hundreds of magazine articles, a few short stories, and six nonfiction books, including We Wanted to Be Writers. He served as a Teaching/Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1976-77), and after leaving, he received a James A. Michener Fellowship for fiction. Most recently, his writing has delved into art and design.

Eric continues, despite common sense of family and friends, to work on a novel and screenplay. He does sometimes wish he’d toughed it out in orgo.

Want to connect with Eric? Check out the We Wanted to be Writers web site. You can also give him a wave on Twitter (@2bwriters) or say hidy-ho on Facebook.

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GIVEAWAY!!!

Today—Wednesday, November 9, 2011—I’m giving away 1 copy of Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer’s We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

RULES: To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment for Eric and Glenn right here on WRITERHEAD.

*Comments must be posted before the clock strikes midnight on November 10, 2011. (That’s Eastern Standard Time U.S.)

**This contest is open internationally.

***The winner will be drawn on Thursday, November 10.

****Though I welcome all charming comments, only one comment per person will be counted in the contest. (I know, I know…but this isn’t American Idol.)

*****The winner will be drawn randomly by the highly scientific method of my 3yo pulling a name out of a hat (or some other convenient container…blocks box, [unused] cereal bowl, sand bucket, etc.)

 

 

Mojo Monday: Steve Jobs, An Ode

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.


I was lying in bed reading Tweets on my iPhone when I saw the news that Steve Jobs had died, and in that moment, I felt a slice of the universe go silent. I’d known it was coming. He was so skinny and gaunt during his last appearances. But geesh, I was thrown. Heartbroken. Silent myself.

Man, I would have loved to have interviewed Steve about his writerhead. Dug into his moments of deep creative flow. How did they feel? What did they look like? To what would he have compared his writerhead?

Anyway, I think the best way to honor him is to follow his lead. So be good to your creative impulses today…and get thee to writerhead.

(Back in April, I posted the video of his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. Here it is again.)

 

Expat Sat: Writing Prompt #9: “Raindrops on Roses…”

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.


This is #9 of 10 in a series of writing prompts for expat writers. So listen up, my nomadic pals. Then grab your keyboards and start writing.

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One of my favorite things about living in Shanghai was that I was constantly (constantly!) inspired to take photographs. In addition to writing, I’m a wee bit obsessed with taking photographs.

In Shanghai, I carried my camera everywhere. On the walk to my daughter’s preschool/play group. On the drive to the grocery store. To my fav foot massage place. To friends’ houses. To Pudong. To Xian. To Chengdu. Up the street to buy a pack of toilet paper. Down to the Bund. Along the lanes. To Dongtai Lu. Into the wet markets. To the Ambassy Club swimming pool in the summertime. To the Longhua Temple.

I was inspired by, well, just about everything: people, objects, transportation, movement, weird & wacky stuff in window displays, birds in cages, birds not in cages, noodles, the frog-tying guy on Wulumuqi Road, the ice delivery chicky-babe who could hoist a massive block of ice onto her shoulder and tote it down a lane as if she were carrying feathers, bamboo scaffolding, Chinglish, monks, temples, fish that escaped their baskets and flopped on down the road trying to find the sea, nametags, and oh, so much more.

I have a gazillion photographs (like the one up there in the corner) that in the end loop back to my writing. It’s all part of my creative process…my writerhead.

Assignment: Write about your favorite thing–okay, one of your favorite things–about living in your host country. What gets you up and out in the morning? What makes you say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I love this place”? What inspires you?

Tip: Be specific. Dig in. If you love noodles, tear them crazy-delicious noodles apart. Don’t stop at “I love noodles.” What kinds of noodles do you love? How do you like your noodles to be prepared? How many times a week do you eat noodles? Do noodles remind you of anything back home? Where did you first eat these life-changing noodles? Did you ever burn yourself on a noodle? Slip on one? Stretch one out to see how long it was? Take a noodle-making class? Watch a noodle maker at the market? From what do these noodles set you free (boxed ramen, perhaps)?

 

Now spend a little time thinking about your favorite things…and then, as always, get thee to writerhead!

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Susan Conley

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 soon as I caught wind of Susan Conley and her recently published memoir The Foremost Good Fortune, I was curious about her writerhead. After all, she’s a New Englander who was an expat in China with a unique story to tell.

So lean close, my friends, and lend your ear. You’re going to want to hear this…

The Scoop About The Foremost Good Fortune

Susan Conley, her husband, and their two young sons say good-bye to their friends, family, and house in Maine for a two-year stint in a high-rise apartment in Beijing, prepared to embrace the inevitable onslaught of new experiences that such a move entails. But Susan can’t predict just how much their lives will change.

While her husband is consumed with his job, Susan works on finishing her novel and confronting the challenges of day-to-day life in an utterly foreign country: determining the proper way to buy apples at a Chinese megamarket; bribing her little boys to ride the school bus; fielding invitations to mysterious “sweater parties” and tracking down the faux-purse empire of the infamous Bag Lady; and getting stuck in an elevator, unable to call for help in Mandarin.

Despite the distractions, there are many occasions for joy. From road trips to the Great Wall and bartering for a “starter Buddha” at the raucous flea market to lighting fireworks in the streets for the Chinese New Year and feasting on the world’s best dumplings in back-alley restaurants, they gradually turn their unfamiliar environs into a true home.

Then Susan learns she has cancer. After undergoing treatment in Boston, she returns to Beijing, again as a foreigner—but this time, it’s her own body in which she feels a stranger. Set against the eternally fascinating backdrop of modern China and full of insight into the trickiest questions of motherhood—How do you talk to children about death? When is it okay to lie?—this wry and poignant memoir is a celebration of family and a candid exploration of mortality and belonging.

The Buzzzzzzzzzzz

“You hear about riveting prose, and this is it. The story is nailed down, noisily, in metal. The Foremost Good Fortune is just about as honest a book as you’ll ever read. The trip Conley went on was to a far more complex place that she envisioned. This is a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being.” ~ The Washington Post, Carolyn See

“Conley also touched a nerve that resonated with most women: She wasn’t the perfect mother and she readily admitted to needing her own space. She used the metaphor of having a place inside her head where she retreated to when things with her boys got too manic to deal with. The theme continues to resonate through the metaphor of Mandarin and then cancer as a sea in which she is swimming alone.” ~ China Daily, Rebecca Lo

“This is a beautiful story of womanhood, motherhood, travel and loss, written by an author of rare and radiant grace.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

First Sentence

“It’s late on a cold April night in Portland, Maine, and I lie on the couch staring hard at a glossy pullout map of Beijing.”

_________

And now, Susan’s writerhead

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

Writerhead begins while I’m in a deep sleep, and if things are zinging that day, I’m able to keep one foot in that dreamland the whole time I’m at my writing desk. It’s a morning operation for me—I surface from a REM cycle, catch the thread of a plot line or a character quirk that’s asking for attention, nurse that in bed (maybe even scratch the idea out on a notepad) until my little people wake up. Feed the boys breakfast—walk them to school. All the while nurturing the writer head and gently resisting intrepid outside forces: no internet, no telephone, no plumber.

If I can make it to my desk with the dreaminess intact (it has something to do with energy reserves—email sucks all the vigor out of me if I do it first thing and I have nothing left in my creative bank—and something to do with hope. I am more joyful as a writer if I haven’t spent lost minutes trolling New York Times.com before nine am) I am good to go for five hours. Once I’m there I am mostly a work horse. I like long stretches of time and I don’t break except to sprint to the kitchen for a hummus bagel sandwich and then back at it.

I once taught a workshop to room of burgeoning memoir writers that was about using fiction techniques in our non-fiction. The subtitle of the workshop could have been “ass in chair” because the biggest problem most of the students in the room were having was making the time to write. I had a mantra that whole workshop: if the ass is not in the chair than the writing will not occur. But I don’t always sit at my desk. My shoulders get tired and my neck hurts, and I move to a mattress I dragged up the attic stairs by myself last fall and wrangled into the corner of my tiny study. I dressed it up as a day bed, with bright cotton pillows and Indian blankets and I often move there when I feel the dark forces circling again: the internet, the telephone, the plumber. I lie back on the pillows and whether I’m writing long-hand in my notebooks (early drafts of everything I write) or plucking away at the keyboard, this mattress sometimes allows me to hold on another hour or so 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.)

All can be lost so easily—even the best laid plans of a writing day. So I maintain a kind of fierceness to guard my time and the headspace of writerhead. It can evaporate so quickly. It all looks harmless—a husband who wants to talk through our boys’ guitar lesson schedules is standing in my attic office door. Ten minutes later he has the details he needs to go retrieve our musicians and I’ve lost the voice of my narrator for the rest of the day.

I have strategies to combat this. I don’t make eye contact with my husband when he pokes his head in, and I pretend I haven’t heard him when he coughs. I never answer the front door (whatever they need to tell me or leave me I know they will come back the next day and try again) or the phone.

My husband has told me that when I’m writing, really writing and not just moving around paragraphs in an attempt to spark something, the level of focus in my office is high. Scarily high, he reported last week, because of the kitchen faucet I left on downstairs for three hours after I grabbed a glass of water. I tell him I am unaware of the focus or the faucet because I am too busy writing. I think this new word, writerhead, might do some of the work of explaining where my brain goes. I won’t need to make frown faces at my kids when they ask me what’s for dinner while I’m still on my writer’s clock. I will just say the word writerhead to them and it will soon have its own kind of currency.

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

Writerhead is a small wooden dory. The work is in getting to the dock, putting on my life jacket and climbing into the boat without upsetting the things in there: the oars, the water slushing in the bilge, the bow line and stern line. Once I’m in the boat, I get right to work rowing. There can be choppy seas and the oars can get heavy and awkward. But I try to keep the boat moving—every day a little further up the coast and then back home.

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Susan Conley lived in Beijing for more than two years, and returned to Portland, Maine, with her husband and two sons in December 2009. She is cofounder and executive director of the Telling Room, a writers’ workshop and literary hub for the region. She was an associate editor at Ploughshares and has led creative writing seminars at Emerson College in Boston. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine as well as The Paris Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and other literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel and settling back into life in the States.

If you’d like to learn more about Susan, hop on over to her web site (http://www.susanconley.com). You can also say hello on Twitter (@Susan_Conley) or Facebook.

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Q4U Readers / Writers / Moms / Dads / Expats / Travelers / Sinophiles: What draws you in here? The small wooden dory? The image of Susan dragging that mattress up to her writing room? Susan’s comment that interruptions “all look harmless”? Talk to me.