Expat Sat: 4 Questions Expat Writers Need to Ask Themselves

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.


You’re an expat. You’re a writer. You’re ready to start a new project. You’re not quite sure how or where or what to begin. Here are four questions to help you get started.

1.  Am I writing about myself in this place?

2.  Am I writing about this place without “me” in it? (Meaning, you’re an observer, a gatherer of information, not a participant.)

3.  Am I writing fiction or nonfiction?

4.  What is it about this place that inspires me?

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Image: think4photop / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: Writing Prompt: There’s Nothing To Write About??!!

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 a writer said to me, “But there’s nothing to write about.”

NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT!!!!!!

Holy crap-a-majoli! Nothing to write about? Nothing to write about?

(short pause, while I sit down and breathe)

FOR PENELOPE’S SAKE, NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT???

To help this writer and any others who have come to this desperate state, here’s a writing prompt to prove that no matter who or where you are, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO WRITE ABOUT!

Now…get to work.

STEP 1: Go outside and hunker down on a corner. (Yes, I know “corner” will mean something different to each of you. If you’re in a cabin in the woods, go to a bend in a path or a river or a creek. If you’re in Mumbai, go to a nearby intersection. You know what I mean…)

STEP 2: Wait for something to happen. (drums fingers on knee)

STEP 3: While you wait, see what takes your attention. (Who’s pulling their gutchies out of their crack? Who’s smooching on the corner? What is that smell?! Have you ever, ever seen that shade of green before? How would you describe that old woman’s limp? And so on…)

STEP 4: When something happens (AND IT WILL!), go somewhere and write. Get it all down. The whole hot sticky spilling-over-the-sides mess of it.

STEP 5: When you’re done, post a few lines of your piece in the Comments section below. I want to see what’s happening around the world.

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P.S. I know, I know, a few weeks ago I made a big promise. I sent out a “Save the Date” for today. Ugh! My apologies for postponing. But stay tuned. It’s a’coming.

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Image: sakhorn38 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: The Crazy, Busy Noggin

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.


Geesh, I’ve got so much bubbling through this noggin of mine that I can’t focus on one thing. So…instead of torturing myself a minute longer about it, I’m going to stop trying and instead give you a list. (Don’t ever underestimate the power of a list.) Here goes:

1. I started a new job this week. A part-time writing/editing gig at a nearby private school. A cool opportunity that is allowing me to defrag my life and (hopefully) write more while having a delightful coterie of smart, worldly colleagues.

2. I’ve got this crazy-ass eye thing going on–corneal infiltrates–(there are two of you right now!) and it’s making me value my eyesight in a way I never really have before. Eat your damn carrots! (I know, I know…carrots don’t have a thing to do with corneal infiltrates but it’s more fun to say, “Eat your damn carrots!” than to say, “Make sure your contact lenses are fit properly.”)

3. Twitter’s new censorship policy. Good? Not good? Good enough? Terrible? Pros? Cons?

4. Someone needs to create a digital photo database that can be searched more creatively and organically…so that when I search via the term “crazy-busy noggin,” relevant photos show up, not just “There were no images found that match your search term.”

5. Letters. The Rumpus just started a cool thing. You can subscribe to receive a letter (yes! in the mail!) from an author. How cool is this?!

6. Do you write letters, expats? Do you?

7. The lone wolf that has made his way into California…the first in 88 years! (Go, wolf, go!) He’s now an expat in his own land. (A familiar experience…)

See what I mean? Crazy-busy noggin.

How’s your noggin today?

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Image: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mojo Monday: Chúc mừng năm mới! (Happy New Year!)

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.


This week in my house, we’re celebrating both Vietnamese Tet and Chinese Spring Festival. As mom to a Vietnamese daughter, Tet means a lot to our family. It connects us with our daughter’s history and culture. It bonds us to her birthplace. It reminds us how far-reaching our family is and gives us a special opportunity to tend and honor those ties.

Also as a family that spent nearly five years in Shanghai, China, Chinese Spring Festival is part of our tradition now.

So to you, I say both:

Chúc mừng năm mới!

and

Gong xi fa cai!

 

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Image: Tevatron

Expat Sat: Carrots, Microwave Ovens & the Art of Remembering

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.


In Mandarin, carrot is húluóbo (胡萝卜). Microwave oven is wēibōlú (微波炉).

When I was just learning to speak Chinese in Shanghai, I couldn’t keep these two words straight. Sometimes I would tell our ayi (the woman who worked for us) that I wanted chicken with a microwave oven for dinner. Other times, I would ask her to heat leftovers in the carrot.

Each time, our ayi would laugh, shake her head, then patiently correct me. I was sure she thought I was brave for trying, but basically hopeless.

After each lesson, I would stare at the microwave, repeating wēibōlú, wēibōlú, wēibōlú a gazillion times, sure that the repetition would seal the word forever in my brain.

And then a week later, I’d flub it again.

“Please steam the microwave oven with broccoli,” I’d say.

Or, “The rice is in the carrot.”

Yesterday I quizzed myself as I prepared dinner. I cleaned a pile of carrots. “Húluóbo,” I said.

I put the carrots in the microwave. “Wēibōlú.”

And that was that.

 

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Image: Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Welcome 2012! Bring on the Water Dragon…

2012 is the Year of the Water Dragon, and according to experts in Chinese astrology, the dragon is the mostest special of the twelve zodiac signs because it is a mythical, not earthly, beast. As a mad supporter of all things mythical, I say, “Bring it on!”

To encourage the dragon and entice goodness to my table, I’m starting the year with a handful directives. (Last year, I did three words, but I’m feeling more energetic this year. Directives seem appropriate and necessary.) And because I spend so much wonderful time with words every day, I thought that instead of writing down my 2012 New Year’s directives, I’d present them to you via images. I’ll leave the interpretation up to you.

Here goes:

Happy New Year, friends!

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Dragon Image: Kittisak / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lotus Image: Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Treehouse Image: anankkml / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Flowerhead Image: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Woman with World Image: digitalart / 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

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

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