Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Does inspiration come from people or places?

Are we inspired more by people or places?

That’s the question Writer Abroad has been asking herself lately.

She’s determined that she’s most prolific when thrown out of her comfort zone. This can mean living in a foreign country, becoming a parent for the first time, or returning to her own country after internalizing another culture’s way of life.

All three of these things intersected to inspire her piece, In Switzerland, Parents Observe. In the U.S., Hovering is Required, which ran in the New York Times a few weeks ago.

What inspires you as a writer?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

International Women's Day. In Poland.

Guest post by Jill Boyles

Flower Seller in Poland. Photo by Jill Boyles.
Przepraszam panią,” my husband Paul says as we approach the woman dozing in a folding chair under a beach umbrella. She opens her eyes wearily, and I regret having asked my husband, a Polish national, to wake her. Too late. She’s standing, straightening her winter jacket and gesturing toward the remaining vases that still hold flowers. It’s a late afternoon on International Women’s Day in Warsaw, and most of the flowers have been picked over. Behind her, a store’s ledge serves as a shelf for spools of ribbon and a pair of scissors, and a baby carriage next to her, innards gutted, cradles a large, blue and white plaid plastic tote.
Paul asks her if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for his wife about International Women’s Day. Her blue eyes widen under blue eye shadow. She returns to her chair and sits with her back straight, saying nothing. It’s as though she’s trying to determine if she had heard correctly. She looks at me. I smile. “Tak,” she says. I exhale the breath I was unconsciously holding and thank her in Polish, “Dziękuje.” Paul translates my request if she also wouldn’t mind being recorded and having her picture taken. Recording, tak; picture, nie. She curls in on herself as her hands smooth curly, gray strands of hair peeking out from under her winter hat.
I begin with a few warm-up questions and ask her via Paul if she’s sold a lot of flowers and who her main customers are. She replies that she has sold many flowers, and women are her main customers. Her answer to the second question surprises me. I had assumed men would be buying the majority of flowers as my Polish friends and students have told me. When I ask her why women are the majority of flower buyers, she answers, “This is how it is today.” We both laugh.
In response to the question of what she expects on International Women’s Day, she says, “A good word like ‘kocham cię [I love you] and a smile.” As far as childhood memories of this day, she doesn’t recall much except that it was a “big day” during communism, but today International Women’s Day is just “another day.”  
Marzena’s comment echoes those of most Polish women I’ve spoken to who say that International Women’s Day is nothing more than lip service and a tradition left over from when Poland was a communist country. Then, women were given carnations and red ones at that unlike tulips, which currently is the flower of choice. When I asked these same women if they’d feel disappointed if International Women’s Day didn't exist or if they didn't receive flowers on this day, they responded, “Of course.”
Feminist scholars maintain that communism held more opportunities for women than in a free market economy. I ask Marzena if this was her observation as well. "Tak," she says and adds, “It was better. Everyone had jobs.” However, Marzena believes that there are different opportunities for her daughter today than when she was her daughter’s age. Her daughter owns a business. And, Marzena continues, “I own this flower business.”
I ask her if she’s familiar with the term “sexism” and she answers, “Nie.” Paul explains that sexism is discrimination against women. She says that she has never encountered it. When I ask if the men in her life like her father, brother, uncle encouraged her to be what she wanted to be even if it was considered a male occupation, she responded, “Tak. No boundaries whatsoever.”
The Polish Catholic church has been fashioning a debate on gender ideology to deflect focus away from Polish priests who have molested children. I’m curious what Marzena thinks about this one-sided debate, but first I ask her what the word “gender” means to her. She is unfamiliar with the word and also hasn’t heard about the Catholic church’s pronouncement that gender undermines Polish Catholic values.
Paul gives Marzena background information about the term gender as it’s being discussed in Poland (although not a clear definition has been agreed upon in Poland, the terms “gender” and “gender ideology” refer loosely to gender roles, gender orientation and for some sexual orientation), the church’s stance on gender and Piaseczno County whose city officials passed a resolution to fight gender ideology. For the first time, I see Marzena shift from shyness to anger. “It sounds like,” she says, “they [the city officials] want to restrict one’s freewill.”
I ask Marzena what her hope is for females in Poland. “Not good. Not good,” she shakes her head, “There’s no work for women because of their age. It’s harder for women over 25 to find jobs. Men over age 25, also, to a certain extent, but they have more job opportunities like jobs on construction sites.”
In closing, I ask what women and men can do together to improve this situation. “They must work together,” she says, “As separate units by themselves, they can’t fix much, but together we [women and men] can do something.”
Wise words, I think.
My mind is abuzz with more questions, but I fear I might be deterring potential customers and possibly crossing an invisible line with my questioning only she can see. I ask once more if I may take her picture. She consents but comments about how poorly she looks. I snap her picture with the flowers in the foreground to make her feel more comfortable rather than taking a head-on shot. After the picture, my husband and I walk over to the remaining flowers and buy, not tulips, but żokile (daffodils).
I thank her in Polish and say good-bye in English, silently kicking myself for not saying dowidzenia (good-bye) – one of the few Polish words I can say relatively accent-free. Her expression changes from kindliness to concentration as if she is mentally reaching to grab something but can only brush her fingertips against it. Her mouth then opens, and she says, “Good-bye.” She looks astonished, maybe at the ease and clarity with which she has said this foreign word.
To anyone buying flowers from her or passing her on their way to the store or to home, Marzena might seem inconsequential or even invisible, but she has a voice and a story and both are powerful and need not be lost in the hollowness of International Women’s Day as it’s celebrated today or in international feminist discourse or in a world where much of a woman’s worth is tied to her age.

Jill Boyles is working on a novel set in a small town. She blogs at www.jillboyles.com

Friday, February 27, 2015

Writing workshops, book awards, and expat issues

Welcome to another international writing round-up. 

There are quite a few writing workshops coming up in Europe this year. Here are a few to consider:

WriteCon Zurich will take place March 21-22 in Zurich, Switzerland. It will feature programs like “How to nail your novel” and “Routes to publication.”

The Canal St. Martin in Paris
Amal Chatterjee will co-teach a weekend of prose and poetry in Paris. The course will take place in April at the Péniche Librairie on the Canal St. Martin.

The Chamonix Summer Writing Programs (in coordination with Butler University) will feature both high altitudes and high levels of literature. Featured instructors for the June program include fiction author Anne Korkeakivi, memoir writer Cheryl Strand, and many others.

The Zurich Writers Workshop will take place October 23-25 in Zurich, Switzerland. Program will be announced soon.

In other news, nominations are now being accepted for The American Library in Paris’ 2015 book award.

And finally, if you’re an expat or interested in expat issues, The Wall Street Journal has an online section devoted entirely to you. Yours truly contributed a piece last week about Americans abroad not wanting their kids to be U.S. citizens.

Any news from your part of the world? Leave a comment.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The American Writing Group

Writer Abroad joined a new writing group. It’s a very organized, well-run group that includes writers of all ages and levels—and the best part is that Writer Abroad doesn't have to organize it. Unlike the Zurich Writers Workshop, which she co-founded since there was no other organization for English-language writers in Zurich, this group has already been in existence for many years. It meets every other week at the local library where writers of all ages read and critique each other’s work. Like all things American that she’s joined lately, Writer Abroad is the newbie.

As more of an outsider than most, one thing has struck Writer Abroad about the critiques in her new group: They are really, really nice.

“I loved this piece.” That’s how most people start and end their critiques.

So these writers either love everything they read.
Or they are lying.
Or better yet, they are American.

According to an article on businessinsider.com, Americans give the most exaggerated, explicit, and positive feedback of any country in the world. And after being abroad for so long and working with so many nationalities, Writer Abroad completely agrees with this statement.

In her time abroad working with mainly German and Swiss nationalities, she became, well, able to give and accept more direct negative feedback. This is not natural for an American, but it becomes that way once you’ve been in another culture for several years.

When it comes to her new American writing group, Writer Abroad doesn’t want to be the strange European-influenced critic. She remembers all to well her first days in Switzerland working with Swiss and Germans who had no shame in giving her direct negative feedback, which, at the time, felt like a slap in the face.

Luckily, critiquing like an American is one part of returning home that’s been pretty easy to acclimate to. So if you come by her new writing group sometime, you’ll probably see Writer Abroad wearing big white gym shoes and saying things like “I loved this piece” whether she loved it or not.

Can you blame her? At heart, she’s always been American.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing about the old country

Writer Abroad is working on a travel book about Switzerland and it often makes her wonder—is writing this making her attempt at repatriation easier or harder? On one hand, it is therapeutic to write about the country she spent the last eight years living in. It keeps her connection to the country strong and will help maintain the author platform she built there. But on the other hand, it’s terrible to write about hiking around the longest glacier in Europe and be stuck in the flat American Midwest where no one hikes, let alone walks.

Missing the old country these
days…especially in spin class.
Writing this book is actually giving her strange side effects. She is physically aching for the great outdoors. And she didn't know it was possible to actually do that. It was especially acute this morning, when she went from writing about snowshoeing in the Alps to an indoor spin class--where riding up a hill involved a small click to the right of the bike's tension knob, instead of the winding castle-topped hill she used to ride up every week when she lived in Baden.

In any case, this travel book (one of four book projects at the moment—yes, Writer Abroad is crazy) is a kind of love letter to Switzerland since it includes over 100 things to do and places to go that Writer Abroad experienced as extraordinarily beautiful—or just very typically Swiss—during her many years wandering around with her GA, or country-wide train pass. It’s a book she hopes will inspire others who are in the country for a few days—years—or even a lifetime—to see Switzerland in new ways. She's learning to, without even being there. 

If you're a re-pat, does it help you to write about your "old" country?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Art of Slow Writing

Writer Abroad is reading a great new book called, The Art of Slow Writing, by Louise DeSalvo. But to be honest, Writer Abroad is surprised she likes it.

This is because Writer Abroad finds a lot of books about writing tiring or a waste of time. Why? Because reading them takes away time from writing. In her experience, a lot of people spend more time talking about what they do than they do actually doing it. Writers are no exception. That’s why if Writer Abroad is going to read, which she does consider part of her job, she wants to read books in the genre and/or on the topic she is currently writing about—these typically provide more inspiration to her than a book about writing.

Writer Abroad’s passion for doing rather than talking about doing stems from her days as an advertising copywriter when her colleagues spent most of the day playing ping pong and talking about advertising—instead of creating the actual television commercial or print ad. And then they’d start working at 6 p.m. when Writer Abroad was ready to go home. It drove her nuts, mainly because she was seen as non-productive if she left at 6 p.m., despite having worked at least eight hours more than many of her colleagues at that point.

Now that she has more control over her time and is beginning 2015 by finally becoming a full-time freelancer, she vows not to waste a minute of her work time. Luckily, The Art of Slow Writing doesn’t waste her time. Each chapter takes only a couple minutes to read and gives a lot of good information in that space.

So far, highlights of the book include a discussion of the process journal, which is a journal writers keep to track what we accomplish and how we accomplish it—and our feelings about everything. A process journal is an ongoing conversation with ourselves about our work. By reading past process journals we can understand how we felt during different points in our projects—and remember that our current feelings are normal. Writer Abroad is now inspired to begin a process journal.

In the book there is also a discussion of the importance of another kind of journal, called a “notebook” by Joan Didion, where the writer writes down “how it felt to be me” at a particular time. This kind of journal helps us remember who we used to be, and we can later draw on it for essays, memoir, or even for a character in a novel. Writer Abroad doesn’t usually keep a notebook, but she is now convinced she should, especially when she reads over the notebook she did keep, which was during her daughter’s first year. She can see now that it is hard to remember who she was as a new mother emotionally, even if she can remember specific incidents—like wishing she were a man during that time since they had it so much easier!

Another chapter in Slow Writing talks about taking time off, which is also important for creativity. Time away from work is so important for everyone, and yet Americans don’t seem to understand it—or if they do, they aren’t given the proper amount of time off to truly relax.  Instead, their “time away” is ping pong at the office (or worse, “pajama day at the office”). But sorry, anything at the office isn’t a vacation no matter how much fun it supposedly creates. After living for almost a decade in Europe, Writer Abroad vows to continue taking at least a month of time off each year. The difference it makes in her work is real.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Make Your Own Luck in 2015

Happy Old Year. 

Writer Abroad would like to take a moment to celebrate 2014. It was a big year in many ways. She published her first book, which has sold almost 1200 copies since May. She secured a distribution deal with one of the publishers that originally rejected the manuscript. She wrote for several new publications, including Brian Child, CNN Travel, and Fodor’s. And oh yeah, she changed continents. At least for the time being.

In any case, 2014 taught Writer Abroad a lot. Mainly, that success as a writer is up to you. You can wait for others to decide to offer you something. Or you can create your own luck in 2015 and make your dreams come true yourself. 

For Writer Abroad, it took ten years of writing, ten years of making contacts, ten years of learning about promotion and advertising, and ten years of learning about the publishing industry before she felt ready for Book Number One. And that’s the other lesson: in a world where publishing is more accessible than ever, patience is key. Publishing when you’re not ready can do more harm than good. But if you are ready, Writer Abroad says this: 2015 is waiting for you to take success into your own hands. Won’t you join her in pursuing it?

Happy New Year.


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