Monday, November 30, 2009

Guest Post: The Oxford University Creative Writing Summer School

by Emily Lacika

There are many great things about being a writer based in Switzerland. The misadventure of daily life is fodder enough for excellent material, and the opportunities for travel, well, that speaks for itself. However, there is a lack of creative writing programs conducted in English. So, wanting to take some time to work on my craft, I started looking for options online, and that's how I discovered the Oxford University Creative Writing Summer School.

The program sounded fabulous: three weeks of creative writing while staying in one of the Oxford Colleges, miles away from such intrusive things like laundry schedules and language classes. Priced at two thousand pounds, the program was not cheap, but at least with Oxford's proximity to Zurich, there would be no jet lag to contend with.

To apply to the program, you had to (1) provide a statement of intent, (2) procure a letter of reference, and (3) put together a portfolio of your writing that was relevant to your first-choice workshops. (When I applied, there were six workshops to choose from. I chose the Writing Fiction and the Writing Lives workshops.) After a week of frantic editing, I pulled off a respectable application. Needless to say that I was ecstatic when I learned that I was accepted into the 2008 program.

The program was held at Exeter College one of the oldest colleges in the Oxford University system, and being based there was spiritual from a writing perspective. The call to write was just about everywhere. My room, at the top of eighty stairs, had the most amazing view of the town's famed spires. The dining hall inspired one of the settings in Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass and the father of Middle Earth himself, J.R.R. Tolkien, was an alum. In fact, a bust of the famous Inkling was illuminated under an incandescent halo in the college chapel.

The director warned us at the start that they planned to work us hard, and work us hard they did. Workshops were scheduled to meet Monday through Thursday, and each workshop met twice a week. Every day, there was a plenary lecture with topics ranging from readings and discussions conducted by writers in different media (novels, biographies, poetry, drama, screenwriting, etc.) to the business side of writing (publishers, agents and booksellers.) With all that on our plates, it was a wonder that I ever found the time to complete both the short and long assignments, as well as forming critique groups with the other writers in the program.

What I enjoyed most about the program was the camaraderie. Writing can be a lonely, existential-crisis-inducing experience, especially when living in a non-English speaking country. Going into the Oxford summer course, I expected lots of constructive feedback and lengthy meta-discussions about writing, but I did not think about the type of environment that would flourish when you threw thirty writers together from around the globe. For me, the friendships formed proved to be the most invaluable part of the entire program.

Emily Lacika moved to Zurich from Boston in 2005 and tries to maintain a precarious balance between writing and the other projects in her life: traveling, language learning, lindy-hopping, and trying to not irritate her neighbors when practicing the fiddle. You can follow her musings at her blog.

Have you participated in a writing program abroad? If so, Writer Abroad wants to hear about it. Please leave a comment or contact Chantal about writing a guest post.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writer Interview: Paul Allen in Spain

When my husband was first given an offer to work in Switzerland, the first thing I did was ask the question, "should I move abroad?" Unfortunately, I asked Google, and Google didn't really have an answer for that. But British writer and journalist Paul Allen does. He's written a book called, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go? The Truth about Moving Abroad and Whether it's Right for You," and I can't help but wish it would have been available four years ago, when I was first deciding whether or not to move to Switzerland. A writer abroad himself, Paul Allen now lives in northern Spain and joins us to talk about his book and about being a writer in Spain.

You're a British freelance journalist and writer living in Spain. How did you end up there?

My wife’s parents used to own an apartment here, and so my wife had been coming to this region on holiday for years. I first visited in 1997, when we spent five months traveling around Spain, which instilled in both of us a passion for the country. Then after living in the States for a year for work we both decided we’d like to try moving abroad permanently – and Spain seemed the obvious destination.

What do you like most about living in Spain? Is it a good place to live as a writer and journalist?

Coming from Britain, the climate was a big lure. The joy of guaranteed summers, knowing we can go to the beach and swim in turquoise waters, cannot be overstated. I like that there are definite seasons in this part of the country too though, with Pyrenean ski resorts just a two-hour drive away.

The warmth of the people, and especially the way they dote on children, is another great feature about Spain. As is the grip they retain on their traditional customs and celebrations. Spaniards have a keen sense of their history, and seem to have at least as much a foot in the past as they do in the present. So while it is a thoroughly modern country in many respects, ancient practices, crafts, festivals and beliefs remain much in evidence.

As for a location as a writer, the wealth of Spain’s culture, the colour of its people and beauty of its landscapes are, of course, a fertile source of material. Inspiration is never far away.

However, from a practical work perspective, location is no longer the issue it once was. Most of the publications I write for as a journalist are based in London or New York, while the people I interview for articles come from around the world. Likewise, readers of my book and Moving Abroad-opedia newsletter are spread across the globe. So with a phone line and internet access, writers now have the ability to work from anywhere, which is liberating.

You've written a book called "Should I Stay or Should I Go, The Truth About Moving Abroad and Whether it's Right for You," about the key areas people need to consider when contemplating a move abroad. Could you give us a hint as to what some of the important things are that we should consider?

By far the most important factor is how you will cope with being separated from family and friends. It’s an issue that comes up in surveys and anecdotal conversations time and again, and should not be underestimated.

Work options and opportunities are crucial too. Work defines how we spend the majority of our waking hours, who we spend them with, the housing and material possessions we can afford, and the opportunities available in our leisure time. Work also provides us with a sense of identity. So the income-generating possibilities you face will have a big influence on your living abroad experiences.

One of the interviewees in my book described how moving to Canada gave her the chance to rise to the position of CEO of a healthcare facility, something she didn’t think would have been possible if she had remained in Britain. At the same time, while many Brits have relocated to Spain, one Spanish respondent said she lives in Britain in large part because of the employment opportunities it offers compared to her homeland.

And ultimately there is the question of regrets. If moving abroad is something you still yearn to do after weighing up the other considerations I detail in the book, then go for it. Better to go and try, than wonder ‘what if.’

Any other projects in the works?

My Moving Abroad-opedia newsletter and blog posts are ongoing projects. I am also working on a corporate version of my Should I Stay or Should I Go book, which is specifically aimed at helping employees decide whether they should take up an international assignment with their companies.

In addition I am writing a screenplay ... so any movie producers out there please feel free to get in touch!

What's the best part about living abroad as a writer?

That you are taken out of your comfort zone on a daily basis. It forces you both to look at the external world around you more, as well as to look inside yourself for strength and motivation.

Living abroad also offers a certain mental freedom. Because people don’t know you from way back, you aren’t burdened by any weight of history or expectation as to who you are and what you do. You can be yourself without preconception or judgement.

What's the most challenging part about living abroad as a writer?

That you are taken out of your comfort zone. Navigating an alien country and culture can be hard work, and everything seems to take longer – time and energy I’d prefer to put into writing.

What would you say to other writers thinking of living abroad?

Do it. If it goes well then your life will be all the richer. And if it doesn’t work out you can always return home, and now you’ll have a head full of experience to draw upon. Writing benefits from a life embraced.

Anything else to add?

I think living abroad can be a wonderful experience. I’ve done it, and am immensely glad I did.

But the idea of living abroad seems to have become a panacea for many people, a hope that it will right all the things they see wrong with their current lives. It’s not the abroad bit that matters though, it’s the living. For all of us, finding a life that fills us with meaning, hope and happiness should be the real goal, wherever that happens to be.

Paul Allen is a freelance journalist and writer who has lived in northern Spain since 2003. He is the author of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go? The Truth About Moving Abroad And Whether It's Right For You," a comprehensive guide for anyone seeking advice on whether or not to move abroad.

For more details about the book, and free information and advice on moving and living overseas, visit his website.

You can also follow Paul’s blog.

Friday, November 20, 2009

5 Ways to Establish Yourself as a Writer Abroad

In the previous post about the financial realities of working as a writer abroad, you’ll see that depending on the cost of living in your country, it’s probably best to establish yourself in the local writing community in order to make a decent living wage for the place you live. (Unless you live in Panama, where those $6 blog posts might actually make you rich).

Work permits and other legal issues aside (that’s a topic for another day--make that days), how do you go from rags to riches? (Sorry, you don’t. You’re a writer.) But here are some things to consider in order to establish yourself:

1. Keep a blog and keep it updated. This sounds obvious, but after I started posting to my expat blog One Big Yodel regularly for about two years (yes, it takes time--and you also have to promote it too), I gained a few of things: a voice, a loyal readership, and a few writing offers. A couple weeks ago, before I was about to be interviewed on a Swiss radio station, the director of the station told me, “Be as sarcastic as possible.” I laughed, but in a way, it was a compliment. It meant I had established a voice and people were starting to recognize it.

2. Learn the language. I’m still working on this one (three-week intensive German, here I come), but when you learn the language of your country you learn things about the people, the culture, and the surroundings that visitors and tourists just won’t. You’ll have insights that are fresh, honest, and unique. And most importantly, you’ll be able to make friends with the locals. I just pitched a Swiss magazine and got assigned a feature story about a fight for women’s rights that I never would have known about if it hadn’t been for a Swiss friend of mine.

3. Write for free. Ok, this sucks. But it worked for me so that’s why I’m mentioning it. If your country is anything like Switzerland, there’s probably some kind of expat magazine or newsletter that gets distributed a few times a year and needs writers like you. When I first arrived, I wrote for Hello Zurich (now Hello Switzerland) a couple of times. Then, when I interviewed to write for a paying magazine, the editor already knew my style and I was able to establish my own column.

4. Make business cards. Lawyers have them and they feel important. You can too. Plus it just makes you look serious about what you do. There are so many wannabe expat writers out there and you need to separate yourself from them. A website will help you do this too.

5. Network. (Hint: the more alcohol you drink, the better your foreign language skills will get.) But forget about that. Social networking makes it easier than ever for introverts like us to make ourselves known. If you want to write for a well-known blog, leave comments on the posts. To get your name out there, network with other bloggers and write guest posts that link back to your blog. If you admire a certain writer that’s already established in your country or city, email them and ask to meet for a coffee.

But enough about what I think. What have you done to establish yourself either as a writer abroad or a writer at home?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Financial Realities of being a Writer Abroad

You know how sometimes when you're in the U.S. and you call a toll-free number, someone answers that you can barely understand because you've actually just called halfway around the world?

Well, the reality is, that travel blog about London might be written by some guy living in Mumbai. That piece about the Paris metro? Written by someone in China. Why is this, when there are all of these wonderful writers living abroad in the cities people want to read about?

Financial realities. The companies running these sites (sorry, not naming names here) want the information about cities like Paris, Zurich, and London. But they don't want to pay the prices that writers living in these places need to survive. It's globalization at its finest. And sometimes as writers abroad, we lose.

For example, let's talk about living in Switzerland because that's where I live. Switzerland is an expensive place. If you don't believe me, try going to the Subway sandwich chain that just opened in my little town. The price of a foot-long value meal? $18.

Ok, so if I have to pay $18 for lunch, do you think I'm going to want to write about Switzerland for a travel blog that pays its writers $6 a post? No way. I'd make more money working as a cashier at the grocery store, because they make $20 an hour.

But if I write a blog post for a proper Swiss company, what can I expect? About $110 a post.

Before you start planning your move to Switzerland, remember: yes, you can make a decent wage writing for Swiss companies. But when you start freelancing for places outside of Switzerland, suddenly the wages you're making will barely pay for your lunch.

Something to consider before we all start moving to Panama.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Writer Interview: Celeste Brash in Tahiti

Celeste Brash is a travel writer in Tahiti and before we all kill ourselves with jealousy, let's hear what she has to say about being a member of the rare species, Writer Abroad Without A Need For Slipper Boots.

Can you tell us how you ended up in Tahiti and how long you’ve been living abroad?

I've been living in French Polynesia for nearly 15 years now but I had visited twice before I made the permanent move. My husband grew up half in French Polynesia and half in the States and after we'd been together about a year and a half he moved to a remote coral atoll to help his dad start a black pearl farm. We had an on and off relationship for about three years after that - him coming out to visit me in Indonesia (more on that in a minute) and me visiting him on the atoll. Finally I got tired of all the back and forth and decided to try and live out there. It worked! Before I moved to French Polynesia I had been living in Singapore and Indonesia and before that I went to Chiang Mai University in Thailand. So basically I've been living abroad now for about 17 years.

You do a lot of writing for Lonely Planet. Can you talk a little about how you ended up as a travel writer?

Another long story! I almost started working for Lonely Planet in 1999 but that didn't work out mostly because where I was living was too isolated and my kids were still very young. When I moved to Tahiti from that remote coral atoll in 2000 I started writing and getting stuff published - I've always been a writer so this was the obvious thing for me to do with that new-fangled thing called the Internet. Then in 2001, I went to the Book Passage Travel Writers' Conference in California and won a writing contest with Lonely Planet which should have gotten me a job. Unfortunately 9/11 happened shortly after and our pearl business needed my help in the tough economy so, again, I couldn't take it. It wasn't until 2004, when I ran into a senior editor from Lonely Planet who remembered me from the contest (this was in Mexico), that I officially started writing for Lonely Planet.

What projects are you working on now?

I'm leaving for Thailand this Friday to update Lonely Planet's Thailand's Islands and Beaches for the second time.

What’s the best part about living abroad as a writer?

You have an 'in' by being a local expert that makes it easier to get published and find work.

What’s the most challenging part about living abroad as a writer?

It can be hard breaking out of your destination specialty area and there's only so much you can sell about the same place over and over again. Also airfare from Tahiti is very expensive so it costs more to send me out on assignment than for people living in busier hub cities/countries.

What would you say to other writers thinking of living abroad?

It's a fun way to get deeper into the place you're living. I like that it gets me searching out strange little tidbits I might otherwise not find if I weren't looking for subject matter all the time.

Anything else to add?

Don't expect to get rich! But it sure is fun.

Living on a remote coral atoll for five years with no phone, plumbing and limited solar electricity prevented Celeste from getting an early start in her writing career - although it sounds idyllic, washing laundry by hand, digging your own well and sustenance fishing takes a big chunk out of one's day. Before plunging into French Polynesian life, Celeste traveled extensively and continues to do so, exploring nearly 40 countries. Her travel articles have appeared in Islands Magazine, Voyageur Magazine and she is a regular contributor to the widely syndicated newspaper column Travels with Lonely Planet. She has co-authored over a dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks including Tahiti & French Polynesia, South America on a Shoestring, Canada, Thailand's Islands & Beaches, Indonesia (2010), Malaysia (2010) and Travel with Children as well as The Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle of Nowhere and a slew of web content for Lonely Planet. Her real passion is travel narrative and her stories have appeared in the Travelers' Tales anthologies The World as a Kitchen and 30 Days in the South Pacific; her story "Mama Rose's Coconut Bread" won the 2007 Travelers' Tales Silver Solas award for best story about food and travel. The best way to keep up with Celeste's writing and travels is by reading her blog.

Are you a writer living outside your home country that would like to be featured on Writer Abroad? If so, please contact Chantal.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Welcome to Writer Abroad

Welcome to Writer Abroad. Over the course of this blog, I hope to find out as much as possible about the lives of writers living abroad as well as share opportunities and information. Because let's be honest, being a writer can be great. But it can also be lonely. Right now, I just finished writing Chapter 28 of my memoir and I'm sitting at home wearing my work boots (in other words, my awesome slipper boots that I bought from the GAP when I was visiting home a couple weeks ago). Every writer should have these. Unless of course, you live in a tropical place like Tahiti and then I sort of hate you because the sky here in Switzerland has turned grey for oh, the next six months and I'm already craving the sun. But I digress.

To kick off this blog thing, here's my story. I'm sharing it, so hopefully I'll get to hear yours eventually too.

I arrived in Switzerland in 2006, rather excited to find a country where people can actually pronounce my name since this was never the case in the U.S. After 28 years of “Shh, shhantell panahzoo” you sort of need to get away.

Anyhow, I’m a writer and copywriter and worked at an ad agency in Zurich for three years before being laid off, and that’s another story because of the strange concept (to Americans at least) of having to keep working for three months after being laid off.

Now I’m working as a writer, blogger, and copywriter. Besides checking email like there's no tomorrow so I can revel in responses like "thank you for your essay. We regret it does not suit our needs at the current time," I do things like blog, write a column for Swiss News, blab on Swiss radio, and write essays for American publications like the Monitor. I’m also working on a memoir about life abroad, and have recently had some stories published in a couple of best-selling anthologies.

I moved to Switzerland for my husband’s job—I admit it, I’m a trailing spouse. Even though I hate that term. But it was my choice to come here too, so I can’t just go around blaming the lack of cheddar in the land of cheese on him. And please, don’t call me "Frau". That word sounds so matronly and pathetic. And I don’t like that it means both wife and woman. Like we can’t be a woman without being a wife. German is so annoying sometimes.

But that's enough about me. If you really want more, you can always go to my website. Next up, tomorrow, an interview with Celeste Brash, a Lonely Planet writer living in sigh, Tahiti. She doesn't need those slipper boots. But she's still cool.

Are you a writer living outside your home country that would like to be featured on Writer Abroad? If so, please contact Chantal.


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