Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Northwestern Summer Writers' Conference

by Kelly Jarosz
Occasionally, writers abroad need to return home for inspiration and education. Or, if your home country is not the United States, this is a great chance to live the writer abroad dream.Art and Craft: the Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference will be held August 4-6, 2010, at the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago.
This smorgasbord-style conference offers panel discussions and workshop sessions on fiction, non-fiction, memoir, travel writing and writing for children, lead by award-winning writers, teachers, editors and publishers from the Chicago area. Topics cover the gauntlet of the writing process, from brainstorming and character development through scene writing to publication and building an online platform. Each evening offers a reception and readings. Manuscript consultation with a faculty member is available for an additional fee.
I attended the 2009 conference, when I was first dipping a non-committal toe into the creative writing pool. I appreciated the variety of topics and the enthusiasm of the instructors. The freelancing workshop was especially productive, as the instructors led participants through the steps of developing a magazine article, from idea generation to submission. I received the guidance and encouragement I needed from the instructors to further develop my initial idea after the conference. The resulting article was published in a Swiss expat magazine nine months later.

More information, including the 2010 conference program, is available
online. If you are new to creative writing or are looking for exercises to strengthen your writing, I recommend this conference.

Kelly Jarosz is an American writer living in Zurich. She spends her time seeing, eating, drinking and writing about as much of Switzerland and Europe as she can. She is writing her first novel and blogs about her expat adventures here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Living the Cliché

Writer Abroad just realized that in the next few days, she will be a living cliché. Luckily, she likes clichés.

Her first cliché involves living out her
Sound of Music dream as she heads to an Alpine mountaintop so remote it’s not even reachable by Swiss public transportation (What? Not reachable by Swiss public transport? Writer Abroad didn’t know such a thing was possible!). While on said mountaintop, she’ll be observing a session at the Swiss Alphorn School and interviewing its founder as well as some of his students on how one learns to play an alphorn.

Then it's on to the next cliché: writing in Paris. Oui. Writer Abroad is heading there for a week to participate in the
Paris Writers’ Workshop. She hopes to meet some of you Paris-based writers while she’s there and to also find a coffee shop where a café au lait is less than $6. Anyone?

Speaking of writing workshops, there’s also one coming up in Chicago for those of you on the other side of the world (or those of you that would prefer to be on the other side of the world). Next week, you’ll hear more about the
Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference from Zurich-based writer Kelly Jarosz, who attended the program last year.

And because Writer Abroad will be tr
ès occupied while living out her clichés, next week she’s also excited to welcome a member of the Nuremberg Writers Group, Diana Santelli, to post on a topic we can probably all relate to: writer jealousy.

Until next time,
danke and merci to all.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Guest Post: Living in China

I Am a Pancake

by Roseanne Etcheber-Cheng

My husband and I had the opportunity to move to Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong for the job opportunity that took us to Asia. While the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Hong Kong and the diversity of Shanghai were intriguing on some level, in the end the deciding factor was much more simple: in Beijing we would be forced to learn at least the rudiments of Mandarin Chinese, whereas we could probably get by in Hong Kong or Shanghai with English. What is the point, we asked ourselves, of moving to Asia if you’re not going to come back with some of the language to show for it? There is a mystique about Chinese. I won’t just be learning another language, I thought arrogantly, I’ll be learning Chinese. I imagined myself after my experience, walking the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco, bargaining with the vendors and ignoring the amazed people who stood in awe of me. Beijing it was.

I wanted to get a jumpstart on my Chinese so I bought some language CDs. My first sentence was Wo putonghua shuo de bu hao (My Chinese is not good). I practiced that sentence over and over in my car, much to the confusion of the people driving beside me.

The narrator of the tape kept repeating, “Remember, the tones in Chinese are just as important as the words themselves.”

“Sure,” I thought. “Whatever.”

As the time got closer to the move in 2005, I enrolled in a beginning Chinese class at the junior college in Mountain View, California. I was just as cocky as I could be walking in that first day. I’d listened to four CDs by that point, and was fairly confident that not anyone else in the room could say, “My hotel is near College Street.” I thought I would sit back, relax, and show the room how it’s done. I maintained that level of superiority as several tired high school students walked in the classroom. High schoolers? I thought. Mei wen ti (No problem).

My first day went…bu hao (not good). The problem with my Chinese CDs was that they hadn’t taught me any of the pin yin, which is the English alphabet applied to the Chinese language. When asked to write down my famous sentence, “My Chinese is not good”, my pin yin looked something like this: Wuh poo tong hwa shwouh duh boo how. My teacher looked at me like he thought I must be joking. I certainly wasn’t, but learned quickly that I probably should have pretended I was.

We spent hour after grueling hour repeating the Chinese pin yin sounds. “Bu” could no longer sound like “buh”. It was “boo”. “De” was no longer “dee”, but “duh”. And “Ci” was no longer “Si” but something that sounds a lot like you have every intention of showering the person you are talking to with saliva.

And then there were the tones. The voice in my language CD was right. Knowing how to say any word in Mandarin is of no use unless you know one of the four tones in which it’s said. After I was in Beijing awhile, I learned that the word for grass, cao, if said in the wrong tone, means fuck. The possibilities for offending people are boundless and terrifying.

After the third day in class, the teacher pulled me aside and said “Don’t worry. I’m not going to fail you. I can see you are trying, even though you are the slowest in the class.”

My cheeks burned. “I don’t care what grade you give me!” I snapped. “I’m moving to China in a month and need to learn this to survive.” I mustered all the drama I could.

“Oh my,” my teacher said, clearly concerned. “Well in that case, maybe you should stop taking the tests. You should just focus on learning… whatever you can.

Surprisingly, by the time I got to China and into the swing of things I learned that the basic phrases I knew were understandable. The only problem was “My hotel is near College Street” was not a sentence I had any use for. I used my Wo putonghua shuo de bu hao every day, but it took me three months before I could say “Where is the bathroom?” correctly (that pesky “ci” sound).

The thing that amazed me the most was meeting foreigners who, at some point in their lives, mastered Chinese. Not every laowai was like me and knew only basic phrases. Many foreigners I met spoke practically perfect Chinese. I seethed with jealousy. I did everything I could to practice my Chinese with strangers, and used every miming gesture and “Chinglish” word I could think of to get people to understand me. That was okay for awhile, and helped me build my vocabulary. But that cocky CD-listening Chinese student I used to be began creeping back into my life again. It resulted in a classic (albeit quite common) experience—I looked like a jackass.

I had been feeling ill for a few days and was sitting in the car on my way home from the international school where I was teaching English. At that point I had been living in China for about six months. Our driver Jack turned to me and said, “Would you like me to take you to dinner tonight?”

I decided that I could answer him in Chinese. I knew how to say, “I am” and had just learned how to say “sick”. I turned to him and said, Bu yao. Wo she bing.” I emphasized my third tone on the last word, expecting Jack to be the first on my list of Chinese people to be stunned with my language skills.

“And while she’s so sick, to be so clever!” I imagined him telling his wife.

Jack turned his head from me and began giggling. I had never heard him giggle before.

“No, no,” he said, waving his left arm in the air. You just said, ‘I am a pancake.’”

The narrator on my Chinese CDs began laughing in my left ear. My mean Chinese teacher at the junior college sighed in my right.

If by being a pancake I was someone who felt like a total idiot who would never make it out of China with a shred of confidence or dignity, then yes. I most certainly was a pancake.

In an effort to maintain some level of self-respect in the expat community I enrolled in one-on-one tutoring classes at the Bridge School in Beijing. My tutor was a sweet girl name Li Meng who came to my apartment twice a week for an hour and a half. Our lessons were… what’s the right word?


Li Meng had the type of patience that I imagine cloistered nuns to have. She never sighed, never yawned, never gave me a disparaging comment. She didn’t giggle at me when it took me five painstaking minutes to tell her the following:

In the morning, I wake up. I take a shower. I make breakfast. I eat breakfast. I go to school. I work. I come home. I work out. I go to sleep.

I went through with these bi-weekly lessons for about six months and, lo and behold, my Chinese got better. Things people said to me started making sense. I knew one Saturday when I made the unforgivable mistake of going to IKEA during a sale and I was able to say, “Don’t touch me!” to the people that were shoving me out of my place in line, that I had reached a real turning point in language acquisition.

What happened next is tantamount to being told I must learn to fly or breathe underwater. Li Meng told me that I had finished the two introduction books from the Bridge School and if I wanted to go on in my learning I would have to learn Chinese characters.

“But why?” I pleaded. “Can’t we just keep using pin yin? What’s wrong with that?”

Pin yin is just there to help you learn the basics. You cannot be fluent in Chinese until you know characters. It is not so bad, you’ll see.”

Mentally, I was transported back to my junior college class in California. My teacher there had also tried to teach me Chinese characters. My rendition of ni hao (hello) looked not like a child had written it—that would have been a compliment. My characters looked something like adolescent drawings of houses with smoky chimneys and squiggly lines representing birds flying in the sky, only bigger. Much bigger.

Some of my foreign friends in China who spoke Chinese offered this friendly piece of advice: “Don’t worry about writing the characters, just worry about recognizing them. That would be sound advice except for one, tiny detail: I have a terrible visual memory. The idea of having to retain something as complicated and detailed as a Chinese character in my head seemed nothing short of impossible.

I did the only thing I could think to do in my situation: I quit my lessons. By that point I had mastered enough of the language to stumble and stutter my way through most day-to-day activities and didn’t feel the need to do much more. Did I want to? Yes. Did I need to? Well, maybe.

I’ve been back in the US for two years now, and I have yet to wow anyone with my Chinese. I still struggle with tones (most recently I told the Chinese teacher at the high school where I teach that I was feeling very “old”… I meant “tired”). When people who know I spent three years in Beijing ask me if I speak Chinese, I usually reply with a long, rambling, “Uh… well…. Kinda…” This is hardly the success I was going for. But in the end, I look at the woman I was when I left the US, and the woman I am now, and know that my success in Asia isn’t measured in vocabulary words or pronunciation. It’s measured by the guts it took to go there in the first place; the adventures and misadventures that are now part of my story.

Roseanne Etcheber-Cheng is a teacher, writer, and soon-to-be mother who currently calls Minnesota home. When she is not lesson planning she is hanging out with her husband and dog, Daniel. She is currently revising a book of essays about her three years living in China, most of which involve her making a fool of herself in one way or another.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Verbs as afterthoughts, Insulted Swiss fonts, and the World Cup

Writer Abroad is wearing a sweatshirt and it’s June. Sigh. Sometimes she forgets that Switzerland is as far north as Minnesota.

Oh well. Besides having just survived six weeks of intensive Deutsch where she sometimes remembered to treat her verbs as afterthoughts, the economy appears to be recovering and the amount of freelance work she’s starting to pick up is making her sound like a real American: “Oh my God. I’m so busy!”

In other news, Switzerland beat Spain in the World Cup. Yes. Adidas was right: The impossible is nothing. To celebrate this sentiment, one of the large Swiss grocery chains offered 10% off yesterday. Yours truly is now so Swiss that she dropped everything for the chance to save an unprecedented 10%.

Speaking of the World Cup, Writer Abroad contributor, Philip Graham, had his essay, “I Don’t Know Why I Love Lisbon,” from his book, The Moon, Come to Earth, reprinted on Leite's Culinaria this week. The piece is about watching the World Cup in Lisbon while eating sardines. (And much more, obviously).

Oh. And if you haven’t yet read, “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole,” over on the McSweeney’s website, read it. And then decide for yourself if “Eurotrash” typeface, Helvetica, deserves a rebuttal piece. I think it does. But I live in Switzerland. I'm biased.

Writer Abroad also discovered a new blog called, A Woman in her Thirties. But it’s not just the age thing she can relate to, people. The writer of this blog also lived abroad for three years in China. All the more reason to read it.

And don't forget, if you're between the ages of 18-34, the deadline to apply to be a National Geographic Glimpse Correspondent is fast approaching.

Finally, Writer Abroad will be celebrating her four-year anniversary of moving to the land of cheese and chocolate today by paying the Swiss government $200 for the pleasure of not being kicked out for another year. Oh, Switzerland. You really know how to make my day.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Math vs Memoir

Summer has finally come to Switzerland. So why do I wish I were working on a math problem instead of a memoir?

Because once I found the solution to the math problem I would be done. Finished.

How boring.

How wonderful.

Instead, I’ve got to decide for myself when each piece and part of my book is done.

This is hard. I'm used to hard. I live in a country where people speak in one language and write in another. But still.

When you're writing something, how do you decide when it's finished?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bidding websites. Useful for freelancers?

Guest post by Veronique Martin-Place

Elance is an online marketplace where writers can bid on projects. I discovered it in 2009. At first, I thought the site was perfect for expat freelance writers like myself who were looking for non-location specific clients. So I started to apply for projects on Elance and other bidding websites that matched my skills and interests.

After a couple of months, I was spending more time on these websites than doing what a writer is supposed to do: write, promote and network.

Even though I only bid on projects I was suited for, I wasn't getting jobs and it was time to figure out why:

-First, the competition is tough: I was competing with 2,412 other “French experts” registered on Elance.

-Second, the competition is unbalanced: Individual freelancers have to compete against group of 5 to 10 freelancers (sometimes more) working together, and sometimes you're even bidding against entire companies.

-Third, location really does matter: Freelancers living in developing countries are working for lower wages than others. How can a freelance writer living in Switzerland compete against one in China or India?

-Fourth, the figures speak for themselves: For instance, Elance states that on June 8, 2010, its 2,412 French experts have earned $38,714.00 from projects completed in the last 6 months. That means if you are one of them, you have earned $16 in half a year. Worth the time and effort? Maybe not.

Anyhow, I have learned my lesson and I am going back to basics:

1- I spend limited time on bidding websites for freelancers (less than half an hour per week).

2- I am registered with only two of them: Elance.com for the English speaking market and Codeur.com for the French one.

3- I spend much more time on my own writing projects.

4- I network a lot using social media (Linked In, Twitter, my blog) and in real life (Chicago expat groups, fellow writers and artists).

Bidding websites for freelancers might be useful for a beginning writer, but they should not be your only point of entry into the market.

What is your opinion of bidding websites?

Veronique is a French expat writer. She launched her portable career in 2009 when she founded Writer Forever. She is an experienced expat and has spent 10 years of living outside France (Norway, Sri Lanka and now the U.S.). She blogs at Expat Forever.

Monday, June 7, 2010

5 Fun Ways to Improve Your Writing

Writers should have more fun. We're so serious all the time, sending queries, reading literary masterpieces, analyzing misplaced modifiers, it's enough to make anyone we live with go crazy (sorry, Husband!)–not to mention ourselves.

My best writing happens when I stop working and start playing. Here are a few ways I've had fun with writing that I recommend.

One. Take singing lessons. People used to ask me, “what are you going to do, sing your jingles?” It was a fair question since I was a double major in both music and advertising at the University of Illinois. But now I know this: learning to sing is great training for being a writer. You learn to listen to words. You sing poetry. And you learn to explore the rhythm of many languages, including English. And yes, sometimes you even end up singing jingles. In German.

Two. Take a copywriting class. Attending a school like the VCU Brandcenter as a copywriter is a great alternative to an MFA. You’ll learn how to create more ideas than you ever thought possible, how to come back with 50 more after they’re ripped apart in your face, and how to say the most in the least amount of words. And at the end of the program, you’ll even be employable.

Three. Live abroad. According to a professor at INSEAD, living abroad makes us more creative. You’ll solve problems in new ways, fill in the blanks of conversations, and see yourself and your home country with a new perspective. If you want to combine living abroad with learning copywriting, check out the Miami Ad School. They have locations all over the world.

Four. Read. Nothing said more fun to me as a child than those crinkly tissue paper book order forms. And bonus! Reading really is one of the best ways to improve your writing. And don’t just stick to one kind of book—read them all—travel guidebooks, literary magazines, trashy magazines, novels, tax forms, memoirs—you never know what’s going to inspire or what you’ll want to make fun of in an essay later.

Five. Practice. Like learning an instrument, like playing a sport, you don’t get better at writing without practicing. But practicing doesn't have to suck. If it does, you're practicing the wrong way. Find what is fun: keep a blog, keep a journal, volunteer to write for the local newspaper, write postcards, it's all writing. And do it every day—even when it doesn’t seem to matter, even when every editor seems to be ignoring you, even when you feel like giving up. Don’t. Just figure out a way to play instead of work.

How do you make writing fun?


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