On Being a Writer: Surround

I’m continuing to join in with the online discussion that Kate Motaung is hosting: On Being a Writer, based on Ann Kroeker and Charity Singleton Craig’s book On Being a Writer: 12 simple habits for a writing life that lastsToday’s discussion prompt is ‘Surround’, and we’ve been prompted to discuss how the things/people we surround ourselves with (or don’t surround ourselves with) influence our writing and/or what (or who) inspires us in our writing.

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I have to confess that I found this a very difficult prompt, as so many things inspire me! I then started trying to think of when/where/how I write at my best and was similarly stumped (aside from knowing that I need to be in a good place mentally to be able to write; if I’m not calm and peaceful, it’s just not going to happen).

I then started to think about what limits me in my writing and the answers came slightly more easily….

I live in a foreign country, far from home, isolated from my family (I haven’t seen them for more than 18 months now) and I’m living through a very difficult period personally. All of that affects me, and my writing output/quality, because it affects not only my ability to have a clear head to be able to write but, also, how much time I have available to write.

I sometimes sit and daydream: I close my eyes and pretend I can make it all go away! I see myself just getting on with my life, uninterrupted. It’s beautiful.

Then I wake up from my daydream and reality hits. A downward spiral. Alice, slipping down, down, down…there’s no roots to grab on to, nothing…

The downward spiral usually starts with me remembering my time at University, wishing I was back there in that old, old place, surrounded by stimulating people. It’s history a tangible presence, caressing me, lulling me with the charms of its power, calling me to be better, more, to fulfil (potential, dreams). Sirens. [But I never, ever, minded crashing against those rocks; they always, always taught me things]

Absorbing information, breathing interesting things, going to talks every day that would stimulate my brain, make my neurons fire, encouraging me to think way beyond the box, not just outside it. To be around people who excited me constantly.

You could feel it in the air, this excitement, you breathed it. You’d walk in to a room and not know who to talk to next because they’d all – each and every one of them – tell you some incredible tale of research they were doing/had read about, or some place they’d been….fantastic tales, all well told. An atmosphere of joy, joy in finding deep satisfaction in knowledge. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Unadulterated.

Fast forward to now. I haven’t had a decent conversation with a real person, in the flesh, for over a year. Well over a year. I speak on the phone, of course: we laugh, we gloss (for all you can ever do on the phone, in such a short time, is gloss over everything; there’s no real depth on the phone, even with your very closest friends).

I see people briefly, cursory exchanges, in Spanish. Mums dressed like Sofia Vergara at 6 in the morning, leaving their children, high heels clanking, thighs wiggling, hair sloshing, real-life blow up dolls; sideways looks up and down telling me I’m not from here, I’m not really welcome, however much they want to make it seem like they’re open-minded enough to have friends from abroad. I’ve started to not play along because it bores me now, the fake-ness of it all. [This will pass; it always passes; it’s just part and parcel of the ‘ex-pat’ life]

I wish, I wish, I wish I could speak English more often (reading English is Not Enough). As it is, some days the only person I hear speak English (other than my two littles) is Siri, and she’s got an American accent (no offence intended, but, well, I’m British and she sometimes makes me a little more homesick, to be honest! I see her little white circle pop up, hopefully, and I avoid even her).

long to have a conversation in English, in person, with an adult (a real adult! a real conversation!), so my brain feels stimulated. Any conversation would be OK. I’m not asking for Nietzsche or anything fancy: just a conversation in English! I’m sick of speaking Spanish, sick of hearing Spanish, sick of seeing Spanish words everywhere. I’m surrounded by a foreign language and my brain is saying ‘Enough! Enough is enough!’

When I first arrived here, my learning curve was steep, so it was sort of an adventure: see how many new words I could learn and use and remember. The learner in me excelled. Now, I’m so over it, I’m tired and weak (weak-headed), sick of, dizzy from, speaking a different language. I can almost feel the hurt it’s doing to my brain, to my writing, to that part of my brain that connects words, produces phrases, kicks out sentences that sing. A daily assault, a daily battery of artillery, knocking out my native vocabulary, my flow, my pizzazz, that little ‘je ne se quoi’ that makes the written me me. 

It’s very frustrating! My life is based on words. I’m a writer/editor by profession so to live my day-to-day life in Spanish, surrounded by Spanish, is, at the very least, very distracting. I’m not like my two littles, I’m not naturally bilingual, I didn’t grow up in a bilingual setting and I am not fluent in Spanish by any means. Far from it. For a wordsmith like me, who lives and breathes words, it’s a very stressful set of circumstances.

I’m trapped in the Land of No English, marooned, adrift on a current of foreign, bits of my fluency in English, my rapport, my banter, my me floating by, flotsam and jetsam, seemingly unrescue-able, like poor Mr. Dumpty, never to be put back together againMists on all sides, encroaching, threatening to take the edge off my writing, to dull my blades.

It’s a living nightmare, I tell you. A veritable nightmare.

What do I do in response? I listen to as many stimulating things as I can (Hallelujah TED and podcasts and Radio 4 online!). I read as much as I can. [Honestly, I can see why Hemingway drank so much when he was writing in Cuba: to forget, to remember, to find the words, to wrangle them dry, to compose them again in some semblance of normality]. I salute him, I salute any writer who’s gone abroad and managed to write bloody good fiction whilst there. A writer’s job is not an easy job anywhere but being marooned in the Land of No English is not something one should take on lightly: it’ll make you half crazy, so profound is the despair.

But, as with many things in life, with deep despair comes deep joy. When, for example, you realise that, despite being surrounded by other you can, sometimes, find you, clear, true-voiced, authentic you. Out she comes sometimes, timidly at first but out she does come, from you, bursting forth from your head, through your arms, your hands, to your fingers and – boom – on to the page. You. There, written out. Recorded.

Victorious despite the noise, despite the foreign, despite the isolation and the loneliness.

We all have surroundings that aren’t conducive to our writing. Isn’t it a miracle we manage to find the space, within these confines, to write?

I find that just amazing. That these stories are so powerful they surge out, no matter what. [Storytelling as a basic human need?]

How to make them surge that bit easier? Isn’t that the golden question!

Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit the typewriter and bleed”….(ouch!)…

Or, my personal favourite, the one that sits above my writing desk and that I look at often when I’m willing myself on: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know”.

[It works! Praise the Lord! It really works!]

And my, oh my, to get to the stage Ray Bradbury reached when he said, “I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me”…..when we’re there, sat there, in front of the computer and we’re there, in the actual zone, flowing, when what comes out is pure you, the ideas escaping faster than you can possibly record them, your surroundings having disappeared, long ago, as you become these words.

The words consume you. Eat you. Ask you to release them.

Ah, writing.

No wonder so many writers have gone bonkers! [We can’t live with it, can’t live without it]

What was it Ray Bradbury also said? “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you”…

We writers, those who know we’re writers (even if we’re too timid to say “We’re writers”), we itch, live, work, breathe words, can’t wait for the opportunity to write.

Let’s make a pact: we’ll surround ourselves with things that tip the balance in our favour, we’ll make the time, clear our heads, get over ourselves, commit, get down to it….

Are you with me? [Please say you’re with me! I can’t face another day bereft of stimulation!]

Helen xxx

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26 thoughts on “On Being a Writer: Surround

  1. Eva Lavelle says:

    Hi Helen – I am with you lovely lady and I hear you…..in English! I may have an Australian twang but it is still real proper English like 🙂

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  2. Isabel says:

    I am with you Helen (also with an Australian accent, but some people mistake it as British). I think you are a talented writer. Your words feel genuine and though I haven’t met you in person (maybe one day!), you come across as a loving, struggling, tough, creative, smart individual. What you said about living in a foreign land I can somewhat relate to (although my time in China is 100% choice so not the same in that way perhaps)…it’s hard to have a conversation where you can relax, breathe and just be understood in your native tongue, with all the cultural references and little jokes and things that another British (or, maybe, fluent English-speaker) would just GET. It’s hard, you feel like another version of yourself that is not the funnest version to be. But the benefit, I think, of being somewhere where English is not the first language, is that it can be freeing. Being surrounded by Chinese, and only being able to communicate on a basic level with Chinese people, makes me so much more excited about writing in English because I can express myself FULLY. That is only my own experience, it may not be yours.

    I love what you say about ‘being too timid to say that we’re writers’. I totally feel that. I feel that at my core I am, in fact, a writer. I need to write. When things happen, when I’m confused, really excited, angry, just anything, I have a physical need to go somewhere on my own and write about it. I love constructing stories and words and commas and getting the sentence ‘right’. But I feel scared to say ‘Hello! I’m a writer!’ Why? I ask myself this. It seems sort of embarrassing. The cliche of the middle class woman working on a novel. How many writers does the world need? Doesn’t it need doctors and scientists and teachers and aid workers more? Part of me wants to do something ‘practical’ with my time, something that is smiled upon by my elders and friends and peers, and that makes money. The other part just wants to be a writer. I hope that I can be both. And writing IS practical. It has great worth. Just think of all those books we never would have read if the author had decided to be a police officer instead of a writer?!

    That’s my two cents. Also, I listened to a great podcast today on the train in Japan, an interview with Cheryl Strayed and a lot of it was about writing and finding your true voice, here’s the link:
    http://longform.org/posts/longform-podcast-144-cheryl-strayed

    Much love to you Helen x

    PS I am also trying to write a book…so I think we must push on through the difficulty and not listen to our inner self-critical demons!

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    • iwillbloom says:

      Oh Isabel, thanks for this! Yes, it’s hard being immersed in a different culture/language because, as you say, you never quite feel yourself. Absolutely agree with you that writing has great worth. Thanks for the Podcast recommendation….might you be up for NaNoWriMoin November? I finished a draft last year and am determined to get it polished to ‘I’m happy with this’ stage this November….

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  3. Carly says:

    I am with you too Helen! (Scottish accent but still British!) That sounds like such a tough situation to be in but I love how you write from the heart and I think you’re a great writer. I’ve never experienced living in a non-English-speaking country but your description really drew me in and helped me understand the challenges.

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  4. Gabriele says:

    Helen, I say this with my American accent sheepishly, I am with you. I pine for you and those stupendous conversations you could have out loud and in person. But, if you spilled yourself on real people I would never have met you online. And that would be sad. You have me thinking about what we could do to tip the balance in the favor of more writing opportunity. Thanks Kate, for providing this forum.

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    • iwillbloom says:

      Hia Gabriele, thank you! Yes, I would definitely never have started I Will Bloom were I not here and in the situation I’m in….and I’m so thankful for all the lovely ladies who visit me and who I’ve come to think of as friends. Definitely the one thing I’ve already taken away from Kate’s discussion is that it’s important to create opportunities for writing…..off to your blog. Helen xxx

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  5. heyjude6119 says:

    Helen, I can’t imagine being in a foreign country with only their language spoken. I am American so my accent wouldn’t help you either. My dad’s side of the family is British and my dad told me once that his dad would get homesick for hearing that British accent and he’d have my dad drive him to Canada, just so he could hear it. My great grandfather immigrated from England. My grandfather was born in the States, but his parents spoke with a British accent. My own father would say “battries” for batteries. I’m sure that’s something he picked up from his father. I’m praying you will find an English friend with whom you can converse and feel comfortable with. I also referenced Alice in my writing today. 🙂

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    • iwillbloom says:

      Hi Judy, thanks reading and commenting! I would definitely appreciate hearing you speaking in English! Fascinating to hear about your family history. Off to read your post (I had no time yesterday)….

      Liked by 1 person

  6. hi helen, i remember that feeling of speaking a language on a level not my own. speaking 1st grade level when i was in high school. i couldn’t make jokes or “get” humor. it was frustrating to say the least! my parents went to costa rica when i was in 9th grace. i was only there a semester, then came back to the US. to go to high school. so i never really learned to speak spanish well:(

    i am surprised that there are no opportunities to speak english in what sounds like a city. even back then (1959) there were lots of places where english was spoken. most cities have even more opportunities now. there were english churches, english schools (just not enough english for me to attend then) english communities of various kinds where people got together (book clubs, etc.) maybe it isn’t a city like it sounds, but it may take some digging around to find some english speaking people…even if they don’t have the right accent:)

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    • iwillbloom says:

      Hi Martha, yeah, it’s definitely the nuances that get lost when you’re trying to communicate (both ways) in a different language. We do live in a city but there are very few English-speaking people here and most are ESL teachers (much, much younger than me, on backpacking trips around the world)….off to read your post!

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  7. Tara says:

    Helen, I am so sorry that you are surrounded in a place with no English. I cannot even imagine. I say that with my very American accent. I love what you say about helping each other and tipping it in our favor. Your words really have me thinking.

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  8. first of all, your writing is STUNNING. don’t think you’ve lost your edge. there is so much that I want to respond to here. I have to go back and find the points that I want to touch on 😉

    1)writing in isolation (“i live in a foreign country, far from home, isolated from my family…and living through a difficult period personally”)
    I kind of see them reflecting back on your comment that you need to be in a good place mentally to write. You feel alone. You feel like you can’t have a conversation that you desperately need. and you feel like your words are being lost, are drying up. I hear you friend. I see you friend. I have always enjoyed stopping here (in my recent journeys) and I really appreciate the manner in which you write. I think that your words are getting across and that certainly haven’t lost your way of sharing…at least from what I can see. But I can understand when you don’t have alot of in real life feedback to wonder if its all just getting snagged up inside your brain, or mentally you are stressed and you feel it is getting in the way of your ability to truly express yourself how you’d like to.

    2) your reminiscing about stimulating discussion and fascinating times at University. While not all my classes were this way, I did have many classes that I found to be wonderfully stimulating. One of my favorites (which I did incredibly poorly in mark wise, but adored none the less) was a British history class. My teacher was a former journalist and had traveled widely for the first 15 years of his post education experience and had such a way of sharing the information that we were enraptured for most of the class. It was fascinating stuff and caused us to go off and discuss much. I also had a class entitled Body Image Issues, which basically dealt with many issues that had been ‘taboo’ in alot of Christian circles. when the door was closed to the classroom anyone was free to share their experiences or fears and it would stay safe. It was a very healing class room and full of lively discussion, from ones who had previously not been given the permission to speak freely in these areas before. I can understand the stimulation you speak of, I am one who Adores deep conversation covering many different things, and can’t stand too much small talk. I can understand your frustration to just sit down and have someone across from you who in English could have a rousing discussion of whatever you’d like for several hours and leave you feeling like you’ve taken in knowledge and shared some of your own.

    3) the mom’s dressed like Sofia Vargera at 6am. OY VEY. def would make me feel like 1) i didn’t want to play their games and 2) that is WAY too much work. There are several individuals here that I know who are from either Latin America or South America, and its cultural (it seems) to dress up everyday which always intrigues me. I knew a girl who always had lots of jewelry, makeup and fancy clothes EVERY day. I guess some people dress like that. REminds me of some people I know from the South in the states who are often dressed up, because that is how they’ve been taught to present themselves. Intriguing to me, because I”m all about comfort and not really style 😉 I am sorry that it feels like they are judging you and pretending to be accepting. I wish they’d get to know you…they’d be blessed.

    4)your sentence about Hemingway drinking to remember, to find the words, to wrangle them dry…AMAZING.

    5) i believe you have found your true voiced, authentic you. and there is joy and there is hope…and i’m so thankful that inspite of these frustrations and so much feeling alone that you are fighting for this, fighting for your voice, for your words, for your space in this world and in this blog. I am so thankful for that.

    6) we breathe words and can’t wait for the opportunity to write. I’m there with you friend.

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    • iwillbloom says:

      Hi…thanks so much for your very kind and very detailed comment. So much appreciated. [Have only just been able to reply; it’s my daughter’s first day of school today and we were enjoying her last day of holidays all day yesterday!]…your British History class sounded like a great one! So pleased we’ve connected through this discussion group; I’ll definitely be a regular visitor to your blog from now on 🙂 Helen xxx

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  9. Wow Helen – I had no idea that’s what you were surrounded by….and I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to live daily life that way. I’m sure I would feel the same way – so homesick for my native language!
    Well I”m here in my American accent cheering you on and letting you know that I hear your beautiful British voice loud and clear and feel blessed to have found you in writing at least. I hope that if your goal and wish is for different surroundings, that you are able to achieve that one day soon.
    Blessings. xoxo

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  10. alexa says:

    Your writing voice has lost none of its fluency, Helen :). But having lived abroad on my own, I can understand something of the absolute driving need at times to speak your own language, to connect with your natural ways of expression. Having just been to the land of my birth, where the accent is very different to where I live now, there is something lovely about not feeling exiled, feeling home. All I can suggest is the very silly thing that I used to do when overcome with that strong longing – I talked out loud to myself. To the furniture. To the wind drifting in through the shutters. To the water swirling down the plughole. I practised frustrated voices, tender voices, bread-and-butter voices – any cadence would do. Just to get your tongue and vocal cords back into their natural grove :).

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    • iwillbloom says:

      Alexa…oh, I can imagine how ‘at home’ you must have felt on your recent trip. I will definitely try your suggestion and will talk out loud to myself…what a great idea….(I do sometimes find it hard to pronounce English words (aside from the loss of vocabulary loss), so I’m sure this will help a great deal. Thank you xxx

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  11. alexa says:

    Oops, that should be groove, of course – but the poetic nature of ‘grove’ is quite appropriate :).

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  12. Helen! I am with you!!! I feel too timid to call myself a writer as well but I LOVE it. And just between you and me, I can see myself writing much longer than doing therapy. Although not sure how that pays the bills. It fills up my heart though!

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    • iwillbloom says:

      Heather….having read a lot of the other participants’ responses, it’s a problem many (many) of us have…you’re definitely one of those people I’d call a natural writer….here’s to us both figuring out how we can make it pay the bills….

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