After trying out my second writers group then attending Lee Gutkind’s book signing on a recent Thursday night, I couldn’t have guessed what the rest of the night held. A formerly homeless man bums a cigarette from me at the #62 Hardy/Guadalupe bus stop, and we talk about the gorgeous full moon.
“That doesn’t come to ya unless ya got faith and hope,” says the bespectacled man in the baseball cap.
“True,” I say, thinking to myself, Shit, no this guy’s gonna talk about God and homelessness forever.
“You can pray to him. You can talk to him. He’ll answer ya. But what he says is gonna be much bigger than whatever you’re praying for,” he continues.
“Yep, and you have to work to make your prayers come true too.”
“Yep. You know it,” he replies and disembarks at his stop.
I think about his words. Instead of reaching for my book or listening to my headphones, I just let the moment be. Silent yet full.
There isn’t much showing for my job hunt efforts. Nor for my literary efforts. And at least once a week I get down about one or both of those elements of my life. Still, I know something’ll come along. I’ve made it through far worse than this.
Momentarily, it’s my stop. I walk a block to the apartment my friend has been kind enough to share until I get myself rooted in my repatriated life here in Arizona, sing some Melody Gardot lyrics. The smell of fresh laundry greets me as I pass a house. The site of three cats, fat and lollygagging like Puss in Boots in the last Shrek movie, makes me giggle.
My roommate and I briefly discuss our day, talk about the grocery list, and I open my email. A message awaits me:
“I am pleased to inform you that we will publish your piece Battle of Mianzi in the May issue of Eastlit.
We would also love to see any other work you have! We all liked this piece a lot.
Regards and thanks for supporting Eastlit.”
I don’t know who that man on the bus was but this post, an acknowledgement that god does honor faith, hope, and work, is dedicated to him.
It’s good to have faith.
My travel essay, “The Battle of Mianzi“, is running now in the May issue of Eastlit. It marks my second piece to be published within a year. My first, “Burqa to the Loo”, an essay about wearing hijab in Mumbai, only to be thought of as a potential terrorist, was published by Recess Magazine last June.
Tell me about your favorite publication announcement.
Watching President Obama’s State of the Union address last week on CNN Español at the gas station near my house, I got to thinking again about Overseas Americans Week. I published three posts about OAW and, just days away from repatriating to the US, citizenship was heavy on my mind.
People would be fair to say one’s acting spoiled, possibly even philosophically-sophomoric if they considered relinquishing their American citizenship. However, we hear mostly about only those who relinquish US citizenship because they don’t want to be double taxed or to be heavily taxes on outrageous incomes. Most of the people who we don’t hear about relinquish for reasons so confounding, so complex, so deeply personal that it’s tantamount to converting one’s religious beliefs. Those who’d never considered relinquishing that little blue leatherette book have no right to judge.
This isn’t a post about judgment, though. I’m curious about the meaning of patriotism. My curiosity has me wondering what citizens from other countries think about citizenship. I wonder how that differs from my own considerations. No one is right in this game, of course, so I’m not looking for a debate. But when it’s your country’s music and TV shows pervading the air waves, your country’s movies in the theatres, your country’s accents that ESL students pay extra for, your country’s much-ado that’s covered before even the local country’s nightly news programs, your country’s fast-food restaurants and cigarettes and soft drinks and … you’re constantly reminded of your homeland.
First thing you think of when you see this flag? Credit
That’s not to say there aren’t things from England and Italy, Spain and Australia in these countries. But no other country’s presence is as prevalent as that of the gold ole’ U.S. of A. (Now, being from there, so of course these things obviously attract my attention.) This prevalence exemplifies what people mean when they say that a country’s becoming Westernized. Personally I think that statement’s bollocks; the world is becoming global, and with that comes homogeneity. Whoever says something is Westernized doesn’t have a very keen eye to see that every country still retains its own sense of aesthetics and persona. Though I do concur that seeing a Starbucks on every corner in Shenzhen, China, and the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru, is a bit disconcerting. It smacks of assembly line monotony. (Fortunately in China there was also Illy, an Italian coffee brand that strikes me as a far superior alternative.)
Patriotism of late divides more than it unites. Marco Rubio’s speech– or should we call it the Republican Party’s rebuttal?– after President Obama’s State of the Union, whether in Spanish or English, was a demonstrative example of that. Too many people believe that if compatriots don’t use one prescribed set of vernacular terms they’re unpatriotic. That’s shyte. I’m no less patriotic if I vote one way vs another– or even if I don’t vote at all.
Image from a Google search of “patriotism” whilst still in Peru. Credit
Some people don’t understand patriotism. “For some people, traveling far from home makes them increasingly proud of that place they left behind,” writes Ben Groundwater in Australia’s The Age. Indeed. That happened to me, especially in the first few months of my Chinese experience. Groundwater addresses this: “And what makes your country so much better than everyone else’s – other than your familiarity with it?” Sheer arrogance. I fess up to having a lot of that during my time abroad.
“The more I travel the more I become convinced that the whole concept of nationality and nationhood is irrelevant,” Groundwater writes. But when he goes on to say that where you come from shouldn’t matter to anyone or even to yourself, that’s not something I can get behind. Yes, he and others who say where we’re born is a matter of chance, not something we earn, are right. However, our nationality also shapes how we think and speak and act. Even the way we move. No matter how worldly and educated and experienced we become that’s an inseparable part of our identity. Our cultural upbringing affects many of the circles within the Venn diagram of our individual constitutions.
Anyway, in last week’s citizenship posts likened US citizenship to the Popular Crowd’s table in the high school lunch room. Every country I’ve lived in and visited televises debates by candidates for US president, covers the presidential election night, shows the president’s state of the union address. Everyone knows who the president of the U.S. is.
But none of this gives us the right to say America is number one. Saying any country is #1 is akin to saying a God belongs to a particular country. No matter how much you import or export, no matter how much of your culture is privileged above others, no matter if students yearn to study there or now, and no matter if you’ve got the biggest damned military arsenal in the world, you are not #1. In certain categories measured scientifically various countries can claim the #1 spot– such as number of mass murders, percentage of poor people, rate of GDP. But no category entitles any country to the #1 spot– and certainly not permanently.
To believe in #1 is nationalistic. To believe is #1 is buying into political propaganda. To believe in #1 is to be blinded by a myopic view of one’s country, and that’s a slippery notion. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to love one’s country. Patriotism is love for one circle in the Venn diagram of our constitution.
I’m returning to the U.S. this week. Not because I think it’s superior. It certainly isn’t. But because I wish to return to a set of beliefs and practices I was raised with. I’ll tell you, I see more of my country’s flaws than I did when I left in 2009. But that’s alright. I’ll accept those flaws and I’ll practice some of the things learned from the other cultures I’ve lived in. Because, after all, the U.S. started as a melting pot.
What mementos of your homeland would you be unable to escape from if you relinquished citizenship? What is your definition of patriotism?
Most of you are finished– done– just so over– talking about resolutions. So am I. Then again, I don’t do resolutions anymore. But since most of you were counting down the seconds til the Times Square ball dropped, I’ve counting the days until I leave Piura, Peru– and four years of expat life– behind. That’s why now is a good time to look in the rear view mirror of my literary life and see faults growing smaller in hindsight and improvements looming large before me. Writing is the axis upon which my life swings but I will follow up this writing tip roundup with a post on Friday that discusses lessons learned from expatriotism and what’s on the horizon in Phoenix, AZ.
Looking at the recent past, some moments plague me with fear that the past year has lacked the hoped-for progress. Other moments, though, aren’t fraught with such judgment of my own work. They are instead filled with the ability to see how much my literary eye has opened, guiding me to what should and shouldn’t be in the writing. This is true the more we write. At the beginning we delete these things from the draft. As we improve, we see bad writing start to sprout during the composition phase. Eventually the lyricism comes naturally. We curtail our overuse of similes. We condense some scenes rather than allow them to weigh down the work.
As 2013 finds its pace, have you taken stock of your own literary growth and how to polish it to maturity (or whip it into submission)?
I’d take writing tips from this woman, anyday. Image
Here are a few writing tips diligent practice has given me in the past year. With none of these do I feel totally comfortable. Therefore they are things I will continue to hone throughout 2013.
1 Narrative arcs: Get in late, leave early Last year I began drawing out arcs in storyboard form That entailed seeing the whole cycle as a story, with a clear problem and resolution. It required knowing before I got around to actually writing it what the end actually was. That helped avoid painfully long revision cycles.
2 Scenes:Condensed scenes, too Now that I’ve written a chunk of my book the importance of an outline has proven imperative. I knew this before and practiced it if I remembered, but now that I’m writing almost daily, outlines have proven a paramount part of the prewriting process. Outlines tells you what you want to include, and (if you write them on cards on the wall like I do) that added dimension really gives you a different perspective. You’d be surprised how much this facilitates steering clear of writing yourself into a corner. In my book’s outline I had a scene about my first salon experience in China. When it came to writing that part, however, it became obvious that a full scene wasn’t necessary. Instead, I wrote a condensed scene. That made me feel like I’d discovered a whole new literary trick. What hadn’t that occurred to me before?
3Write about fears Writing about fears sings to the author’s ethos. You may appear like a wank. You may appear pathetic. You’re creating the character that is you. They can relate to you, they may feel like a good listener, or they built up enough heat that they won’t stop turning pages until your character calms them down. This is a lesson still relatively untested to me but I’m eager to practice it with two pieces currently under construction. It is, however, one of the major components of Doug Silver’s work and keeps drawing me back to read and reread his work. That’s a courageous writer!
4 Overcomplicating/Oversimplifying Late this year I attempted to squeeze a double narrative arc in a 1,500-word travel memoir. That’s like shoving an elephant into a tutu. The experience inspired this Wordsmith Studios post LINK. Heeding my beta reader’s suggestion to remove one arc, which never came to fruition, the remaining narrative arc read immensely better. It could breathe. It was “unpacked”, as my grad school professors used to insist upon. It became a story I felt good enough to submit to 10 publications. The content in those publications, however, was far longer. They were longer because they were fully formed works. They also contained the next thing I want to work on.
5 Show/Tell Just as writing journalism for so many years has built within me a fear of word count, so too has that old axiomatic standby of writing teachers: “Show, don’t tell”. Well, turns out, some things have to be told. Even more? That’s OK. I want to stop trying to compress my sentences into as a few words as possible and just let the writing go. Let it spill out. Therefore, perhaps by revealing more of my thoughts, I can conquer my fears of the word counter and my fear of actually expressing my heart.
6 Similes/Narrative Threads For years my work lacked similes. Once they finally arrived, I slipped into that most amateur of writer’s proclivities: I overused them. After my best beta-reader pointed this out, practice has helped taper the habit. Now I hope to season my work with the things, rather than riddle the work with them. Learning to more poignantly use a simile has also helped me to see how to artfully craft various metaphorical threads through the work.
How about you? What are some writing tips that have worked well in your writing over the last 12 months?