Friday, 6 January 2017

Writing is Just So Damn Hard!

My Portuguese teacher despairs of me. "So, have you written anything this week...?" I look at my fingernails and shake my head. Nope. BUT, as I'm trying to point out to  her, I have done some 'homework' - I've been reading a novel, I've completed various exercises in my grammar & vocab book, I've listened to a couple of podcasts, I've been watching cartoons in Portuguese while having my lunch. I do realise that one lesson a week is not enough to advance my language skills and that I need to work at it a little bit every day. But... I just don't like writing.

"How can you NOT like writing? You write for a living!" She glares at me in stupefaction. I shift uncomfortably in my chair.

Yes, it's a paradox, I realise. In fact, I love writing. As long as I know what I'm doing. I don't like patching together a Frankenessay of words that just don't collocate, sloshing about in a sea of mutilated grammar. I don't like making mistakes, and what I like even less is having a written record of them. It's like being fat in your wedding photo.

I didn't really start writing in English until I was almost in my mid-twenties, when I had to compose my first ever academic essay. At that point, I'd already spent several years in an English-speaking country, in total immersion, reading, listening and speaking, and so I virtually no trouble producing a coherent piece of writing, more or less indistinguishable from something concocted by a native speaker. I'd had so much language input that, when it finally came to producing output, it all came completely naturally. I'd built up sufficient muscle over the years without even noticing or making a conscious effort.



A little while ago, I read In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American writer of Indian heritage (the fact that she's bilingual and bicultural adds an intriguing twist, but I won't go into that right now). Lahiri is already an acclaimed writer (in English) when she moves from the US to Italy and starts writing in Italian, a language she's deeply passionate about. She's been studying Italian on and off for many years, but without ever becoming fluent. She's determined to finally conquer this language and she's doing a lot more than "just" living in Italy and keeping her diary in Italian - she's actually writing In Other Words entirely in Italian - a book destined for publication. So, she's fiddling about with dictionaries, she's having to write in the simplest of sentences, she's totally out of her depth. It's an excruciating process for her, like writing a letter blindfolded, with a pencil wedged between frost bitten toes. And of course, she needs to have everything proofread over and over again by native Italian writers.

She succeeds, evidently, overcoming her fears, limitations, frustrations and incompetence. And she does become fluent in Italian. Kudos to her.

Lahiri is not the only successful author to write in a non-native language, but I'm guessing that not many have attempted such a feat while their command of the language was still rather on the patchy side.

Do I feel at all inspired to follow her example? If only...




9 comments:

  1. When I was at school, I enjoyed writing essays, in any language I happened to be studying at the time. Actually, it was the only thing I was good at. Somewhere on the way to middle-age, however, I lost my abilities.

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    1. I loved writing essays at school... as long as they were in German. I remember once writing an essay in English for my little brother, and it came back all marked up in red! It was perfect... bloody clueless (German) English teachers ;-)

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  2. You nailed it in the sentence about overcoming fears, limitations, frustrations and incompetence. Regardless of what our goal is, a reluctance and/or perceived inability to step outside of our comfort level is the biggest inhibitor. I speak from extensive experience!!

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    1. Totally. And I'm quite sure I'd have given up on such a daunting book project...! Writing in Spanish is still a struggle for me, and I avoid doing it at all cost, LOL.

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  3. You get kudos for "Frankenessay" ... god, what a great smash-up of words. Maybe you could start small, with just a haiku in Portuguese, or a few sentences. Start small and build on your sentences, even if one sentence a day. And maybe don't show your work to anyone, even your teacher, for a while. Knowing that someone is going to read your writing can stymie creativity and progress.

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    1. Oh, I have written up stuff before, but I always have to force myself and then there's long stretches of NOTHING before I go about cobbling together the next piece. I always make the same stupid errors, argh. I wish I could muster up some constancy, I KNOW it's the way forward. I used to have a classmate who would write a short story every week. His Portuguese wasn't fantastic either, but at least he'd have a stab at it and he seemed to actually enjoy the writing part.

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    2. Have Linda write some limericks for you in English and then you can translate them to Portuguese ;)

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    3. Ha! If only I were capable of that!!! One day... maybe... one can but dream... ;-)

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