Thursday, 12 November 2009

Writing in America

Inspired by Tania Hershman's recent posts about ex-pat writers (or in her case, recently repatriated ex-pat writers) I decided to think a little about how the move has affected my writing.

I am currently sitting in my study in my house just outside Washington DC. I put up a photo of this room a few posts ago, but that was before the clutter arrived with the shipping. It is now filled with books, pictures, printers, bits of miscellaneous paper and my trusty Leonardo da Vinci action figure.

Out of my window I can see typical neat suburban houses. A couple of times a day a yellow school bus comes round picking up and dropping off kids. The families here are a complete mix of colours and religions; it’s far more multicultural than where I’ve just left in the West Country. The kids all look like your typical American kids: climbing onto the bus in jeans, sweaters and sneakers… do they realise that most of the rest of the world have to wear school uniforms? It’s a million miles from my old tartan skirt and tie, with regulation bottle green woollen jumper.

So that gives a little snapshot of my surroundings.

Since leaving Leeds in 1998 I have lived in Edinburgh, New York State, Australia, Bristol and Gloucestershire. And now back to America. I have travelled in South East Asia for several months, Central America, Europe, and once did a road trip across America. To say I have itchy feet is an understatement.

It felt quite natural to up and leave to another country. Much of my writing is influenced by places I have been and I was excited to think of the inspiration my new surroundings would give me.

The speech patterns are different in America. It isn’t just the words and phrases people use, it’s the whole rhythm of speech. This also varies hugely by state and by cultural background. I know the language is the same but I feel like a fish out of water every time I go up to someone and ask for something, or speak on the phone. I rehearse what I am going to say. It’s not like you can get away without speaking, everyone talks to you in shops, queues (lines!), lifts, etc. Then there is the slight double-take, pause and, “where is that accent from?” Most people say they “love the way I talk,” which is probably a different reaction than other immigrants might get and maybe I should be grateful for that, but it would be nice to not have to think so much about interactions.

So how have my experiences so far affected my writing?

I am far more aware of speech patterns when writing now. I have written various pieces set in America and I try to make the ‘voice’ authentic.

The landscape, cities, countryside, urban areas, all slip into my writing. I am more respectful of trees now. Forests, rather. Trees here go on for hundreds of miles. There are so many of them. Even in my civilised little suburb I never feel too far from some very wild trees. Nature is bigger here. Everything is bigger! I would like to get a sense of than expansiveness into my writing.

I have started writing more poetry here. Poetry happens when I am feeling introspective, which is not surprising. I have started my second novel, too. Somehow new projects and new beginnings go well together. Or maybe I have just picked up on that infectious American spirit. Yes, we can!


Richard said...

I know so many of these scenarios. Especially the bit about the mental preparation before making a phone call.

Tania Hershman said...

A fascinating post, Jen. Whenever I go to America I don't feel that I speak the same English as they do, I find it very confusing - but yet the friendliness is lovely, isn't it? Funny that you say you can't get away with not talking. And great about new beginning bringing out something new in you - good luck with it all! A new wilderness for you, I look forward to following your progress.

Nik Perring said...

Top post, Jen - I enjoyed reading that. Here's hoping you come to terms with the speech patterns. I must say that I reckon there's something quite refreshing and almost fun in not quite talking as those around us do. But then perhaps that's just cos I'm different!

Good luck with the poetry.