Writing a Book: The Expat Writer

stein

American writer Gertrude Stein held salons for famous artists during her years in Paris.

Questions about identity, deep homesickness, a confusion of what and where home is, floating above a culture, profound shifts in your perception of yourself and culture, a growing global consciousness, a love for the world that’s so deep it makes you ache — all of these tumultuous emotions run through the veins of expats. We choose to separate ourselves from our culture. We choose the painful awareness and growth that ensues. And we choose to write about our epic shifts in perception.  Our task is both personal and global.

I was an expat for many years, in Tokyo, throughout Asia and in London. I loved this life as a journalist, but gave it up for many reasons and returned to the U.S. One of the reasons I decided to return to my home country was something many expats worry about: Will I ever fit in again? If I don’t go back now, will I have any place to call my country?

I did go home again, and I can tell you from experience: After about a decade as an expat, no, I was not able, ever, to fit back in to the American paradigm. I remain floating above. In my novels, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, I grapple with this dislocation.

So what makes an expat writer different from someone who isn’t a nomad? What makes us unique?

On a profound level, we are no different. We all want to express in writing our perception of the world, express our soul, our passion on the page. We are poets and artists, no matter where we live.

But there are some differences on other levels. Expats, because we are called to do so, sever our relationship with our culture, and move to other countries, to have a more global perspective. Perhaps it’s our soul’s calling to do so. So, our writing tends to be more global. What we grapple with in our writing are issues of Home. Culture. Disconnection. All of this is beautiful and much needed in the world, but we can’t necessarily easily find readers who understand us. We’ve put ourselves out on a limb, and unless the readers are out there on the limb with us, we may feel very much alone. The writing can be more difficult, as we go deep into the water and find our truth, and have to come back up again to the surface to translate what we’ve just seen to others. We’re deep in Japanese or Singapore culture, and we’re trying to explain it so readers who’ve never been there can follow our story.

Studies show that we often need a few years (often up to 10) after a major event to make enough sense of it to process it properly. So, we live as an expat in Dubai, but by the time we’re ready to write about it we’re back living in London. We aren’t around the very source of the writing, which is good in one way in that separation can allow for a deeper exploration of our subject matter, but bad in another because we’re not coming across the sensual details of place on a daily basis which can make the writing glow. Or, we’re writing memoir about our childhood in Mexico, when we’re living in New York City, and it can be more challenging to express the color and vibrancy of the setting when we’re living in such a starkly different place than our home.

Just being alive on a daily basis is more difficult for an expat, as we are challenged on every possible level, challenged on how we act, how we react, how we live, challenged on the very issue of language. That difficulty in living can make it more difficult to find the centered space we need to write.

Finding a writer’s group of like-minded souls can be extremely challenging, too. You may think: there are expat writers everywhere. Surely it’s not that hard to find an expat writer’s group. But for some reason it is that hard…ask any expat writer you know. After finishing the novel or memoir, locating a local literary agent also may be more difficult (unless you’re already famous), unless that agent has also been an expat, and has the connections with publishers who love the expat perspective.

Anyone called to travel the world and live deeply in other cultures, anyone called to be a writer in these circumstances, is being asked to take on an epic task. Emotionally torturous, mind-altering, edifying in a way the people at “home” cannot understand, it is a life that requires much of us.  But it is a Calling best not ignored, one that brings with it profound truth. We are the chroniclers of the world, and today more than ever, we are much essential to the well-being of the planet.

Please join us for the International Memoir/Novel Writing E-Course, for expats, nomads, travelers and international writers of all kinds. http://www.artofstorytellingonline.com/#!e-courses/c1i0c

Art of Storytelling also coaches writers all over the world one-on-one, and we offer a free initial consultation. www.artofstorytellingonline.com

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4 thoughts on “Writing a Book: The Expat Writer

  1. I like your phrase ‘floating above a culture’, very apt. I’ve been lucky to find active and vibrant writing groups in my past two postings (Switzerland and now SIngapore) – I think the rise of independent publishing is especially good news for expat writers, whose work doesn’t always appeal to traditional publishers who are focused on one country, one culture. Good post, thanks.

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  2. Hi Jo and Carrie,

    nice to hear from a writer in Singapore!! Absolutely, the opportunities for writers or “content-producers” are huge on the web, if we get over our tech-phobia (speaking for myself there :)))

    Are you familiar with The Creative Penn? http://www.thecreativepenn.com/ British novelist Joanna Penn, writes and podcasts, interviews authors about independent publishing + writing and marketing. It’s a great free resource.

    Cheers

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    1. Yes, Joanna Penn gave a high-tech talk to the SIngapore Writers Meet Up group last month – as you say, her website is a great resource.

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  3. Hi,
    I am in the process of repatriating back to the US after a couple years in Sweden and really appreciate the timeliness of this post. Being back I am realizing the thing I miss most is my relations with other expats who understand what it is to be stripped from your own culture and identity and the personal growth that ensues. Will definitely be return to again to read more 🙂
    Best
    Karen

    Like

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