You know that reading books is not an "escape from."
Reading books is an invitation to...
It's a priceless opportunity to hear many voices, to transcend the barriers of language, culture (even time!) and to understand.
The beautiful thing is this:
By reading, by hearing the voices of others, you can find your own voice as well.
Why you're not so different form your favorite author...
What if I told you that your struggles with the English language really are one and the same as the struggles of your favorite writers?
What if I told you there is one writers' technique you can steal today...
And that this simple habit will help you start to sound more like yourself when you speak, or when you write.
I've used it make French my own--I live half my life in French, after all.
And I use it to sharpen my writing skills in English.
And the funny thing is--like with so many fantastic habits--I think you'll find it will not only change the way you express yourself,
It will change your life a little bit too.
A technique that seems simple. And yet...
Have you ever thought about what makes a novel, story seem so, real? What transports you, makes you feel like you're there?
Take this example from the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseni. In it, we find ourselves in the midst of a childhood in Kabul:
When we were children, Hassan and I used to climb the poplar trees in the driveway of my father's house and annoy our neighbors by reflecting sunlight into their homes with a shard of mirror. We would sit across each other on a pair of high branches, our naked feet dangling, our trouser pockets filled with dried mulberries and walnuts. We took turns with the mirror as we ate mulberries, pelted each other with them, giggling, laughing. I can still see Hassan up in that tree, sunlight flickering through the leaves on his almost perfectly round face....
One of the many things I loved about this book was the chance to be visit a place that I can never experience: Kabul in the 60's and early 70's...Before.
When we read, we get to feel the dust and the innocence, sit under a persimmon tree and look out over the city.
How does Hosseni work this magic?
He's reached back into his own life, snatched up some key experiences and shared them with us--down to the details. The sensory details that make writing, memory and language real.
The taste of the fruit, the movement of the sunlight. The common magic that is a poplar tree.
The plot of The Kite Runner may be woven from fiction...but the dusty details, the sights, the smells all feel true.
Because they are true.
But wait, my life isn't interesting enough...
Thinking your life isn't so interesting? That writing down the details of your experience is pointless?
What, you mean you didn't grow up in Kabul then move to Tehran and Paris and finally immigrate to the US like Hosseni?
I often feel the same way...
Who cares about my day?
Who cares if the wind seemed to have it in for me this morning?
Or if I witnessed a perfect moment when my children blew kisses through the window at their father as he left for work at dawn?
But the simple fact is this: these moments, these multi-sensory snapshots of your life are the backbone of great fiction.
These moments don't have to be otherworldly! On the contrary.
A plot might be extravagant, imaginative and compelling...
But it's the ordinary details--those things we all experience and know--that pull us into the story.
And it's those same details, when you write them down, that help you connect to your experience to the English language. Just the way an author connects the reader to the story.
Use the details of your life. Write them down. Make the language unforgettable.
If you want to find your voice in English--start with the details of your own life.
You: the writer.
My advice to you?
Want to make English your own? Want to sound like yourself in English whether you're writing or speaking?
Start telling your own story. Tell it one moment at a time, with all the sights, smells, sounds and sensations.
Tell us things we can relate to. Start there.
Here's a brilliant excerpt from Atonement by Ian McEwan. Just in case you're thinking that those details that bring great writing to life must be unique...
Bathtime, teatime, bedtime--the hinge of the day: these childhood sacraments of water, food and sleep had all but vanished form the daily round. Briony's late and unexpected appearance had kept them alive in the household well into Emily's forties, and how soothing, how fixing they had been; the lanolin soap and thick white bath sheet, the girlish prattle echoing in the steamy bathroom acoustic; enfolding her in the towel, trapping her arms and taking her onto her lap for a moment of babyish helplessness that Briony had reveled in not so long ago...
Rather than try to explain the relationship between mother and daughter, McEwan draws us right into the childhood bathtime ritual.
Can't you just imagine yourself in this house? As part of this mother and child's world?
And is it just me, or does it send you off remembering your own soap smells, towel textures bathtime rituals from childhood?
There is power in the ordinary. But you have to notice it.
The writer's secret: capture the moment, save the sights, scents and sounds...
Where do writers get all of these details? From their lives. From their average, daily routines and rituals.
From the mundane, stories are born.
Have you been haunted yet by the dark writing of Shirley Jackson? (The Lottery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle)
Jackson, it turns out, was an observer as you can see in this article on Bustle by Christina Arreola. The whole article is worth your time...here is my favorite of Jacksons's quotes:
One of the nicest things about being a writer is that nothing ever get wasted. It's a little like the frugal housewife who carefully tucks away all the odds and ends of string beans and cold bacon and serves them up magnificently in a fancy casserole dish. A writer who is serious and economical can store away small fragments of ideas and events and conversations, and even facial expressions and mannerisms, and use them all someday.
The world Jackson creates in her writing is terrifying, dark, abnormal...yet she found her inspiration in daily life.
And you can too.
Change your relationship with English, change your life.
So how can you start capturing the moments of your life and immortalizing them with words?
The simple and not-so-simple trick is to pay attention. And to take note.
- Grab a notebook--something just for your writing in English.
- Pick a time to write each day (just before bed? when you wake up? while you're waiting for the bus?)
- Decide how long you can write. Do you have 15 minutes? 30?
- Then just pick any moment during your day and capture it! Focus on the details: sights, smells, sounds, feelings.
And if you stick to it? You'll realize quickly that your language is not the only thing that will change.
You'll find yourself taking note of situations as you live them. Observing carefully, like Shirley Jackson.
And you may find that you savor those moments a bit more, feel more grateful for them and just understand them in a new way. That's what the experience has been like for me anyway.
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It:
Want to make the most of your book habit? Want to start writing like your favorite authors, using your life for inspiration?
Want to have fun while struggling with the language, make English your own...take your first steps towards doing a little creative writing?
I'll be offering an intensive month-long class in November to help you achieve these goals through your reading habit and your writing. Details to follow...
But why not take a few small steps today--on your own? It's really simple:
Your mission is to grab yourself a notebook just for your English writing. And to write at least 3 times this week--preferably at the same time!