Why do you write?

I was speaking to my brother on the phone the other day about a post on a blog we both follow called Life of Johnston.
She starts her post with the following:
“I only started this online diary as a publicity stunt for my books. Yet fame continues to elude me. It seems that a genius for self-promotion requires something more than a complete lack of modesty. You have to do things, and I’m not sure what. I keep trying to think of ways to become notorious without actually ruining my life. Nothing occurs.”

She has a whole collection of books online, one of which I proudly own (kindle version). Although I have yet to publish a book, I wonder if her ruminations over that elusive fame will also play a roll in my future.

“I liked your last blog post,” my brother said.
“Then why don’t you give it a star, or leave a comment online?” I asked.
“Is that important to you? That people leave comments?” In response to my brother’s simple question, I launched into a long winded answer one might usually reserve for an essay on the importance of blogging. I originally started my blog as a means to share my thoughts and experiences as an American living in Holland. But as my ambitions as a writer have grown, so have my intentions for my blog.

I explained that the more comments and stars I get, the higher ranking my blog will receive, and thus the higher chance of attracting more readers. I told him that I have a goal to make a living from writing, plan to develop a career in that direction and that a blog is a free first step; a tool to practice writing, share your thoughts and develop a following. He promised to give my different blog posts lots of stars after we got off the phone.

Creativity runs in the family. My brother is an artist and we have four of his paintings in our flat in the Netherlands. Nevermind that the beautiful landscape paintings of Southern California painted in the rich palettes of a sun-kissed land give me bouts of homesickness. They also bring me joy in a way that flowers do–they exude beauty and remind me to take a breath, visit nature or call my family.

But in answering his question of why I write, I started to second guess myself; was I writing for myself or for other people? Or both? I have written short stories on and off my whole life, most taking a few kb of space on a computer or disc, never seen by others. Thus I write for myself. But whenever I had articles published in Food and Home magazine or regional architectural magazines, I shared them with friends and family alike, looking forward to their comments, and yes, hoping they would be impressed. There. I’ve admitted it. I like to hear what people think of my writing. I think most authors do.

Like the author of Life of Johnston, I also self promote my blog. I share certain posts on Facebook or twitter or mention them to friends. I even have a personal business card with my blog address on the back.

“Don’t you get excited when your paintings are in a show and people see them?” I asked my brother.
“Well. Yeah. Of course,” he responded. “But I don’t paint for other people. I paint because I love painting.” But a painting stands on a wall in someone’s home for years to come. It is an art piece that draws attention, changes with the light; is attached to that period in life when the painting was acquired and gains both monetary and emotional value over time. An artist’s creative work endures.

Writing on the other hand, has both ephemeral and long-lasting possibilities. An article written for a newspaper may be read the day it is printed and is soon forgotten if no online counterpart exists. But writing also has longevity. Take Jane Austen’s works, for example, which remain a staple of English literature close to 200 years after her death.

As I work on the final draft of my first novel of 300 pages that I hope to birth into the world this September, I too have hopes; hopes that people will not only read it, but enjoy it; that they will not be shy to share their comments with me and will whole-heartedly recommend it to others. One can only hope. And self-promote.


Boston Marathon, Interpreter of Maladies, Displacement

I woke up early Tuesday morning to the screeching of trams rolling along the tracks mixed with the pleasant chirping of birds. After a thirty minute meditation, I eased into the morning routine of making breakfast, packing lunch for my son, getting my own bag ready for my Tuesday morning gym class and kissing my husband goodbye. The whole morning went smoothly and I felt calm and at ease with the world. On my way out of the gym, I decided to take a minute to read the headlines before heading to work. That’s when I first encountered the words Boston Marathon Bombing.

As I read through the Dutch article, my body pulled inward, the calmness that had settled within me ebbing away. I struggled with some of the vocabulary in the article and even considered stopping fellow gym goers to ask them to translate a few key words for me. That’s when I realized that no one else seemed to have Boston on their mind. I was surrounded by foreigners on foreign soil, and everyone was moving about as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I wondered what it was like at home. Were people glued to the television, following instant tweets from people in the area or calling friends and family to check on their well being? What was going through the minds of the runners? Family members of those running? The crowd of people there to cheer them on? And who would do such a sick thing?

No one mentioned the tragedy to me the whole day. In all fairness, I didn’t encounter that many people, but it feels so weird to be disconnected from your homeland at times like these. It’s not like if I was in California right now I could be making a difference, but at least I’d be talking about it, and hopefully process the sadness and fear it plants in our hearts.

I recently read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. In this collection of short stories, she writes about Indian people in various situations: a young Indian couple both born in the U.S. on vacation in India, who no longer relate to their Indian roots, young couples formed through arranged marriages who start their lives together on U.S. soil; a woman who comes to the U.S. to be with her Indian husband and pines away for fresh fish so readily available in her homeland, for the local customs and flavors of India. Even though every story had Indian people central to the plot, the themes of loss, displacement, sadness, new beginnings, making your own way in a new country–are universal.
One story that particularly stands out for me at this time is When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine. In this short story, told from the perspective of their 10 year-old daughter, Mr. Pirzada, a man from East Pakistan, joins her family regularly for dinner and to watch the news. It takes place in the Autumn of 1971 during the time that East Pakistan fought for sovereignty. Their eyes were glued to the television, seeing the future political state of East Pakistan unfold before them, while the Americans they knew seemed to be oblivious of this world event.

That is what it feels like to live on foreign soil; those around you are naturally concerned with the events in their own countries, not in something happening across the world. And more strange, is that The Hague is an international city with people from just about every country in the world living here, be they foreign diplomats or asylum seekers. Thus, my experience of cultural estrangement probably unfolds on a daily basis. But as an American, I grew up with the perspective that our news is world news to be heeded by all. Strange to have such a wake up call.

Another memory that percolated into my thoughts a few hours after reading about the Boston bombing was an experience I had two decades ago, ironically, in a movie theatre in the Harvard Square area of Boston, Mass. I went to see Schindler’s list with a friend. I was so immersed in the film and the atrocities it presented, that when I came out of the theater and stepped into the cold afternoon sunlight, I was shocked that life was carrying on normally all around me. How could anyone be jovial? Laughing? Shopping? Playing chess in the square? Didn’t they know what happened? Sure, the atrocities of WWII happened 50 some years earlier (I saw the film in 1993), but the experience had so fully consumed me, that it took me some time to adjust back to reality.

I say now, like so many from around the world have said before me, that my heart goes out to all the victims of the Boston marathon bombing. And rather than being completely downcast about the sinister side of human nature, I choose to focus on those officers, immigrants, and others who ran not toward safety, but in the direction of the blasts to help their fellow human beings. I suppose my choice to find something positive to focus upon is a luxury of distance, of experiencing something only through papers and videos. But I hope those who are in the midst of it know that they are loved and supported by people from all corners of the globe.

Strange Things the Dutch Don’t Do

The Napkin

A few weeks ago a beam of sunshine cracked through the thick layers of gray and we celebrated by going out to a cafe. Our son ordered a tosti (a diminuitive of the grilled cheese sandwich) and Chocomel (chocolate milk that is so well branded, it dominates the market, and is a staple in every restaurant). Our son’s tosti arrived on a plate with the napkin placed under the sandwich.

“Why do they always do that?” my son asked, annoyed that a string of melted cheese had soiled the napkin. I’ve run into this scenario time and time again; food placed on top of a napkin, negating it’s function, rendering it useless.

We are napkin users, my son and I; breakfast, lunch and dinner a cloth napkin is placed beside our plate. And we use them to wipe our faces and our hands. My Dutch husband, on the other hand, uses a napkin so rarely that I’ve stopped placing one on the table for him. Only in extreme cases, such as sauce dripping down his hands, will he ask for one.

My husband’s napkin patterns seem to be representative of the Dutch. If you go to an upscale restaurant, the cloth napkins are a compulsory part of the set up, but the Dutch let them lie on the table. Dinners with friends are napkinless. And if my son or I ask, our hosts head bewildered to the kitchen, going through drawers in search of fancy paper napkins left over from an event a few years back, or if these are not to be found, guiltily hand over a paper towel. When did napkins go by the wayside?

Peanut Butter and Jelly

When I was staying with my brother and his family in the U.S. last summer, there was one morning ritual that brought joy to my heart; a hot cup of coffee or tea, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on toasted bread. This combination was a staple in my childhood diet, the theme of 6th grade science camp campfire songs and on many kid’s menus in restaurants.

But what do the Dutch think of our prized PB &Js? I was working with a group of Dutch people in the church setting up a big event. When we sat down together to take a lunch break, everyone got out their sack lunches. I retrieved my PB & J and started eating. Several people asked about my sandwich and when I explained, they looked at me like I was crazy. They certainly take jam on their bread, and kids usually like peanut butter on bread, but never shall the two meet–unless that bread is in the hands of an American. Do Canadians, Australians, Brits or others also know the joy of a PB & J?