writing when English is not your mother tongue

I experienced nirvana Wednesday evening with my small writing class. When I called time for the five-minute freewriting prompt, they protested. They wanted more time. Is there any more celestial music to a writing teacher’s ears than her students’ clamor to keep writing? I think not.

Several of these students talked about the challenges they face writing in English when Spanish is their mother tongue. They talked about not being able to find the right word. When they wrote in Spanish, they found the words they wanted. Those words were richer, more evocative–righter. I know “righter” is not a word, but it seems to fit here.

And “righter” reminds me of a story my dad told just a few years ago. His mother, a Palestinian who spoke English with a rich Arabic accent and who taught her granddaughters songs in French, a language she knew better than English, used to say when they were in traffic: “Let that car go ahead. They have the righter way.” In a world of perfect Oxford-dictionary English, my grandmother would have said, “They have the right of way.”

But you know what? Her phrase makes more sense. She uses a non-word, a neologism, and it’s more economic than “right of way,” sounds better, is logical, and a bit poetic.

And that’s the gift that non-native speakers of English own–a built-in, ready-made, linguistic transformer that creates new words, sounds, content, syntax. Don’t misunderstand: I do not belittle the challenges of writing in another language. I’ve done it. It ain’t easy. I don’t belittle the challenges of living in a culture whose language you don’t know well. And I don’t belittle the pain that linguistic chauvinism visits on too many Americans who speak with accents or limited fluency in English: How do you navigate a  culture that denigrates or represses your mother tongue?

I grew up in a time when learning another language marked someone as educated. These days, we’re lucky if the public school has an art program, let alone a few years of Spanish or French, Latin or German, or even Arabic or Japanese.

So let me name some writers who have written in a language other than their native language. Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, a novel considered by a number of scholars as one of the top ten written in English, knew English as his third language; Polish was his mother tongue and French came second. Another Polish-born writer, Anzia Yezierska, wrote her novels in American English and incorporated Yiddish into her stories of life in New York’s Lower East Side. A more contemporary author, Judith Ortiz Cofer was born in Puerto Rico and publishes in her second language, English. A novelist, poet, and young adult writer, Ortiz Cofer’s collection of essays called Woman in Front of the Sun: On Becoming a Writer is an inspiring read.

And Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist who just died last March and wrote a central piece of criticism on Conrad’s novel (“An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), wrote not in his mother tongue, Igbo, but in the language of the colonizers, English. And he reveled in the transformations his Igbo-shaped writing would contribute to literature written in English.

Let me end with some wisdom on language from the great Jamaican poet, Louise Bennett, in her poem, “Bans O’ Killing” (“Lots of Killing”), which responds to a threat to kill Jamaican English by detailing what would happen to the English language if dialect were killed off:

Yuh wi haffe kill de Lancashire

De Yorkshire, de Cockney

De broad Scotch an de Irish brogue

Before yuh start kill me!


Yuh wi haffe get de Oxford book

O’ English verse, an tear

Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle

An plenty o’ Shakespeare!


When yuh done kill “wit” an “humour”

When yuh kill “Variety”

Yuh wi haffe fine a way fe kill





writing improves your health

I’m reading Louise DeSalvo’s Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, and in chapter two (“How Writing Can Help Us Heal”), DeSalvo details the experiments of James Pennebaker, a psychologist who studied groups of students (at Southern Methodist University, where Pennebaker, and his associate, Sandra Beall, both taught), who wrote in a journal for fifteen minutes, four days in a row.

One group of students wrote about traumatic experiences, but this group was divided into three, with the following guidelines: 1) write about the trauma and the emotions, 2) just describe the trauma, and 3) write about the events and the emotions of the trauma at the same time.

Guess which group initially felt negative feelings but four months later, said they had a much more positive outlook, and six months later, showed improved health (visits to student health center dropped 50%)? You guessed it–group 3.

In DeSalvo’s words, here are Pennebaker and Beall’s findings:

  • to significantly improve your spirits long-term, you must endure difficult feelings initially

  • To improve health, we must write detailed accounts, linking feelings with events. (22)

DeSalvo offers a caveat in this chapter: If you’re going to write about trauma, be sure you’ve got support (support group, therapy, dedicated listener).


new year, new journal

Although “I write in a journal” is perfectly good English, I prefer to use “journal” as a verb, as in, “I have already journaled today.”

And I have. Here’s my new journal:

100_4117It’s not brand new. I started it on 23 December. I prefer unlined pages and a binding that allows me to fold the pages back, so I have an easy surface to navigate. I can hold the journal on my lap or place it on an airplane seat tray and write in comfort.

I’m unhappy when I don’t have access to journals that make me smile. Lucky for me, moving back to Tucson gives me easy access to Antigone Books, where I used to buy Bandolier and then Rhino journals. Bandolier no longer makes their gorgeous bound books, and Rhino journals are now made in China. But I’ve found my replacement–journals from Ganapati Studios. Perfect.

Journaling is an art, a joy, a necessity. Susan Wittig Albert (author of the China Bayles’ mystery series) recently published An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days, her journal for 2008. Wittig Albert tells us at the start that she begins each new year with a new journal to also mark her birthday on 2 January.

Why bother to buy someone else’s journal? Because the writing is inspiring. We see Wittig Albert’s amazement as she discovers how certain areas of her life have become more urgent (paying more attention to the environment), we travel with her between New Mexico and Texas, we share in her deep reading as she adds quotations in the margins.

Journals are travel guides through a writer’s thinking and feeling journeys.

What kind of journal do you use? What utensils? What tickles your writing muscles?

And if you’ve ever resisted writing in a journal, check out an irreverent version in Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal.