So You Think Writing In Your First Language Is Hard: A Look at ESL Novelists

Homer writing a letter
Homer writing a letter

So You Think Writing In Your First Language Is Hard

If you are tired of struggling with the oddities and peculiarities of trying to make a sentence make sense, then you might want to take a look at some of these noted novelists, who had to learn English, as a second or even a third language, before they could get their story finished. And that says nothing about getting it published.

A group portrait of some of the Beat writers
A group portrait of some of the Beat writers

The Most Influential of the Beats

Of all the beat writers, which includes the likes of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, most literary critics tend to agree that Jack Kerouac had the biggest impact on the American literary scene. Lesser known is that even though Jack was born in Massachusetts, he grew up in a French-speaking household. Jack didn’t even learn English until he was six; and never completely mastered the language into he was well into his teens. Nonetheless, he went on to produce a body of work that is still widely read today.

Most recently (Feb. 2015), a Quebec publishing house by the name of Les Éditions du Boréal, has recently announced that they will publish some of Jack Kerouac’s French writing. The collection, titled La vie est d’hommage, will feature a novella and Kerouac’s first attempt for On the Road, which was penned in his native French. This publishing effort will underscore the little known fact that Kerouac continued to write in his mother tongue, even after having achieved substantial financial and critical success with On the Road and The Dharma Bums.

 

Illustration for Cheer of Home Fires, drawing by Will James
Illustration for Cheer of Home Fires, drawing by Will James

The Strange Life of Will James

And while I am on the subject of French-Canadians, here is a tale of a Quebec man, who eventually ended up as one of America’s most appreciated cowboy writers and artists.

One of the strangest literary stories of the twentieth century concerns the western Cowboy writer, Will James. Over his lifetime James wrote over twenty books detailing the ranch hand’s life that he had known in such places as Montana, Nevada and also California, where he had briefly worked as a Hollywood stunt rider. Will James was also a gifted artist, evident by the numerous drawings and paintings that were included in his literary efforts. Nobody knew of Will James’ early life until he passed away in 1942 of severe alcoholism. Then a search for next of kin produced a brother living in Canada under a different name.

Will James was born Joseph-Ernest-Nephtali Dufault on June 6, 1892, at St. Nazaire de Acton in Quebec, Canada. Then as a teenager, he left the province of Quebec for the wilds of Saskatchewan, where he learned how to be a cowhand. Eventually Joseph went south-of-the-border (possibly to escape rustling charges), changed his name and became a Montana cowboy. After years of working on various ranches, a man now called Will James began to write down his working experiences. Amazingly, he was also able to illustrate his text with captivating drawings and paintings, like the one seen above. One of his stories, Smoky the Cowhorse received a Newbery award and was also made into a movie. Even today, his books are still available and read by many.

Khaled Hosseini with the two main actors in The Kite Runner.
Khaled Hosseini with the two main actors in The Kite Runner.

Out of Afghanistan

“I write exclusively in English now. I could likely feign my way through a short story—a very short story—in Farsi. But generally, I lack a narrative voice in Farsi, and a sense of rhythm and cadence in my head, because it has been decades since I wrote fiction in Farsi. English has become very comfortable for me.” Khaled Hosseini

So begins the story of Khaled Hosseni, whose first novel The Kite Runner, recently became a bestseller and a popular Hollywood movie. He was born in Kabul in 1965, but left with his family in 1980 to escape the Russian War in Afghanistan. His family relocated to Southern California, as Khaled also graduated from high school and college in the U.S. The Kite Runner was published in 2003.

Joseph Conrad learned to speak fluently in Polish and French, before tackling English.
Joseph Conrad learned to speak fluently in Polish and French, before tackling English.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad, who is probably best known for the novel Heart of Darkness, did not learn the English language until he was in his twenties. Polish was his native tongue, but he was also completely fluent in French, before he started writing short stories in English. Although he always spoke English with a heavy accent, his prose was clear. Born in the Ukraine, Joseph went to sea as a merchant marine when he has still a teen. At age 36 Joseph retired from a seaman’s life and began writing.

Other Writers

The list of other authors, who write in English, despite the fact that it is not their native tongue include, Gary Shteyngart (Russian), Salman Rushdie (Hindu), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani), Francesca Marciano (Italian), Andrei Cordrescu (Romanian) and Yiyun Li (Mandarin Chinese). And then there is the Irishman, Samuel Beckett, who wrote in French despite the fact that his mother tongue was English.

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Don’t Write What You Do Know, Write What You Don’t Know

Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today.
Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today. This illustration was first published in Treasure Island.

You might say that writing memoir is like pirating your own life.

Quotation From Toni Morrison

“When I taught creative writing at Princeton, my students had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.”  by Toni Morrison

Good-bye To The Memoir

Everyone seems to start out writing memoir,  and perhaps…….the unfortunate ones get successful at it. Look at Jack Kerouac. His second novel On the Road was a smash hit. It even got him on national TV……but at age 47, Jack was dead, victim of severe alcohol abuse. Jack London didn’t fare much better after his series of successful fiction and non-fiction titles. I’m sure everyone has read the short story, To Build a Fire, but how many know that he died at a young age of 40 from a complication of various medical problems including alcoholism.

Now it’s also very possible that having the name of Jack may have lead to the early demise of these successful authors, but no matter how you feel about this premise, I still think that evolution beyond the first person narrative is a good thing for a writer. Just by looking at the lives of famous authors, you might postulate that writing the truth can be a difficult thing to outlive.

Recent picture of Toni Morrison
Recent picture of Toni Morrison

Say Hello To an Octogenarian Novelist and College Professor

Her name is Toni Morrison and she teaches fiction writing at Princeton University. She is also a Nobel Prize (1993 for Literature) recipient and her 11th novel, called God Help the Child, is due to be released this month and is probably already on the bookstands. (Sorry I haven’t been to a bookstore lately, so I can’t verify this.) In a recent interview with her old editor and collaborator, Alan Rinzler, Toni delves into how it is important for young writers to get away from the old concept of “write what you know” and venture into the brave new world of “write what you don’t know”. This may be an invaluable piece of advice for writers regardless of age or experience level.

Maybe It’s Better To Fib A Little

So, what’s the moral of the story here. Well, it goes like this. If you fib a little bit, then you might live longer. It’s kinda like eating hard candy and drinking red wine. That is when done in moderation these things, which are supposed to be bad for you actually relieve some of your stress, thus leading to a longer life.

A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant
A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant

This surreal painting is simply called Giant. It was done by the master illustrator and painter, N.C. Wyeth. Just in case you’ve never heard of Newell Convers Wyeth he is the first generation of that famous American triad, which also features Andrew and Jamie. If you ever get a chance to see this painting in person, go do it. You won’t regret it, for this is an impressive, large oil painting that will most likely completely take over any space where it is exhibited.

Working Class Writers

Though not literary writers, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were two American icons that rose from a modest background to stardom.
Though not literary writers, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were two American icons that rose from a modest background to stardom. Here they are pictured on an exterior wall in Las Vegas.

Labor Day Rant

Today is Labor Day and maybe it is a good time to celebrate those writers (and other artists), who held day jobs to support their  dreams. Actually this list is quite long, so I will concentrate mostly on those who toiled in the “School of Hard Knocks” outside the academic system. For a close look at the various and sundry jobs, writers have held in order to maintain their craft, check out this article at Huffington Post.

Now…..Don’t get me wrong……Academia has produced some amazingly talented writers. First to mind, are those wonderful British professors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They both taught at Oxford and at the same time each in his own right produced some of the most remarkable fiction of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, the two were best of friends, who created and nourished The Inklings, an extra-curriculum literary discussion group that always met in one of Oxford’s many well-attended watering holes.

Jack Kerouac and the Beats

Jack Kerouac and company are notorious for allegedly spurning a whole cultural revolution that spurned higher education and encouraged various non-conformist activities, such as socializing at coffee houses (and bars), digging jazz music and writing offbeat and dissident poetry. Except for Kerouac and Neal Cassady, this group racked up quite a slew of impressive academic credentials. Though Alan Ginsburg dropped out of Columbia to write poetry, he did return and complete his degree program. Furthermore, William Burroughs was a Harvard graduate., while Gegory Corso attended the elite university as a a non-matriculating student— a poet in residence. Rounding out the group are Gary Snyder, who attended UCal Berkeley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who received an advanced degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, France. All in all, that’s a pretty impressive collection of degrees and academic experiences.

The British Class System

Just by the sheer number of writers and poets that have come from the British Empire, this commonwealth of nations has to be one of the most literary places on the planet. Some of the Empire’s finest writers, actually grew up in the British hinterlands and so they never had to opportunity to attend an institute of higher learning. At the top of this list would be  Doris Lessing, a Rhodesian writer, who recently received a Nobel Prize in Literature, and the ever-popular George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair. Eric grew up in remote India and so he was never able to obtain a proper education. Still, this did not prevent the writer from producing several 20th century classics.

Back in old Londontown, fans of the mystery and crime genres will be interested in the life and times of Agatha Christie, who spent her childhood years in both London and Devonshire. Despite being home-schooled, Agatha Christie’s books have sold more copies for all authors except Shakespeare and the Bible.

My Labor Day Reading List

Following are some classic titles by a few brave writers, who went out and did things for themselves…..and then wrote about it. In reality, there are many books in this field. These few titles are just a my personal favorites and perhaps a jumping off point for your own reading adventures……for there are many more great titles out there.

1. You Can’t Win by Jack Black    This autobiographical tale from a turn-of-the-century hobo-cat burglar was William Burroughs favorite read. Need I say more.

2. The Drifting Cowboy by Will James    Though born in Quebec, Will James (an alias used to cover his cattle rustling past) escaped to the U.S. and worked many western ranches as a 20th century cowhand and roper. He also worked as a Hollywood stunt man during the early years.

3. Down and Out In Paris and London by George Orwell    Orwell’s firsthand account of washing dishes in 30s Paris and marching from one shelter to the next in England will leave you spellbound.

4. Roughing It by Mark Twain  Before Twain made it big with Tom Sawyer, the man did many things including tramping across the West during the Civil War.

5. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry    Here the author of the Little Prince recounts his flying days and a crash in the Sahara that may have lead to the petite prince story.

6. Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour  Louis L’Amour was more than just a western writer. He was also a professional boxer and merchant marine who traveled the Seven Seas. This book takes you through his world traveling and roundabout ways of his younger days.

In Conclusion

Perhaps the biggest working class heroes of all…….the Liverpool Lads

“They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be”

John Lennon from Working Class Hero

Probably no other group of artists better represents  the working class than the British fab four, John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Probably no other group of artists better represents the working class than the British fab four, John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Monday Morning Writing Advice: Timely Quotes from Famous Authors

 The Southern Ring Nebula
NGC 3132: The Southern Ring Nebula
Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA; Processing – Donald Waid

Encountering Written Advice

More often than not successful writers, tend to make mostly practical suggestions to newbie writers. Commonly these witticisms contain such mundane advice as don’t use too many adverbs or leave out such over-used words as very, far out or nowadays. Fortunately, every now and then, a lucky writer sneaks in a tidbit of literary comment that transcends these basic grammatical axioms. For example, Stephen King’s classic line, “kill your darlings” has been most likely encountered by just about every practitioner of the English language on at least several occasions.

Following are some of my favorite comments by writers. You have probably heard of most of these guys and gals , but you may not be aware of their cherished little snippets of words. Hopefully, at least a few of these timely lines of wisdom will sink into your brain and create a microburst of energy within your gray matter.

neptunetriton_voyager_960
Crescent Neptune and Triton
Image Credit: Voyager 2, NASA

The List

    1. Start as close to the end as possible. by Kurt Vonnegut

    2. Employ an unreliable narrator, preferably one who doesn’t know he is insane and has no recollection of such events as digging into a grave to rip out the teeth of his recently departed lover. by Edgar Allan Poe (note: this comment has been falsely attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, but still ranks as good advice)

    3. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. by Ernst Lubitsch, screenwriter

    4. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go. by Billy Wilder, screenwriter

    5. It is always prudent to remember that one is not Tolstoy or Dickens. by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

    6. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. by George Orwell

    7. Try never get drunk outside yr own house by Jack Kerouac

    8. Remember there is no such thing as nonsense. By Andrew Motion

Saturn Hurricane
Saturn Hurricane
Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

In Conclusion

Every one’s probably heard of this Elmore Leornard quote, but I’ll include it anyway….Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And last but not least! Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say. by Michael Moorcock

Channeling Jack Kerouac

Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts
Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts

This has been a summer on the road for me, for I have abandoned my Portland (Maine) apartment, stored everything of value in a storage locker, gave away my desktop computer and headed for the open roads, fields and forests on my bicycle. It’s been quite a learning experience, but more about that later, for after spending two weeks enjoying the June hostel scene in Boston I quietly left Beantown one night on a 11 0’clock train bound with a one way ticket for Fitchburg.

Actually, I got off the train near Acton and spent the remainder of the night underneath an interstate bridge trying to get some sleep. Sleep did not come easy thanks to the hum of overhead traffic and my stony bed. By some quirk of chance I found myself nestled near a deer trail, for I glimpsed several of the creatures during the course of the night. In the glare of the streetlights they appeared like strange silhouettes.

Sunrise had me up and on the road and around 6 A.M. to see what I could learn about the great writer of the road from a visit to his hometown. But first things first – I had to stop at the Lowell McDonald’s for a large coffee and two Egg McMuffins. I imagine the Beats might have done the same thing – but that is merely speculation on my part.

Then came the bike tour of the city. No pretty tour guides to leave a group of tourists around, just me on my bike with a knapsack full of personal items on a summer Sunday morning that was about to turn into a scorcher.

A once-used factory building in Lowell, Massachusetts
A once-used factory building in Lowell, Massachusetts

Next came the big factory buildings. I have scene a few of the old New England factory buildings in my day but this one takes the cake. The sheer size of these brick structures was mindboggling. If I was looking for an explanation of why Jack had left town – but the truth was I just wanted to visit the place. I spent the next hour or so cruising beside the giant structures, like I was a shadow in a DeChico painting.

Finally, I discovered the canals and the Merrimack River. That added a little humanity and natural scenery to the picture but not much. Still, the canals were the nicest part of the whole visit  – not including the Egg McMuffins – I enjoyed riding past and stopping to look at the waterways that once powered this industrial dynamo.

And when I finally departed Lowell, I think I understood a little bit better the process the put Kerouac in motion and launched his writing career.

Lowell buildings reflected in a canal.
Lowell buildings reflected in a canal.

The Sea is My brother

Land's End in the Gaspe region of Quebec, Canada
Land's End in the Gaspe region of Quebec, Canada

When I recently read the news release that an unpublished novel of Jack Kerouac called “The Sea Is My Brother” is planned for release this year, I immediately thought of my travels that I once made to Land’s End in Quebec. Before you in the photograph is the easternmost edge of the Gaspe’ Peninsula just before it disappears into the sea.  The title of the new book makes me think of this beautiful place.

Even though Jack was of French-Canadian descent I am not aware that he ever visited this part of Quebec. Too bad he might have enjoyed the rustic, windswept loneliness of this part of Eastern Canada, where the land and sea merge in a very abrupt fashion.

But back to the subject at hand, new releases by the great American man of letters, who has been dead for nearly forty years now. With the release of “The Hippos Were Boiled Alive In their Tanks” and now “The Sea Is My Brother”, Jack Kerouac fans are being treated with two Kerouac novels in two years. OK, the Hippos was jointly written by William Burroughs, as well as Kerouac, but you get the point. Two new novels by any Beat writer is something to cheer about.

The Hippo story has done quite well and so it will be interesting to watch this new story that was penned by Mr. Kerouac, himself, as he journeyed across the “Seven Seas” as a Merchant Marine in 1942. Wow, there was a war going on then, folks and the Merchant Fleet was definitely not a safe place to be. This could be a very interesting story. Stay tuned! This might get interesting.

Mark Twain Comes Out With New Unpublished Collection of Essays and Stories

The Hale-Bopp Comet as seen in 1997
The Hale-Bopp Comet as seen in 1997

Samuel Clemens may have died when Haley’s Comet passed by earth on it’s awesome journey nearly a hundred years ago, but Mark Twain lives on, at least in the hearts and minds of readers all around the globe. Next month those of us, who can never get enough of the literary giant will be treated with special release of unpublished short stories next month by the publisher Harper Studio.

In an online article posted a couple of weeks ago by the Guardian Online, it has been announced this collection of unpublished short stories and essays will be released next month in book format. The collection has been edited by Robert Hirsh of the Mark Twain Project and they will be featured this spring in the noted literary magazine, The Strand.

So for you Mark Twain fans, who want to keep reading, next month you will get the chance.

And for all those, who thoroughly enjoy Jack Kerouac, hope is just around the corner in the April release of “The Sea Is My Brother”. This is an unpublished Kerouac novel to be put out by the very same publisher, Harper Studio.