When I first started writing, I KNEW that all the editors at every house were laughing at my submissions. Perhaps this is normal. Or perhaps it has to do with my being foreign-raised, knowing I was foreign-raised. No, not in the normal way. I wasn’t raised with English speaking parents, or even one of them.
I first learned English in the classroom at the age of fourteen. It wasn’t even my second language, which was French, but my third. And if I hadn’t fallen in love with it within six months – due in part to an excellent teacher – and started reading in English in my spare time, with a dictionary by my side, when I first came to the states, as an exchange student, I’d have spoken at best broken English, like my colleagues did. And four years later, I’d still have been fairly lost. Not only was my English skewed – I knew how to say "ontological doubt" but had no idea how to say "faucet" for instance – from being learned exclusively in the classroom, but my mental picture was skewed too.
Mostly you make up an image of your homeland by growing up in it. Oh, yes, into the pot DO go the books you read, but also a million other things that mark you as a native of your generation. Things you’re not even aware of. Things of which I’m only marginally aware, because at some time they felt odd – though not anymore
When you come in mid-movie, as it were, you have to make up what went before. Years ago, in a writers newsgroup I belong to, half a dozen of us who were born scattered throughout the world, talked about this. It took me YEARS not to feel like at any moment, someone would tap my shoulder in the grocery store; while out driving; in the park and say "You don’t belong here, get out." No, this wasn’t a fear of a police state. It was just a sense that I "didn’t belong", that I stuck out, that in the "normal narrative" of history, I had no right being here. That I was, in fact, the character who rebelled and refused to follow the plot outline. Most of these women still felt that way. Most of them, too, like I did at one time, shuddered at the thought of writing an American childhood. What if you got it wrong? The majority of your readers would KNOW.
Do I still feel that way? No. I’ve watched the kids go through school here. I’ve read a ton of biographies. In the beginning (I’m not a visual person, so this was odd) I watched A LOT of TV. Not soaps because I have my limits, just... news and sitcoms, and documentaries. I heard people make references to their growing up. People about my age. And the substratum of knowledge accumulated.
I’ve learned to swim in it. And I’ve lived in the US longer than I lived in Portugal (by about two years.) I haven’t memorized the music, but I can sight-read, and hum the difficult parts.
The tell though is that I can write a childhood in the twenties almost or as convincingly as a childhood now.
Other than that, except for the dastardly accent, I can pass. You could talk to me for hours and not know. And if you know I’m hearing impaired even the accent won’t tip you off. And a lot of my readers are shocked to find I have an accent.
So what am I saying here? I’m saying that wherever you come from, if you work at it, you can do it. I’m also saying that – remember I’m the woman trying to improve on your fears – that no matter how silly this idea of being a writer sounds, you can do it.
Of course, the industry seems to be crumbling – It’s a gift. If I’d stuck to teaching, my original profession, kids would probably be learning via implant. If I’d taken that scholarhsip in computer science, we’d be using slide rules, like in Heinlein novels (and then too, every profession seems to be crumbling as it is hit by the blunt edge of fast change. I found this out talking to my dentist.) But that doesn’t matter. If editors truly don’t gather around my manuscripts to laugh at them, it should be much easier for any of you. If I can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
So, lay down on that comfy couch. Speak up. Your mother already told me everything... No, seriously. Tell me your fears. What do you think happens when your article/story/novel hits the editors’ offices? What paralyzes you? – for years I dreaded cons for fear of offending anyone. I’m sort of over that now, but do you fear it? What about this process do you dread? I tell you right now, it’s probably unfounded. Let’s talk about it.