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I came to California from Israel as a young bride, speaking Hebrew and French, but no English at all. My husband, a New York native, communicated with me in a halting Hebrew. But then, we spoke the language of love, so we needed no language at all. Furthermore, after a few months I began to speak in a New Yorker accent picked up through my husband’s native tongue.
Initially, we both lived with my mother-in-law for a number of months. One day my mother-in-law’s sister, and aunt to my husband, called on the phone. I picked up the receiver and fearfully answered in the universal language, “Hello?”
“Where’s Mother?” my aunt asked.
I felt flushed, and answered as best I could. “She’s coming.”
After a few minutes’ wait, my aunt asked again, “Where is Mother?”
I replied, “She’s coming to work.” There. I’d said my first sentence.
My aunt broke out in laughter on the other end of the receiver. “You mean she ‘went’ to work?”
That was the extent of my English between coming and going. Within a few months I was able to speak with a better ease of the language. Having learned the French language while growing up also made it easier for me to learn English.
But I digress. To return to my struggle with learning English, I began as a shy schoolgirl, reading French books to my heart’s content. That is, until my teacher at school complained that my homework lagged behind. My usual quota of ten books per week from the school library fell to two books. I was heartbroken. My parents by then had hired a tutor to help me with various subjects, which kept me busy.
But now that books were curtailed and kept away from me, I borrowed my older brother’s books. This borrowing created a huge tug-of-war between two sibling rivals. He didn’t like me touching his books and I coveted them. I read, in French, whatever my brother had in his small library: mysteries, a violent series of thirty-six novels called “Fantomas,” and of course, Sherlock Holmes. I was so indoctrinated that I answered questions with the French equivalent of the ubiquitous “The game’s afoot, my dear Dr. Watson.” That’s how my brother found out I had peeked at his books.
I began writing on and off in 1982. By then we had a small family, work schedules, and a mortgage. Writing was relegated to the back burner. Then in 1983 I sat down and wrote my first novel. To this day, it’s still in a drawer somewhere in the house. The book was titled The Trans-Siberian Express, and told the story of a Russian scientist that disappears somewhere in Siberia and the hero is ordered to go find him. Easy, right? Wrong. I didn’t know the first thing about writing a spy novel, and the poor editing by moi left much to be desired.
My second novel, Hello Exile, wasn’t completed until 1987, and that also took place in Siberia. That’s when I decided to “come out of the cold,” stay with the familiar, and write only what I knew about. By then life happened. I went back school, we moved, and writing became fourth place or nonexistent.
Then in 1998 I wrote my third book, and using the old adage “write what you know,” Living a Blissful Marriage made its breakthrough in 2001. I was then committed to my writing, and tried to write everyday a bit of this and a bit of that, but nothing concrete when I decided to “write what I don’t know.”
Flower from Castile broke the mold for me. I didn’t know much about history, let alone how to write a historical novel. The one book became a trilogy, and I was committed to finishing it even if it killed me. In the process of researching the characters and the events in history, I learned a great deal.
That’s when I realized that writing “what we know” is limiting and confines us to a narrow slice of life. By adventuring into an unknown world, it opened a door for me into different and unimagined realms.
Many times our fear that we’re not proficient enough in a language stops us from blooming in our writing career. The fear of making a complete fool of oneself is what holds us back. I have gained the knowledge of learning and writing by doing what I dreaded most—showing my vulnerable writing side.
Just think—if I could pursue a writing career with a language I didn’t know, or learned at a later stage in life, think of what you can do with the native speech you were given. So take the plunge, and may the force of the pen (keyboard) be with you!