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How writing helps me as an editor

Lady seated at a table - George Romney
Lady seated at a table, George Romney, 1775 or later

I’ve always liked to write. I wrote stories as a child, and even dipped my toes in some amateur poetry in high school and college (that will never see the light of day). In the last year or so, I’ve tried to pursue a more regular writing routine to keep my creativity at the forefront. I have found that in this stage my writing process has become more challenging and fulfilling at the same time. Here’s why.

It connected me to a community

When I decided that I wanted to keep up a writing regimen, I knew that I wouldn’t keep up with it if I tried to do it alone. (I’m a fan of accountability partners.) Luckily, I found some kindred folk with similar goals. We meet regularly for a small chat and sometimes help each other or give each other feedback. We recently held our first read-aloud event and I shared a story I had written. I never find sharing something personal with a crowd of people particularly fun, but I definitely felt better for it.

It helps me give better feedback

An empathy with writers is extremely useful for editors. Having taken a turn in this sometimes grueling, sometimes awkward writer’s seat offers me some of their perspective, which helps to craft feedback that is more relatable to them. Not only does it help me to cast my feedback in a friendly and encouraging way, but it also helps me to speak to the nuts and bolts of writing, especially the ones that I myself have toiled with.

A few months ago, I shared some of my writing with a few aforementioned kindred souls and braced myself for a feedback session. In reality it did much less damage to my ego than I feared. It was encouraging and helpful, with full credit to the friendly people that gave me feedback. But I try to always remember that squirmy feeling when I edit someone else’s work.

It helps me turn off my editor brain

One common side effect of constantly tuning in so closely to the mechanics of language is that you tend to analyze all the language around you. You will start noticing typos on menus or awkward wording on signage and feel an urge to make a query to someone. But then you quickly realize you won’t be paid for that work, so the scratch has to go un-itched.

In a similar way, I have noticed a tendency to edit myself as I write, as in the very moment that I am trying to put words to paper (or screen). This, as you can imagine, is not very conducive to the creative process. Editing inhabits a very precise, judgmental mental space, where the act of creation requires more organic, unprejudiced conditions. I used to be able to write freely for stretches of time. Now, I struggle to fill a page due to my constant back-spacing and rewriting.*

But the more often I practice writing, the easier it is to switch mindsets and just let the words fall out of me, however clumsily, without over-analyzing what I’m writing. I think creative thinking is something that can benefit everyone.** It’s a muscle that should be kept in shape. It’s not essential in my daily work, but I want to be ready to use it when I want, lest I hurt myself in the process.

The biggest lesson I have learned for writing–and many other new things in life–comes down to this: just get on with it. I am a classic over-thinker. While it has served me well in some cases, I have also found it can also drive a person crazy. If you want to write, just write. You can edit later.

 

*For anyone else struggling with the Jekyll-and-Hydeness of writing and editing, I recommend reading Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit.

**But let me clear that I don’t believe everyone needs to be a “creative”. Numbers people, please help me with my taxes.

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Going back to school

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The Noon Recess, Winslow Homer

A few weeks ago, I finished a month-long course to become a certified English teacher. I had been thinking if I should do this course for a while, and I finally decided to put the money down based on a few factors:

  1. It will supplement my editing work, and especially help me support non-native English writers who might want clarification about their mistakes or errors in writing.
  2. It would help me round out other skills like public speaking.
  3. God damn it, I love being in a classroom.

Luckily, all of those reasons for proved to be true. It was also one of the most intensive learning experiences I’ve ever had. Pedagogical theory, class observations, and lesson planning aside, one of the most absorbing topics was—surprise, surprise—grammar. Though we were all educated adults, we swiftly found ourselves going back to square one of learning English.

Even though I felt confident about knowing what was “right” or “standard” in English grammar, I never had to explain much of it up until now. As an editor, I can mark or fix an error without too much justification required. And if I feel unsure, I can look it up and evaluate any nuances and exceptions and then make a decision. But in the classroom, not only do we have to explain it, we have to do it in the fewest, simplest words possible. Or with drawings. Or gestures. In front of a live audience.

Have you ever had to explain grammar? Most native speakers – English or otherwise – will struggle to explain grammar rules and patterns of their own language. One paradox that kept reappearing in our class discussions was: we have to learn the rules…to teach the rules to students…so that they can sound like native speakers…who probably don’t know (or forgot) the rules.

And English isn’t the same everywhere. It’s not news that Americans sound different from Brits or Australians. But did you know that it’s not just the accents and certain words? Americans don’t use the present perfect tense nearly as much as the British. I was shocked. (I did some research about this and some people theorize that this stems from different perceptions of time and what is considered in the past, which is no doubt shaped by language, which in turn…well, you get it.) The more I analyzed certain constructions, the closer I tried to listen to myself, the more I second-guessed my own use of language. Which do you think you are more likely to say: “I forgot my umbrella” or “I’ve forgotten my umbrella”? I’m not so sure anymore.

All of that is to say that English is difficult. Once you learn all of the grammar, you enter a whole new minefield of missteps the moment you try to speak it out loud. Just watch Ricky Ricardo encounter the fickleness of English pronunciation in this classic clip. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself demonstrating to students how to pronounce words like “choir” (you know, “kwire”) with nothing but a shrug for an explanation.

Which brings me to something I heard Trevor Noah explain on a podcast a little while ago. He summed summed it up so beautifully:

What I love about language is, first of all, it makes you think differently. I don’t think everybody has the exact same personality in every single language if they speak multiple languages. I also find that speaking another language humbles me because I’m far from fluent. So every other language I speak other than [my native language] is me humbling myself. I have to go back to not understanding words. I have to go back to being imperfect. I have to practice, and I stumble, and I’m not as good as I’d like to be. And I think that’s a really valuable idea to have as a human being. You don’t exist in any superior space when you learn other languages. You’re always at the mercy of the native speakers.

I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms learning language. I know this humbling feeling that Noah is talking about here—the fractured personality, the imperfection, and not least of all the stumbling. But the training course brought me around to the other side of this experience. I can now see the other perspective, the native speaker’s position of authority, and I don’t take this for granted. As tedious and frustrating as it can be to drill the third form of verbs and memorize all of the exceptions, going back to school can open up a whole new part of yourself that you’ve never seen before.

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Some things that scare me

Moth
A moth, three butterflies and two beetles, Wenceslaus Hollar, 1646

I’ve been listening to the 10 Things That Scare Me podcast a lot lately. I find it fascinating (and reassuring) to hear how many people fear moths, like me. People fear so many things, some of which I’ve never thought about. It turns out a lot of men fear becoming irrelevant. (Surprise, surprise.)

But in all seriousness, I don’t think people talk about their fears enough. I’m not talking about the creepy-crawly surface level ones. I mean the deep abiding fears that can give us a fuller picture of society and humanity. As it’s been a while since I’ve written here, I thought it might be a good exercise to get my writing gears turning again. So, here are ten things that scare me:

  1. Moths and bats.

My go-to critter fear. I put these in the same category because they both have flappy wings and fly in a crooked line and hang on walls or ceilings above my head. Specifically, I fear them getting caught in my hair and feeling their wings against my neck and ears.

  1. Random acts of violence.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Terrorism. Automatic weapons. Unmitigated hate. Not coming home from a quick errand.

  1. Suddenly losing control of a car or losing my balance and falling over a railing.

I learned to drive late in life, and I don’t particularly like driving a high-speed vehicle. I am also a tall, clumsy person who trips over my own clogs. I have no business being near edges of high places. Truly, the accidental deaths I visualize several times a day take lots of different forms— for example, a random muscle spasm causing me to slash my wrists with the knife I’m using to chop veggies, or a pebble causing my bike to fly into an oncoming car. Basically, anything beyond getting out of bed can turn into a deathtrap in my mind. I blame Six Feet Under for this vivid imagination.

  1. Not having croissant money.

I had a period (post-graduation) when I had so little money that I found myself standing in front of a kiosk in the train station calculating if I had enough in my bank account to buy a croissant. To me, this was a terrifying state. Not that I count French pastries as a necessity in life. But the thought of cutting small pleasures out of my budget makes me anxious. I don’t aim to have a lot of money in life. But I pray that I always have enough to afford flaky, buttery goodness.

  1. Not being able to care for or be with friends and family in their final days.

I live far away from most of my family and friends. While I really enjoy living where I am now, I often get nervous about being out of reach for people. How quickly could I pack a bag and hop on a plane in the event of an emergency? Would I even be able to afford it? Luckily, it hasn’t come to that yet.

  1. Being lost, alone, at night.

When I am out and it starts to get dark, I start mapping my journey home in my mind, comparing paths between quickest and most lit (in the literal sense). When I am by myself in the evening, I always remember something my friend’s mom taught us when we were in high school: walk like a man. Take big steps. Swing your arms. One of my favorite feelings in the world is arriving home and knowing that I don’t have to leave my house again for the rest of the day.

  1. Learning that someone I love is a dangerous psychopath.

What if I end up on the evening news with a journalist sticking a microphone in my face asking how it was possible that I didn’t see the signs?

  1. The ocean.

The thought of scuba diving terrifies me. I tried snorkeling once in Indonesia, barely, and very inelegantly jumped out of the water when a fish crossed my path. I felt like an intruder, like I was trespassing in their territory. Haven’t we humans fucked up the ocean enough? Can’t we leave the sea life alone? I really enjoy The Big Blue, but I prefer to fast-forward through the underwater scenes.

  1. Overly attentive salespeople.

If I walk into a store and I am the only one and the salesperson jumps up to help me look through stuff, I pretend to get a call and leave the store as soon as possible. I hate feeling pressured into buying something. Or feeling bad about not buying something, especially if it’s an independent store. My heart soars when I get barely a smile and a “hello” from the salesperson and they leave me the hell alone. We can get to the small talk when I’m ready to pay.

  1. Someone explaining why my fears are irrational or how I can solve them.

Live in the present. Practice gratitude. Meditate! Or, that’s statistically unlikely to actually happen to you. Are you trying to tell me that there’s been an “off” switch for this mental torture this entire time?

I’m sure that if I think about a few minutes longer I can come up with ten more fears clawing at the inside of my brain on a daily basis. I didn’t didn’t dare go near climate change or certain political situations during this round. It was a helpful exercise to put some of my greatest fears in words, to name the gloom and doom inside of me. Hopefully this way I can get to know it better and learn how to live with it. Also, I hope it can be a great point of connection in this sometimes scary, but most often beautiful world.

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Tips for integrating into a new culture

Fish Market
Fish Market by Joachim Beuckelaer (1533–1575)

Even though I’ve spent the last five years living in a foreign country, I have yet to shake the feeling of being an outsider. Part of that is my own stubbornness. Taking steps to embrace my environment is still something I have to consciously work on every day. But here are a few things I try to do that make my surroundings feel a bit more like home.

Get a library card.

Or a gym card. Or a café’s stamp card. Essentially, make your wallet look like you belong in the city. Find a place where you can spend some time when you need to get out of your apartment. In my case, that’s the library, which thankfully has a decent sized section of English books. Even if you’re an introvert like me and get anxiety from interactions with other people, you can learn the basic phrases you need for the necessary transactions, and you’ll start to feel like a true member. And when people see you come back more and more, you’ll start to know more friendly faces in the city.

Explore the nature.

Spend time in parks. You don’t need any language or membership fee to do that. And best of all, you’ll experience the stress-reducing benefits that greenery and open spaces have to offer. It’s easy to get stuck to the computer when you’re studying maps, practicing a new language, or constantly consulting Google Translate. But remember to go outside when you can. If you’re far away from nature, take plenty of walks around whatever environment you’re in and observe the sights and sounds. When you map out the environment with your body (walking, biking, etc.), unfamiliar territory becomes familiar and you’ll start to move around with more confidence.

Try all of the food. 

(Even if it looks funky.)  Soon enough you’ll find your new go-to snack and you’ll blend into the crowds waiting in line at the market. I never thought I would be someone who likes liverwurst. But after seeing everyone else around me eat it, I jumped on the bandwagon. And you know what? It’s tasty. If something looks strange at first, you may be seeing it out of context. Do some research or find a native to explain to you what it is, and maybe how it should be eaten (if it’s not obvious). Of course, you don’t have to like everything, but if people have been eating the food for centuries, it’s worth a shot.

Speak the language.

This is where I preach something I don’t always practice. I’m not talking about just learning the language. But also speaking it. Out loud. So others can hear you. I’m still struggling with this one. Since I spend most of my time with a native speaker, I usually hang back and force my boyfriend to do most of the talking for us, or frankly, for me. If you’re in a similar situation, try to do a few activities by yourself, where you won’t have anyone to fall back on. If you have your “places” (see #1), over time you’ll be able to identify the people who may have more patience with your language struggles.

Give yourself some time and sink away when you need it.

Pushing yourself into new things every day is exhausting. One of the first weekends I lived in the Netherlands, I spent the entire 48 hours inside my apartment. I got dressed, put my shoes on, walked to the front door…and then turned back and crawled into bed. I cried on Skype to my mom about how afraid I was to step outside. It takes time to get used to a new culture, but after a while going outside won’t be so scary. (I can only say that with confidence looking back.) Give yourself some freedom to be homesick, and soon you’ll be recharged to explore some more.

Of course, there’s other more official stuff you have to do to integrate, like registration, health insurance, setting up bank accounts, and other exciting paper forms to fill out. I don’t think I have any advice to offer on this side of things. I’m still in the bureaucratic weeds for our move to Germany, and so far, it sucks.

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Walking through the Peaceful Revolution

This summer has flown by and left me very sweaty but content in its wake. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog article for the local online magazine, The Leipzig Glocal. You can read it here. I learned so much about this impressive historical movement while participating in one of my favorite activities: walking around.

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Can you see it?

I encourage everyone to take a closer look at their urban surroundings—you’ll probably find some art or historical installations that can tell you something about the location you didn’t know before. And it may just enrich your relationship with the environment. Also, someone or some team probably worked very hard on it. That’s it for me on my soapbox, for now.

Other things I’ve enjoyed this summer:

  • My fan.
  • Tearing through some interesting books in front of said fan. (It’s too hot to go outside anyway.)
  • Waking up early and biking to the lake to get a prime spot next to the water before everyone else arrives.
  • The HushCity app.

We’re getting ready to move to another apartment. It will be much easier than our last move, since this time we’re just going across the city and not across any borders. I will miss being so close to the picturesque canals in the West. But I am looking forward to exploring more areas of our new home city.

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Learning German in the subtitles

Watching Netflix shows with German subtitles is the laziest way to “study”, which is also the best I can do in this recent heatwave. I’ve been writing down a few brilliant translations I’ve learned over the past two months. These make me feel like I’m getting closer to understanding the essence of German culture (or, the “Gestalt” if you will).

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via GIPHY

Rupaul’s Drag Race

Sashay away. = Husch, raus dem Haus.

I’m sure this isn’t a commonly used phrase in Germany. But I love how they maintained the rhyme in the dismissal. This translates to “Shoo, out of the house”. Maybe a little less dignified than the original English version, but I think just as catchy. Could come in handy when visitors overstay their welcome. 

The Hairy Bikers’ Asian Adventure

Bob’s your uncle = Schwuppdiwup

Used when the hosts were putting the last touches on a dish, this sounds to me more like a sound effect than a word. I believe “et voilà” would be the French equivalent. I don’t think you even have to speak German to understand the magical revealing effect. And let’s be honest, “Schwuppdiwup” is easier to explain (or even act out) than “Bob’s your uncle” to a non-native speaker.

Plot twist: Google translates this word to “nuance dragon”. If anyone’s looking for a name for their new band, I recommend putting a few German words through automatic translation.

Ugly Delicious

This is amazing! = Heilige bimbam!

Stefan laughed when he saw this translation at the bottom of the screen. Apparently he hadn’t heard it a long time. Upon googling, it seems this phrase is used similarly to “Holy mackerel!”, which might explain why the kids aren’t using it anymore. But I like the delightful musicality of “bimbam”. I’m happy to say that I’ve already worked this one into a few occasions.

That was an epic fail. = Das war ein Schuss in den Ofen.

This one translates to “a shot in the oven”, which is fitting for a cooking show—though host David Chang was not using the oven at the time. In my opinion, the best clichés are the ones that summon a great image in your mind. Did someone try to light a fire in the oven with a gun? Or maybe someone was aiming at something else and fired into the oven on accident? Either way, it sounds highly dangerous and the first step towards a kitchen disaster, or what an English speaker might call an “epic fail”.

As I’ve got so much more German to learn, my Netflix-watching will continue. That’s how committed I am to studying languages. (Shout out to my sister for supporting my studies with her account!) I hope to report more subtitle discoveries here in the future. Watch this space!

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A weekend of idleness in Berlin

I have impressed myself by how much time I can spend not doing much at all. In nice weather, and sometimes even on a rainy day, my idleness takes on a forward motion as I wander up and down streets, pausing here and there, going nowhere in particular. A month ago, I read Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin. When the author boldly stated in the beginning, “a culture that does not walk is bad for women,” I felt the reason for my rambling wanderlust come into focus.

Recently, I had to make a trip to the American consulate in Berlin, which was a good enough reason as any to stay for a weekend of flânerie, which is, as Wikipedia describes it, “the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations.” I had been to the city four years earlier and saw the main highlights. But since moving to Germany, the capital took on a new interest and I wanted to explore more of it by foot. Elkin describes in her book:

“Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking makes me feel at home.”

This visit to Berlin offered me a chance to make the terrain feel a bit more like home. 

Friday

I had a few hours between my bus arriving in the city and when I could enter the consulate. I surveyed the nearby area on a map and found a nature reserve only one tram station away from Südkreuz, called Natur-Park Schöneberger Südgelände. After storing my heavy backpack in a locker, I was at the park within five minutes. It had just rained, so everything looked bright and smelled like dirt in the best way. As it was still early, I was one of few people walking around.

When you walk in, a big yellow wall greets with you the saying “Die Kunst ist der nächste Nachbar der Wildnis.” (Art is the next neighbor to wilderness.) You can read about the history of the place on signs near an intersection in the park where a restaurant, theater, and sculpture garden meet. The land was a switching yard for trains from the late 1800s until 1953, when it stopped operations and nature reclaimed the place. Then in the 90s, the city of Berlin purchased the area and turned it into a nature reserve, saving the many species of plants and animals that flourished there. Railway yards are an important place for biodiversity, as it turns out, as critters and seeds are common stowaways. Walking through the forested parts, you can still hear the sound of the tram running nearby, which adds to the ghostly feeling of the former industrial landscape. Look closely and you can spot rusted train machinery in the bushes. Rails from a track had separated and were stuck mid-descent down a slope. On the south end, I spotted what looked like a gigantic faucet that nearly blended into the trees. Moss climbed over a haphazard pile of bricks. All of this curiosity made me walk slower.

I was not quite ready to leave this park when I had to leave for my appointment but felt like this urban woodland gave me the proper start to a weekend of wandering. During the metro ride to the consulate, I was suddenly surrounded by an older German man leading a small group of Chinese tourists who explained, “There are three million people living in Berlin. One hundred thousand of them are criminals. That’s three percent!” To which the tourists knowingly nodded their heads.

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The only vintage dress that fit my 21st-century body

After the consulate visit, I retrieved my bag from the locker and headed instinctually in the direction of a five-story thrift store in Friedrichshain I had spotted on the map. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to browse the thrift stores. Usually I find a unique picture about the people that live there. But I have to admit, this time I was disappointed. Besides one level dedicated to vintage clothes, the rest of the inventory was dominated by barely-used, hardly-loved fast fashion. Although I am aware of this sad development, I was disheartened that such a large selection in a big city didn’t have more variety. My back began to feel the weight of my what I was carrying, so I gave up and made my way to my accommodations for the weekend.
I started the second day early in the morning at a market, where I stocked up on a quiche, carrots, and apples for lunch later, before I moved on to a general idea of a destination. During this trip, I felt like I spent about half the time on public transportation. Berlin is big, and I knew that if I wanted my feet to last the whole weekend, I should reserve as much energy as possible moving around. Subways, trams, and busses offer just as much opportunity for idleness and observation as walking the streets. I saw two different women pull out a torn-out page from a newspaper to read on their ride, rather than carrying the entire issue with them (I’m guessing). I didn’t know people did that.

Shortly after getting off the tram in Kreuzberg, I walked by a big art supply store. Truly my mother’s daughter, I could not pass up an opportunity to add a souvenir pen or notebook to my stock. What I thought would be a quick stopover turned into an hour-long tour of the latest art supplies. I considered (for a very long time) buying the materials to make my own macramé lamp. But in the end, I decided on a yellow pen, a pencil with multiplication tables printed on it, a tiny pencil sharpener, an eraser, and a new pencil bag.

From there, I headed across the street to the Prinzessinengarten, which I had learned about in a reading exercise in my German grammar book. It was an oasis in the city. Hundreds of plastic crates-turned-planters were stacked in organized rows. Bee hives buzzed quietly in one corner. The food in the outdoor café smelled wonderful, which almost made me regret the lunch I had brought along. After taking in all of the gardening projects, I sat down for my second cappuccino of the day, not quite ready to leave, and read my book at a table in between trees.

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By this time, I recognized the satisfying freedom to be able to make even the smallest decisions by myself. I didn’t feel guilty taking so long in a store. When I spotted food that looked delicious, I stopped. I took several coffee breaks. I didn’t have to worry about a companion judging me for stinginess or walking too fast or feeling tired. When I’m exploring a city with another person, I always hesitate before suggesting something, or think of four alternatives to my suggestion in the event that my partner isn’t on the same page. This time, I didn’t have to do that.

Elkin describes this enticing self-determination:

“Why do I walk? I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement. I like being able to stop when I like, to lean against a building and make a note in my journal, or read an email, or send a text message, and for the world to stop while I do it. Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness.”

That opportunity for stillness, in fact, allowed me to keep moving and exploring the whole weekend.

I next headed towards a book store someone had recommended me. I had entered this book store unprepared, not knowing what I was looking for, squeezing past people in the small aisles attempting to browse. Although the chairs were empty and inviting, I started to feel dizzy from heat, so I left for some fresh air and shade. I have done this solo-walking-around gig enough times to know that around hour 36, I start talking to myself. “You’re tired. You need to find some shade to sit down in. Take a break before you collapse.” I talked myself into a tea and cookie at a nearby café, where I read more of the book I had. On my way home, I purchased a shirt in a smaller thrift store and picked up some special beers for my hosts, feeling somewhat vindicated for the previous day.

Sunday

Whenever I find myself in a big city, I try to take the opportunity for a full breakfast in a café. As I wanted to check out the flea market at Mauerpark before my bus home, I found a place nearby that served the usual eggs Benedict fare I was missing. I usually don’t like eating by myself in restaurants. However, by this time in the weekend, I cared a lot less about being alone – even when I was seated on a couch (surrounded by tables) facing the door, greeting everyone that walked in. Nothing could stop me from my poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. Plus, I was becoming more and more satisfied with my book as a mealtime companion. I didn’t have to make small talk. I could put it down mid-sentence if I wanted to. The eggs arrived, it was delicious, and thus I was ready to get the most of my last few hours in the city.

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On my way to the flea market, I spotted a few metal posts, with text and photos, which turned out to be a part of the Berlin Wall Memorial. I made a mental note to come back to these after the market and joined the horde of people streaming into the gates. This market was full. I walked up and down the aisles of stalls, surveying the kinds of stuff people were selling, rarely stopping. It was hot. I was tired. Eventually it dawned on me that even though I love flea markets, I didn’t want to be there.

After picking up some food for my ride home, I wriggled my way out of the crowd and walked back to the memorial. There were just a few others reading the sign. I overheard a tour guide to a small group describing how some of his own family members still carry the mentality of a separated Germany. The information was powerful and pictures even more so. One showed a picture of a couple standing on chairs, holding up their children so their family in East Berlin could see over the wall how much they’ve have grown. I wandered down the pathway (which traced where the wall stood) and read about people who had died trying to escape. Once again, I was reminded of the foolishness of dividing people with walls.

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By noon, I was ready to leave on my bus home. My body started to feel the wear of three days of walking. I checked an app on my phone to see that I had walked over 50,000 steps during the weekend. I reflected on the distances I easily travelled between neighborhoods, how good it felt to move around by myself, and the new perspectives I saw of the city. I am really grateful for this freedom to roam. Elkin warns in her book, “Beware roots. Beware purity. Beware fixity. Beware the creeping feeling that you belong. Embrace flow, impurity, fusion.” So, I keep moving and exploring.

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How proofreading calms me

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I am a nervous person. I have a lot of anxieties flying around in my head at any given moment. Sometimes I picture my anxious brain as the Loony Tunes Tasmanian devil. When it starts to worry, it sets off in a chaotic, spinning path that can destroy entire afternoons.

I’ve tried meditation, but it never seems to stick. Once in a while I pick up a crafty hobby to calm my mind. I’ve dabbled in crocheting, beading, calligraphy, and most recently, weaving. Whatever form it takes, it requires the same kind of close-up focus and patience to finish the project. Apparently, my brain craves this kind of concentration.

Proofreading makes me calm. I have nothing else to focus on but the words in front of me. My mind is forced to slow down as my pen bounces along a string of words underlined by my ruler. If I see a problem, I pause and turn to a book or the computer to find the appropriate solution. Then I pick up where I started and continue along. I have checklists. It’s repetitive. It requires an interested concentration, or as I recently heard described in a podcast, “exquisite attention”.

Sometimes it feels like I am not naturally wired to do this kind of exercise. If I set my mind free, it zooms out to helicopter-view and tries to see everything—all problems, all solutions—in one perspective. This can be a useful view for finding connections and patterns. But it can also be overwhelming. Thoughts dart in all directions, trying to take it all in without fully taking in one single thing.

Because of this tendency to zoom out, I have to turn on the right mindset for proofreading. If I feel myself skimming text or skipping through checklists haphazardly, I know it’s time to pause and reset: take a walk, stare out the window, go into the kitchen and do something with my hands to slow down my thoughts. (Lately, I’ve been enjoying de-seeding pomegranates under water.) If reset successfully, I can pick up the pen and ruler and carry on with the methodical checking for hours.

Proofreading is a muscle I try to tone regularly, regardless of what I’m working on. The more often I occupy this careful and patient mindset, the easier I can access it. It’s not only about strengthening my skills and staying on top of my editing game. It’s also about taking advantage of the personal benefits this work offers me.

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My English

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Here is a scenario that has happened to me several times as an expat: I am in a group of international people, and I am the only native English speaker. Someone will stumble over a word or phrase and heads swivel in my direction and ask, “How do you say…?” Due to performance pressure, my mind usually goes completely blank. But I also noticed I started getting squeamish about being appointed the English grammar police. How should I know if the English I had been speaking all my life was correct?

I recently read Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, a gripping book about what it takes to write a dictionary and the nooks and crannies of language. In the book, she discusses dialects and when they get included in (one of) the authoritative books of the English language. This got me thinking about how my own language has changed over the past few years. I counted three sets of written and spoken English that I switch to and from fairly regularly:

  1. my native American English, shaped during a certain era in Northern California
  2. a jumbled internationalized English,
  3. a more cerebral English driven by my editing training.

My native spoken English, colored by several key words and phrases, is not something I was aware of until I left, as tends to happen. Apparently, addressing people as “dude” or “man” was not universal. Questions answered with “yeah, no” (no) or “no, yeah” (yes) were met with puzzled faces. And the occasional “hella” that spilled out was the stamp of authenticity as a Northern Californian. I never questioned the words or how I was using the language until people started pointing it out. This version of English revealed my roots.

I eventually learned to phase this speech out when I got tired of being imitated. (Usually involving some nasally valley-girl imitation. I’m not even from the valley. More like central valley.) Now it’s something that only comes out when I talk with people from back home. My pitch changes, the speed intermittently slows and quickens. Best of all, I get to toss around these well-loved words and no one mocks me.

During my first year living in The Netherlands, I didn’t spend any time around native English speakers. I began to unconsciously mimic my friends’ non-native English, even when they were more or less direct translations from their own mother tongue. (I am like a parrot, who unconsciously imitates people around me—sometimes to embarrassing effect.) Eventually, I got to know some Brits and Aussies and started picking up their own special words. Throw in a few favorite buzzwords from Dutch, German, or whatever language I learned about, and you get an English that would be difficult to categorize on either side of the pond. This version of English carried me through the day and absorbed so many other cultures around me. Still, language rules began to feel muddied and English words were harder to find in my brain when people asked me.

When I felt these linguistic lines starting to blur, I decided I needed to try to straighten them out if I wanted to work professionally with the English language. I took proofreading courses, during which many times I had to stop myself and question my own grammar or spelling. I revisited grammar exercises I hadn’t seen since elementary school and spent more time consulting the dictionary. I started to watch out for some of the grammar missteps I had grown accustomed to perpetrating. I adapted to a type of English that makes me sit up straighter and cite sources. When topics turned to grammar, my speech slowed down, and I was more careful. This version of English gave me a sort of legitimacy.

I began to read more about discussions of language and pay attention to what was deemed “correct” and “incorrect.” My grammar-based anxieties were eventually quelled by books like Word by Word and The Sense of Style, which reinforced my intuition that not all grammar rules need to be followed blindly. (Yes, you can count me in the descriptivist camp.) I learned to ask more critical questions about language and the people using it. I felt less fidgety when answering grammar questions, and even felt a thrill when I got to start the answer with “It depends…”.

This inventory I made was an interesting exercise. I realized when I speak English, I can speak different versions from different parts of myself. Sometimes, the versions stick to their appropriate context; other times, they reveal themselves in unexpected situations. My English is a map: it tells me where I’m from and where I’ve been. But it also reveals that my world is just a small part of the big picture. There are other versions of English, other languages, and other cultures that have a different, sometimes funny, and often beautiful way of telling their stories.

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More space

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A few days after we arrived, I realized what was different. We had taken several walks around our new neighborhood, trying to feel out the landscape. The nearest large street by our apartment is a popular strip with cafes and shops. It was sunny, so plenty of people were outside. I guessed that Germans were similar to the Dutch in that way: celebrating whatever sunshine was available.

Finally, it came into focus. The sidewalks are bigger. The streets are wider. There is more space for people to sit and walk and meet and stroll and chat. When I looked down this street, it was in widescreen. I could share the sidewalk with three or four people, and we would still have room for bikes and cars and trams to go by in their own lanes.

In Holland I got used to hugging the buildings, trying not to get in the way of fleeting bicycles or topple into a canal. Holland is dense. In Utrecht, the city I just moved from, if someone wasn’t lucky enough to have a terrace, they occupied whatever spot of sun on the sidewalk they could grab. I often saw people have dinner in their doorway, so their feet could poke out onto the sunny street. For such tall people, there was not a lot of space to stretch out.

But my boyfriend reminds me that of course The Netherlands is the exception. And this is normal. The Dutch have to make narrow streets so canals can fit in. (There’s that saying, “God made the world, the Dutch made The Netherlands.”) Sometimes it felt like big omnipotent hands just kind of pushed everything towards each other to save room. Here, it’s spread out, which is the kind of landscape I’m used to in the US. It feels more relaxed, more comfortable…to me at least. Almost like there is better air circulation? In Holland, I don’t remember feeling especially cramped. But I can see now how much I had adjusted myself to the narrow spaces.

My friend from college told me once that she sometimes felt creeped out by all the gigantic Redwoods trees surrounding us on three sides in Humboldt County. Of course, they were beautiful. But they also made her feel claustrophobic. She was from Arizona, and wide-open deserts. I am recognizing the opposite feeling now. Not that I was ever creeped out by the compactness in Utrecht. I just feel how much more space I have here, and it feels great.

Someone back home just asked me if this city was walkable. Compared to American cities, sure, it’s walkable. (Well most cities can be walkable, it depends on how much you like to walk.) But compared to the tiny city center I lived in for the past four years, there is more space in between here. More gardens to walk through. More big buildings to walk around. So it’s walkable, kind of. But I don’t mind. I like to walk.