Archive for the 'Writing Adventures in Shanghai' Category

Writing Adventures in Shanghai: Petting a Panda: A Lesson in The Personal Essay

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Congratulations! An editor at one of the magazines you’ve been pitching for months has asked for a 500-800-word personal essay about your recent trip to Chengdu, China, where you visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Pandas are, as you now know, one of China’s most valued national treasures, but like many animals around the world, they are in danger of extinction.

Once you stop dancing to celebrate the assignment, you’ve got a couple of decisions to make. First, what aspect of your trip are you going to write about? Don’t even try to cover it all. The magazine editor said 500-800 words and she means it. So while yes, the taxi ride from your hotel to the panda center was harrowing and memorable (especially when the driver veered so close to that mammoth blue truck toting at least 5,000,000 tons of old wood that you were sure it was going to topple over and crush you), save it for your article about taxi rides in China.

Instead go to what took your attention most, like how you got to stand behind (right behind) one of the adult giant pandas, put your hands on his back and get your photo taken (for a large fee that benefits the center).

Oh, yeah, you remember now, don’t you? That was pretty cool. And a little scary, especially when the gamekeeper mentioned (at the moment you set your hands on the panda) that pandas do sometimes get over-stimulated by large, loud crowds and become aggressive to those standing closest to them. From your new vantage point directly behind the giant panda, you watched dozens of tourists from all over the world push, shove, holler and snap photos not more than ten feet away, and keeping the gamekeeper’s words in mind, you tried to stay as calm as possible. You did not shriek. You did not raise your arms over your head and run. You did not grab the tuft of bamboo leaves from the panda’s paws because you wanted the photo to include a good shot of his face and all those damn bamboo leaves kept getting in the way. And you most definitely did not grip onto the panda’s very fuzzy, very adorable black ears and yell “cheese” as a second gamekeeper took a photo.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to write about, you have to decide in which point of view you’re going to write. Because this is a personal essay (get it? personal…about you), it is unlikely you’ll choose to write in 3rd person. (It would be a little confusing…and kind of weird…to write about yourself as “she” or “he,” but that’s something you can discuss with your therapist.) Depending on the material, your best bet is to write a personal essay in either 1st or 2nd person.

Next figure out the tense in which you want to write: past or present. Both can work well in a personal essay, and a good way to figure out which works best for this particular piece is to write the first few paragraphs both ways. Once you read them aloud, you’ll have a good sense of which works better.

With all the big decisions behind you, the rest is easy. Tell your story. Make your readers feel like they are right there with you…standing behind the giant panda in complete amazement at how bristly his black and white fur is and how you’ve dreamed about seeing a panda up close ever since your babysitter gave you a stuffed one when you were two.

And, oh yeah, don’t be afraid to toss in a fact or two. Readers love nothing more than finishing up a good essay, sitting down to dinner with friends and casually saying, “Did you know there are fewer than 1,000 giant pandas left in Sichuan Province in China?”

Now go to it!

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

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#1 Writing Rule: Do Not Judge

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeWriting Adventures in Shanghai
By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

To be honest, when I first arrive in Mumbai, India, the only thing I can think is “How the hell am I going to write about this place?” It is hot, stinky, poor, dusty, and loud…brutal to the senses. Cars, cows, motorbikes, stray dogs, and people jam the roads. Though I didn’t think it possible, car horns are used even more often here than in Shanghai. Beggars grab at me when I pass. Taxi drivers cheat me.

For the first few days I’m pissed that I’m here at all. I remember my week in Bali back in May and I curse the gods who landed me here for a few weeks instead of that lush, quiet, tropical paradise.

But then, in the middle of a rather impressive curse that starts with an “f” and plows forward with practiced gusto, I remember my #1 rule: Do not judge.

Why?

Because standing in judgment is a big, fat waste of time. As writers, it’s our job to explore, consider, examine, uncover, reveal, and share, and over the years, I’ve learned that whenever I stand around grumbling and criticizing (most often about something I don’t yet understand), inevitably I miss the magic…of a place or a person or an experience.

With this in mind, I stop cursing. I repeat my #1 rule in my head. Then I breathe and look around Mumbai with fresh eyes.

I see now that the dusty, filthy streets are filled with gorgeous women in saris, women who, unlike many of us westerners back in the United States, do not shy away from color. In fact, they celebrate it. Their saris are hot pink, aquamarine, sunshine yellow, cobalt blue, and wild combinations of all colors.

I see that although there are thousands of feral dogs living on the streets, many people are kind and generous to them, sharing biscuits and a bit of shade.

With these and other observations in hand, I see that Mumbai—like most places on Earth—is complex and layered and worth trying to understand. It is ugly and beautiful, harsh and welcoming.

Now keep in mind, I’m not asking you to spit-shine your stories or to write only about the happy, positive aspects of life. But I am asking that when you find yourself with a less than ideal assignment (and you will) that you stay open and withhold judgment. Perhaps you’ll have to interview a curmudgeonly old codger who coughs and spits and growls in answer to your well thought-out questions. Or maybe you’ll land in a place, like Mumbai, that challenges your spirit. When you do, stay open. Withhold judgment. Learn as much as you can about your subject, look at it with fresh eyes, and once you’ve explored deeply enough, go to your writing honestly.

Ready?

Good.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s Blog Chosen for Writer’s Digest 20/20

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeMaria Schneider, editor of Writer’s Digest, is selecting twenty (only twenty!) worthy blogs for her blogroll. And guess who was selected? Our very own Kristin Bair O’Keeffe who blogs over at Shanghai Adventures of a Traveling Spouse.

http://www.writersdigest.com/writersperspective/default.aspx

Yahoo! I love it when good things happen to deserving writers.

Just another example of how good comes to those who write (and build that all-important platform)!

Writing Adventures in Shanghai: Wulumuqi Road: The Art (and Skill) of Observation

Kristin Bair-O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
At the beginning of April, my husband and I moved from the outskirts of Shanghai to the hustling, bustling downtown area, and our new neighborhood—Wulumuqi Road (pronounced Ooh-loo-moo-chee)—is a fascinating blend of old and new China. Lined with dozens of shops, Wulumuqi Road offers something for everyone: live toads (for cooking), sugary pastries, mounds of green onions and ginger, push-up bras, tea, umbrellas, live chickens (once again, for cooking), electrical cords, spices, pirated DVDs, fine French wine, dumplings, and more. My senses explode when I walk down Wulumuqi Road, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been wandering around with my camera, snapping shots of everything and thinking about how much the act of observation contributes to my writing.

To prove it to myself, after last Saturday’s walk I gave myself a quiz about everything I’d seen, heard, and experienced. Now it’s your turn. First, go for a walk. You can walk in your own neighborhood or take the opportunity to explore one nearby. As you walk, be conscious of all of your senses: sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. Don’t think about the assignment you’ve got due to an editor by 5:00 or the sandwiches you need to make for the friends who will be at your house at 1:00. Just walk and observe…with your whole self.

Walk for thirty minutes (more if you can). When you get home, answer these questions:

1. Describe three people you saw. Give at least three details about each person.
2. Describe three smells. Where did they come from? If you couldn’t see their source, where do you imagine they came from?
3. Describe three sounds. What made those sounds? If you couldn’t see their source, what do you imagine made them?
4. Describe an object that you saw…one you found yourself thinking about long after you passed it.
5. Where does this lead you in your writing? A new article to pitch? New information about a character in your novel? A blog entry?

Here are the truncated versions of my answers:

1. Sleeping man (blue Nylon socks, stuttered snore, bobbing head), old man in park (apple-sized tumor growing from the back of his head, permanent stoop, adoring wife), employee of hair salon (hair dyed golden blonde, James Dean slouch, lost in thought)
2. White lilies, sewage, melted sugar
3. Two women haggling over the price of bananas (in China, you bargain for most everything), a cacophony of car horns, a man on a bicycle cart ringing a bell
4. A little girl’s pink cardigan hung in a tree to dry
5. My observations that day led me directly to this column.

Once you’ve completed the exercise, follow through on #5. If you’ve got a new idea for an article, pitch it. If your main character suddenly wears blue Nylon socks and has a stuttered snore, get it on the page. And if you’re driven (like me) to blog about what you’ve observed, skip the sandwich-making session (that’s what takeout is for) and get busy.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

Writing Adventures in Shanghai: Sentences—The Long and the Short of It

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Yang Erche Namu’s memoir about growing up in a remote area of China somewhere deep in the Himalayas, “Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World,” begins with a short sentence: “My mother doesn’t remember when I was born.” Though this sentence has only eight words, it is direct, powerful, and full of information. After just one sentence, we know:

1. Namu’s story is very connected to her mother’s story.
2. Namu is going to tell this story from her point of view.
3. There is a deep sense of longing in the book. (You feel it, don’t you?)
4. Namu is going to tell it to us straight. She’s not going to mince words or as my mother would say, pussyfoot around.

But of course, you can’t write a whole book with short, direct sentences. By page two, your readers would be bored, irritated, and pissed off. By page five, if you were lucky enough to hold their interest that long, they would pitch the book into the trash and curse you from here to heaven. Sentence length is an important part of successfully telling a story, creating a mood, and keeping your readers interested. It works the same way whether you’re writing a book, a short story, an essay, or an article. You have to mix it up.

Namu (and her English-speaking co-author Christine Mathieu) understood this when they wrote Leaving Mother Lake. After a number of short sentences on page 1, the fourth paragraph begins:

“Dujema is our neighbor. She is also my Ama’s best friend and they spend a lot of time together, working and singing to keep their spirits up, and after coming back from the fields, sitting by the open fire, drinking butter tea, and talking.”

See how much the long sentence accomplishes?

1. The rhythm of the prose is broken up, right at the point where the reader might begin to tune out if the short sentences were to continue.
2. There’s a lot of rich detail in this sentence that Namu cannot squeeze into a short sentence. Here Namu’s mother becomes a fully realized person who has a best friend and a daily routine. She sings and drinks lots of butter tea.
3. The story thickens, like a delicious saffron risotto..

Now you try it. Pull out a piece of writing that you’ve been sweating over. Look at your sentences. Read them out loud. How long are they? (Yes, go ahead. Count the words.) How many short sentences do you have in a row? How many long sentences follow one after the other? Have you varied sentence length or does the rhythm of the prose sound monotonous?

After you read your sentences aloud and study them a bit, play with them. If you’ve got too many long sentences in a row, break a few into two or three short sentences. If you’ve done the opposite—written a number of short sentences in row—combine a few into longer, more complex sentences.

When you’re finished, read the piece aloud again. How has it changed? What do you notice?

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

Hear the Bellow of Your Creative Beast

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeWriting Adventures in Shanghai
By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Sshhh! Do hear that? The bellow of my creative beast? That’s what listening to good writers does to me.

You know what I mean, don’t you?

You go to a conference or a literary festival where a gaggle of writers reads aloud, ponders the universe, asks the big questions, and suddenly…BAM…your head turns on. Ideas crackle and pop like those sparklers you used to light every year on the 4th of July. New pathways open up in your brain. Synapses fire. And without warning, you’re madly curious about subjects you never thought about before: the relationship between population growth and the environment, the protection of Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, a new nonprofit organization that aids orphans in Somalia, a rose growers club that meets right down the street from your house.

Glorious, isn’t it? How the brain works? The kinetic energy of inspiration?

During most of the year here in Shanghai, there are not a lot of opportunities to glean inspiration from writers’ gatherings. There are a few sporadic readings here and there, but for the most part, our connection to the larger writing world is limited to the Internet and books we buy from amazon.com.

But thankfully, for three weekends in March, Shanghai played host to the 2007 Shanghai International Literary Festival. And when I say international, I mean international. Thirty-seven writers from eleven countries gathered to present their work and talk about world issues. There were sessions in English, French, Mandarin, and German. There were playwrights, novelists, non-fiction writers, and poets.

The spectacular line-up included big names we all recognize (Amy Tan, Gore Vidal, Kiran Desai) and wonderful writers with soon-to-be-big names (Mike McCormack, Uzodinma Iweala, Wang Xiaoli, Madhur Jaffrey). All of it was dizzily inspiring, and I was no more than fifteen minutes into Pankaj Mishra’s talk, “The Rise of India,” when I heard the distinct bellow of my creative beast. (I shushed her long enough to get through the session, scribbling in my notebook the whole time.)

Inspiration is like that, you know. Hot, furious, and fleeting. You can’t wait around for it to find you. You have to seek it out. So check your newspaper and local bookstores for listings of upcoming writer events. Go to a conference or a reading, and once you’re there, hunkered down in a nice cushy couch or awkwardly propped on a metal folding chair, keep your notebook open on your lap. When you hear the bellow of your own creative beast, start to write. Let your pen move across the page and take you to the unknown.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.

Learning to Speak Chinese

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeWriting Adventures in Shanghai

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Never in my life did I think I would be learning to speak Chinese. Italian? Maybe. French? Perhaps. German? Doubtful, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

Mandarin? No way.

First of all, I never thought I’d end up living in China. And second, Mandarin is a hell of a tough language…one so fundamentally different from the Indo-European languages with which we Westerners are comfortable, that the only way to take it in is to toss out our preconceived notions about language and open up to new possibilities. (Perfect mindset for a writer, huh?)

shanghai_lit-fest-2007_empt.gifAs you may know, Mandarin does not have an alphabet. Instead it has characters (thousands and thousands of characters). It is also a tonal language, and each spoken word has one of four tones: 1) up, 2) down, 3) up-down, or 4) flat. Each tonal pronunciation has a different meaning.

So…for example, ma (up tone) means hemp; ma (down tone) means either curse or swear; ma (up-down tone) means either yard or horse; and ma (flat tone) means either mom or wipe. (Of course, ma without any tonal marking at all is an indictor of a question…but let’s not go there.)

Got all that?

In addition, the order of the parts of speech in a sentence is very different than in English (time references, for example, come between the subject and the verb) AND prepositions are not always used. (If translated into English, a sentence might go something like this: I Sunday go store.)

Whew!

But despite the challenges, I am living in China and learning to speak Mandarin. In addition to gaining the ability to chat with shopkeepers, maintenance folks, and new friends, my quest to speak Chinese has given me a lot to think about. And once I start thinking, it’s inevitable…I start writing.

So what about you? What class or group can you join that might first lead you to opening your mind in new ways and then lead you to a new writing project?

How about that knitting circle on Wednesday nights? Or golf lessons at the new course? Either could develop into a great profile or interview for your local paper.

Feeling adventurous? How about that belly-dancing class all the women at the gym are crowing about? It’s a sure sell…for you and for the editor at the right magazine who is just waiting for your article to land on her desk: “Shake It Up: Belly Dance Your Way to a Happier Sex Life.”

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe has been living in and writing about Shanghai, China, for over a year. Her articles and essays about the China experience can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of The Baltimore Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, and Highlights for Children. Recently she contributed to To Shanghai With Love, a new Shanghai travel guide. Kristin writes about other stuff as well, including education, parenting, and bears. Her work about those topics can be found in San Diego Family Magazine, The ELL Outlook, The Gettysburg Review, PortFolio Magazine, and other publications. Kristin’s blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures in Shanghai (the good, the bad, and the beautiful) and garners the attention of readers all over the world. To learn more, visit http://web.mac.com/kristinokeeffe.


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