Heart and Understanding: Adopting a Foreign Culture as a Writer

My son Brendan is a missionary in Peru. He and his wife and children live high in the Andes among the Quechua people. He uses the Quechua language daily, as well as Spanish. Brendan and his family eat the foods of the region (including guinea pig) and are observant of Quechua cultural expectations, which may or may not make sense to Americans. He has adjusted to this life out of love and respect for the Quechua people and his calling among them. Although he knows that to some extent he will always be regarded as a foreigner, he also knows that the people trust him.

Hungarian peasant house

Although I am not living in a foreign culture as Brendan is, in my work as a historical fiction writer, I had to learn similar adjustments in my mindset and heart. My novel The Songs We Hide is set in Hungary in 1951. As I wrote the novel, I had to “become” as Hungarian as I could, which was a greater challege than I could have known. It was also a greater reward. Here are some thoughts on both the struggle and the discovery, as described in my author’s statement  for the book:

I didn’t know at the outset how hard it would be to write about a time, place and culture not my own. As I spent endless hours reading, interviewing, listening to Hungarian music, negotiating the streets of Budapest, and especially writing draft after draft, I struggled not only with understanding it all but also with setting aside my modern American assumptions. Whether we recognize it or not, Americans are optimistic and entrepreneurial, counting on opportunity. We take pride in speaking our minds and making our own choices. But what if, as in Cold War Europe, opportunity barely existed? What if speaking up meant endangering not only ourselves but others as well? What if social constraints were so tight that every choice carried a high cost?

As I wrote The Songs We Hide, I had to think with the guardedness, and sometimes bitterness, of post-war Europe.  The mental adjustment wasn’t easy. Still, at some point my frustration turned to understanding. I learned to appreciate dark Hungarian humor. I’ve come to love Hungary’s beautiful folk heritage and especially its rich musical tradition. This culture that is not my own has nonetheless become part of me, and that’s been my greatest reward in this project.

We All Want to Be Heard: Some Musings on Writing Rejection Notices

 

The text of my article that appeared in The News Tribune on January 11, 2016

Every New Year’s, I think back on the previous twelve months.  What was important during the year?  What did I learn?

This past year, surprisingly, one of my most significant lessons came from a job that involves disappointing people.  I discovered that helpfulness can be tucked inside the word no.  Let me explain.

I am the fiction editor of my graduate school’s literary journal, and I log many hours reading unsolicited manuscripts.  When writers send stories to our journal, the assistant editors and I read the submissions. The assistants make recommendations, but the final thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision is usually mine.

This fall in a three-month period, we received 89 fiction submissions.  We will publish five or six of them.  We send rejection notices to the authors of the other stories.  If you do the math, that’s a lot of disappointment to dole out.

Our figures are nothing compared to those of larger magazines, however, which may reject thousands of submissions a year.  Most publishers communicate the bad news to authors through a form notice: “Dear _________, Your work is not right for our publication . . .” Some publishers and literary agents skip even this courtesy and do not respond at all.

But on our journal’s staff, we are all struggling writers, well acquainted with frustration and disappointment.  We know what it’s like to pour hours and hours into a creative and perhaps very personal work, only to send it out and receive . . . nothing.  So we sympathize with our submitters, many of whom are talented.

When I took this editorial position, I did not look forward to telling authors no, no, no.  As I began declining manuscripts, I used the journal’s online form letter, which saved me time and emotional effort.

But the assistant editors had been reading the stories, too, and often the assistants wrote me useful comments about the pieces.  So I started including these observations in the rejection letters.  Then I started adding a few thoughts of my own.  Certainly I couldn’t send personal notes to everyone; but sometimes I would tell Ms. X how to improve her pacing, or I’d urge Mr. Y to intensify his concluding paragraph, or I’d simply encourage Ms. Z to keep writing because she seemed to have talent.  These notes were time-consuming to write, but they were much more satisfying to me than “Dear ___________.”

They were more satisfying to the recipients, too.  We began to receive grateful replies.  The authors accepted our “no” and deeply appreciated our explanations.  They thanked us for our encouragement and suggestions.  Sometimes they sent us more of their work and hinted that they’d like more feedback.  All of us on staff were volunteers, already busy and not eager to add to our workloads.  Yet we were gratified that writers viewed us as thoughtful and supportive, for we could each tell our own stories of the difference encouragement makes.

As I reflect on 2015, I remember these correspondences with writers I will never meet.  I think of how people ache to know they are not being ignored.  In this age of unanswered phone calls and neglected emails, don’t we all want someone—whether a journal editor, a boss or a spouse—to consider what we have said, and to respond?

This past year, over and over, I had to say no.  But I learned that no, communicated thoughtfully, can also say I have taken you seriously.  That is a message people desperately long to hear.

As I write this column, which is my last one, I’d like to thank The News-Tribune and especially Patrick O’Callahan and Cheryl Tucker for devoting this op-ed space to new writers.  Thanks, TNT, for taking South Sound readers seriously.  Thanks for inviting voices like mine to be heard.