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  • Writer's pictureFang Sheng

A Translator’s Creative Writing Journey (in His Non-Native Language)

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

This is an article I contributed to the ATA Chronicle - the journal of the American Translators Association. The original post is here: https://www.ata-chronicle.online/featured/a-translators-creative-writing-journey-in-his-non-native-language/



By Fang Sheng

Writing is not a natural occurrence but a learned skill. All writers, native or non-native, acquire such a skill through learning and practicing.

Every translator writes—as in putting one language into another. But as a translator, I know creative writing is a completely different creature. So why, as many ask me, would I take up creative writing? Do I consider it a branching out from my current profession? Or a transition to a second career? The answer to those questions is: “I’m not sure yet.” So why am I doing it?

I’ve been translating (and interpreting) for years. Behind all the “other people’s words,” there’s always been an urge lurking to create something I can proudly claim as my own. Of course, my translation career has been stable and life is pretty good. Because of this, my dream remained on the back burner for a long time, but occasionally I would think: “I’m in my fifties now, I have a career and a family—everything seems to be nice and comfortable. But is this ‘it’?”

LISTENING TO MY INNER VOICE

The pandemic turned out to be an opportunity to reflect on myself, my life, and my dreams. I’ve always had a desire to tell my family’s story: how my parents learned classical music from Jewish refugee musicians exiled in Shanghai during WWII, and later became professional musicians with the China National Symphony. Despite my need to share their story of resilience and cross-cultural connections, there have always been distractions—deadlines to meet, family obligations, career opportunities—pressuring me to “leave it for later when there’s time.” As the pandemic confined us to our homes, many of us thought about potential business and/or career changes. For me, it’s not as much about career advancement as about self-actualization, regardless of whether I’m ready or not. At this stage of my life, a voice in me sounds louder every day: “If not now, when?!”

So, I finally signed up for the creative writing program at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto and picked creative nonfiction as the genre to pursue. This genre includes memoir writing, which aligns with my goal of putting my family’s story into some form of literary work.

Once the actual program started, reality hit me in several ways. As a non-native speaker, I was hoping that attending a writing program offered by an English-speaking institution would help “improve” my language skills in English. It doesn’t. The program is not designed as a set of language courses. Instead, the instructors teach about characters, settings, points of view, and other techniques of the writing craft. The “language” is about structures, styles, conciseness, etc., rather than grammar. The instructors do flag grammatical mistakes but drilling on grammar is not the focus. If you want to improve your English skills, a grammar book or style guide would be much more helpful.

More often than not, I’ve found myself the only non-native English speaker in my classes, but learning everything as if I were a native. Yet, I must not shy away from this challenge as my goal is to tell my story outside the Chinese language. Different from the task of translating, creative writing is about learning to create scenes, sounds, colors, and even smells—all that can arouse people’s senses, convey emotions, and reveal people’s desires, hopes, and struggles. It’s all about storytelling and how to draw readers to your writing to the point where they can’t put it down.

We do weekly assignments on these themes and critique each other’s work in class the following week. Critiques are conducted in a safe environment where everyone can voice their opinion and ask questions without judgment or personal prejudice. After taking five courses, I’ve gained valuable insights into creative writing. Though I still make grammatical mistakes, I now have a better sense of how to pinpoint potential pitfalls (such as tenses, prepositions, etc.) when I work with the English language. And on a wider perspective, I find that my limit in “word weaponry” isn’t just an issue I need to work on in English, but also in my native language when I write in Chinese. Writing is not a natural occurrence but a learned skill. All writers, native or non-native, acquire such a skill through learning and practicing.

The best part about participating in a writing program is making connections with people with similar aspirations. Every student has a story to tell, be it losing a loved one, discovering past family history, or reconnecting with an estranged parent. Everyone has a burning urge to share an authentic story and touch people’s hearts. Instructors are not only helpful in widening your perspective and enhancing your skills, but they also offer industry insights and professional help. At one of the “Life Writing” courses, my instructor, Beth Kaplan, was very impressed with one of my pieces about ballroom dancing and helped me edit it professionally and have it published in the “First Person” section of the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers.

IT’S ABOUT CONNECTING, NOT GETTING RICH

For burgeoning writers, breaking into an age-old industry is a tough challenge. Major publishing houses all require professional literary agents to bring them projects, and they almost always look at potential commercial success as a top consideration. Of course, they offer professional editing, marketing, and sales as part of a deal. Smaller independent publishers might look to see how your work might fit a niche audience, such as mental health, culturally marginalized people, and history.

In addition, almost all publishers look at an author’s online presence (whether they have a blog, website, and/or social media following) to analyze the potential audience mix. The irony of this is that most of the time publishers want unpublished work, which excludes even previously blogged content. Authors like Nobel Literature laureate Alice Monroe, a bestselling author and blogger, are becoming a rarity. More writers today adapt and establish an online presence. My instructor Beth, as a frequently published author, has a website that includes her blogs, news, and events, and she recently added her own podcast.

Even most published authors wouldn’t “make it big” financially by publishing books, unless you’re J.K. Rowling. Beth once told us a story about her book Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin, a biography she wrote of her great-grandfather, a Russian-Jewish playwright who changed America’s Yiddish theater. It took her 20 years of interviews and research to write. After its publication, Beth said she looked at a statement from the publisher detailing the book’s revenue for the past six months. After deducting all the costs related to its publication, including marketing and sales, Beth told us she earned a whopping $9.65!

How does a professional writer like Beth make a living? Teaching is often one of the biggest income sources. Other than teaching at the School of Continuing Studies, Beth also offers private coaching for amateur writers who work on their first book publication. She holds summer camps for writers to practice and connect. Some writers sell the rights of their works (such as a novel) to filmmakers (another way to “hit it big”).

For an amateur writer, you just need to put aside the idea of financial success and focus on constantly practicing the craft. For that, you have to be willing to invest some money and a lot of time!

IT’S ABOUT DISCIPLINE AND PRACTICE

So, how do I do throughout these courses of learning? One thing is certain: I’m still far from the seasoned writer I dream about. All I can do is keep writing. Inspiration doesn’t always come like a gushing mountain spring. I often feel stuck in the sand rather than swimming smoothly in the ocean. As every instructor will tell you: writing is a messy process. No one, including established writers, creates a masterpiece every time they put words to paper. Each of my instructors has shared this piece of advice: “Inspiration knocks on my door every morning.” This means you have to have certain disciplines to keep practicing your craft. Just like a good sportsman, train every day, no matter how frustrated you are and want to quit. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned through my writing program.

Am I a role model for all such ideals? Short answer: No! There’s always the challenge of conflicting priorities: my paid work versus my love of writing; my family duties versus my literary aspiration. All want immediate attention and my time. More often than not, by the time I’ve handled all the rush requests I’m already exhausted. To have a little bit more “me-time,” staying up late has long become part of my routine. And the next morning, sleep-deprived, I start the cycle all over again.

Then there’s also the question of loneliness. Not that there’s no one around you, but you’re destined on a lonely road in pursuing a writing career. Serious writing is nothing like fast-paced social media postings, which you update very frequently to maintain your followers’ attention so you’re not out of the game. A serious writer must endure long periods of working alone with little results in sight. Sometimes you even start to doubt your choices. You just have to forget about money, fame, and “making it.”

NO MATTER WHAT… JUST KEEP GOING

Why am I still doing this? It all comes back to the burning urge to tell my story. I know I’m not a successful writer yet, and nobody is paying me to do anything I’m trying to pursue. To be more self-disciplined, I try several things to “obligate myself”:

  • I take, and pay for, courses such as the creative writing program at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. This pushes me to attend classes, do my homework, and participate in meaningful discussions.

  • I join related associations and pay dues. For example, I’ve joined the Creative Nonfiction Collective, an association of writers of this genre in Canada. It provides connections, resources, seminars, an annual conference, and even an annual writing competition. My membership pushes me to write, even it’s just to meet a submission deadline.

  • I’ve joined a writing group formed after Beth Kaplan’s “Life Writing” course. We meet monthly and submit pieces for peer critiques.

  • I also take volunteer writing/editing jobs, such as serving as the editor-in-chief of ATA’s Chinese Language Division’s Yifeng Blog, which publishes monthly contributions by division members.

  • Last but not least, whenever I can, I try to reverse my daily time allocation. I use the morning, even part of the early afternoon—I’ve found these are my prime time slots—for writing. Then I use the evening, after my child goes to bed, for paid translation work. My translation assignments usually come with standardized parameters, which I can do without draining my mind too much.

These are not my “tips” for aspiring writers. They’re just my own ways to keep going. How about social media? Yes, I’ve also joined the trend and created my own websites and blogs as another way to push myself to keep writing. Maybe one post a week, or even once a month. I just keep in mind that inspiration knocks on my door every morning.

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