[Day 473] Being a non-native English speaker writing in English

I was enjoying a hot spring in Utah when a red-haired lady came to join me. Small talks ensued. I told her I was a creative writing student and I wanted to become a writer. She seemed confused.

“Do they teach Vietnamese writing here?”

“No, I’m studying English writing.”

“You want to write in English?”

Now she was really confused. I had an accent, I still do, and she was probably wondering how a person who didn’t even speak English could even dream of making a living out of it.

***

My neighbor in college asked to read my writing, so I gave him one of my short stories. To his surprise, he said, he enjoyed it. He also noted that my prose was distinct. I’ve heard that many times before. A creative writing professor at Stanford once told me that he could recognize my writing from just a few sentences.

“Oh I know why,” my neighbor said cheerfully. “It’s because you’re not a native speaker. You don’t use English the same way we do.”

***

I’m trying find a publisher for the book I’ve been working on for the last three years. The author of a book I really enjoyed agreed to have a chat with me. He said he thought my book had potential, but there was something he had to tell me.

“It will be harder for you to find a publisher. They will assume that because you’re not a native speaker, they’d have to spend a lot of money editing your book.”

“I see.”

“Don’t lose hope. You can always self-publish.”

***

Getting published is fighting an uphill battle. Getting published in a language that isn’t your mother tongue is fighting an uphill battle while on stilts.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve read hundreds of English books. It doesn’t matter that I’ve written extensively in English. It doesn’t matter that my English professors have told me that my writing made them experience deep, conflicting emotions. It doesn’t matter that my books have been called a “publishing phenomenon” in Vietnam. To many people, I’m still just a foreigner trying to write in their language.

But let me tell you this: I won’t give up. I love writing and I have this stubborn belief that it’s one of the few things that I’m pretty damn good at. Do you know what else I’m good at? Being on stilts.

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[Day 473] Being a non-native English speaker writing in English

6 thoughts on “[Day 473] Being a non-native English speaker writing in English

  1. Hoàng Lê says:

    Mình cũng đã đọc và tìm hiểu về vấn đề viết tiếng Anh và góc nhìn của người bản ngữ này. Thực sự cũng đang tập viết dù biết rằng sự nó là như thế. Cảm ơn vì chia sẻ một lần nữa.

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  2. Chip! I’m glad I found your blog! And since, I’ve been binge reading it the whole afternoon.

    Your story sounds ridiculously similar to what I have experienced. They cut you dry (not only you but sometimes your dreams or more like your goals) knowing you’re not a native speaker who are trying to make a living out of writing in English. I remember the last convo I had with my colleaque, one of the very rare occasions I mentioned my writing. He asked “Oh I didn’t know that’s your thing! You write in Vietnamese?”. “I used to long ago, but mainly English.”And he had on this look which I can’t describe. It’s a look of a native speaker give a girl who just, with an accent, said she composed some forms of literatures in English.
    I had this creative writing professor that I love dearly. He’s one big supporter of my writing but always make sure he’s the most anal when it comes to criticising my work. He told me I have my ways of writing and it’s a gift, but sure after that he said “Properly because you’re not a native speaker and you don’t use English the way we do.” He did explained himself afterwards and made it clear that it was a total compliment. But I just find how common it is for people to deny *talent and individuality as just foreign-ness.

    And as you said, “But let me tell you this: I won’t give up. I love writing and I have this stubborn belief that it’s one of the few things that I’m pretty damn good at.” I don’t think anybody in this infinite universe can tell me otherwise.

    Congrats on your new *English book. I will work my crazy ass off until I got mine published. 🙂

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    1. Caleb Bryant says:

      I’ve really been enjoying reading your blog posts! As a crummy writer attending an average college, I clearly have no place to make comments about your writing from a technical standpoint. But as far as “nativeness” goes, I’d be *incredibly* surprised if someone could figure out that you’re a non-native speaker from your writing.

      Hopefully I won’t get burned at the stake for suggesting this, but I do think that having a more “standard” accent can helpful in America. Studying phonetics has helped me a lot with practicing accents and — whether or not it’s fair — sounding similar to other people can help open up opportunities. I’m guessing you’re not really interested (otherwise you’d probably have already been practicing for a while), but even if you haven’t been interested in the past, it might be worth taking look!

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