Guest Post: Writing in a Second Language

Post by Evelyne Holingue


I am afraid that writing about my experience as a writer is egocentric since I’m not an established author. On the other hand, unlike the vast majority of writers, I write in a second language, acquired during adulthood. Over the last year, I’ve started to gather some nuggets related to this unexpected journey.

  • As soon as I land in San Francisco I’m aware of the sounds around me. New sounds that bear no resemblance to my native language arrive from everywhere. How will I ever be able to understand their meaning? I don’t ask myself how I will ever make them mine. A non-native speaker doesn’t consider the possibility for many years.
  • The only book I’ve packed in the blue container that leaves Paris for San Francisco is a French English dictionary. I will use it every day, for five years, as I read the newspaper and any free magazine I find in town. I check each word I don’t know and write it down in a notebook with its translation. Although I could simply check the dictionary once again in case I hadn’t memorized the new word, I need this tedious exercise. Handwriting each new word is the proof of my learning. It reassures me to assess the number of new words I learn. It frightens me too. The number of French words I know is endless.
  • Three years after my arrival in California, my in-laws offer me the French-English Unabridged Larousse Dictionary. Its promise: 350, 000 words and phrases, 530, 000 translations.
  • The self-teaching is hard because I’m alone most of the time, with two very young children, babies really. I need to find new ways to learn. Intuitively I know that what I’m missing is the conversation. One is unable to learn a foreign language without a dialogue. So whenever I meet someone I find myself mentally turning the pages of my notebook to select words that I could use in the conversation. I’m elated when I find one that I can place in the correct context.
  • I borrow books at the public library. I read each and every book from the first page to the last. Slowly. I read more slowly than I did when I was a child. Painfully. I record new words in my notebook. I understand what I read and I don’t. But the real sadness is that I’m acutely aware that I would not be able to write most of the sentences on my own.
  • A few years later, I can read entire books without checking my dictionary. Although some words are still unknown I don’t feel compelled to get their translation. My understanding of the language is good enough to guess the meaning. At some point I store my dictionary on a shelf, much less accessible than the ones where I stack my favorite novels. I’ve dreamed of the day where I would read like a native-speaker. But unlike my dream that was pure ecstasy I feel emptiness. So that was it?
  • This is why I’m overjoyed when I find an unknown word or an unusual turn of sentence. Along my solitary arduous journey there are moments of joy that I had forgotten when I read in French. Not knowing something can be scary but also exhilarating.
  • As I read I flag the pages with Post-It notes and highlights in yellow the sentences that strike me as beautiful. The thought of writing in English crosses my mind more and more often too. Soon I write my own sentences that turn into stories.
  • When I bring my first short story for critique I have no idea that such thing exists. It’s through a friend of mine who lives next to a writer that I am invited. I have no clue that these women are published authors. Later, I will soon find out that a few are very well known in their field of publication. Including in children’s literature. My story is read by one of them and I blush when I notice a couple of awkward sentences. Reading aloud, I discover, is necessary for a nonnative speaker. Despite my embarrassing mistakes the women are very encouraging and start to list the good things in my story. Then they encourage me to revise the plot to make it more appealing to an editor. None mentions the fact that my English is a work-in-progress, textbook-English really. I feel stupid and I wonder if this is why the women kept quiet about my mistakes. Years later, I will often meet other writers who will avoid telling me about my mistakes. I wish they had not. Writing in a foreign language is a humble task.
  • Living in the US where French is a foreign language has made me a permanent stranger in this land. Away from my mother language, I feel at the same time weightless and weighed down. This is a strange feeling to be always aware of this difference that separates me from native speakers. The result creates a distance within me.
  • In 2016, I read more in English than in French. Yet when I read in French I instantly immerse myself not only in familiar words but moreover in the familiarity of a culture I know inside and out. No dictionary translates a collective memory. This abandon is only possible with one’s mother tongue, I believe. French remains my dominant language. Especially noticeable whenever and wherever I meet a French speaker. The words I acquired in France until the age of thirty flow then effortlessly. I wonder where they reside when I don’t use them. A feeling of comfort fills me when I speak my mother language, quickly followed by a feeling of loneliness. I never feel as free when I express myself in English. I know I will always feel self-conscious when I speak English.
  • A new language remains almost impossible to master in adulthood. It’s a sad fact that I experience every day of my life. But there is also delight when I search for a word and work on a sentence. This delight could last until the end of your life, I realize and the thought makes me happy.Growing up shy and quiet Evelyne Holingue preferred books to people. Her life shifted when she and her husband left France from the US.

As a child Evelyne  loved escaping the familiar for the unknown through fiction. Being a foreigner is living the unknown day after day, not only for the time of a book, and this American life is pretty close to the adventures she enjoyed so much. She has published short stories and essays for both children and adults and two novels for children. Through her writing she shares her affection for her native and adoptive lands.

  • Website/blog:
  • Facebook and Goodreads (both accessible from her website/blog
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The View from the Driver’s Seat

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“Do you think my son will want my job? No way!”

One positive thing about being stopped in traffic in New York is the opportunity to talk with the driver. During a recent visit, we were trapped on Eighth Avenue near Strawberry Fields in Central Park, a detour because the normal route was blocked for a parade. I didn’t mind the wait because it was a beautiful fall day, the sky deep blue, the leaves golden.


Inevitably, as travelers do when they’re stuck, we fell into conversation. He opened, asking for my opinion about the elections, and I cautiously responded, unsure of his reaction. He gave his opinion with force and said how proud he was to be an American and that he strongly favored one candidate who was also my choice. He went on to say he never missed a televised presidential debate or other political debate or neglected to vote. I didn’t admit that I’d missed a few debates even though I always voted. I asked where he was born. Bangladesh, he said, although he’d emigrated from the country a number of years ago and seldom returned because of the continual social unrest. The conversation was a good reminder how so many native-born Americans take the benefits of democracy for granted.

The traffic didn’t move so he went on to another topic: He asked what I knew about Native American culture. I told him about a recent trip to the Southwest and the pueblos I’d visited, the beautiful desert Southwest, and about the distinctive pottery made by the women in New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo. The traffic began to move before I could say more although I wanted to tell him about the tribal culture in the Pacific Northwest, the basketry and even totem poles. He stepped on the gas and swerved around an aid car blocking the road and turned into one of the cross-park roads. As we reached Fifth Avenue he began to talk about his hopes for his son’s future. All his Bangladeshi cohorts’ sons were studying to be engineers or computer scientists. He expected his own son, a seventh-grader, to do the same. Before I could ask about his views on girls’ education he pulled up at my destination – The Neue Gallerie which houses the famous portrait of Adele Bloch by Gustav Klimt, known as The Woman in Gold. The fraught history of the painting and its “rescue,” another demonstration of the ebb and flow of peoples and culture.

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“People don’t read any more.”

On another trip, short in distance but long in time, my chariot driver offered his opinion on American culture. We were stuck in front of Carnegie Hall, funded by Andrew Carnegie, who ironically in the case of this conversation, was the patron of so many libraries. This time the speaker was a native of Morocco. And, like so many immigrants, he spoke a number of languages: unaccented English, Arabic, French and Italian. He wanted to talk about books: how he disliked reading electronically because as a reader he wanted to know and understand a book as he held it in his hands. He wanted to assess the quality of the cover – front and back, check the feel of the paper, decide whether he liked the typeface and book design before opening it to read the first chapter. I said I did the same.

The conversation moved on to Italy, inevitably including food, and we lapsed into Italian (his fluent, mine fractured) after we talked about Italy, the conversation returned to books. I mentioned I was a writer, and said electronic media is good for travel, but at home I, too, wanted a “real” book.

Do you agree?






Five Reasons Why Seattle Is a Writer’s Haven – Guest Post by Laura Moe


It’s no accident that Seattle is full of writers, and now that I’ve lived here more than a year I’ve narrowed down the key reasons.

The weather is sad. Summer is pleasant, with long days and low humidity, but in fall, winter, and early spring the rain, wind and early darkness are like an Adele song, perfect for crafting serious reflection and sad love scenes. The other day I revised a critical moment where Michael, my protagonist, despairs over his relationship with Shelly. He senses she is moving on. As rain pelts from the pewter colored sky and wind chills the air it’s easy to slide inside Michael’s nadir.

Coffee. During winter, when sixteen hours a day is spent in darkness, the caffeinated warm beverage is a portable happy light. When I was still teaching in Ohio I kept the ubiquitous morning brew on my desk, but I barely tasted it. My morning cup of Joe provided rocket fuel to jettison my night owl body into being functional in the deadly dawn. Now that I am retired and choose my own hours, I savor my coffee at a leisurely pace. It warms my palette and hands and aids the creative process.

Because coffee is a necessity here, coffee shops abound in Seattle. There is a either a Starbucks or an independent coffee shop on each block of the city and its environs, and every grocery store hosts a coffee shop. Coffee shops are nirvana for starving writers. We can spend as little as three bucks and occupy space for several hours as we create our masterpieces. Most coffee shops also provide food, electrical outlets, and free wifi.

Coffee shops are filled with other writers. Being in the company of writers is essential because we writers tend to live inside our own heads. We tolerate friends and family but prefer to spend large blocks of time in solitude. Yet writers periodically emerge from the darkness to commune with like-minded souls. As I write this I’m sitting across the table from my friend and fellow writer Cat. We ignore one another as we peck at our keyboards, yet we transfer an invisible thread of energy, like musicians jamming together, except our tunes are silent, the notes appearing on the page.


Because writers live near or in Seattle, the Pacific Northwest hosts several writers’ conferences every year, and is home to the Hugo House, which holds frequent readings and workshops.

Seattle has bookstores and libraries. Writers are readers, and Seattle has the largest percentage of library card holders in the nation (80%) along with 1.5 bookstores per 10,000, people. Almost any spot in the city is within a fifteen minutes drive to a library or bookstore.  No experience can replicate a physical bookstore. Even Amazon, the online behemoth, discovered this, which prompted them to open their own brick and mortar store in the university district. Sending a book directly to your device is convenient and cheap, but it doesn’t replace the experience of a book falling open in your hands, emitting its old or new book smell.

Seattle has its drawbacks:

-It’s ridiculously expensive to live here, and unless your name is Stephen King or James Patterson, you aren’t making much money off your words, so your favorite stores become Value Village, Goodwill and Grocery Outlet.

-Traffic is miserable, especially if it rains. There is public transportation, but it hasn’t kept pace with the exponential population growth. In cities like NYC and San Francisco one is better off without a car, but here, you still need wheels.

-And yeah, the weather often sucks.

I haven’t even mentioned the endless distractions, on how on a sunny day it’s hard to resist jumping on a ferry to visit one of the nearby islands, or taking a walk through Sculpture Park along the waterfront on Elliot Bay.

Raindrops on leaf

One can write anywhere, but I have chosen to write here. As long as I have my writing tools: laptop or pen and paper, coffee, and noise canceling headphones, I’m all set.

Where do you like to write?


Laura Moe was raised on the run with a family who changed addresses with the frequency of fugitives. Because they moved so often, books became her most stable friends. When her family lived overseas there was no English TV. What saved her was the book wallah: a man on a bicycle with a basket full of books who visited their house on Saturday mornings to sell his wares. She bought everything in his basket, and often read things that were hugely inappropriate for a young teenage girl, such as Harold Robbins novels. Naturally her love of reading led her to a career as a librarian and English teacher, and now, an author. She spent most of her working life in central and Southeastern Ohio, but has recently moved to Seattle. Moe is the author of YA novels Parallel Lines (Fat Cats, 2015) and Breakfast With Neruda (Merit Press, 2016.) Of is Not a Verb



The Object of Your Story

What is your favorite object?

Paper, Pen, Journey


Occasionally it’s mentioned in workshops or books on the craft of writing, how effective a physical object can be when subtly weaving it through your story.  Recently I finished reading the book The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman which uses a large 19th century portrait of a Parisian courtesan as an occasional object from beginning to end. Even without a picture to physically see, the author showed the reader the gilded frame, the woman’s posture, colors, and fabrics.  It easily came to mind whenever the painting was mentioned at various intervals of the story. It was a familiar object.  And, what I loved about this book was how the author wrote it as a fictionalized account of a newspaper article. It was a story of a family learning about their great-great grandmother’s apartment in Paris which was locked up for over 70 years. When the apartment was opened…

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I love used bookstores. So much fun to browse for treasures that are dusty with torn covers, but irresistible. My latest find is a book with an intriguing title: What a Woman of 45 Ought to Know. The author, Mrs. Emma F.A. Drake, M.D., was born in 1849. The book frontispiece says she was a graduate of Boston University Medical College: formerly Physician and Principal of Mr. Moody’s School at Northfield, Mass; and Professor of Obstetrics at Denver Homeopathic Medical School and Hospital.


When I read her qualifications and the “praise” blurbs from “Eminent men and women” like Emily Bouton, author of House and Domestic Decorations and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “noted woman suffragist,” I was hooked.



The doctor authored or contributed to a number of books such as The Story of Life which was published in 1909. Parts were excerpted in Safe Counsel where the she describes the husband’s role in reproduction: “Sometimes it is the wind which blows the pollen dust from one plant to the other, and sometimes it is the bees gathering honey from the flowers. As they suck the honey from the blossoms some of the plant dust sticks to their legs and bodies, and as they go to another plant in search of sweets this is rubbed off and so the parts of the father and mother plant get together and the seed is made fertile.”

Safe Counsel was reprinted at least 40 times from 1893 through 1930. Perhaps it contributed to the euphemism, “the birds and the bees” along with many pregnancies that must have seemed like miracles because there were no blossoms or bees at the time.

The book I bought comes from a series called “Pure Books on Avoided Subjects” which includes books for men too, such as: What a Young Husband Ought to Know.

In case you were wondering: the copyright on What a Woman is dated 1902.

So just what did a woman of 45 in 1902 need to know?  She needed to know about menopause. Apparently woman will find it harder, “even with a large store of grace, to keep her mind unruffled, her words always gentle and kindly considerate.” Women before this time in life are urged again and again to a “more careful conservation of her forces, that she may have sufficient to tide her over these trying years.” The doctor said she could look forward to vomiting, jaundice, constipation, asthma among a whole host of other unpleasant problems. Even worse, there would be “outbursts of insanity,” attempts to undertake “unequal tasks,” contracting uncongenial marriages, neglecting family and the “formation of the habit for the stronger stimulants.” The final blow comes on page 65: “Undoubtedly the withdrawing to a considerable extent of the blood from the sexual system causes a greater distribution of that element to the brain or to the central nervous system.”

But wait!! There’s help. The woman needed to learn the art of resting – fancy embroidery is to be avoided. Her children should be allowed run the plain things through the wringer and use bath towels that don’t need ironing while the mother should learn games to play with the family because, “It is a woman’s business to please. I don’t say it is not her business to vote, but it is essentially her business to please…” The good doctor was also enamored of the habits of upper class Englishwomen who apparently took long sea-voyages (years long apparently).  But above all the woman of 45 in the throes of menopause she should avoid “unbridled passion.”

I cannot imagine how all this advice played out to the women who labored in factories, farms, and mills just to keep bread on the table. They probably never heard of the book with its mostly-useless advice anyway. And with no birth control it wouldn’t have mattered if she wanted to avoid unbridled passion, nor would she ever have the luxury to sleep nine hours a night with naps during the day.

Ah, well, I’m apparently a living miracle to have survived. I closed the book to contemplate the advice. As I put it down, a faint whiff of cigarette smoke escaped the pages. Could some woman of 45 have taken a break, enjoyed a quick smoke, and laughed as she enjoyed an afternoon of unbridled passion before she threw away the book?

What do think of her advice?

Have you read any old advice books?









Every writer I know has a special place to write: the kitchen table, a local coffee house, a studio, or like me, my own room. Over several years I’ve made a spare bedroom into a personalized space with objects to spur creativity. Yes, it has a desk and file cabinet, a PC and a printer, and of course a chair. And an old jam jar for pens and pencils, and an overflowing wastebasket. Dictionaries fill the space behind the computer: French, Italian, even an old Latin one I ran across; my well-thumbed Thesaurus, The Chicago Manual of Style, The Oxford Dictionary of Phrases, Sayings and Quotations, and The Oxford Classical Dictionary. They are supported by pink and red marble bookends from a shop in Florence, Italy. The bookends, like all the rest of the “junk” in my office reflect my life and the subjects I write about: I blog travel stories and write the occasional travel article for the local on-line paper, and both my memoir and novel are set in Italy. The new book I’m working on is partly set in Italy also.

Behind my chair is a large bookcase. It holds novels I don’t want to part with, like Memoirs of Hadrian by the marvelous Marguerite Yourcenar, guidebooks from Italy and other countries I’ve visited, histories, memoirs, museum catalogues, family photos, books written by my writer friends, and odds and ends like a bust of Dante I ran across some years ago.

The walls are covered with personal items that call to mind events from my life: A lovely watercolor of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum by Edmonds artist Pam Harold, a poster from The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, a woodcut of a snowy scene that my husband bought from the artist in a tiny town in Japan, and a painting on parchment of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles that I bought in Addis Ababa, an icon from Bulgaria with Mary wearing red shoes, tribal art from Ghana and New Guinea and a fierce-looking puppet from Sri Lanka. I’ve vowed not to buy any more treasures, but they all serve to inspire me to pour another cup of coffee and put fingers to the keyboard.

What inspires you and where do you write?