Writing in a second language

La pistola 

che ho puntato alla tempia 

si chiama poesia.

Non sono una donna 

addomesticabile.

Il poeta non rigetta mai 

le proprie ombre.

Alda Merini, Aforismi e magie

Writing in a second language is an excruciating path of checking and rechecking spelling, syntax, grammar and punctuation. You don’t only need to write differently; you need to think differently. Literary translating from one language to the other does not work. It can be all right for one word from time to time but not for a whole piece or even for a single sentence. My first language is Italian and though I have been studying English since I was eleven years old and moved to England twelve years ago, my English can still be ‘weird’ both in my accent and in my writing. Even so, I do not feel put off by this. I believe in the magic effect of constant practice that gives space to improvements and in the undeniable fact that there is no absolute perfection. 

I have been writing in English since I moved to England with the help of creative writing workshops and the warm atmosphere of poetry networks and open mic events. I enjoyed this environment so much that I strongly wished to be part of it. Besides, writing had therapeutic effects in a tough period of my life. My second daughter and youngest child of four, who we adopted when she was two, had been a very difficult child and was finally diagnosed autistic. Looking after her was very demanding so I needed a creative release. I used to paint as well but expressing my worries, emotions and setbacks in writing seemed more liberating. I also started to submit my work — which is part of the writing process my tutors said —, mainly poems, and a few of them were published. So, I gained confidence and felt I was improving. At a certain point, I enrolled in a part time Master course at the University of Lancaster, which was an important step in my writing life. Tutors’ and peers’ feedback were insightful and valuable. The whole experience enhanced my creative work and my career as well. The portfolio I collected at the end was for me a great achievement that boosted my self-confidence and motivated me to carry on.

Despite all these positive results, I have my bad moments when I feel that what I am writing is banal, inconsistent or repetitive. Grammar and syntax are my obsession. I constantly ask myself if what I am writing sounds awkward to a native speaker of English. Can I use a better word or a clearer sentence? Is what I am writing acceptable? In Italian the more your sentences are long and complex the more they are considered sophisticated, that is, good writing. In English it is the contrary most of the time. Long sentences are considered grand, boastful and sometimes unclear. You need to keep it short and to the point. Do not exaggerate in the use of adjectives and keep it sharp using the right verbs. Above all, do not wander about or digress from your main argument.

Language conveys a mentality which is not only expressed in words but also in the way the words are used. They are tools to shape reality. Therefore, you need to think in the other language, in the other mentality, if you wish to write correctly or convey the perception of correctness. This is my daily practice to be sure I am not missing anything. It is like the ingredients of a recipe, you need all of them in the correct dose to make it successful, sometimes with a twist.

Submitting my work required discipline and more editing. I adopted some patterns I felt comfortable with, such as hand writing my first draft in A4 lined paper for articles and blog posts, while I prefer A5 notebooks for reviews. I usually jot down notes or bullet points on scrap paper at random, a mind map of sorts. Then I add, delete, rearrange and alter. My hand written first draft usually looks like a battlefield I can hardly decipher. My next step is typing the piece on the computer and printing it. I do not know why but I cannot spot mistakes reading my piece on the screen. I need to have a hard copy and edit it with a red pen, then with a green pen (maybe a mania related to my teaching background). Then I ask somebody else to read it, my husband or one of my children, and finally I re-check it after a couple of days when I feel fresh and relaxed, that is, early in the morning. I never submit a piece I have just edited in the evening, I always re-read it in the morning, a rule of thumb I never break.

When I started to contribute to magazines, I had to be even stricter. I give myself priorities and deadlines, make a list that I keep close to my laptop and tick every task I complete. Being a mother with a job, I necessarily multi task; so, sometimes I work on two topics at the same time, if necessary. I list ideas and arguments whenever they come to my mind on post-its, which often occurs while I am cooking or in the middle of a traffic jam. When the brain is in a creative rush I need to leave it free to express itself. My mind follows the argument with a logic that may imply some faults but I need to trust it; little flaws can be interesting and originality might come from well-crafted mistakes. Sometimes imperfections develop in exciting ideas and reveal the human side which is thought-provoking and eventually unavoidable.

Finally, writing is a great pleasure for me. It nourishes my creative side, which makes me feel good, and it is fun at the same time. It also implies a sense of power as I can express my opinion and speak my voice. I entertain myself and come to terms with reality at the same time. So for me writing is fundamental, it is a treat and a treasure; a way to cope with life and create new views.

 Translation: The gun I aimed at my temple is called poetry. I am not a tameable woman. The poet never rejects their shadows. 

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