writing post

English as my Writing Language

I never thought I’d write a post like this. Following Susan Dennard’s newsletter from the last year, one of the goals she proposed was being kinder to yourself. Stop bullying yourself. It’s the small things we do everyday — drop something and say ‘God how are you so stupid’ or not being able to accomplish a writing goal and saying to yourself ‘YOU’RE A MISERABLE FAILURE’. We should all try to be kinder to ourselves — we wouldn’t say these things to a best friend, why would we say it to ourselves?

Slowly, I have been managing to being kinder to myself. But as a girl, I’m also encouraged by society to atribute every single one of my achievments as luck. I work hard and get a job, “I was lucky”. I see loads of authors (especially female) not accepting their amazing accomplishments because we’ve been taught this warped definition of humbleness. For a man, it’s OK to feel proud on his accomplishments. For women, we smile and say ‘thank you, that’s very kind of you’ and move on. It’s not a good response, but it’s one that’s automatic. And as proposed to being kinder to yourself, one of my own propositions was to be proud of the things I achieved.

One of these things is my understanding of the English Language.

I started studying English as a second language at the age of seven. My father is a professor at the UTFPR, a Technological University here in Brazil. He does a lot of research in the field of fiber optics and digital television, and one of his goals was to do a post-doctorade somewhere outside Brazil — and thus, he took me and my sister to take English classes from a very young age.

I used to hate those classes. But when my father got his scholarship to write his thesis in a lab in the University of Sydney in 2007, I didn’t have much of a choice — we all moved to Australia, for a year. At first, it was very difficult, I won’t lie. I couldn’t speak the language, my vocabulary was worth sh*t, and they didn’t accept me in regular school out of fear I wouldn’t adapt. In a way, I was glad to do so — instead, my sister and I got enrolled in MIEC, the Maririckville Intensive English Centre.

This experience, in my opinion, was the best I could possibly have in a school. MIEC is ready to receive international students, regugees and migrants who have not a great grasp of the English Language. All our classes are in English, of course, but they’re focused on acquiring the language and learning how to communicate despite being afraid/not speaking very well. My sister and I had the most wonderful time there and I’ll be forever grateful to the staff and the students I met there. But most of all, I’m glad for one person in parcticular — Ms. Desirée Sinclair, my English Teacher. Unfortunately, I have lost contact with her for years now. I was twelve when I arrived at the MIEC, and I received a wonderful welcome, and Ms. Sinclair was particularly excited that I liked to read. So she took me to the library, and gave me ten books to read.

Remember, my English wasn’t very good at that time. In fact, it could be considered passable, or the equivalent of a 4-year-old at most. But I wanted to study, and I wanted to learn. I reread Harry Potter in English, and my language skills started improving. And every week, I went to the library and got at least five more books to read. Ms. Sinclair lent me her own books, and soon enough I was handing over seven book reports to her a week on what I had read. And I found out that I loved reading even more than I thought I did. I read a lot, I wrote a lot, and I watched a lot of movies. Soon enough, I was able to move to regular school, but I’ll never forget my time at the MIEC, and how much I learned there.

After I came back in 2008, I still studied English, harder than ever. I always read books in English (I read about 100 books a year, ay least 65 are written in English), watch movies with the original audio, and took a Language Course until I could have my degree in Proficiency of the English Language with the University of Cambridge. I got the degree when I was 16, but never stopped studying the language I love.

It was also in 2008 that I discovered another passion — writing. I started writing fanfiction, and soon enough it moved on to original works. YA, fantasy, science-fiction, murder mysteries… the genres I love to read. I started writing in my native language, Portuguese, at first. It was an easy step to take — it’s my mother tongue and I also love it, and all my friends could read my work and critique it. But after a couple of years writing in Portuguese, I decided I wanted to take my writing a step further.

I wanted to write in English.

At the time, it seemed a little crazy to me. Sure, I could write essays and blog posts pretty well, and everyone with whom I talked complimented my English skills. But it seemed insane that I could write an entire novel in a language that wasn’t mine.

But I did. And what was crazier, I found it easy to do it.

Writing a novel is never easy, but my writing flowed better when I was writing in English. Maybe it was an influence of all the novels I had read, maybe it was the fact that I have a deep love for English. In the end, I knew what I wanted to do — I wanted to write novels in English. I wrote two more novels until I had found the perfect one. The one I wanted to edit, the one I wanted to really, really publish. The one that was going to be perfect for querying.

It’s been a year since I’m polishing FIREBIRD, from the first draft. A year in which CPs have read the story, I edited it, sent it out again, edited it. I participated in writing competitions and received great feedback from agents and other people.

The difficult part of the post comes now: a couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail with a critique. The sender’s intention, of course, wasn’t being harsh. (Who is ever mean on purpose unless they’re Kylo Ren or something???), but it still hit me pretty hard. This person, which I was still on testing waters with, sent me an e-mail saying the language barrier was too much. That it was stopping her from reading the story and I needed to find someone who actually understood English.

At first, I was devastated. How did that happen? I was sure my English skills were on point. I got this certificate in my drawer that I worked hard to get, that very very few native speakers even obtain. It’s an academic certificate provided by one of the top-ranking Universities in the World. So when I received the e-mail, I thought I was a fraud. I was very, very upset that something like this would happen. What if more people thought I couldn’t write in English and were just too kind to say so?

I was crushed, and later I came to a realization. We all suffer fraud syndrome one time or the other. But I’m pretty sure Cambridge system isn’t a fraud. So I relied on that, and relied on all the other feedback I had received. Erin, my trustworthy CP and ever friend, critted my language pretty hard and I loved her for it. It made the MS shine, the sentences were less redundant and the meaning more concise. And yes, we all go through line edits, and when I talked to other people, I had just about the same amount as they had. The same amount any other native English speaker had. So with my doubts gone, I decided on something else.

I could not doubt my skill in English. That’s not going to improve my writing. Reading more and paying attention and taking workshops will, however, and I can trust them on that. No manuscript is ever perfect the first time.  It’s a question of improvement, surely and always. Every writer needs to move forward.

I didn’t really have a prompt answer to the e-mail, and I thought maybe it was a matter of style more than language. Surely, after all the rounds of edits and CPs and even agents and authors who had a look at it, if my English wasn’t correct or simply bad, SOMEONE would have told me (or at least I hope that they would, LOL). As someone who isn’t writing in her first language, I push myself harder because people might be expecting me to fail on that front — and if I do, they’ll be ready to point out. I’m not allowed a greater tolerance because English is my first language, it’s quite the opposite. The tendency is to nitpick my work even more, because while to other people English might come naturally, mine is a work of effort.

I’ve always been aware of this fact. It’s why I work hard. It’s why I strive to be as close to perfect as I can get. And on the front of being kinder to myself, I’ve taken a particular resolve. Yes, I AM going to be touchy about my skills in the English Level. I’ve been working on them for over ten years. I’ll take the Sofia Vergara stand from Modern Family. I can speak English very well, and I’m proud of it. I worked hard. It’s not luck. You don’t get to tell me whether it’s bad or not when I constantly work to prove that I’m good. I’m proud of the time I took to study it. I’m proud that people will often wonder if I’m a native speaker.

I’m not. I’m Brazilian and a Latina, but I love English. It’s my great passion, and I always want to continue to write in the language I love. Speaking and writing in another language is hard work, and I’m not going to pretend it isn’t. I’m proud of my hard work, and I’m not letting anybody take that away from me.

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3 thoughts on “English as my Writing Language”

  1. Wow, I love this post so much. It’s something I deeply relate to. My native language is spanish, and my history is actually a lot like yours. I never had to live in an english-speaking country, but I did study the language since I very young age, and continued, and continued and I’m still studying it now, but in a business environment.

    The first draft of a novel, I wrote in spanish, because I never would’ve dreamed of writing anything more than an essay in english. It was just not possible. It wasn’t until I started reading practically everything in english, that for some reason, I started also thinking, and then writing my novel in english too. I don’t have CPs yet, but the language barrier is also one of biggest fears as a writer. I fear that people will just notice that it wasn’t written by a native english speaker.

    1. Hi Pamela!
      Thanks so much for your comment, it means so much to share this experience with someone else. It takes more courage to write in a language that isn’t ours, but we can do it. And I’ve found my CPs helped me improve so much, poiting things out to me I could never do on my own. They’re absolutely invaluable — and you’ll find that lot of people are going through the same experiences.
      And seriously, that is one of my biggest worries, too. But conquer that fear, and polish that manuscript. It’s going to shine, I just know it!

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