No, I did not “retire.”

When people learn that I used to practice law, they often ask “So, you’re retired?” I can’t blame them for using the ‘R’ word. After all, I’m not as young as I used to be, and that’s what many people do when they’ve had long and successful careers. But, unfailingly, I correct them: “That’s not the word I use,” I say. “I changed careers.”

Although I continued for several years to do some legal consulting with my former employer, I left my last full-time job in 2001, when I was just 47. It was my intention to change course in a fairly dramatic way: I would become a writer and that would be my new career. I prepared to become a lawyer by going to law school, so it made sense to prepare to become a writer by going to school, and so I entered a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, which I completed in 2003.

Since then, I have been a self-employed writer, not a retired lawyer. (Admittedly, it took me a long time to shake my identity as a lawyer. How do you reply to the question “What do you do?” when you meet someone at a cocktail party? “I’m a lawyer,” I used to say. After some years, I was finally able to say, “I’m a writer.”)

I sometimes wish I had had the discipline to write fiction while working fulltime—I actually enjoyed my last legal job, which was in the legal department of the World Bank—but I knew I did not. The job was draining, with lots of international travel, and I just wasn’t good at using my off time for a creative purpose. I tried. I took writing classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, just outside Washington to learn some basics. I worked to edit a manuscript I had managed to write before I started work at the World Bank when I was in a less-demanding consulting job. But I concluded that I needed to really focus on writing if I were going to be successful at it.

Now, many years later, I have had, by some measures, success at being a writer. I haven’t published a bestseller or even a book with a large press. But I treat the writing as a job, although one with flexible hours, and I set goals for myself. I’m trying to be the best writer I can be, and I can’t imagine that I will ever retire.

Happy New Year! (Year of the Dog)

Happy New Year! It’s the year of the dog, which probably has some significance for someone, but I can’t say I know what it might be. Like the Western Zodiac, the Chinese version is derived from myth and superstition, without any basis in science. I do like the idea of celebrating the new lunar year, though, and in modern China, the holiday is known as the Spring Festival. Given the warm temperatures around here this week, that’s completely appropriate!

In Asia, this is a big week for travel. Last year, the holiday was in late January and happened to occur during my research trip to Singapore. Although that was disruptive—some businesses close for the holiday and a day or two on either side—it was also fun to be part of the celebrations. I was staying in a hotel near Singapore’s “Chinatown” (an ironic name, given that the majority of the population of the country is of Chinese descent) and enjoyed walking the streets packed with vendors spelling special foods and traditional items for the holiday. It’s big business in Singapore.

In any case, it’s another chance at renewal. Happy Spring Festival! Happy New Year! Happy Year of the Dog! Gong Xi Fa Cai! 恭喜发财!

Library Liberation

I’m a book hoarder. I couldn’t tell you how many I have, but it numbers in the thousands. I still own a few books I picked up in high school and many from college and grad school days. Despite frequent moves (including two moves to and from Singapore), virtually all of my books have stayed with me over the years. Until recently.

I’ve been in my current house since 2001. Before I moved in, I had bookshelves built in the living room/den and in the third bedroom/office. I also brought with me a few freestanding bookshelves that I’d had in my last home. Those shelves were adequate for a while, but eventually, my library grew beyond capacity. Now, besides the built-ins, I have bookshelves in the guest room, the hallway outside the guest room, and in my bedroom. Not to mention piles on the floor of my office. And also not to mention the boxes of literary magazines that came off shelves to accommodate books that were previously on the floor. I’m swimming in them.

I generally subscribe to the belief that one cannot have too many books, but that assumes that space is expandable infinitely, as if all of the universe were available to me for book storage. There simply comes a time when you run out of room, and I’ve reached that time. (Books aren’t the only problem, I have to say. Where did all those clothes come from? And do I really need all those wine glasses? Plus, what’s with all those coffee mugs?)

If I don’t do something about the books now, someone—who that someone is remains unclear—will have to deal with them when (not if, obviously) I die. (You’ve probably heard about the Swedish Death Cleaning rage; I’m giving it a lot of thought.) So here’s what I’m doing about my book problem.

  1. eBooks/Audiobooks. I own a Kindle. When possible, I buy eBooks. I also listen to books in the car that I get on Audible. I guess those books will “die” with me, as no one else can access them easily, but at least they don’t take up space. (Yes, I feel guilty about feeding the Amazon beast with these purchases, but these are options that fit into my lifestyle neatly.)
  2. Libraries. I’ve rediscovered the library! One book I wanted recently was only available in electronic form from the library, which I thought was ironic, and generally I’m checking out books that I can consult as I’m listening to the audio version, but definitely, the libraries can help relieve my book-acquiring problem. Also, they can be repositories for some books as they come off the shelf at home and look for new homes, although my library only wants books (for its fundraising sales) published within the last two years. That eliminates a lot of the books I would part with willingly.
  3. Selling Books. We have a great used bookstore in my town. They won’t take just any book, but they will take most hardcovers and will pay me for them with store credit. It isn’t much, but it’s something, which is more than nothing. Yes, that means I’ll end up bringing home more books, but it works out to about six books out for one book in, a ratio I can live with that will relieve pressure on the shelving crisis.
  4. BookCrossing. This is the most entertaining option. Take a book from your shelf. Register it at the website to get the book’s particular ID number (not its ISBN). Print a label and add the number. Stick the label inside the cover of the book. Then leave the book somewhere. A finder can then pick up the book and keep it. Ideally, they’ll log onto the website, as instructed by the label, and you can follow the path of the book as it moves from one hand to the next as long as the temporary owners keep the website updated. I released one book several years ago and nothing happened—I have no idea what became of it because whoever picked it up didn’t update the website—but I’m going to do several more in the coming week, so maybe I can stir up some interest. If you find a BookCrossing book, be sure and long on to let the liberator know. I was at a coffee shop today and left a book on a table when I left. A helpful gentleman saw that I’d exited without picking up the book and ran after me with it. I explained what was up and showed him the label I’d put inside. He seemed to have heard of the idea and took the back inside. Perhaps he’ll take the book home. I hope so.
  5. Giveaways. Because I have a growing pile of books that the bookstore won’t buy and the library won’t take, I’ll end up giving them away. Many will end up donated to various organizations, or I’ll give them to individuals, including readers of my blog.
  6. Trash. Sadly, some books in my collection will end up in the trash (or, ideally, in the recycling bin). I’m trying to avoid that, but I fear it’s inevitable.

The Joy of Shakespeare

When was the last time you saw a Shakespeare play? For me, the answer is “last week.” I have the great good fortune of living just outside the small city of Staunton, Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center and its fabulous Blackfriars Playhouse, which means I can see live productions of Shakespeare’s plays almost every week of the year.

Truly, though, it’s not just good fortune. It was good planning. When I was looking to relocate from the Washington DC area in late 2000, I visited Staunton and learned that the playhouse, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, was under construction. That was enough to convince me that this was the right place for me to move. I arrived in the spring of 2001 and the theater opened that fall. To say that I have been a loyal patron of the theater from the beginning is probably an understatement. I think I missed a few productions in the early years—I was still doing a lot of travel for the World Bank on top of the reading and writing I was doing for my MFA program—but since about 2006 or so I’ve seen every play the ASC has produced on the Blackfriars stage. That’s 16 shows most years, including a broad selection of Shakespeare (History, Comedy, and Tragedy), plus plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Marlowe et al.), a few contemporary plays that in some way speak to or relate to one or more of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard), and two or three Holiday Season plays including the annual tradition of A Christmas Carol.

That means I have seen the entire Shakespeare Canon of 38 plays, something that few can say (unless, of course, you are another regular at the ASC).

The current Renaissance Season, which runs from mid-January to mid-April, is one of the most exciting times of year at the theater. The company of actors, without a director, will put up five plays with very limited rehearsal time. From an audience member’s perspective, that gives the plays a sort of energy that well-rehearsed plays sometimes lack. I had the privilege of watching a couple of early rehearsals of two of the five plays, and I was thoroughly impressed by the collaborative nature of the decision-making process. These actors are professionals, they know what they’re doing, and when they make suggestions they are taken seriously. It was a pleasure to behold.

Three plays are running currently. Both Hamlet and Richard II opened on January 20 and the third, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, opened last week (I’m seeing it this Thursday night). I love this Stoppard play, having first read it in high school in about 1970, and I still have my copy of the script we read back then. Next up are The Way of the World by William Congreve and Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston. (The theater also operates a touring company that is currently on the road with three productions: Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, and an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.)

The wonder of this theater is a little hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. First, the space is amazing. It’s an intimate theater, where truly there are no bad seats, and it’s gorgeous, made mostly of wood. Enhancing the intimacy, it’s a thrust stage, so the performers are surrounded on three sides by the audience, and they frequently make use of the aisles for entrances and exits, bringing the action even closer to theater-goers. And that’s not to mention the gallant stools, seats that are actually on stage and so close that one is in danger of being used as a prop in the play. Second, the actors are true professionals, many of them members of Actors’ Equity, the union for actors. They are highly trained and experienced and they are a joy to watch. And third, most of the actors are also fabulous musicians, and an ASC performance includes a concert before the show and during the intermission.  (The music is so great, the resident and touring companies put together a “greatest hits” concert once a year to help raise money for the theater.)

We are extremely fortunate to have the ASC here in Staunton, and it benefits us in other ways, too. Many theater-goers are from out of town. Their presence means business for hotels and restaurants, and as a result, we have a thriving dining scene, stronger than other cities our size. I, for one, am grateful.

Full disclosure: In November of last year, I was elected to the Board of Trustees of the ASC, largely because I was a fan and cheerleader for the theater. I’m honored to serve!

Back to VCCA

Toward the end of last year, I had a long writing residency at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the conclusion of which I wrote about here: End of Residency Blues. While that month was wonderful, it also had its frustrations, generating doubts about the project I was working on.

Over the weeks that followed, I had a chance to think about writing goals for 2018, which I wrote about here: 2018 Writing Goals. People who read about my goals confirmed what I already knew: they were terribly ambitious. But less than six weeks into the year, I’m feeling pretty good about them.

For one thing, I finished selecting the 20 short stories that will make up the anthology I’m editing, Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. There’s still a lot of work to be done (contracting, editing, formatting, publicity, etc.), but we’re easily on track for publication in the fall.

Another goal was to finish a story collection I was working on. I had thought about hiding out in the mountains at a B&B to focus on that, but a different opportunity knocked: a chance to return to VCCA for a short residency. While my last residency of a full month was my longest ever, this five-day stay is my shortest, but it has been incredibly productive. I’ve finished several stories for the new collection—they were already begun and in draft form—and I should be able to complete the manuscript in the next couple of weeks, before my self-imposed deadline of March 1. I’m very excited about that and look forward to submitting some of those stories to magazines and the whole manuscript to publishers in the near future. The image above is my studio, W5, also known as the “corn crib.” Very funky, but it has served me well.

With those two major projects in hand, I’ve begun to turn my thoughts back to the novel that had been frustrating me during my last residency. I have some ideas for restructuring what I have so far, and I’m hopeful that will give me the momentum I need to reach the finish line (“The End”) later this year.

So this residency, despite being extremely short, has been highly productive. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here.

(If you are a writer, visual artist, or composer and have not yet done a residency at VCCA, consider applying. Go here for more information.)

The Omnivorous Reader

I grew up in small cities in the Midwest, in a pretty typical middle-class home. Both of my parents worked, but somehow we managed to have a full, together-at-the-dining-table dinner most nights (thanks, Mom!). My mother liked to cook, she said—she claimed she read cookbooks the way other people read novels—but I don’t recall all that much variety in our menu. Fried chicken. Hamburgers. Spaghetti. Something she called “campfire stew,” which I loved. Basic, wholesome stuff. No complaints from me. Not many, anyway. I refused to eat liver or Brussels sprouts, and my sister got my share of the acorn squash.

My diet didn’t change much when I went to college. My fraternity had a cook, Mattie, with a repertoire even more limited than my mother’s—mac and cheese, chili, fish sticks. Certainly nothing exotic. The only item I even remember from those years is something we called “Mattie brownies,” massive slabs of baked, chocolatey sweetness. Yum. When I began graduate school, I lived in the grad student dorm. They probably tried to liven up the menu with “international” choices—maybe chow mein or tacos—but if they did I don’t remember, and it’s almost certain that any such items were toned down for the average palate of rural, Midwestern America.

All of which is to say, for the first 22 years of my life, I was not an adventurous eater.

But in January of 1976 that changed when I boarded a plane bound for Seoul, Korea to serve in the Peace Corps. My first taste of Korean food was in San Francisco where our service group gathered for pre-departure briefings. Not everyone in our group liked it, but I did, for reasons I couldn’t then explain. I was just ready for a new experience, I guess, and the unfamiliar food was the first manifestation of that experience. Upon arrival in Seoul, where there was no turning back, and then at our training site down-country, we had to eat Korean food (or Korean versions of Chinese food) or starve, basically, because even in metropolitan Seoul in 1976 there were not many other affordable options. But that was fine with me. Bulgogi, kimchi, and bibimbap were just fine with me. Over the next two years of working in a provincial capital city in Korea’s “rice bowl,” famous for its food, I came to love the cuisine. It’s still my favorite. (If someone opened a Korean restaurant near me, I guarantee I’d be one of their best customers.)

Since then, I’ve been exposed to many different kinds of foods, mostly Asian because I spent most of my legal career working in East Asia but dishes from other parts of the world, too. I love to travel and I love to eat, so it’s a good combination.

But not everyone has such a broad appetite. You don’t like Pad Thai? Or Beef Rendang? Far be it from me to judge your tastes. I still won’t eat liver, although at this point I’ve come to love Brussels sprouts and squash. Taste is a curious thing.

Which brings me to literature. (You knew I was headed there, right?)

If you are a woman and you prefer to read only books by women, that’s okay with me. I believe you might find that you’d also like some work by men if you gave it a read, but I won’t judge. Some men say they don’t read books by women. I find that curious since some of my favorite writers are women, but again I’m not going to judge.

Maybe these prejudices are in reality matters of genre, not gender. My father, who spent his whole career as an automotive parts salesman, liked to read Westerns. Most such books are by men, I think, or at least they were while my father was alive. My mother read some literary fiction by both men and women, but mostly she read romance novels, probably by women. It used to be that war novels were written by and read mostly by men. Thrillers, too, although that has changed, as discussed below. Mysteries have long been written by both men and women, although I have the impression that many of the modern superstars of the genre are women. Although the category is in dispute, publishers market some work as “women’s fiction,” and not surprisingly these titles are mostly by women. (I did a cursory online search for statistics to bolster my impressions and didn’t find anything, so take these assertions for what they’re worth.)

As an aside, publishing industry bias is obviously a factor in the gender/genre puzzle. There has long been a perception that the industry was biased in favor of male writers, so much so that women adopted male or gender-less pseudonyms in order to gain publication and readership. It’s possible that the pendulum has swung the other way at this point, as this recent article suggests: Why Men Pretend to be Women to Sell Thrillers.

The question I am struggling to get to is this: How widely should we read?

The question, of course, is huge. There is the issue of gender. If I read mostly work by men, should I make an effort to read more women? There is genre. If I read mostly literary fiction, should I read more genre work—mysteries, thrillers, young adult? There is also culture, which I’ve not mentioned until now. If I read mostly work by white writers, should I be intentional about reading work by writers of color?

The answer depends, I think, on who you are and why you read in the first place. I don’t blame my father for reading mostly books by men or my mother for reading mostly books by women. They were both busy people who read primarily for escape, and the genres that appealed to them were dominated by writers of one gender. I recently saw an article online by a woman who was upset with her date when he revealed that he read only books by men. Now, I can understand if this woman might choose not to go out with this guy again solely because of his narrow choice of reading material, but I don’t think it makes him a bad person, just not the right guy for her. I’m happy to discover that people read anything at all, frankly, given the studies that show reading on the decline. Books are like food (you knew I was going to circle back eventually, right?) and taste is personal. Not everyone likes kimchi, although I think it’s awesome. You only read work by writers who are like you? Can’t say I blame you, even though you’re missing out on some pretty great writing.

I read like I eat—whatever is handy. Nonfiction, novels, short stories. The fiction I read is balanced between the genders, although not with great intentionality. (If I realize that the last couple of books I’ve read are by men I might choose a book by a woman next and vice versa, but I don’t give it much more thought than that.) I also try to make sure I’m reading writers of color, although I have had to make more of an effort there. Because of my interest in Asia, I do seem to read a fair number of Asian and Asian American writers, but I could do better when it comes to African American and Hispanic writers. Most of my non-fiction reading is dictated by my book club’s choices, but we (an even mix of men and women) do try to balance genders and read some books by writers of color. Most of the fiction I read is literary, but I will occasionally read a mystery or thriller if the writing is good. I’ve read a few young adult books in recent years, too, because good writing shows up everywhere. (Having said that the only Westerns I’m likely to read will be by the likes of Cormac McCarthy, and I don’t foresee any romance novels in my future. Nor will I be reading Christian fiction, Zombie/Werewolf fiction, etc. Just not my thing.)

As a writer, my reading is about learning, not escape. I’m not only hoping to improve my craft through exposure to successful work, I’m hoping to open my mind to ideas and experiences in the world. That means reading more than just writers who look like me or come from my background. Still, it’s a question of taste. I’m omnivorous, but I understand those who are not.

For more thoughts on the subject, I recommend: 12 Reasons Reading Widely is Important.





An Editor’s Notes

Everywhere Stories: Volume I

One of my many projects for the year is to compile, edit, and publish (with Press 53) Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. Like the first two volumes, the book will have twenty stories set in twenty countries by twenty writers (unless I have room for a few more than that). We opened submissions at the end of 2017 and I am currently reading through a few hundred stories to find the best pieces to include in the book.

Curating an anthology is challenging work, for a variety of reasons. Among other things, I find myself rejecting stories that are perfectly fine, excellent even, that just don’t fit my evolving vision for the book.

For example, I recently turned down a submission that was a very good exploration of character that could have been set anywhere in the world. In fact, if the author hadn’t told me in his cover letter where the story was set, I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out. Given the nature of the series, though, developing a strong sense of place in the work is one of the markers I look for.

There are no taboo subjects in my view, but some topics are hard to bring off with freshness or appropriate sensitivity. As a result, stories that involve abuse toward women or children rarely appeal to me. Same with violence toward animals. Stories about characters with cancer are often overly sentimental or too familiar, and that’s true whether the setting is California or Kathmandu. (Sometimes, however, as with one of the stories in Volume I of the series, cancer is only an ancillary part of the story, not its sole focus, and provides poignancy rather than melodrama.) It turns out that I’m not a big fan of stories about drug use, either.

Everywhere Stories: Volume II

Writers who demonstrate a familiarity with the kinds of stories we published in the first two volumes probably have an advantage over those who clearly haven’t read either of those books. This is true with ordinary literary magazines, too. Why submit a poem to a publication that says in its title that it includes only short fiction? And while we have dipped our toes into magical realism, a story that is over-the-top surreal probably isn’t going to make the cut in a collection of stories that is, for the most part, hyper-real.

I’m both amused and disappointed when writers ignore the submission guidelines that specify the countries we’ve covered in the first two volumes that we will NOT include in Volume III. “The story is set in France,” says the cover letter, even though we did France in Volume I. Other than the United States, we aren’t repeating countries, as we stated explicitly.

And speaking of the United States, if you sent us a story set in this country your odds of having it included in the book are very small. Of all the submissions we received this time, about a third of them were set in the U.S. It’s been very difficult to wade through all of those submissions to find the one story set in America that will work for us, because many of the stories are extremely good.

One of the things you’ll hear from or about over-worked editors is that we’re looking for excuses to reject a story. Anything to move it off the table so we can get to the next submission. This is why writers are advised to proofread carefully, to use standard fonts and formatting, to follow submission guidelines exactly, and so on. But for this project, I find myself being more tolerant than when I was editing a magazine. I wish every story had the wordcount on the first page, but it’s not fatal to the submission if it doesn’t. I just use page count instead to judge length. The writer uses “alright” instead of “all right?” No problem. We’ll fix that in the editing process if we have to. Punctuation mistakes? Confusing “which” for “that?” Wrong word choices? (One writer used the word “costumer” when he meant “customer,” which gave me a chuckle at the writer’s expense.) Not really a problem. Maybe, if there is an accumulation of these sorts of errors that will give me headaches in the editing process, then I will turn a piece down. But if the story otherwise has merit, I’m more likely to give it a chance despite these superficial flaws.

I am getting close to making the final selections for the anthology and writers should be hearing from me within the next two weeks. At that point, we’ll start working on edits—also a time-consuming task—and soliciting author bios and statements. By late spring I should be able to turn the whole manuscript over to the publisher with a view to publication in October. Stay tuned for the pre-order announcement in August and September!

If you’re curious about the series and the stories we included in the first two volumes, take a look at Press 53’s Anthology page.



In my recent post about the books I’m currently reading, I mentioned the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. I started reading that one because it was recommended by a friend in a Facebook post I made the other day. I was looking for tips on how to structure self-learning of a foreign language. I’m not very far into the book, but Wyner has some excellent advice based on his own experience of learning languages. I’ll keep reading! (In addition to the book, there’s a website with useful resources: Fluent Forever.)


I love studying languages, but I’m terrible at remembering and I’m a bit too timid to speak in a foreign language unless I’m forced (like in an oral exam) or a little drunk. So I’m not fluent in any language other than English, but I’ve studied a lot of them, and I’d love to build up my ability in at least a couple.

My first exposure to a language other than English (I hate referring to them as “foreign languages” because they’re only foreign to monolingual English-speakers) was French in the fifth grade. I had been admitted to a “special class” in Indianapolis that involved going to a school that attracted students from a larger region of the city than the normal school district. Because my family moved to a different city when I entered sixth grade, I didn’t get to continue with my French, so that was that. When I arrived at my new school in a rural area, my teacher mentioned to the class, having seen my report card, I guess, that’s I’d been in a French class. For a while, some of the kids taunted me by calling me “Frenchie.” (I didn’t think I’d retained much, but some of the language came back when I took another French class decades later.)

In high school in Peoria, Illinois I took four years of German. I’m not sure why I chose German over the other choices, which were French, Spanish, and Latin, except to be different, I suppose. Most kids took French or Spanish. I enjoyed those classes and did well, although I have never had a reason to call upon my German. That’s not completely true. I visited Zurich, Switzerland a couple of times in the 1980s, and in the 1990s I passed through the Frankfurt airport several times. I probably uttered a few words, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I placed out of the foreign language requirement in college, so no more German classes for me. When I got my MA in English, it turned out that there was a European language requirement, so I crammed for a test in German, passed it, and was grateful for my good teachers in high school.

Even though I didn’t need to, I decided I would take a language in college anyway. I chose Russian, again just to be different, I guess. I wish I had stuck with it. I only took two quarters and can’t say that I’ve retained much, although at least I can usually decipher things written in the Cyrillic alphabet. My little Russian actually came in handy in 1994-95 when I worked as a consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan, one of the recently independent former Soviet states. (In Almaty, both my Korean and Chinese, which I learned long after college, were also somewhat useful. Being a neighbor of China, Kazakhstan had a number of Chinese visitors and several Chinese restaurants. And it turned out that there was an ethnic Korean population as well, as Stalin had deported a number of Koreans from Northeastern areas to the steppes.)

After college, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to South Korea. People often ask me why I chose Korea, and the truth is that I didn’t. I barely knew where Korea was. If I had studied French or Spanish in school, probably they would have sent me to Africa or South America, but my two languages at the time were German and Russian, neither of which would be helpful in the Peace Corps of the mid-1970s. (Later, Russian would have been handy for work they were doing in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia.) So it was clear they would send me to a country where they’d have to teach me the language, and Thailand and Korea were likely spots. We had two months of very intensive Korean language training upon arrival in the country, and I loved it. We had five students in each class and met every morning. We lived in a small city so there were ample opportunities to practice, and we made great progress in those two months. The Korean “alphabet,” Hangul, is simple and wonderfully phonetic, so it was easy to learn. Grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary were very hard, but at the end of training, I felt good about my ability. Then I went off to my work site where I would be teaching English and although I did continue to study Korean, I never got a whole lot better than I was at the end of training. My excuse—that’s what it was—was that I spoke too much English: in my classes, with students outside of class, with professors who wanted to practice, and with complete strangers who also wanted to practice. So I never really needed to get better. It was a missed opportunity, though, and I regret it. Still, I speak enough to get around and to have simple conversations with people. In the late 1990s when I worked for the World Bank I made many trips to Korea (during the Asian Financial Crisis) and my Korean came in handy then. And a lot of it came back on my most recent visit in 2011. I’d love to go back again soon.

After the Peace Corps, I went back to grad school. I had done one semester before my service, so I basically needed one summer and a full academic year to finish the MA. I had hoped to continue studying Korean, but at that time Indiana University had dropped its Korean language program. Disappointed, I chose to take Japanese instead. My English Department advisors counseled against it because it wouldn’t count toward my language requirement, but as noted I had already satisfied the requirement through a German exam. I loved studying Japanese and I did well in the class. My work in Korean was great preparation, too, as the two languages have very similar grammatical structures and both have many loan words from Chinese. Because I had studied Chinese calligraphy in Korea, I was also ahead of the game on learning Kanji—the Chinese characters incorporated into Japanese in addition to the two phonetic alphabets.

I did no language study while I was in law school or in my first two years of law practice in Chicago. But as of January 1, 1984, I was transferred to my law firm’s Singapore office. After I got settled, one of the first things I did was enroll in a Chinese language class. Singapore is an odd place. English is definitely the language of international business, but the country has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Although Mandarin is the official Chinese language in the group, many Chinese in Singapore speak other dialects—Hokkien and Cantonese, especially. Still, there is some value in a foreigner’s knowing Mandarin, and in any case, it was fun to learn. I studied the language off and on for all the time I lived there, 1984-89 and 1990-93. When I started work at the World Bank in January 1996, I was assigned to work on China projects, so I began traveling to Beijing and elsewhere in China, so that my Chinese actually was useful. Plus, a few of us who worked on China projects took conversation lessons from a Chinese teacher, paid for by the Bank. I loved it. A couple of years ago, I took an online Chinese class through the Virginia community college system, just as a refresher.

I moved to rural Virginia in 2001 but continued to travel to Asia for several years after that as a consultant for the World Bank, so I tried to keep up with Chinese. But I also had some new travel adventures. I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program in 2003 and was looking for opportunities to attend writing workshops. One that caught my eye was a workshop in Mexico. I’d never been to Mexico and knew no Spanish, but once I had decided to go I opted to take a Spanish class at the local community college. I did one semester before I went to Mexico, did a homestay and language immersion program for a week in the country, and then took another semester when I returned home. That gave me a good grounding in the language should I need to refresh for another trip.

Then a few years later, I applied for a writing residency in a village in France. I didn’t think my fifth-grade class would be enough to prepare me for that, so I took a full year French class at the community college. That was great. It was a small class with a native French speaker, and I learned a lot. Or, at least, I learned enough that I managed to get around the French village and also the city of Toulouse, where I was a tourist for one week before my residency. Again, that gave me a good base if I need to brush up for a return visit.

So I’ve studied lots of languages. Of all of them, though, it is Chinese that continues to enchant me. That’s probably because of the Chinese characters. And so I have resolved to brush up this year. I’ve started using the Rosetta Stone program for Chinese and have also begun using Duolingo, a free online tool for language learning. It’s hard to imagine a true beginner being able to use either of these tools, which seem to expect you to recognize the Chinese characters instantly, but because of my previous study, it isn’t a problem for me.


Books I’m reading now

I know a lot of people who only read one book at a time. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but I usually have more than one going at a given moment, although at least they’re all in different genres or media. Right now is kind of an extreme case, and I would like to get through a few of these so I can focus better, but I thought it would be fun to record my current reading list:

Novel. The novel I’m reading in hard copy right now is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I bought this last year in hardcover when it won the National Book Award, but had not gotten around to reading it. However, I persuaded my book club to pick it for our January discussion, so now I’ve moved it up to the top of my list. I’m not very far into the book, but so far it is very similar to other novels I’ve read in recent years about enslaved Africans. I gather that it will soon diverge, however, and I’m looking forward to that.

Novel on Kindle. Actually, I’m reading this on the Kindle app on my tablet because Children of the Salt Road by Lydia Fazio Theys is published by Kindle in Motion, so it has some interesting effects (color backgrounds plus moving illustrations) that don’t appear in other formats including my Kindle Voyage. I bought this because Lydia is a friend, but I’m enjoying the story, set mostly in Sicily. So far it’s a little spooky, but it seems that it’s going to get more than spooky in the coming chapters.

Nonfiction—History/Memoir. As I was straightening up my office recently I came across an interesting volume that I bought used last year after hearing about from a Pearl Buck fan, a special 1972 signed edition of Pearl S. Buck’s China Past and Present that is illustrated with lots of black and white photographs. It’s part history and part memoir about her own experience in China, which was extensive.

Nonfiction—History. I’m interested in genealogy and have done a fair amount of research on my own family tree. Last year I visited Lunenberg County, Virginia, because I had learned that the Scott family (the ancestors of a great grandmother on my father’s side) had immigrated there from Scotland. I found records of them in the county courthouse and was also shown a couple of books about local history in the 18th century. I’m reading one of those books now: The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry: A Case Study of Lunenburg County, Virginia 1746-1832 by Richard R. Beeman. It’s well written, but the subject matter is pretty dry. It’s going to take me a long time to get through this one.

Nonfiction—Language (paperback). Given how many books I’m already reading, I shouldn’t have started this one, but I’m fascinated by the study of languages and when a friend recommended Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner I couldn’t resist. I began reading it last night. I’m going to do a separate post on language study, so I’ll mention this one again.

Nonfiction—Politics (on Kindle). I’m sick of hearing about Donald Trump. I hate the man and wish we had dodged the bullet of his presidency. I was not going to read Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff, but the president’s heated denunciation of the book and threats to block its publication basically forced me to buy it. I’m not very far into this one, and I’m not learning anything I didn’t know or suspect, but I feel obligated.

Fiction—Short Story Collection (paperback). I love short stories and usually am reading them either in magazines or collections. This one is by a friend of mine, published by the same publisher that brought out my two story collections. I Will Shout Your Name by John Matthew Fox opens with a story that I included in Volume II of my Everywhere Stories anthology, so I had a head start on this one!

Fiction—audiobook. I always have an audiobook going, too. I listen in the car or on the treadmill at the gym. I just finished one yesterday, so I’m only about 30 seconds into its successor, but it’s a book I’ve heard good things about: The Green Road by Anne Enright.

That’s eight. I’m currently reading eight books, which is nuts. I must finish some of them! What are you reading right now?

2018 Writing Goals

A lot of folks make New Year’s Resolutions. I think that’s a fine tradition, and I’ve got a few that I’ll keep to myself. What I’ll share here, though, are some goals that I’ve set for the year in connection with my writing.


Goals, it seems to me, should be realistic and achievable, but ambitious. There’s no point in setting a goal that is impossible, since failure is then inevitable. On the other hand, what’s the point in setting a goal that takes no effort to reach? Goals should be measurable, otherwise how can you know if the goal has been met? And goals should be limited in time, if only to add to the motivation to reach the goal sooner rather than later. Here’s an article that might be helpful in your goal setting for the coming year: Personal Goal Setting: Planning to Live Life Your Way.

In my case, there are two things that MUST get done this year plus a few more that I’d like to accomplish before the year is over. Ambitious, but achievable.

  1. Finish Edits on Novel under Contract. My novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, is under contract to Braddock Avenue Books for publication in early 2019. That means I’ll be spending time this year with the editor to get the manuscript into shape.
  2. Compile the Anthology under Contract. Volume III of my anthology series, Everywhere Stories, will be published in the fall. We’ve promised submitters of stories that we’ll make our selections by the end of March, so that’s the first deadline. And then about two months after that I’ll need to deliver the manuscript to the publisher.
  3. Find a publisher for my novel. I finished another novel last year and I’ve begun looking for a publisher for that book. That’s not entirely under my control, of course, but I’ve started and will continue for as long as it takes.
  4. Finish the new story collection. I realized at the end of the year that I had nearly enough stories for a new collection. So I’ve started putting that together and writing a few additional stories for it. I’d love to be done with that by mid-March when I head off to AWP.
  5. Finish the new novel. I’ve been working on yet another novel for a couple of years now. I have some nagging concerns about it, but I think I’m close to resolving those problems and moving forward toward completion. Dare I hope for getting it done by the end of the year?
  6. Query agents. This one depends on finishing the new novel. I am currently unrepresented, but I believe the new novel has more commercial potential than my last novel did, so when it’s done it will definitely be time to shop around once again.
  7. Dabble in the essay form. I’ve become intrigued by the memoir and personal essay forms. I’ve written very little in this genre, but I’m determined to write some essays this year to see what I can make of them. Possibly a memoir or a collection of essays? That’s a longer-term goals, not likely to be finished in 2018

As you can see, my writing goals for the year are ambitious. I think they should be. I’m actually attending a workshop this coming weekend on goal-setting for writers in which I hope to learn either that I’m being unrealistic or I’ve done just the right thing.

But speaking of those goals, I need to get to work.