By Xu Xi, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts
I’ve been writing stories and essays since I was a child in Hong Kong of the 1960s under British rule. Back then; it never occurred to me that being “a writer” was a real job. Both my parents were from Central Java, and, after WWII moved to the city where they met and married and raised me and my siblings and I as “foreign locals.” They spoke to us in English, which was the medium of instruction in our local schools and Hong Kong’s only official language at the time. But we also became proficient Cantonese speakers because the population was over 97 per cent Cantonese and that was the real language of the people. Meanwhile, my parents spoke Indonesian to each other and it’s only now, after they’re both deceased, that I’ve finally begun trying to learn my parents’ native language. The short story to all this is that is why and how I became a writer in the English language, because English was the closest I had to a “mother tongue.” I did eventually become a real writer, and have published 14 books of fiction and nonfiction to date, comprising five novels, short story and essay collections plus a memoir. Now, I can’t imagine not being a writer.
But getting published takes time, as does writing a book, and even a writer must eat. Royalties at 15% of the retail price — sometimes even less for print, but usually more for E Books — really don’t put a roof over your head unless you write, say, a novel that becomes an international bestseller or, better yet, gets turned into a blockbuster feature film. Over the years I’ve always had a parallel profession to make a living. For the last two decades, I’ve taught graduate or post-graduate and undergraduate creative writing internationally, mostly in Asia or U.S. colleges and universities, and directed two international, low-residency MFAs (Master of Fine Arts) in writing. The latter are part-time degree programs that comprise an older student population, a mix of working professionals, stay-at-home parents and homemakers, as well as retirees. These are taught by a combination of brief, intensive “residencies” of classes and workshops, followed by semesters taught by distance where students are paired with a faculty writer. I’ve also taught writing workshops at schools, universities, writers festivals or other venues, internationally. And the one constant of this peripatetic experience, whether in Greece or Indonesia or Sweden or Singapore or Arizona or Vermont or Connecticut, is that many teachers want to write, are avid readers and do have amazing stories to tell.
There is a tradition of the expatriate writer in English literature. The likes of W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene from Britain or Ernest Hemingway and Paul Theroux from the U.S. are just a few well-known examples. The modern day equivalents emerge from a variety of international professions — journalism, diplomacy, business, education, translation plus other professionals from nonprofits, medicine, law, engineering, architecture, as well as from their “trailing spouses,” among others. One observation I can share is that while many have stories to tell from their experiences, it’s usually the teachers who are most able to delve deeply into what the country, culture and people are really like. Teaching in local and international secondary and primary schools puts you in especially close contact with ordinary people’s lives through your students and their parents. Also, given the popularity of the International Baccalaureate or IB now, many local students attend international schools as well. I’ve often encouraged the teachers among my graduate students and those in other workshops I lead to draw on this “insider-outsider” perspective abroad for their writing, in addition to writing about their lives or experiences from their countries of origin. International teaching also tends to make good travelers out of people, and travel writing is a natural form of expression. Actually, let me rephrase that: my experience to date corroborates my belief that many expatriate teachers in this international arena really should be writing their stories. In particular, the longer someone teaches internationally, the more they bring to the table if they’re interested enough to pay attention to what happens in their worlds.
However, teaching creative writing only became my second full-time profession after eighteen-plus years as an international marketing and management executive. I worked for several major multinational corporations and businesses, and my career until 1998 was in
Asia and America as a professional in marketing and management. It was partly this experience that led to my forming a business with another writer called Authors at Large (AAL) that gives would-be writers a space to develop their interest. Through our collective of authors, we offer international and also online writing retreats and workshops for writers at all levels, as well as custom design programs and workshops for a large enough group. Our clients become part of an international community of like-minded individuals who want to write and who also understand what it’s like to live and work around the world. We also offer individual manuscript consultations with authors from our collective for mostly those who are working on a book-length manuscript; for such clients we usually do require a writing sample.
For anyone who is interested in writing creatively, however, my first advice is always the same: just start writing. Keep a journal to make notes of what you observe, as well as what you may be reading, and start a regular writing practice to try to make stories, poems or essays which either read as individual pieces or could become chapters or part of a longer work. This appears self-evident, but it always surprises me how often people belabor the idea of wanting to become a writer when all someone really needs to do to become one is to write. Obviously, it helps to read a lot, and based on what you most love to read, you can begin to decide what it is you want to write. The most important decision any writer makes about a new piece of work is to know what kind of work they’re trying to write. One thing I have discovered in the many years I’ve been a writer is that the blank page always looks the same. It’s only by filling the blank that it becomes something you want to say as a piece of writing.
While I do recommend low-residency MFAs for those who seriously wish to study creative writing, it is a major commitment, even as a part-time degree program, and there are generally few scholarships offered. The alternative is to give up your job and study full time at one of the many residential MFAs, but for older working professionals, you are likely to be in the minority, age-wise. Some residential MFAs often do offer full or partial funding, but those that do are also extremely competitive to get into, especially in fiction, which is the most popular genre of study. Applicants can submit a double digit number of applications only to be rejected by all. For that reason, I usually advise working professionals not to give up their careers and to apply to low-residency programs instead, where the acceptance rate is less unforgiving and where you can study and continue to work, due to the distance learning model.
Meanwhile, for someone with no previous training or background in creative writing, a better place to start is to look for an English language writing community in the closest city. For those who live and work in more remote areas, there are plenty of online groups as well. Usually, it is possible to participate in writing workshops with such groups where you share work and offer commentary and feedback to each other. Many are free or only charge a nominal subscription fee. Likewise, there are courses at colleges or universities, writers conferences or festivals, bookstores, libraries, arts centers or associations that you can attend. In the summer, when many international teachers can take their holidays, there are often workshops offered over a weekend or longer to enroll in at many universities that have creative writing programs. I have taught workshops in a variety of such programs and venues and invariably there are bound to be teachers among most groups. Teaching, by its very nature of imparting knowledge to others, is a profession that seems compatible with writing.
When teachers write creatively, the results can be inspiring. Personally, as a teacher myself, I hope to read more novels, memoirs, poetry and more from the international teaching community.
This story was featured in our 2021 ICTE winter newsletter. Click here to see the entire issue.
Photo of Xu Xi taken by Leslie Lausch
XU XI 許素細 is Indonesian-Chinese, born and raised in Hong Kong. An author of fourteen books of fiction and nonfiction, she is considered one of Hong Kong’s leading writers in English. Recent titles include This Fish is Fowl: Essays of Being (2019), Insignificance: Hong Kong Stories (2018), Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for A City(2017) and the novel That Man in Our Lives (2016). She is also editor of four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English and most recently, Bloomsbury released The Art and Craft of Asian Stories: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology(October 2021) which she co-authored with Robin Hemley. Forthcoming is Monkey in Residence & Other Speculations (S8Puk, 2023). She is co-founder of Authors at Large and, most recently established the Mongrel Writers Residence™ as a hideaway for “mongrel” writers like herself. She currently occupies the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. A diehard transnational, she has long split her life between the state of New York and the rest of the world. Follow her @xuxiwriter at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. She can be reached at email@example.com