A non-native English speaker (like me) and my blog reader asked this question: "Hello Ksenia!! I was visiting your blog and I was thinking why not sharing your journey as a non-native speaker writer! I don't know if you have already written something similar but I think it would be very interesting and useful to share some tips! I mean the ways that helped you to encounter the difficulties of writing in English which is not your first language."
Yes, for those of you who didn't know, English is not my first language. Russian is. I came to America in 1998, knowing a few phrases from Beatles songs like "Hello", "Goodbye", "I love you", "Help", and such. I did know German though, from living for 4 years in Berlin in my teens, so since both languages belong to the Anglo-Saxon language group, it was perhaps easier for me to grasp? Not sure. Anyway. I had to learn English fast, because, number one, those annoying newspapers kept calling and asking for a subscription, and I couldn't properly tell them to piss off, and, number two, I left Moscow in the middle of college (studying architecture) and I had to transfer my credits and learn English (pass TOEFL and all that jazz) to be accepted by the local college and graduate with some sort of a degree. Or sit home and go crazy. So I learned it. I got this TOEFL book and I went to Berlitz lessons and I got a good score on TOEFL and got accepted into college and went there and I remember sitting on my first history lesson, terrified, because I could hardly take any notes, the teacher talked so fast, I didn't understand shit. Somehow I survived, out of sheer stubbornness, I'd imagine, and one word struck me on that 1st lesson, celibacy. I simply couldn't understand the concept. Funny how little things like that stick out in out memory, right?
Writing in English never crossed my mind like something I'd enjoy doing. In fact, writing in general was not something I thought I would do, as my literature teacher in Russia really didn't like the abundance of my descriptions and I could never get an A, so I concluded I suck and wrote in a diary, where nobody could read it and see how much I sucked at writing. This was typical in Soviet Union, and even after its fall, when schools went through a reform. Individuality and creativity have been discouraged, but I simply couldn't contain my imagination, I remember, annoying not only Lit teachers but also Art teachers, because I would draw things not how they told us to. It took an English teacher in an American college to tell me that he liked my writing and I should do more of it. I looked at him like he was crazy. I did a bunch of essays, but didn't really think much of them.
Time passed. I guess there must be some sort of a bug in all of us writers that sooner or later surfaces, demanding we write. I kept trying my hand at writing, without realizing I did. It was more like telling cinematic stories. When I did my degree project for design (I got a BFA in Design), I remember the professor telling me that my pictures looked like stills from a movie, like there was a story. I did a table design project where I wrote a whole story about the history of the table starting from people sitting on the ground around the fire to share stories, and the teacher looked at me weird, asking why the hell did I go that deep? At the time there was a film festival in Seattle, some friends told me about it, I think a teacher submitted my little animation for it (I had to do an animation for a multimedia class) and it got in! It was there that I sat and watched my movie on the big screen, and I think that writing bug surfaced again. I got this free filmmaker pass and went on seeing more movies. At the end of one of them, a young girl jumped on stage, said she was the director, and made this movie with friends and paid for it with credit cards. I think after this I thought, hey, I wanna try this too. So I read the book STORY, and wrote a bunch of screenplays, and even shot a short film The Golden Leaf, but then shelved the effort again.
Here comes the dark part. Feel free to stop reading here. Eventually, it was my therapist who told me to start writing, start journaling, saying that writing in English, which is not my first language, might be therapeutic for me. You see, I was suicidal and wanted to kill myself because after running away from home at 16 and carrying something inside me, something I couldn't remember but was constantly trying to, doing yoga, meditation, going to therapy as soon as I was able to afford it, it finally came to surface about 5 years ago that I was sexually abused by my father and step-grandfather and, well... I really didn't want to live after remembering this, especially because my family didn't take it well. I ONLY mention it here to illustrate the need to write in a different language to get rid of my pain. I'm over it now, I'm happy and all that beautiful shit, but this is why I'm so passionate about writing, because it brought me back to life.
It seems like writing in a different language, in a language that is not native to you, does something very interesting to your brain, at least it did to mine. It accesses these parts of you that belong to a child. Basically, you are sort of starting to learn to talk like when you were a child, and the process is very similar. It's hard, but at the same time very rewarding. So now that I shared the journey on why I am writing in English (I probably couldn't write in Russian because the memories are too painful), here are a few tips.
Read a lot, every day. Its only through reading that you will see how the language breathes, how to shape it, how to make it sing. You will copy it at first, slowly developing your own style. It's what I do.
Keep a notebook of key dialogue phrases. I do this with every book I read. I have a little notebook where I write down simple one-line phrases that I see a lot in books. Dialogue is my biggest frustration since I didn't grow up in America, so it's hard for me to capture the essence of native talk. Also, I learned to eavesdrop and listen, mentally writing down dialogue lines when listening to people talk. This is why I'm sometimes quiet at parties or when I'm with people.
Keep a notebook of nouns, verbs, adjectives. So, I have separate little notebooks for all those words. Nouns and verbs primarily, because those are basic story elements, she did this, he did this, she said this, he said this. In particular, I write down names of body parts, every day objects, and verbs that indicate speech, emotion, or movement. I don't use many adjectives and even less adverbs, but some really cool ones grab my attention and I write them down. I do consult those notebooks when writing, but I found that by simply writing them down I memorize them better.
Read your work aloud. I found that by listening to the rhythm my writing makes, I can detect places where the language sounds unnatural, and then I know those are the places that need fixing. If you can, read to your friends, those who are native English speakers, and ask them to point out your flaws.
Write a lot. There is really only one solution for getting better at writing in English if you are not a native speaker. You have to write a lot, every day.