Monday, January 30, 2012

31 Writers, 31 Lessons-Lesson 30: Spice Your Writing with the Details of Life

A writer is always writing, even when a writer isn’t writing.

I taught English for a time in Thailand. This was ten years ago, and I did no writing at all then—or so I thought at the time.

Instead, I jotted down notes, at night under mosquito netting, sometimes by flashlight or candlelight, while the mosquito coils gave off their pungent smell. I saved the scraps and notes and carried them across the Pacific Ocean with me back to the U.S. My notes sat packed away for days, weeks, months, years, but eventually I dumped them out on the floor and started sifting through them.

I discovered recipes I’d forgotten I had jotted down, including a Burmese dish I loved made of peanuts, parsley, cilantro, carrots, roasted red peppers, garlic and lime juice. Another recipe I found consisted of bean paste fried into thin, crispy shells, stirred with onions, vinegar, and oil.

Writing is a lot like cooking. Someday, we will stir the ingredients together and create something delicious for others to taste. But today, even if your life doesn’t allow you to create that five-course novel you’re planning, you can still be collecting the most amazing spices and ingredients and even experimenting with them in a poem, or story, or blog. You never know how one little tidbit you set aside today might season tomorrow’s dish. It doesn’t matter if you write fiction or non-fiction—they both need salt and pepper.

When I taught English in a Thai village I learned from the villagers to dip un-ripened mango slices into a mixture of salt, sugar, and red pepper flakes. I learned to season my noodle soup with lime juice and vinegar and basil leaves, red pepper flakes and fish sauce and sugar. Thai food is a marvelous explosion of hot, sour, salty and sweet, all balanced together perfectly in the same dish. So notice the spice of your daily life—a salty conversation, a sour scene, a hot character, a sweet thought. Jot these savory morsels down and someday maybe you can throw them together in perfect balance and create a sumptuous feast for others to enjoy. Below are some "morsels" I jotted down during my trip in Thailand:

Some of my students were Burmese refugees who had left their turbulent country behind and were on their way to other countries. They paused on the border for a brief time—it was just a pit stop. But they were hungry to learn English because that was the language of most of the countries they were headed to. Late at night, they played softly on guitars under the stars. One student was only a teenager when he fled to the Cambodian-Thai border, where he found gems to sell in Thai markets.

“One night some drug addicts pound on my hut and shout at me, demand my money,” he explained. “Then they broke in and stabbed me. I was bleeding and I ran into the jungle. After that, I find some of my people here.”

He fell silent and strummed pensively on his guitar. Then he began to sing.

“What’s this song about?” I asked him.

“I miss my—“ he paused and I assumed he was searching for the word “girlfriend” or “lover” or “fiancée.”

“I miss my nation-state,” he finished.

Another student, on his way to a new life, lay in a hammock dialing through a short-wave radio. Under the nearly full moon, he was trying hard to learn the meaning, from Voice of America, of bugaboo.

“Because he has a bugaboo about getting fired, he’s a workaholic.”

“Oh!” he exclaimed, when the Burmese translation of gung-ho was given.

A little later, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out from the radio, and was then translated into Burmese.

“I have a dream!” someone burst out in the night, trying out the phrase on his tongue.

Lynne Walker has worked as a journalist and teacher, among other things. Her book Strange Sky is now available on Kindle on Amazon. She is also working on the book The Mystery of Garabandal, coming soon. You can find Lynne's work, sprinkled with just the right spice of life, over on her blog called Strange Islands. She is also a contributor on the blog Writers Rising.


  1. Yes, I agree, a writer is always a writer and is always collecting ideas and material. Love your post! It made me hungry ^_^!

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