Journals from Abroad #1

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It’s 5.25 in the morning. The excitement in my gut has woke me. Or possibly the deep pit of anxiety that made its home in my stomach in the last three weeks. Exams of the fourth semester in Germany were over, I only had to write three more essays. And pack. How do you pack a suitcase for half a year? I would be staying in Sweden over the winter. Which item could you not need? When we were getting in the car I decided to leave the Christmas-tree necklace, and the third warm jacket at home. Minimalism? I tried.

It’s Saturday and today I will arrive at my destination. I never dreamt I would get there. Last autumn I started applying to universities abroad. Last winter I shuffled around folders of paper, sent dozens of emails, and made myself known in the ERASMUS office at our university. “You again” I heard her say in her head, every time she saw me. Somehow, I got the place I wanted. Just an email. While studying for environmental economics. “Bla bla bla, the double dividend is a tool that enforces higher environmental taxes in order to lower unemployment and…”

“Congratulations, you have received a spot at the university of Halmstad for the coming winter semester.”

Out of the blue. I sat in the library with that email on my phone. I went to the bathroom for a moment, let out a scream of which I until this day do not know which emotion it contained, and returned to studying. “Its basic idea is shown in the following graphs…”

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Now I’m here, in a small house in the forest. Outside the rain droops from the trees and bounces of the roof and the red wooden walls. The rain has been going on for two days now. The towels don’t dry anymore, nor does the toilet paper. But we have been granted a few sunny days, too. Swedish summer- 15 degrees. My friends are scattered over the world. Lilli went to Australia, Izzy to Costa Rica, and Hannah sits in her winter clothes on Iceland. 12 degrees there. The locals run around in shorts and tops, she has fished her gloves out of her suitcase.

Summer in Sweden, especially in the forest is not like the summer I know from Germany. It is calmer, somehow, dignified. We sat in our green plastic chairs all day with our faces in the sun and tried to absorb as much energy as we could. I will need it in those dark days. I’m not as far north as it would change anything, but still. I ate my way through several books, starting off with a piece by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”. Toni Morrison… She has been sitting on my bookshelf for months and I never started. Wish I had. Every character is in its way so unique, every plot line so intricate. She introduces an important scene of the main character through the eyes of a minor one. She develops ties that are so flexible and strong that you would never guess what the character does next- but you feel their dilemma. It’s a book the humble writer can learn a lot from.

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“I’ve never been to a place so silent”, my dad said. Free from human noise pollution, that is. Nature makes itself known through the tender rain, the dancing of the trees, the birds at night, and the bees circling around. In the forest, you can hear the mosses breathe. I read “The signature of all things” by Elizabeth Gilbert last week and her main character studies mosses for the best part of her life. I kneeled down in the woods, caressing the tiny structures that presented themselves in front of me. Illuminated by the afternoon sun. In the forest I could zoom in, live as an admirer of the small. And I could look at the rocks and trees above and marvel at their greatness. The forest slows my steps. It heals my soul.

We drove off the ferry onto the motorway to Göteborg and there were street signs. And I could read them. For one year I studied Swedish with duolingo. Learning words I thought I’d never need and now I saw them. On the street signs in Sweden. My dad couldn’t quite understand the wonder I felt. But to this day, the language had somehow existed in my head (I knew it was real, I had been in Sweden before, but ignorant of its grammar and word structure).

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The forest filled our batteries. We read and we cooked and we wandered about. We laughed at the geese that stumbled across the street from one lake to the other in front of our car. We thanked the man who brought us fresh mushrooms he had picked in the forest. They were delicious. We counted shooting stars one night, sitting with chairs and blankets in the middle of a path. When we got to four, we started ranking them. We stopped at 17 because we were freezing and couldn’t remember the numbers anymore. We jumped into the lake and scared off the fish. We picked wild berries on our walks and let their juice wash away the insignificant worries in our stomachs.

It was a beautiful time in a place of calmness. I’m terrified of the next week and what it might bring. But for now, everything is peaceful.

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The Writing Craft

In his book “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” Roy Peter Clark lists ways to improve your writing. The book starts off with technical advice on how to structure sentences. The most helpful tip was to place the important words in the beginning of your sentence. You start with subjects and verbs. The less meaningful comes in the back. This way, you can guide your reader through the longest sentences.

The second part deals with choosing the right words. You learn how to achieve tension in your plot and how you can set the pace. For example, you can vary the sentence and the paragraph lengths.

Part three is about the practicals of writing. I loved the tool “rehearsal”. Procrastination or writer’s block are less frightening if you reword them as preparation. Just the thought of writer’s block makes my inspiration river go dry. When I now dwell on the topic in my head, it helps me to improve my ideas.

You find editing and the social aspects of writing in the last part of the book. I have never had any trouble with revising my work. It is much easier to cut a phrase than to write it. Knowing what to cut is an art form. It’s like painting for me. You add some colour to your canvas and if you don’t like what you did, you add a layer above it. You shape your painting just as you do your writing, until it feels right.

Through “Writing Tools” I have understood that writing is but a craft which can be mastered. Sewing the word together requires a pointy needle, a strong thread, and a colourful fabric.