Am I a writer now?
I would be lying if I said I’ve always wanted to become a writer.
I believe that my love for foreign languages and for the performing arts have made me a decent communicator but, until two years ago, my writing experience was limited to cringy pop lyrics when I was 16 and one or two articles about agriculture when I worked for the Council of the European Union.
When we moved to China, I figured that a blog would be the ideal way for me to tell my friends and family back in Europe about life in China. I didn’t know anything about blogging and was convinced that bloggers were kale-eating, politically correct hipsters who brought their laptops to fancy cafés. I decided to name my blog after Katie Melua’s beautiful song “Nine million bicycles in Beijing”. And there you go - I can now be found on a regular basis at cafés around Beijing, behind my laptop while I enjoy my favourite sandwich: cream cheese and kale.
From Beijing touch-down to the real househusbands
I posted my very first blog post exactly two years ago - on 14 January 2016. I quickly realised how therapeutic it felt to tell my readers about my first impressions of living in Beijing. It was a way to express my excitement as well as my frustrations and writing quickly became an escape from the first "bad China days" – a concept most foreigners living here are familiar with.
My first post got something like 600 views and I was chuffed with that! After a year in China and Ninemillionbicycles starting to pick up with 20.000 page views in total the first year, I began to play with the idea of getting something published in a "real" magazine or paper. I felt like a Beijing based magazine for expats was a good place to start and when I contacted the (now former) editor and pitched my first idea, I got the feeling that a new door was opening.
Lessons learnt about word count and editors:
I truly enjoyed the interview- and research process for my first real article. It was about stay-at-home dads in Beijing and not only did I learn a lot about the topic and the lives of stay at home dads - I also learnt a great deal about the process of pitching ideas, writing and re-writing.
When you write for an established media, be it a news platform, a magazine or a paper, you can’t just submit an article and pretend it’s for your blog. You always have to respect style guides, word limits and editorial rules. Examples are numbers from one to ten spelled out, choose between inverted commas and italics (don’t mix them) and be careful about your commas. One media I write for allows contributors to use one exclamation mark per year - and only if it's strictly necessary.
It’s the editor’s responsibility to make sure that your articles live up to the magazine’s standards. Since I started writing for magazines in China, I have come across different styles of editing. From no editing at all to what I call extreme editing – when you hardly recognize your piece in the final, published product. Some editors ask you to re-write or re-structure your piece while some don’t involve you in the process at all – in which case the wait until the magazine is published can be rather anxious.
Lessons learnt about rediscovering your mother tongue
English is not my native language. It is a language I started learning from a rather young age, the language I studied at university and my primary work language during my career in the European Union. It felt natural for me to start a blog in English. I suppose I also believed I would have more readers and followers that way. While I do enjoy writing in English, there is no denying that you miss certain linguistic nuances if you write in a language that isn’t your native language. I started flirting with the idea of writing in Danish in the spring of 2017. I wasn’t sure how to approach it until a Danish journalist friend in Beijing mentioned the blog-based digital media platform "Point of View International". Thankfully, the editor was happy to give me a chance so my first ever piece in Danish came to life on a July morning on my parents' terrasse in Northern Jutland. It felt surprisingly good to be writing in my mother tongue.
Lessons learnt about taking responsibility for what you write – and paying the consequences
I have never tried to launch myself into hard-core journalism. I do enjoy researching but the focal point in my published China-stories tends to be the human being. Whether I write about the real househusbands of Beijing or the 17th Communist Party Congress in China, I try to tell my stories from and everyday-life angle and I aim for the big story told in a small story.
One of the many things I’ve learnt about writing is that slight exaggeration is a good thing. It is fun to play with words that make your story more appealing to the reader and whenever possible, I try to spice up my stories with some humour and self-irony.
It normally works out - but not always. I recently wrote a piece in Danish about the pros and cons of having a full-time housekeeper. I chose the slightly provocative title “can you please hoover somewhere else while I’m watching TV?”. My aim with the piece was to use said irony to tell the story of my privileged life full of first-world problems. The editor did warn me of a possible shit-storm from my Danish readers and true enough, my piece was perceived by many as a complaint and I was perceived as an ungrateful idiot. Thankfully, I was able to laugh about it. Probably because I know that I didn't mean what I wrote - if that makes any sense at all?
Lessons learnt about writer’s block:
Just like my assumptions about bloggers, I always thought writers were well-balanced people with a romantic and stress-free life. I imagined they would sit and sip coffee by a big window in the mountains somewhere. Or overlooking the sea. Those mountains or that sea would be the only inspiration they need. But let me tell you; the right view and the perfect conditions (in my case our great view over the skyscrapers of Beijing’s Central Business District, a quiet house, a good topic and the perfect steaming oolong tea in front of you) never seem to be enough. Inspiration doesn’t come easy. In fact, it tends to come at the weirdest moments. Like at 3 am or when you’re seated on the metro and don’t have your laptop with you and you start franticly typing in notes on your phone.
What makes a writer?
You can’t call yourself a surgeon or an architect unless you have a degree but what’s the story with writers? Wikipedia’s definition of a writer is a person who uses written words in various styles and techniques to communicate their ideas. Still, despite having articles published and (writer) friends that encourage me, I have somehow been feeling unworthy of the title writer. I recently joined a Facebook group called “writers helping writers”. While most of the group members are novelists, I see an avalanche of encouragement for any type of writing every day. Two days ago, someone wrote “what makes you believe that you are a writer”? I was so curious to know the answer that I read through all 208 comments. The replies ranged from “the publisher checks I deposit” to “anyone who writes more that tweets and Facebook updates is a writer”. My favourite reply was: “I write”.
So there you go. I write so I am a writer. Welcome to my new site.
I want to thank everyone who has inspired me, helped me and encouraged me to pursue writing.
Apart from my family, my friends from all over the world and of course my readers, I would like to give special thanks to:
Writer and editor friends Berni Marwick, Rebecca Alexander and Catherine Taylor.
Former editor for City Weekend Parents & Kids Lisa Gay
Editor Cheng Ximeng for Global Times (Beijing Metropolitan section)
Editor-in-chief for POV International Annegrethe Rasmussen
Chief content manager for Beijingkids Kipp Whittaker