In August 2008, there I sat with my pile of empty book boxes. The previous year had been a time of such creativity and growth. TOMANDO AGUA DEL POZO was successful, and I got it into my head that I should try fiction.
Fortune provided me with an opportunity to attend a creative writing workshop in San Miguel Allende and I looked forward to a new chapter opening up in my budding career as a writer.
Ha! I’d have been better to spend my time embroidering a banner that read: “Beware of Getting Ahead of Thine-self” The 2 week course was an exercise in humility. I realized that yes, I had the ability to tell my own story, and I could think up new plots because I have imagination. But I lacked the techniques, pacing, and structure to narrate anything more complex.
I didn’t dwell on my negative feelings of inadequacy though, I began the process of learning how to do all of the above. I must add that this process NEVER ends. It doesn’t matter how many times I re-write, it is AWAYS possible to write it better. But at some point, a writer has to leave well enough alone and let the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters go to print as they are.
A met generous writers from the San Miguel Literary Sala who have never stopped cheering me onward and upward. I attended the San Miguel Writers’ Conference on several occasions and I took more courses there.
In the fall of 2009, I recounted my experiences in San Miguel to my friend and fellow writer, Rainie Baillie, and we decided to form a writers’ group closer to home. Many of Merida’s aspiring authors joined us, as did visititors who spent winters in Yucatan. The Merida Writers’ Group (MWG) started that fall and happily it is still going strong. I am no longer a fully active member, but my support and gratitude to MWG should never be questioned.
My first novel, THE WOMAN WHO WANTED THE MOON spans 20+ years (1968 – 1990) of contemporary Mexican history. The protagonists are talented but their interactions are peppered with betrayal and self-interest, as well as other excesses that constantly threaten their relationships. These in turn mirror the devastating socio-political and economic realities of the same time period in the country. It took 7 years to finish the book, in part because I completed another project before publishing this one.
MAGIC MADE IN MEXICO is the most successful book I ‘ve written. The theme is cultural adaptation to a new country, the same as my first, but written to reflect the focus of the publisher that bought the rights from me. I liked most of the changes I was asked to make and the resulting book was widely read by international residents all over Mexico. Because it was published by a national house, it received more distribution. One of my greatest “author thrills” happened when I visited the gift shop of The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and saw copies of Magic Made in Mexico on the shelves.
My fourth book is my favorite. It is a family memoir called CIRCLES that recounts the relationship between my Canadian father and his Dutch first cousin. Because of the 40 year difference in age, I call her Aunt Gisele. During WWII she hid many Jewish friends in her tiny apartment on the Herengracht, one of Amsterdam’s principal canals. She risked her life every day to keep everyone safe and fed as best she could. My dad, John was a private in one of the Canadian divisions that fought to liberate the Netherlands. He had his cousin’s address, so when he got a day’s leave, he called on her. What he found horrified him, and she says if not for the food and other provisions he quickly acquired for them, they would have starved to death. After May 1945, he was deployed to the displaced persons camps in Belgium. The two cousins never saw each other again. However, they corresponded regularly. When Dad died in 1982, my sister and I carried on the letter writing.
For nearly six decades after the end of WWII, Gisele led a colourful life as an artist and international spokesperson. She was officially decorated by the Dutch, German and Israeli governments. I did not meet her until I was 50 and she was 90. But fortunately during the final part of her life, I visited with her many times. Despite all the difficulties Gisele experienced, she remained curious and joyful until her death at 100 years.
So, between 2007 and 2015, I published four books. Blogging, short stories and travel pieces have figured most prominently since then. I do have another novel in the works but not quite the same impetus to finish it because the onslaught of social media has radically altered the reading habits of most people. In fact, many formerly avid readers seem satisfied with the ever-changing, continuous feed of short enticing material available on a whole gamut of internet platforms.
So what does the future hold for writers? Let’s explore that in my next post.
In 1992, when I decided to stop writing for “The News”, I found out how much my writing meant to me. But as I’ve said, with everything that was going on, I did not have time to worry about it. Using just a typewriter, even the state-of-the-art one I had – electric with automatic shifting, a cartridge rather than a spool of inked ribbon, the ability to erase and make corrections – it took a couple of hours to get even one clean page completed. A couple of hours I could not often afford to spend.
But I found a way around that. I started writing at night and in the early morning. I also developed the ability to punch out a few lines as I cooked, revised students’ assignments, and even while reading. It amazed me how many “folders” my brain could keep open at the same time.
In 1995, I got my first word processor that printed out copy on a big unwieldy roll of paper. We had a fax machine and photocopier at our college, and I believed technology had reached it’s max. I could write faster, have multiple copies and send my work anywhere in the world. This allowed me to do a few travel pieces and short stories. Some got published, and that fed my appetite for more.
One January night in 2007, I sat bolt upright in bed with an all-consuming need to write “something long”. I had never studied Creative Writing. I didn’t know about genres or writing techniques. My grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation were not much more advanced than the English work books we had for the English-language students at TTT. But I could structure paragraphs and from all my reading, I had an extensive vocabulary.
I tiptoed from the bedroom, sat down at the family desk top and I began. The story had already been laid out in my mind. I didn’t even need to think about what I’d write, and during that first session, I composed the first paragraph of my first book:
“I’ve often wondered what would happen if we could recognize pivotal times in our personal journeys – the “forks in the road” that present themselves. Do we ever see them coming? Does a vague premonition warn us that certain decisions are destined to truly change our path? If we could anticipate these critical junctions, would we have the nerve to follow through? Thirty-plus years ago, I surely did not sense that my life was about to veer radically off course. I had no idea what was in store for me for the rest of my days. I was caught completely unawares… and I went headlong through the door that opened to me…”
I didn’t tell anyone about my project until I felt reasonably sure that I could finish. Jorge of course knew I was up to something and he became the first person to learn the details. Not long after, I shared with other family members and good friends.
I figured my story would interest people, but I did not plan to publish it. TMI (too-much-information) I figured my family especially would not want to see their lives paraded in print. But they surprised me. They thought the idea was grand. So I kept going.
The keyboard clicked fast, the first part of the book took not much more than a month to finish. But it was all about my life. Yes, I had my mini-memoir, but during the first decade of the 21st century, many foreign-born people had moved to our city. Jorge encouraged me to add more information and publish a “How-to-live-in-Merida” guide book.
I decided I would include details about life in Merida, but focus on cultural pointers to help out the newcomers. That done, I approached several friends who also wanted their stories shared and the third part of the book came together. Finally Jorge suggested that I round off with a condensed historical section about Merida, Yucatan and Mexico.
Choosing a title was a harder job than I thought. I wanted to call my book, TOMANDO AGUA DEL POZO. This is a popular saying in Yucatan, and in English it means, DRINKING FROM THE WELL. It refers to the well-established fact that many people born outside Yucatan, end up staying once they “drink the water” – or more plainly said – they realize how lovely it is here. That certainly happened to me. My worry was that people would not recognize that a Spanish-language title could be a book written in English. This did turn out to be true to some extent, but most prospective readers figured it out.
In September 2007, after the entire book had been finished and was to my liking, I passed it to my friend, Juanita Stein. (Here I must mention that this is indeed the same Juanita who worked as Yucatan Today’s editor for 12 years and now owns Between the Lines – more than just a book store) She had vast copywriting experience and she did a marvelous job of trimming and editing. WOW! I went shopping for a printer. I had no illusions that any publisher would want to do anything with my writing. I found my print shop, and the proprietor was a stellar man, but I made a huge error. He had no knowledge of English and when my English-language manuscript was fed into his Spanish language program, his auto-correct over-rode my spelling, punctuation and a lot more. All my work and Juanita’s was a jumble of gobble-gook. We both felt heartsick and neither Juanita nor I had any time to fix the mess fast. This was a Friday and I had contracted the offset press for the following Monday. OMG!
I had saved my pre-edited files and had a print-out of Juanita’s, but how would I manage to finish in time? That’s when two fellow writers came to my aid. Marianne Kehoe, Rainie Bailey and I poured over the hundreds of thousands of words until we were cross-eyed. But they saved the day, and the horrendous job was done in time.
My “publisher” arrived at our home with the first 10 “author copies” just as I was in the midst of hosting an annual Christmas tea for the International Women’s Club. The excitement was huge. Those 10 books got passed from hand-to-hand, just like the letters I wrote when I first came to Yucatan, and also like the articles I wrote for the Vistas section of The News.
Most people never forget their first love. For a writer, there is no excitement that can compare with seeing their first book finished, and actually being read by people. No words adequately describe the happiness I felt that afternoon.
Later that week, 1,000 copies were delivered to our college. Do you know how many boxes that is? Nor do I quite remember, but major furniture had to be moved away from my office’s back wall to fit them all in. How and when would I get rid of them?
Those questions were quickly answered. Jorge and I hosted a launch at TTT, and a couple of hundred blue books left the building. I carried copies in the back of my car and wherever I went, people wanted them. By August, they had gone to new homes. WHEW!
But that was not the end. Just as Joe Nash read my letters and wanted me to write for his newspaper, a copy of TOMANDO AGUA DEL POZO found its way into the hands of a publisher and he wanted me to re-write, re-name and re-publish. But that story is for tomorrow or maybe the day after.
If you did not read the two facebook posts written before today’s post, I’ve included them here so you’ll have the complete story.
How my writing career began: Part One:
(Posted first on Facebook, February 24, 2021)
Many people who have read my books ask how I started writing… and most are surprised when I say it all started with letters. When I moved to Merida in 1976, communication with my family and friends was challenging and the only real option was the mail. A fantasy version of the Internet existed only in Dick Tracy comic books. Telegrams were unreliable, and phone calls were prohibitively expensive. So I spent several afternoons a week “attending to my correspondence”, written in longhand. These descriptive missives were my way of introducing everyone from my former home to the steep learning curve in my new home. My mother would pass them to my sisters, who passed them to their friends and so on. Way back then my life was hotly debated back in North Vancouver. Some of those letters still exist and when I re-read them, I feel nostalgia, accomplishment, embarrassment and gratitude.
The nostalgia is for that carefree 23 year-old who had such belief in love, goodness, Latin culture and adventure that she went running into the arms of a man she’d just met who looked like he would certainly offer all of the above. The accomplishment is what I feel because I managed to make a place for myself in Merida. The embarrassment is for the misguided way I figured I should go about such a challenge. The gratitude is for that man whose arms I was lucky enough to fall into.
Tomorrow, I’ll write about how I moved on from letters to my first “writing gig”
How my writing career began; Part Two:
(Posted first on Facebook, February 24, 2021)
Yesterday I wrote about how I came to live in Merida in 1976, and how the letters I wrote to far away friends and family actually launched my writing career. Those letters got passed around a lot and one of them travelled from the deep-pocketed purse of my friend, Suzi Lewis in Mexico City into the hands of Joe Nash, the legendary editor of the Vistas section at the Mexico City News.
Joe enjoyed my somewhat naive and humorous take on life as one of the few foreign-born women living in Yucatan. The next day he contacted me. OMG a long distance call, person-to-person from Mexico City “Buenos Dias”, I said, I had no idea of who was on the line. “Do – you – speak – English?” asked the mysterious voice?”
“Oh yes, I do,” The world was a much less fearful place back in 1980, I did not care who this man was, he had contacted me and in English. I was intrigued. He explained how he was a friend of the esteemed Suzi, and she had shown him a letter I wrote. He said he needed a correspondent in Merida and could I write something for him?
“Oh I am not a writer,” I said. And he responded with a fierce reprimand. “Don’t ever say that to anyone,. You are a writer and if you can write about Merida like you write about your life in a Yucatecan family, you will get my recommendation for the job.”
Well, I wrote my piece and Jorge and I drove to the airport to send it, with pictures, via Mexicana cargo mail service, a precursor of the many courier services that operate today. A few days later, Joe called back. “I’m running your story in this Sunday’s paper, watch for it.” And he hung up.
First thing Sunday morning, Jorge and I were outside the Hollywood Book Store on Parque Hidalgo. We were told the paper would not arrive until 11 am. We went to Mass at La Tercera Orden and I prayed my article would not be the ridicule of the whole town. When I saw my photo and byline and the header: “New writer joins Vistas family,” I about died from joy. It seems that all my letter writing had been heading somewhere and I wasn’t even aware of it. When we got home again, with about 5 copies of the paper, Suzie called me on the phone to congratulate me. “You are the talk of the city,” she said.
People in our nation’s capital were reading my story? I told Suzie over and over again how much I appreciated her help. “Anything for my paisana (fellow country woman), she said. Unfortunately, I am posting this at night, and the photo of one of my articles is muzzy.
I wrote for “Vistas” and for other sections of “The News” until 1992. By then Jorge and I had begun our life’s career at TTT, our college in downtown Merida. My job there and raising our children became too demanding to keep up my newspaper job. Remember, Internet had not quite arrived and all my research was done with books and Jorge’s help.
But I will never forget Joe Nash and the great experience he gave me. To me, he was “a prince of a man” who called himself an “old Mexico hand”. I’ll bless him always.
Tomorrow I will write about my “night job”, as my writing-in-the-middle-of-the-night got named. And you’ll see where that took me next. The photo of me, taken in 2007, holding a blue-covered book gives you a big-fat clue.
Mary Elizabeth Walberg is the moderator of a website called, YUCATAN BEACH FRIENDS. Each Sunday she publishes an interview with someone living in the community. However, sometimes her column doesn’t feature a person, but rather several of them who are associated with an institution, service club or a structure of historical merit. I enjoyed reading her account of the families and fortunes associated with El Pastel – The Wedding Cake – an iconic summer residence on the Malecón of Progreso. The house gained its moniker because literally, it does resemble a multi-tiered, sugar-coated confection. I wrote to Mary to comment on her interesting story.
She and I had been introduced previously, but always at a big event. We are both from Vancouver and one morning last month, we decided to have coffee together. It was fun to talk with someone from the old stomping ground. After 20 minutes or so, we both realised that our conversation was touching on subject matter for one of her weekly columns.
Last Sunday, February 7th her interview with me was published.
In fact we talked about so much that Mary decided to break the material into two parts. The second one will be published next Sunday, February 15th.
I received quite a number of comments, both on the Yucatan Beach Friends site and by email. One of them read:
“Hello Joanna, I read the comments you gave to Mary at Yucatan Beach Friends. I hope you will share more information soon. I know I’m not the only one with lots more questions.”
Hm-m-m-m, that got me thinking. I have written more than I ever wanted to write about the most recent former U.S-president, and I am exhausted from NOT writing about the activities I usually enjoy because the all-consuming COVID 19 has put the kibosh on most of them. For example this week is the one time a year, when I join other painters in Carolina Weis’ long-running annual art rendezvous, MERIDA IN 5 DAYS. Everyone who participates has such a fabulous time, and we all produce one work a day, in five different locations in and around Merida. Sigh – Sigh – Sigh –
Now, I am not suggesting that I’m an expert on any topic, but I do know a fair bit about adapting to a new culture and country. So I offer this blog as a place for asking the questions that have you stumped.
As you can imagine, the person who sent the comment is tackling several hurdles right now. As I am doing with him (or is it her?) names and other personal information will be kept confidential. So, if you’ve got something you’d like put out there, write to me at: email@example.com