What makes us stay?

The other day, I made the mistake of saying the word “anywho” to a friend who is a lifelong New Yorker.  If you’ve never heard this word, it means you’re not a midwesterner, and I can’t explain it.  Anyway, my friend suggested that I should probably avoid such provincialisms in the future or else people might find out I’m from Kansas. 

This is not the first time I’ve surprised an Easterner by showing my roots, so to speak, but it always surprises me that they’re surprised, because it’s not like I ever left Kansas.  No.  Still here.  So why are they surprised when I occasionally sound like it?  I admit that I don’t fit the stereotype: my religious and political beliefs aren’t mainstream; I have a Ph.D in medieval literature, I’ve eaten kimchi in Seoul and drunk ouzo in Athens.  And yet I always come back home.  I don’t really fit here, but I don’t fit any better anywhere else, and here they know my name and look out for my daughter. 

I sometimes threaten to move, but I’ve been threatening that for years.  I never will leave, I know that in my heart: I get short of breath, figuratively and literally, in cities and mountains; I can only be who I am under these wide unbroken skies.  Some days I love it, and some I despise it, but it is always home.

Where is yours?

Q&A with . . .

Randy B. Hecht is a journalist who works in English and Spanish for publications in the US, Latin America and Japan. As founder of Aphra Communications, she works with partner Alex Talavera on multi-lingual, multi-cultural research and publishing projects.

Q: This is the second time you’ve tried freelancing.  What happened the first time, and what made you decide to give it a try the second time?

I freelanced part-time for six years during my 20s, when the majority of my income came from working three days a week on-site for a company that provided me with health insurance and pro-rated holiday, vacation, and other benefits. The structure gave me a great opportunity to explore a variety of areas of our business, but at the same time, it put me at a disadvantage in that I wasn’t forced to take responsibility for the marketing and management that ultimately spell a company’s survival or failure. If you’re self-employed, it’s essential that you maintain an equilibrium between having a certain number of “anchor clients” and not relying too heavily on any one source of income, because if that one source of income disappears, it can take your company’s viability with it. That’s what happened to me the first time around: I was laid off, the US was in an economic downturn, and freelancing was no longer sustainable for me.

Oddly enough, I planned my first freelancing career and did not plan my second. In 2001 the investor relations PR firm where I was vice president-communications reduced its workforce by 16%. There were two dedicated writers on staff, I was the one with less tenure, and that was that. I was offered a position that was slated to begin in September of that year. I had started doing some freelance work that summer just to keep myself busy until the new job started, but after September 11 and its economic impact, freelancing became my only career option.

Q: You learned Spanish as a second language.  Can you tell us when and how you learned and what made you decide to incorporate a second language as part of your career?

I studied Spanish from seventh through tenth grades, but foreign languages are taught in US schools almost as if the goal is to make sure students don’t learn to converse. So like most survivors of that system, I knew a lot of words but didn’t know how to use them to communicate well or naturally with native Spanish speakers. Still, during a trip to Ecuador when I was 40, I was determined to at least try to speak Spanish, and the Ecuadorans overwhelmed me with their praise of my fumbling attempts. They made me want to get it right, and I decided during that trip that I’d study the language again. Then I got home and found the key to becoming fluent in the most unexpected of places: one of the souvenirs of my trip, a compilation CD of Latin American music that include three tracks by a Chilean singer I’d never heard of before named Alberto Plaza. I was so taken by his voice that I became determined to buy some of his CDs, which at the time were not sold in the US—so I contacted his office to ask if someone there could refer me to a store in Santiago that would ship to New York. What I didn’t know at the time was that my inquiry made a huge impression on Alberto, who couldn’t believe he’d scored a native English speaking fan. One thing led to another, and 18 months later we met in Santiago. We’ve been friends ever since, and he in turn introduced me—first virtually, and later in real life—to friends of his throughout South America, including Alex Talavera of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, who ultimately became my partner in Aphra Communications. I finally became truly bilingual through a combination of study, conversation with my network of new friends, and working hard to understand the lyrics to Alberto’s songs.

That said, when all this began, I never expected that I would find myself in just a matter of years working as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in Mexico and Colombia. My first publication in Spanish was the product of a dare from my Spanish instructor, Andres Pardo. One week, my homework assignment was to write a business letter. I wrote a query to the editor of a small magazine in Oaxaca, Mexico. Andres told me he wanted me to send the letter to the editor. I told him he was crazy. We must have argued about it for six weeks before one day I decided, what the hell, it’s not like the editor is going to give me the assignment. I sent the query by email essentially to shut Andres up. Twelve hours later, I had an assignment. The article was published roughly 18 months after I got home from Ecuador, and 18 months after that first article saw print, I published a full-page article in a daily newspaper in Guadalajara.

Q: How has being able to read, write and speak Spanish affected your career?

I’ve been very fortunate to have developed the right skills at the right time. With an increasingly global economy and a growing population of Spanish speakers here in the US, it’s very helpful to be able to work in both languages. My favorite example of how these things all come together involves my entry into the Japanese market. A few years ago, a Mexico City company decided to open a franchise in Tokyo, and Wingspan, the in-flight magazine of All Nippon Airways, wanted to cover the story in its English language section. So they needed a native English speaking writer who had contacts in Mexico and could conduct interviews in Spanish, and I was recommended to the editor by one of his freelancers, a US-born lawyer who at the time was living in Saipan. The world is very small, and you can walk through a lot of doors in a lot of far-flung places if you just know how to knock.

Q. Your personal life has also been changed because of your interest in Latin American culture.  Can you share a few details about what you might have missed if you hadn’t gone down this road?

The biggest personal gain for me has been my friendships, above all my friendship with Alex, his family, and the children in the orphanage we’ve “adopted” in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Alex was already volunteering at and making donations to the orphanage when we first met, and at the time I thought he was good-hearted but misguided, because I’ve always concentrated my charitable donations on organizations that help people move beyond the need for charity. The orphanage is underfunded and so has to rely on private donations to buy many essentials that aren’t covered in its budget, and I argued that Alex’s financial support helped to perpetuate the need for charity. His response was, yes, but the children have no milk. Before I knew it, we were buying Christmas presents for 35 children. Then I met those children, and if I had any resistance at all left against Alex, they obliterated it. Since then, we’ve been buying not only their Christmas presents each year, but also some of their monthly basics, including milk, and my perspective has changed a bit. I still prefer to support organizations that give people the tools they need to become economically independent. But one Christmas I was looking at photos of the kids, and I commented to the orphanage’s social worker on how much taller they were than when I’d seen them, and she replied, yes, well, they’re getting milk every day now, aren’t they? Lesson learned: sometimes a glass of milk is a revolution—it won’t change the world, but it can change the world for one child. We have bigger ambitions. We’d like to fund university educations for as many as we can afford to help. But in the mean time, we can help them grow bigger and stronger, physically and emotionally.

 Q.  What do you like most about being who you are right now, where you are right now?

I’ll turn 50 this year. My 40s gave me probably the greatest gift of my life: the knowledge that whatever stage of life you’ve reached, you may not have discovered all of yourself yet, and you may have talents that have yet to reveal themselves to you. The funny thing is, the year I went to Ecuador, my original plan was to travel to Alaska with a friend who wound up unable to go. A chance encounter with a travel brochure made me shift gears (it’s not like I went to the Pacific coast and mistakenly turned left where I was supposed to turn right). If I hadn’t gone to Ecuador, hadn’t chanced embarrassing errors in Spanish, hadn’t bought that CD that introduced me to Alberto’s music, the entire decade would have unfolded differently and I’d be someone else entirely today. So I’ve learned to stay open to new experiences and opportunities, to be willing to take risks, to walk down unfamiliar paths for no more reason than that it feels like that’s what I should be doing. That makes growing older incredibly exciting, because it makes every day of your life a search for the answer to the best of all questions: I wonder what’s going to happen next? I don’t know what the answer will be in the coming decade, but I am confident that I’ll have a lot of fun finding out.

About the 100 choices list

When you’re trying to solve a problem, you have to ask the right question. For the 100 choices list I posted yesterday, I began by thinking about how all of us could probably use a few extra bucks about now.

I posed the problem this way: How can I make money this year as a freelancer despite the state of the economy?

The first thing you’ll notice is that I limited the problem in a way that limits my options. If I want to make more money as a freelancer, then I’m not going to be looking for a staff job. In some ways, this thinking is useful, because it clarifies what I want, not just what I’m willing to settle for. But at the same time, it might rule out some potentially good answers, such as finding a staff job with flexibility, so that I get some of the benefits of being a freelancer (being able to take an afternoon off when I need to) with some of the benefits of employment (regular, reliable income).

Also, adding the disclaimer “despite the state of the economy” makes the situation seem dire. But the state of the economy simply means I need to be more creative in my thinking, not that it’s impossible for me (or you) to make more money this year.

So I decided to recast the problem in a way that’s less restrictive and allows for freer thinking: How can I make money this year?

You could argue that I could reframe the question in another way, such as How can I meet my financial obligations this year? because some options would come up (such as moving to a less expensive house) that don’t turn up in answer to the question How can I make money this year? That’s a valid argument, and one answer is to create a list of various questions that get at the issue of making ends meet and then create a list of 100 options for each of those questions. But I’m not going to do that right now because it would make my head explode.

Birth and rebirth

A friend of mine who is forty-something recently had a baby. This is the third child she has welcomed into her life; the other two are school-aged. I met her for coffee recently, and had the chance to hug her sweet new baby and marvel at how calm and relaxed the new mama was. My friend is always a fairly laid-back person, but this time motherhood seemed to make her particularly tranquil. I was – and am – very happy for her. I know there will be plenty of challenges ahead for her and her family, but this seems to be exactly what she wants for this time in her life. It was one of those rare moments when you feel like things really do work out just the way they’re supposed to.

This doesn’t mean I want to have another child myself (despite my daughter’s assurances that it would be a lot of fun!!! if I had a baby). Just that I can see how fulfilling this might be to someone entering the second half of her life.

When one of my sisters was this age, she became a grandmother (making me a great-aunt, thank you very much). I couldn’t help but smile at the different choices women make in their lives – the different choices that woman can make in their lives now that they have more control over them than probably at any other time in the past.

When your second act can include becoming a mother or a grandmother (or potentially both), anything is possible.

Finding a Teacher

A blogger I follow — Laura Young at No Safe Distance — recently posted on the importance of carefully choosing role models. This got me to thinking about all of the teachers I’ve had over the years who’ve helped me to understand how to accomplish various goals. They’ve also helped me see the reality of various goals I’ve set for myself. When I actually talk with successful novelists, for example, it helps me see that there’s nothing magical about their lives, so I don’t expect to somehow be transformed into a carefree, happy-go-lucky charmer if my next novel makes the New York Times Bestseller List. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like it to happen. I just know that the reality is, I will still have to deal with rejection, editors who change jobs, royalties that take a while to arrive and all of the other usual challenges of the writing life.

I’ve found teachers in various ways over the years. Here are some suggestions for how you might find yours:

Consider who in your life right now might be a good teacher for you as a writer. If you have someone in mind, consider yourself an apprentice. It doesn’t need to be a formal relationship. You could offer to buy the teacher lunch if he or she will give you some pointers about writing.

If no one pops to mind, then keep yourself open to finding a teacher. Don’t force the issue, but do pursue opportunities that you may have disregarded before. For example, take a writing class at a nearby college or arts center. Attend a writers’ workshop. Join a writers’ organization and participate in local meetings. Go online and take part in writers’ listservs and bulletin boards. Hit the library and find books by writers you admire, and books about writing that can guide you. Let others around you know that you’re open to finding a teacher or mentor who can help you shape your writing and your writing career.

What are some ways you’ve found a teacher?