Thursday, March 24, 2011

Guest in Progress: Julie Wakeman-Linn on Creating a Writing Life in Africa

The dynamic and fabulous Julie Wakeman-Linn has guest blogged before—about creating her own writing retreat and her life as editor of The Potomac Review—so clearly she’s always up to interesting things…and today’s post may top them all in terms of “interesting things.” Julie is on leave, in Tanzania, figuring out how a Type A, workaholic DC writer who’s used to packing 30 hours into a day can, well, do nothing but write:

The Indian Ocean is blue and aqua green, the horizon empty of clouds. My view is framed by palm trees, papaya trees and flame trees. Here in Dar Es Salaam, I have taken over a second floor bedroom as my den so I can watch the waves or sit on the balcony right outside when I want an ocean breeze.

I, Julie Wakeman-Linn, professor of English at Montgomery College, program co-chair of two different writing conferences, Editor in chief of the Potomac Review, am on leave. Free from classes, committee meetings, the slush pile, the key element of my life to be managed is me. I’m used to being busy all the time, but now each day stretches out, mostly open. Every writer thinks she or he wants this situation, but how can she ensure it will be a productive time and not just a long vacation in a beautiful place?

Last week, Leslie was at VCCA, a magical place, but most people are in residence for one- two -three weeks; I face seventy eight weeks. Like most writers I have a list of projects that runs to two single spaced pages, so material to work with is not the issue. My list includes minor things like finish the second novel, revise the first novel, write the brand new prairie novel as well as writing new stories that arise from this wild existence here in Tanzania. So it isn’t inspiration that is required, but two other personality traits: discipline and adjustment.

Adjustment seems to be hardest: How to settle into household, social, and writing routines so I really use these eighteen months. Here I have a housekeeper, Devota, and two gardeners, Humphrey and Joseph, who came along with this beautiful furnished house, so I’m free from drudgery. My key task is to become accustomed to people around me all day; I’ve had to get over the guilt of someone else “working” while I sit at a computer screen. I’m told Devota’s salary places her securely in Tanzanian middle class and that economic fact helps dilute my Irish Catholic Midwestern guilt. Better yet-- Devota has come to understand that if I’m sitting at the desk with my back to the door, I don’t want to talk. She moves around the house as quietly as the emerald green geckos.

I chat with the gardeners in their indifferent English trying to use my budding Swahili. Mostly we just smile and laugh at each other once or twice day.

The social adjustment has been trickier; I’m a workaholic, and in a third world/expatriate society there are dozens of volunteer opportunities. Help run the United Nations Spouse group fundraising ball, volunteer at the High school for orphan girls, start teaching a writing group, connect with the guy who wants to create a literary magazine. A wise woman here said “don’t volunteer for anything for six months.” I should only observe until I know what is the best activity for me, but I don’t just sit very well.

The flip side of the coin is missing my network in Maryland, a lively supportive group of writers, faculty members and friends. Here I don’t know anybody yet because I’m not plugged into volunteering, clubs, and fundraisers. I have to have patience to take time to meet people here while realizing they are never going to replace the most special people in my writing life. I have to balance my needs for socializing against my writing time.

An odd coincidence that has really helped is talking to other “tag along spouses” who, like me, left careers behind or on hold. Their sympathy and advice on how to adapt to a suddenly wide open schedule has helped me relax about playing bridge in the daytime which feels so decadent.

My next adjustment is the writing routine. Like many writers, I’m best when I am on a ferocious deadline, preferably externally imposed like a contest. I’m lining up lots of those deadlines, but I can’t fill all the weeks and months with them; I’ll go broke from contest fees. Instead of relying on external pressure, I divide up my day into chunks for different types of writing and those random errands like buying groceries. I use the sunlight to help me focus.

At this latitude, dawn is always right around 6 a.m. After some journaling with the creamy sunrise, I have breakfast and send off that hard working spouse to his office. In the morning, I work on a defined task: either a timed writing or a specific new scene. I like to write new rough drafts before 10 am when it starts to get hot. Sometimes I pace the balcony or write outside with the birds and the geckos. Midmorning, I’ll have a nibble if I skipped breakfast or a little bit of exercise like a quick dip in the pool. Next I’ll dig into a part of a big project that requires a steady hand and an open mind like revision of a chapter. For a break I’ll run an errand, have lunch and nap with some reading. I keep my “out of the den” errands, volunteering and shopping, bunched to the afternoon whenever possible. The late afternoon, as the sun heads towards the western horizon, is the time for the most loving, careful, sentence by sentence drafting. Or on bad days, I do marketing.

If my spouse is running late, as he often is, I pick up an engaging novel to read or a difficult writing task, like in-between scenes in a mostly done story, but it must be a task that completely absorbs my attention so I don’t think about waiting for him.

Contrary to human nature, discipline hasn’t been a problem for me. I would give credit to several factors. First once I’ve begun the day writing, I can continue. Yesterday I sat at 6:58 pm, working on this guest blog, when in Maryland I never wrote new material after twelve noon.

Because I have so much free time, day by day and week by week, I both play and work more easily. I am a hopeless keeper of lists and I list my writing projects and revisit and reorder those lists regularly. It doesn’t matter which project I am working on as long as I am working.
The second discipline factor comes from examples of friends and writers who have done this successfully. My pal Susi Wyss took time off from her job to just write and her beautiful collection The Civilized World, comes out this month( ). My first time in Africa I was much younger and running the social scene for the American Canadian Women’s Club, but two women I knew stepped away to do art. They were lovely, friendly, but always busy in their mornings. I understand them now.

The final factor is reporting to my Maryland network. I have started a blog, Gecko Tails ( In it my friends, writing pals, students and even family members get the latest fun photo from Tanzania and a brief report of what I have accomplished that week. Thanks to Susi for the idea for reporting back and to Leslie for her excellent blog as an ideal and also as motivation to write regularly on Gecko Tails. Subscribe to Gecko Tails and follow along. My photos are a great little escape to the tropics and to safaris on the Serengeti.

A couple of tricks have helped me develop this routine. About once a week, I let myself read a whole novel in two-three days which I haven’t done in years; secondly, I tell people here in Dar es Salaam that I’m writing and I’m not really available in the morning. They seem to be respecting that request, while letting me play bridge. It helps that in the pattern of life here, Swahili Time, nobody does anything before lunch anyway except for a couple of diplomat/expat spouse group monthly meetings. Finally I have remembered to play--exercise, swim, go to the fun dinner parties, explore the wood carver’s market. Oh yes, and Skype helps.

About ten weeks into the eighteen months, I can report the following: two stories finished and polished and submitted, two new stories started from raw material, another old story retrieved, repaired and submitted and finally pages of notes on this environment.

A final note, the world seems very far away. The submission game is electronic and disembodied. Last year I had a writer’s escape for three weeks in France; I got two very quick acceptances in under a week. Here I had a rejection in under a week, but it didn’t bug me. I had to pinch myself over the personalized rejection from a big mag because it also didn’t seem real. I hope my first Indian Ocean side acceptance comes soon, so the good news won’t distract me either. ~~Julie Wakeman-Linn

About: Julie Wakeman-Linn, Potomac Review editor-in-chief, is on leave in Africa. Her short stories appeared last year in Rosebud, A Prairie Journal, Santa Clara Review, and Gray Sparrow Review. Gray Sparrow nominated "Brothers Killing Brothers" for a Pushcart. Currently, she blogs at, and volunteers to teach creative writing to a class of orphan girls at Bethsaida High School in Dar es Salaam. Her website is


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.