Friday, August 7, 2009

A Tale of Trusting Ms. Muse and Going for What Ms. Serendipity Offers

by Deborah Downes, Guest Contributor

One year, my clothes hung in closets in Dubai, Korea, Charleston and Dallas, and were about to take up residence in the wardrobe of a Shanghai apartment. While I unpacked my suitcases, I felt off-balance, more than the usual disorientation from a bad case of jet-lag and immersion in a new country. I’d felt that way since I landed in Hong Kong to meet my husband, Fred, and get a China visa.

In Hong Kong, my out-of-whack state triggered the memory of five-year-old me, struggling to stay upright on the undulating floor of the carnival fun house at Riverview, a Chicago amusement park long since shut down. The night before Fred and I left Hong Kong for Shanghai, I dreamed of looking in one of the distorted mirrors of Riverview’s fun house. Instead of seeing the funny squatty image of me as a little girl, I watched as my adult self took the shape of an inkblot with bewildered eyes. I didn’t need a shrink to tell me my dream boiled down to feeling lost and impotent from too much moving within a single year, too much uncertainty over where Fred and I would be moving to next and how long we’d be there and too much time away from Fred. On top of all that, Ms. Muse insisting I let go of my unfinished trilogy and the dream of becoming a published novelist and instead focus on writing true stories about my life as a global nomad.

Since our 14-month stint in Dubai, Fred and I had bounced around from place to place far more than usual. Fred has worked for the same golf course architectural firm for over 30 years, and usually I can count on his being involved with an overseas job for more than a year. Occasionally our length of stay in a foreign country stretches out to years, like in Thailand. Due to a number of factors, including weather, politics, and start-up delays on construction projects, we never know how long we’ll be in a country, or when and where we’ll move to next.

I’d like to say after all the moving, letting go and uncertainty I’ve faced over the years, I’m a pro at dealing with all three. I’m not. At best I adapt by hanging onto to what I think of as my floats, keeping me buoyant on an ever-changing sea: faith, relationships with loved ones, and my writing. No surprise when I develop a problem with one or more of my floats, I struggle to keep my head above water.

And before moving to Shanghai, my writing float developed a serious leak. I went through what I think of as a writer’s identity shakeup during the months I spent in Dallas, while Fred was in Shanghai. I’d been passionate about writing for over 30 years and, for most that time, believed I was cut out to be a published novelist. Shortly after I started the first book of the trilogy I began in Bangkok, I became convinced I was destined to write novels loosely based on my expatriate experiences. After I finished that book and revised it many times, I went through the challenging process of finding the right literary agent. Rejection letter after rejection letter didn’t shake my faith in becoming a published novelist. Neither did the blow of losing an agent a year after she offered me representation. What got to me was an ever louder demand from Ms. Muse to switch to writing memoir, while working on the third book of my trilogy.

I’d read books within the genre before and enjoyed them, but at that time nothing jumped out at me and said this is the kind of writing I should be doing. Until the very loud inner message I got from Ms. Muse while reading Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman before moving to Shanghai. Part of me cheered over how travel memoir seemed the perfect fit for me, considering my lifestyle, love of creative writing and my reflective nature, but another part of me screamed over letting go of my trilogy and dream of becoming a novelist. In a way it felt as though I had to end one long passionate love affair and immediately start a new one. Though the new one looked promising and felt right, I ached over the thought of letting go of the old. But when I decided to trust Ms. Muse and follow through on her forceful request, Ms. Serendipity came a-knocking, and not just once.

The first time, Ms. Serendipity showed up at my door through a writing request from the editor of the Spirit, AWCS (American Women’s Club Shanghai) monthly magazine. She also suggested I start an AWCS writers’ group. Months later, seven women writers comprising The Prose Portal (calling each other the Literatecs), were committed to producing and publishing an anthology of Shanghai stories, the profit from which would be donated to a local charity.

Following published articles in the Spirit and other Shanghai magazines by Literatecs and hearing of the anthology we were working on, Ms. Serendipity stepped in again, this time through the editor of that’s Shanghai, a very popular city magazine. He offered us a platform for our prose by inviting us to write for Shanghai Salon, the new literary section of that’s Shanghai. And some of us Literatecs, including me, profited in more ways than one from that opportunity.

Ms. Serendipity repeatedly made appearances with generous offers during the publication process of The Prose Portal’s anthology, Shanghai Lu. Her greatest overture followed the launch of Shanghai Lu and came in the form of an invitation to the Literatecs to participate in the 2006 Shanghai International Literary Festival that hosts emerging talent and local writers, as well as international literary celebrities and legends. And during that exciting event, while we shared some of our Shanghai stories with a captive audience, Ms. Muse helped me see I’m meant to write a series of travel memoirs, the first about the two times I lived in China, with each book covering a chapter of my expatriate life in relation to my past, passages as a woman and a writer.

So the moral of this story is trust your muse and when serendipity knocks at your door, not only let her in, but make the most out of what she offers.


  1. Thanks for sharing this fascinating tale of your writing journey, Deborah! Deborah is Kim's mom, and we're happy to have her guest blogging while Kim's on vacation.

  2. Thanks for posting for me, Mom! I remember clearly how you struggled with this decision over the years, but I think you've found your niche now...especially if you add in photography.

  3. What a lifetime of experiences you have behind your writings! That only adds color and excitement to your work. I like your straight forward style that is neither wordy nor abusive of metaphors. You have a gift for the flow of narrative that I struggle with that when I write something. A job well done!

  4. You were so not ready for Shanghai. I was very happy when you embraced the city and were able to make it a real home home for a while. One day I have to stop doing this to you - but not just yet.

    Love you, Fred (in case you couldn't guess)

  5. Thank you for sharing, Deb. I enjoyed being able to hear your voice in my head as I read this. I'm so grateful that I got to spend at least part of that Shanghai time with you. I continue to miss you. Seeing the AWC photo you posted brought back some nice memories of some really amazing women.
    You are a treasure. Keep following your dream.

  6. Good job from the little girl who was standing next to you in the mirror at Riverview so many years ago.

  7. Outstanding. It reveals your sojourn of writing and finding your niche in a way that compels the reader to read rapidly to find how it is done! Always love your style, you have such creative ways of expression, and have honed your craft so that reading your words makes writing seem effortless in the seamless way you express yourself. It is obvious all that has come with a lot of discipline, thought, tireless effort and love of the craft. Congratulations on job well done.

  8. Deb,
    Watching and reading about your adventures is like reading a book. It is on the bedside table, and I pick it up frequently to see what the next chapter is about.
    Continue on.


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