Archive for the ‘Writing Life’ Category

On Being an Illiterate Writer

Image: Grant Cochrane /

Image: Grant Cochrane /

by Laurie Winslow Sargent:

In cleaning myself up a bit on the web, I deleted an old blog I started eons ago called Faith and Family Abroad. I was going to reflect there on lessons learned when I lived with my husband and kids in Norway as expats for a few years.

Here’s a note from that old blog:

One of the most life-changing aspects of living abroad was experiencing what it feels like to be temporarily illiterate.

I learned what it feels like to be the lonely mom on the side of the soccer field who can’t understand other moms nearby as they chatter away animatedly. (That’s tough on someone who is naturally social!) I realized how embarrassing it is to not be able to read your own child’s school papers, and feel mystified by instructions teachers send home.

I felt stupid, even knowing I’m not stupid.

I recall wandering about the grocery store while trying to read package labels using a foreign language dictionary. It was exhausting! After an hour, I would  come home with a loaf of bread and a soup packet.  Storefront signs, road signs, even dishwasher manuals all became adventures in word dissection.

Even after acquiring Norwegian language skills that allowed me to read bits and pieces, understanding a sermon in our Norwegian church was a struggle. I was terribly grateful when our pastor gave me a list of scriptures–an outline, in a sense–so I could stay on track somewhat with the message by following along in my English/Norwegian parallel Bible. And never was I so grateful for overheads with song lyrics!  I didn’t always know what I was singing and sang with a terrible accent, but I sang with gusto.

It was exhausting, yet also an incredible opportunity. How many women from other cultures living as expats in my own country feel that same frustration? Living internationally sensitizes us to that. It also helps us appreciate the gift of words in our own tongue which we can use to express ourselves fully–aloud and in print.

I found communication most difficult when it came to expressing feelings.

I caught on quickly to how to say where I was from, how old my kids were, etc. (despite some very funny bloopers). Yet feelings are intricate–as are thoughts on faith. I recall speaking Norwegian with one dear friend, then realized that at some point midway–when feelings were being described–we’d switched to English.

After returning to the USA, I  wept with joy when singing a praise song in English. Oh, the joy of full expression! Yet I am also so grateful for having an overseas opportunity to sing praises in another language as well — shoulder to shoulder with faith-filled friends and family.

As a writer — an illiterate writer in Norway — I felt particularly frustrated. I realized how much of my identity has been in “being” a writer. I felt a little lost in losing that identity for a while. I remember one day, when reviewing my Norwegian grammar mistakes with my teacher, crying out, ” I really AM a good writer! In English, anyway…”

In my class the instructor refused to let us use English at all, even in talking to classmates. I jokingly called her the “English Police” because I was eager to make new friends,  and although other expats in the class were from other countries, English was a bridge between us. Being forced to use only Norwegian helped me learn the language more quickly but also boxed me in.

But I learned so many other lessons in the process.

I learned how freeing it is to write in my native tongue (as a writer yourself, give God a little thanks for that today!).

I also learned that our identity is not defined by what we write, or how well we speak, but instead in Who created us. Personality is not lost even when communication is limited.

Have you ever been forced to be illiterate for a while and unable to speak your thoughts in a way others could fully understand them? How did that feel, and how does that impact you as a writer?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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