My first attempt at serious writing comprised a few short stories and a portion of a novel, circa 2002 while I attended graduate school in Leiden, the Netherlands. As a teenager I’d been a huge fan of Stephen King and pledged to write like him some day, so when I decided I wanted to write for real, fiction is what came out. I still have those stories saved up in a digital folder.
Setting out to write a novel changed everything. I had the entire thing outlined from beginning to end; I’d done the research and wrote copious notes (I still have those, too). But when, some five or six chapters into the project, I stepped back and looked at what I’d written, I realized I was creating an almost exact copy of my favorite film, The Garden.
All the stories have already been written. Exploring the matter I learned that it’s common wisdom. Even my epiphany wasn’t original.
Immigration Experience: Go West
Shortly thereafter, life intervened and writing went on hold. Almost a decade passed, marked by a struggle with life in a new country, before I picked it up again. By then I’d quit reading fiction. No longer a student, I hungered for education, so I read anything that could teach me something new about the world. Reality, I felt, was too complex and mysterious and vast, and life offered too many stories of its own, to try to invent it with fictional stories. “You can’t make this stuff up,” I came to believe.
In 2011 I traveled to my homeland, Slovakia, fearing that, yet again, I’d feel more like a tourist than on the previous visit. To my surprise, the opposite happened: I’d never felt more at home. It dawned on me that, as much as I try to integrate in my adopted homeland, Slovakia would always be my home and I would always be Slovak (albeit the son of a father with Ruthenian ancestry and a Hungarian mother). Similarly, I would always be an immigrant in the United States, a foreign-born citizen, a new American.
The blog American Robotnik was born from that trip: I explore the experience of immigration to the U.S. from Central Europe using my own example (after a hiatus, I am now picking it back up). What fascinates me is the interface of two elements: the immigrant and the country, the alien and the host, the man and the society. In the context of my immigration experience, I analyze my acculturation, adaptation, and amazement; investigate intersections, interactions, and identity shifts; and tackle transitions, transformations, and transgressions.
I also credit American Robotnik with being a (re)launching pad to my writing career. Once I wrote the first blog post, I was on the way of becoming a serious writer.
Nostalgia and Central Europe
Soon it became clear to me that nostalgia was the core experience of immigration. Like any immigrant, I was experiencing what André Aciman calls the constant oscillation between personal eras, the looping between the new and the old country, and the back-and-forth between unfamiliar places and the homeland. At the same time I put physical distance between me and my place of origin I became emotionally closer to my past and to where I came from. I began writing stories about growing up in socialist Czechoslovakia and throughout the transition to capitalism; I revived my fascination with Central Europe and particularly ways people there deal with the frequent political changes and remember the past.
In the course of settling into the new country, I became a homeowner. Short on money and time, I did the best I could to upgrade the fixer-upper and reshape the large-ish yard. I don’t recall the precise moment I realized that my adventures in yardwork resembled guerrilla warfare. But I decided that some day I would introduce the new practice, guerrilla yardwork, to the world in a book.
By January 2012 I’d been blogging at American Robotnik for about four months, writing almost daily. As I immersed myself in the topic of immigration, guerrilla yardwork fell lower and lower on the priority list, becoming one of those ideas I regretted not pursuing. Then I learned of a plugin that could tally what I’ve written and I learned the word count would have been enough for a book. I could write the book about guerrilla yardwork after all! Meanwhile my wife Lindsay and I were preparing for the sale of the house, so the timing was perfect. I squeezed writing and self-publishing Guerrilla Yardwork: The First-Time Home Owner’s Handbook between the word count epiphany and “a departure on a distant journey.”
Travel: The Great Affair Is to Move…and Write About It
The sale of the house aimed to accomplish a single goal: the freedom to travel. In June 2013, my wife Lindsay and I left Portland, Oregon, to circumnavigate the globe. To travel around the world for a year had been our dream for a long time. We documented our trip on the joint, collaborative blog, Where Is Your Toothbrush?
Writing the travel blog opened a whole new genre for me: travel writing. The usual listicles, what-we-saw, and what-to-do posts commonly found on travel blogs bored me. I worked to hone my writing craft and describe the outer journeys alongside the inner ones. Travel writing became my favorite genre; Central Europe is my playground.
Write What You Know
This is why I write what I do: I write what I know. My personal experience shapes what I write. I contemplate my immigration experience; I make places, especially Central Europe, alive; I write about a lot in between. My drive to tell other people’s stories reflects my interests and fascinations.
I must do this to live. There is no other way.
Featured image by Aaron Rutledge.