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.

American Robotnik

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.

Guerrilla Yardwork

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.