Editing

Can A Visual Story Become A Book Proposal?

That's what Toronto celebrity chef Zane Caplansky and I are going to find out, and you're invited to join us.

We're collaborating at Storia.me (formerly named Selfish), the new visual storytelling service where I've been heading content and community for the past year, to create the foundation of a book about his adventures building a deli empire.

Zane's a great storyteller, and his quest for the perfect smoked meat sandwich has taken him on a personal and professional journey around the world, from dive bars and divorce into foodie business ventures on wheels and construction lots, and onto the shelves of Whole Foods and television shows judging donuts and national radio airwaves talking about what makes Canadian food uniquely Canadian.

He's changed his name and returned to his roots and now he's serving handmade, homemade Jewish deli food the way his mother and grandmother taught him, and sharing his biggest lessons about life and how what we crave -- yes, it could be a sandwich -- holds the key to our future.

It's a story we can all enjoy.

In fact, a major Canadian literary agent requested Zane's book proposal.

Two years ago.

Does that sound familiar?

It's a common story and nightmare of many promising writers. You're busy. It's a lot of material to get your arms around. It's overwhelming! It takes time to pick out a narrative, pin down the content you want to draw from when you start writing. It also takes time to compare and contrast other related titles.

So here's what Zane and I are going to try at Storia.me, with its topic-specific, ongoing stories and its moments of photo, video and text:

We'll start capturing chapter ideas for his memoir in an exclusive story, and in this collaborative story Proposing Deli Man we'll walk you through what we’re doing together. Kind of like a blueprint for how we're doing it.

If you're a writer you'll probably find it interesting in a behind-the-scenes-in-publishing kind of way (and you might want to try it yourself, right along with us).

If you're a fan of Zane's food and his life stories, you might like to see him put together this book like he puts together his lovingly made smoked meat sandwiches.

He'll also be sharing about this project on all his platforms -- like a media- and audience-savvy book author needs to -- and inviting people to come peek in and comment. That includes you. We want to hear your thoughts every step of the way.

"It's a good example of collaboration, as well as a brilliant idea and useful for me," Zane says.

We can't wait to get started. So subscribe right now to our behind-the-scenes story Proposing Deli Man, and Zane Caplansky's Storywhere we'll be capturing all the delicious material representing his story, and be sure you're following Zane too so you don't miss any new stories he starts.

If you know anyone who would like to watch this unfold, or take part themselves, share this right now.

See you in the story!

Displaced Nation calls Expat Harem a "blog tailored to the thinking expat"

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 4.04.25 PMThanks to Mary-Lea Awanohara of The Displaced Nation for these kind words! "When the Displaced Nation first started, Anastasia Ashman, an American living in Istanbul, was running a blog tailored to the needs of the “thinking expat.”

"It seemed almost too good to be true: a group of women who were passionate about telling stories that illustrated the impact of the expat life on a person’s psyche. Had Anastasia rubbed a magic lamp to conjure up a kind of foreign harem? After all, her site was called Expat+HAREM. The work she created on the basis of her Turkish expat life has lived on in her wake."

So glad to see this great interview with Katie Belliel and Rose Deniz about their upcoming anthology Sofra: A Gathering of Foreign Voices Around the Turkish Table.

See other posts on this site about Displaced Nation.

I'm doing an AMA on Reddit. Come ask me a question.

EDIT: Here's where you can see my completed AMA.

 

Wut.

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I'm doing an AMA on Reddit this Thursday February 5 11am Pacific, 2pm Eastern.

AMA stands for "Ask Me Anything", an interview where everyone can participate.

Come ask me some questions?

 

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My topic is "What's so wrong about being Selfish?" and in true AMA fashion, that's just a starting point for what we'll be talking about. I'll be joined by Brock McLaughlin, manager of the Luke Austin Band and a Canadian Selfish brand ambassador who racks up karma points with his obsession of dressing up his pug Sidney Vicious, and Selfish's iOS project manager Marat Kinyabulatov checking in from the Ural Mountains.

 

Here's one of my favorite questions from the day: "Do you think the name "Selfish" might turn people off from joining the network?"

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My answer:

"Yes, it's a hurdle because our associations with the word are so one-sided. Since childhood we've been admonished "don't be selfish." When someone's breaking up with us, we dread hearing the reason "you're selfish." But we have to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we can help anyone else, right? And there's also a growing trend that we need to take care of ourselves, and nourish what we care about.

"We have an assortment of interests and relationships and ways of being. Social networking and mobile apps and visual capture tools should be able to map to those realities, and give us the control and power we desire."

Successor to Expat Harem Launches: Expat Sofra

So thrilled to share this expat lit news! Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 4.07.53 PM

Katherine Belliel and Rose Margaret Deniz, (Expat Harem book and blog writers you'll recognize whom I've had the privilege and pleasure of working with for many years) are now calling for submissions to their new anthology for expat women writers who've lived in Turkey.

It's called Expat Sofra: A Gathering of Foreign Voices Around the Turkish Table.

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 4.18.54 PM As they explain,

"Follow in the footsteps of Tales from the Expat Harem by going deep into personal, introspective experiences that have a love and respect for the local culture and traditions.

"Sofra invites you to a second course by taking a seat at the Turkish table.

"Just as the sofra is the heart of the Turkish hearth, we want stories that are steeped in the experience of being an expat in Turkey. The editors have a combined twenty-five years in Turkey and are editing this compilation of essays to give back to the culture that has nourished their lives abroad."

If you've lived in Turkey for at least a year, or know someone who has, take a look at the call for submissions, open to April 1, 2015.

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"At the heart of every story is a flavor. Expats pack their bags with spices from home to find that incorporating it into meals, and subsequently their life abroad, can require trial and error, a sense of humor, and even failure. Relationships flop. Meals get burnt. Life abroad does not taste the same. But it evolves. Becomes enriched. And can even become decadent."

Eggshells-of-everything: fiction author Wendy J. Fox's domain

IMG_6311So pleased for Wendy J Fox, winner of the 2014 Press 53 Award for short fiction -- which resulted in today's publication of "The Seven Stages of Anger"! IMG_6312

Thanks Wendy, for the opportunity to read your collection in advance, and for your lovely note. I am likewise inspired by you!

(I had the pleasure of working with Wendy for the Expat Harem anthology.)

IMG_6313My review: "Wendy Fox's prose is strong and fragile at the same time. As she explores in these stories the hairline fractures in our relationships with life, ourselves and each other, you can't help but hold your breath for the big break you know is coming. The eggshells of everything? Fox owns the category."

Faye Brann Addresses The Gap In The Market For Narrative Expat Literature

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 2.37.18 PM Thanks to expat author in Dubai Faye Brann for interviewing me about #expat #literature and the #publishing world's opportunities to capture expat lit's readers.  She blogs about it here. Here's the interview as it was conducted on Twitter this week -- which is where Faye and I met!

 

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Faye is working on her first book, There’s No Place Like Home, to "look at the often misunderstood life of the ‘trailing spouse’ abroad". At her blog she explores the gap in the market for narrative expat literature.

Featured By Global Living Magazine As One Of Best Expat Books

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Thanks to Shelley Antscherl for naming Expat Harem among best expat anthologies in the January/February 2014 issue of Global Living Magazine!

I'm proud the book is listed alongside the work of editors like Suzanne Kamata of "Call Me Okasaan: Adventures In Multicultural Mothering", Monica Neboli of "Drinking Camel's Milk In The Yurt: Expat Stories from Kazahkstan", Diane Dicks of "Ticking Along Too: Stories About Switzerland", and Kate Cobb of "Turning Points25 Inspiring Stories From Women Entrepreneurs Who Turned Their Careers and Their Lives Around".

And thanks to Summertime Publishing publisher, Expat Book Shop proprietress and fellow expat writer Jo Parfitt for the review. "A fine bit of not just good writing, but literary writing, and that is due to the fabulous work of the editors."

See what else is in the issue here. Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 8.38.03 AM Global Living is a luxury lifestyle magazine for global citizens and sophisticated internationals who live, have lived, or may someday will live outside their country of origin.

Turkey's Top Selling Novelist Elif Shafak Recommends Expat Harem in The Telegraph

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 9.13.43 AM Thanks, Elif!

Turkey's highest selling novelist Elif Shafak recommends Tales from the Expat Harem, the anthology I coedited with Jennifer Gokmen, in the United Kingdom's Daily Telegraph.

In "Flights of the imagination: Elif Shafak on books about Turkey", she writes about Expat Harem:

"It brings out the voices of Western and Eastern women in Turkey. Travellers, students, teachers, housewives – the cultural shock that some of them went through, their personal encounters and how they made Turkey, or perhaps limbo, their home."

Elif also wrote the foreword to our book back in 2005 for the Turkish Dogan Kitap editions in both English and Turkish!

Making This Site A Reconstruction Blog

This portfolio site is the #1 Google result for my name. This month I've started a reconstruction blog here.

It's going to be the blog that would have existed if I'd known then what I know now.

 

...if I'd been telling my personal and pro story all along with today's perspective on where it leads, and what matters.

Few little edits, but mostly going in as it already exists. Later I'll start linking all the pieces together, and developing further some of the content.

I'm also pulling together my material that's been scattered around the web, plus adding unseen pieces that germinated in the dark social of email, and in general, bringing out unpublished and otherwise fallow pieces of all kinds.

I'm thinking it'll be a way to refresh my own interest, and, with the help of web search, eventually connect me with others who are interested in those topics or treatments. They may even be future collaborators to bring the work to fruition. A public filing cabinet of sorts.

Have you tried this, or another retrospective approach to building a blog?

Update: Social media marketing pioneer Chris Abraham posted this related and detailed suggestion to "Fill in your entire social media and blog history", July 26, 2013.

"Spend this week digging through memories predating the moment you joined the online conversation and start posting them," Abraham writes.

Requests That Get A Yes

I get a lot of requests related to my Expat Harem book and other productions that I wish I had the time to say yes to.

Sometimes I get requests that I would have said yes to if the requester had spent a little more time setting it up. Make it really easy!

 

I heard from a travel writer developing a story about her own cross-cultural family experiences who needed expert sources to flesh out her query to an unnamed publishing venue. She gave me four questions to answer.

Four questions is a lot to ask, but her email gave me even more things to wonder.

Which venues she was pitching and by when did she need my answers?

I wondered why she was seeking an expert quote for a personal story (expert quotes in a pitch usually point to experts you're going to interview if you get the assignment). That would be like using my material to land an assignment to write about her own life! If she were to be assigned the piece, was she planning to interview me in more depth? It would have been good to hear that she only needed a one sentence answer for  -- any of -- those questions.

An expert would want to see how she was going to be described in the query. This could be done by telling me why I am being approached. For instance, "because you wrote about your Turkish in-laws in the Expat Harem book and in Cornucopia magazine." Or, it would be nice to be asked to point to a description I prefer.

Assume people want to help.  Just cover your bases and keep the ask as small as you can, so they can.

P.S. Be gracious when someone says no. When I let this travel writer know I wouldn't be able to help her out and explained what questions her pitch brought up for me, she let me know how sorry I was going to be for not doing what she asked.

Your Content Adds Up. Now Make It Discoverable, Too.

We're born content producers. The more prolific among us are literally volcanoes of content.Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 12.23.09 PM

Yet, what you’ve generated probably isn’t working for you.

It’s probably not laid out as a path where you want to go, nor presented as an invitation to other like-minded souls and interested parties to join you in your journey. It’s not contributing to the discoverability of you.

Do you have shelves full of:

  • paper, boxes and binders, clippings, photos, slides, sketches and notes
  • memorabilia and scrapbook materials

What about in the hall closet, and all that stuff in the basement?

  • floppy disks
  • hard drives
  • external drives
  • CDs, cassette tapes, video tapes

I bet you have a bunch of content stored here, there and everywhere. There’s a reason you haven’t gotten rid of it.

That mountain of stuff represents your effort and interest, and independent research. 

That mountain represents the things you chose to do because they make you feel alive.

Think of all the activities you’ve poured yourself into and how you’ve retained the evidence of them.  Anything that represents your experiences, your thinking and feeling on certain topics. All those photos of people and places and things that hold meaning and jog memories, yet haven’t seen the light of day in practically FOREVER. Some of it may represent creative failures. False starts. Ancient history. That's okay. Include it.

Maybe now you’ve got a mental image of your piles of creation, content associated with the life you’ve lived and the things you’ve loved (or hated, who knows).

At GlobalNiche we believe it’s forgotten gold. (Don’t feel too badly. We all have similar piles that we haven’t used for much of anything. YET.)

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 12.00.22 PM So, next question.

Are you sitting on that mountain of content -- and also wondering how you’re going to make ends meet, effect a career change, or achieve a goal?

Maybe you’re thinking you can’t do what you yearn to because you live in the wrong place and don’t have the right contacts and there’s no opportunity to pursue that interest where you are. As an expat for 14 years, I spent a lot of time wondering if my location was a disadvantage to what I want to do. The answer was "yes" most of the time. But no longer.

If we consider that earlier output and experience not as failure or a waste of time, but instead a chain of events that make us who we are today, then we can start to get an idea of the arc of our lives and how what we’ve done in the past can help us get where we want to go in the future. No matter where we are -- with the help of the web and the platform we build on it.

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What if you were prominent and findable in your chosen field of interest or activity? 

How might your opportunities change if you let your content support your aims? <---Tweet that.

Whether you’re positioning yourself to land jobs or funding or a book deal, or you’ve got a completed book or other product or service to sell, it will make a difference to your results. If you’re findable and well-represented, you have a chance. If you’re unknown, unfindable, and a jumbled mess when people DO happen to stumble on you, you won’t make much of an impression.

Whatever you want to do, you’ll need help and support. An important part of gathering support is going public with your process, to attract likeminded people to your cause and to involve them in your journey. The kind of people who are interested your vision and your way of thinking and feeling, parties who can help you develop your plan, the kind of peers and confidants and guides who will form the basis of your network.

We've entered a golden age for content creators. Do you know how to wrap your arms around your content, see the story it tells, and link it with your goals?

 

A version of this post originally appeared at Kristin Bair O'Keeffe's Writerhead, September 7, 2012

Interviewed on Bay Area Focus TV Show

Anastasia Ashman interviewed by Susan Sikora on Bay Area Focus TVToday I taped an episode of Bay Area Focus with Susan Sikora at CW 44, cable12, (KBCW) the CW Network affiliate for the San Francisco Bay Area. It'll air June 24. We talked about Tales From The Expat Harem, expatriatism, and the location independent lifestyle.

Here are some of the prep questions.

1. What factors should we all consider before moving abroad?

2. How is moving abroad different from travelling abroad?

3. What is the perception of Americans abroad? What is the image most non- Americans you met had of the U.S? Did that improve at all during the time you lived abroad? Did it change? How so?

4. What prompted you to leave in the first place??

5. What was the hardest adjustment you had to make?

6. For 14 years you've lived in three countries outside the USA (Italy, Malaysia, and Turkey). Why did you choose the countries you did?

7. How is living abroad different than travelling abroad?

8. In what ways were you unprepared for the realities of a wider world? What conventional wisdoms about the world did find to be untrue?

9. Can those differences between expats and travelers be seen in the literature they write about a place?

10. When you moved to Istanbul in 2003 you were planning to write a memoir about your life in Malaysia. Why did you create an anthology about Turkey instead?

11. What is behind the metaphor “Expat Harem” and how does it help us understand Turkey better? How did it help you understand yourself better?

12. As you compiled the book Tales from the Expat Harem you found that cultural understanding wasn’t a function of time spent in a location but rather the depth of an individual’s connection with the place. How can we foster that kind of connection to have a better experience when we travel?

13. What were you hoping to learn about yourself by moving?

14. What were your expectations of living abroad? Were they met?

15. How were you perceived as an American? How do you think most Americans are perceived?

16. You’re a Berkeley native. How do you think being raised in the Bay Area prepared you for the life abroad?

17. For people considering a trip or a move to Turkey, what would you suggest they do to prepare themselves?

18. A few years ago you launched a group blog of “neoculture discussion” inspired by Expat Harem. You called it “expat+HAREM, the global niche” and it wasn’t just about Turkey, or women, or expats. Why did you expand your sights, and to whom?

19. What came out of those neoculture discussions?

20. You’ve coined this expression “global niche”. What is your definition of a global niche?

21. Where did the idea of a global niche come from?

22. Why do you call yourself a hybrid ambassador?

23. Can you explain what you mean by 'psychic location independence'?

24. What’s the difference between location independence -- where people are looking for the freedom to travel and work and live where ever they want -- and your version?

25. So can we take advantage of your global niche concept even if we don’t leave home? That is, can we be global citizens without a passport?

26. You believe if we build our global niche we’ll have found where in the world we belong -- and also be globally unbounded. How can we be in one place, and everywhere at the same time?

My National Geographic Traveler Editor Amy Alipio Recommends Expat Harem for #TripLit

Sweet surprise today: Amy Alipio, one of my National Geographic Traveler editors, recommending Expat Harem for #TripLit, a Thursday travel reading event on Twitter. Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 9.48.16 PM

How To Use An Identity Crisis To Your Advantage

What comes after cultural disenfranchisement?

What comes after Expat Harem, the book?

What comes after expat+HAREM, the community site?

This slideshow charts the evolution of Globalniche.net (or, how to use an identity crisis to your advantage). Below is the script of my accompanying talk The Evolution of A GlobalNiche, delivered at Turkish Women's International Network, Microsoft Headquarters, Istanbul

EVOLUTION

DREAM of belonging how PLAYING with cultural identity has helped me ACHIEVE new sense of myself, personally and pro

CONCEPT & COMMUNITY we can all can use to be successful.

MAP

FB contacts. Where in the world do I belong?

Dream of belonging. Not just fitting in. But being in the right place with the right people. Place to lead your ideal lifestyle, chosen livelihood? Work you love to do so much it’s play?

For ppl who dream of life/community beyond what surrounds u now.

Story begins. Southeast Asia. Disenfranchised experience. lost my voice. Writer but I could not make myself understood. I didn’t understand what was going on around me.

What saved me: play. Pasttimes that put me into context. Taught me about the place. Historical travelogue. Acting in a period film. Drawn to crossroads, places where time meshes, opposites collide and cultures fuse.

EXPAT HAREM

Turkey 2003. Asian complaint travelogue. Snake infested island! Pirate-filled waters! No metaphors, really happened.

Turkey kidnapped me instead - metaphor. Theoretical home with the Expat Harem anthology. Inspired by the foreign women in sultan harem, liminal state of TR.

Showed how we can be embedded in a place, yet forever alien. Survive, but thrive in limbo. Also my character, like working alone at home, in collab with others. Found historical counterparts, also cultural peers. 100 women in 14 nations answered call for subs. 100s more on book tours. No longer alone in my limbo, even if American publishers suspected I was. worried book’s nonexistent audience, 15 New York publishing houses passed before sold. proved wrong. Thanks to Turks Turkophiles, expats, travelers, women writers, Near Eastern studies types -- people like you.

EXPANDING

EH called together virtual community but nowhere to meet. 2yrs ago: group blog to address readers and see what was beyond the book.

Expand circle. not just woman expat writer in Turkey. Expats everywhere. Global nomads, multicultural types. Immigrants, intentional travelers. Men, even! Anyone in cultural limbo.

New social order, most meaningful bonds not family, culture, nation. School. Work. social web connect us on interest, experience and world view. we can find each other, learn.

HYBRIDS

EH community started teaching me. Podcast roundtable discussion, realized all using creativity to manage hybrid, multifaceted lives. Flex skills/perspectives cd bring to all endeavors. Our life trajectory not a liability! Cd be asset.

AUTHOR PLATFORM

While launching EH online, also working on 2nd book, about my friendship with a multiple personality. Problem. After success/acceptance of EH book -- 5 yrs -- committing career suicide? lose my audience, or transition them to new topic? to prepare my author platform for 2nd book, began explaining why cultural writer shifting to psychological topic. Emphasizing identity, how formed thru culture -- getting away from travel focus. Also apparent expat and hybrid life writing more concerned with personality and psyche issues than travel often is.

MULTIPLE CULTURAL IDENTITIES

there WAS a link between past work, new book. have multiple CULTURAL personalities -- like a multiple personality, honor/care for each key to health/happiness. Career 'problem' both addressed personal issue and paved new pro growth! We have fusion!

GLOBAL NICHE DEFINED

called expat+HAREM site global niche, meant niche for globalists, home in world. 6 mos definition emerged. Looking at lifestyle design, location independent movements pioneering gate-jumping new paradigms, digital nomadic practices we require when geographically or culturally disadvantaged.

Detected my community's distinctly different need. Our question not Generation-Y: "how can i live on a beach in Thailand by running a blog."

PSYCHIC LOCATION INDEPENDENCE

Instead, PLU looking for in a GN is answer to: "how can I live the life I want wherever it is I happen to be?" To live/ work to our abilities independent of location and whatever its limitations.

Maybe still in hometown, or everyone speaks language we're not good at -- whether language of tongue, some other kind. best customers 10 time zones away?.

This addresses more universal issue. How to be okay with where we are, plenty reasons why we are where we are. Don't always live in optimal setting for our dreams. Doesn't mean we have to defer. We can get started, right now.

GLOBAL NICHE WORKGROUP

Past yr: cofounded creative entrepreneurship workgroup, mastermind how building life/livelihoods around strengths and interests. What we UNIQUELY bring. Belonging into own hands, playing with possibilities to find ourselves, audience, peers. Focus on web platforms reflect our place in the world, connect to relevant ppl, communities, integrate into offline activities.

Love fusion. NOW combining workgroup with expat+HAREM mission to make our psychic limbo a productive state. A global niche workgroup.

Developing private edu community -- GLOBALNICHE.net -- to equip psychically location independent PLU -- transglobal, multicultural, dreamer in a situation mismatch -- with skills/ tools need to achieve dreams.

Please visit so we can keep u posted about upcoming launch. Thank you TurkishWIN, good night.

Woman-Of-The-World Producer Newsletter

I'm starting a *completely irregular* newsletter about my cultural entertainment productions and all the wild places they're taking us plus my thoughts on the ever-changing media/entertainment world.

This mailing will be a personal take on a professional life. A behind-the-scenes look at a far-flung entertainment bizwoman.

In a variety of formats, I'm developing five hybrid projects about identity, culture, relationships. Art historic soap operas of imperial proportion. Funny truths of family culture clash. Personal epic of friendship and healing.

Along the way you can select which of those five you want to hear more of, which project you'd like to follow more closely, what kind of notifications you want. Like: "Just tell me when I can download your Ottoman Princess 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding-meets-Meet the Parents' ebook comedy to the iPad!"

* You may not yet be familiar with my wider body of work, but you probably guessed my beat of women, culture, and history, with an emphasis on personal dynamics, from one family to entire hemispheres.

My Transmedia Wedding Project

....imagine “Meet the Parents” colliding with a grittier “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”! Transmedia ebook/screen adaptation of my Expat Harem wedding tale “Like An Ottoman Princess”, about bridging my radical West Coast family and traditional Near East in-laws at a palatial Istanbul wedding.

STORY EXCERPT Two families colliding. From different nations with textbook opposite cultures and traditions: An avant garde American family with a traditional Old World one. Secular Christians with secular Muslims. People from a famous anti-war community in the San Francisco Bay Area with a Turkish family steeped in military service and proud participation in NATO’s SHAPE, from a nation where the military is revered as the guardians of the republic. Bringing them together -- or is she keeping them apart? -- is a countercultural bride who may have arrived on this palatial doorstep through a lifetime of reinvention, but her past and her parents are somewhere else entirely.

More details to come about this and the counterculture family-themed prequel, THANKSGIVING WITH MARY JANE (featured on the homepage of the Red Room writing community, November 2010) and Chicken Soup for the Soul: All in the Family (2009).

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The Output Of A Holistic Writing Coach

Check out the cool shelf of books (including my Expat Harem, and my college pal Lisa Lemole Oz's US: Transforming Ourselves and the Relationships That Matter Most, and my Twitter acquaintance Maryam Montague's Marrakesh By Design) from Victoria C. Rowan's Ideasmyth clients.Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 6.12.22 PM

I've worked with Victoria as a holistic creative consultant since I did her journalism bootcamp at Mediabistro in 2001. (Victoria launched Mediabistro's media training program.)

Later I joined her writing critique groups for 40 weeks, and then I was a private writing coaching client.

Her workshops focus on "development of craft, professional writing habits, editing skills, communication skills, marketplace savvy, career development, and life/creativity management in that order."

The Accidental Anthologist: Creating A Literary Harem

All the editions of Expat Harem bookTurkey often makes the news for suppressing its authors. Ironically, as an American expatriate in Istanbul I found my voice -- by creating a literary harem of my expat peers. My third month in Istanbul I found my way to an American women's social club. Milling among the crowd at the consul general's residence, I introduced myself by describing my writing project.

"At 40? You're too young to write a memoir," snorted a white haired librarian as she arranged second-hand books on a card table.

"Istanbul's such chaos, I'd be surprised if you can concentrate," thought a freckled socialite in tasseled loafers.

My memoir was going to happen. It had to. It was the cornerstone of my survival plan.

 

MY BRILLIANT CAREER WAS PORTABLE. I moved to Istanbul in 2003 so my Turkish husband could take a job in mobile telecommunications. Even though I lacked a formal proposal for my high-concept travel memoir charting the peaks and valleys of what I was calling “an adventurous life,” I already had a literary agent waiting to champion it. I was thrilled my spouse would be developing the kind of advanced cell phone software that excites him and that emerging economies demand. Yet my international move required a defense strategy.

"I'm not going to waste a minute sitting in language classes, diminishing my facility with English," I informed him.

"Whatever makes you happy," he replied.

In my mind I'd be on an extended writer's retreat, free from the daily distractions of our “real life” in New York City, where we had met.

I'd be an asocial expatriate writer who would one day emerge at the border clutching my passport and a masterpiece.

This exotic vision had been percolating since I'd last been an expat—in Malaysia. I’d spent five years rotting away in the tropics like a less-prolific—and more sober—Somerset Maugham.

Foremost to decay in the equatorial heat was my personality—the core of my writing voice.

In steamy Southeast Asia, my first long-term stint overseas, language and cultural barriers prevented me from expressing even the simplest aspects of my identity. When I told people I was a writer they'd reply, "Horses?"

 

I WAS DECOMPOSING at time-lapse speed. Vintage handbags and L.A. sandals sprouted green fungus overnight, while silvery bugs infested my college texts and a decade of diaries. I was also mistaken for a very different kind of Western woman in Asia, like when a crew of Indonesian laborers working at my house wondered when I was going to drink a beer and take off my shirt.

Three years later, in cosmopolitan Istanbul, I was a resurrected ambitious American prepared for my future. I imagined a successful literary life abroad—supported by a defensive version of expatriatism. "This move won't turn my world upside down," I cockily assured worried friends and relatives, who recalled my anguished Kuala Lumpur days.

Now I was all about the work. My plan to avoid alienation in Turkey was foolproof.

Istanbul, a hilly metropolis of 12 million, made Kuala Lumpur look like the sleepy river town it is. I couldn't envision navigating a car on its traffic-logged streets or squeezing into public minibuses or straying too far alone without a translator. I couldn't wait to hole up at home with my computer, DSL connection and a view of the Bosphorus.

Upon my arrival I joined an expat social club for some English speaking company. There I met the scolding librarian and the socialite. I also ran into an upbeat Michigan writer named Jennifer Gökmen, a 10-year émigré also married to a Turk. She had no doubt I would write my memoir. We both needed some writing support so we created a workshop with a handful of other American women.

Within weeks, the memoir stalled as I struggled to map my entire existence... dear god, what's the arc of my life? Maybe that caustic librarian was right! My resistance to Turkey started to wear down.

Jennifer and I began playing with a proposal of our own: an anthology incorporating essays about our Turkish lives.

I was bursting with that kind of material. The cultural gauntlet I faced on my first trip to meet the family. My glitzy Istanbul wedding. Inspired by the original harem of the 15th century Ottoman sultans, where foreign-born women shared their cultural wisdoms, new arrivals comparing notes with old hands, we figured we formed a modern version: the Expat Harem.

And that’s when the harem walls closed in.

 

SILENCED BY WHOOPING COUGH: I contracted a mysterious and ancient ailment of the pharynx. Local doctors unfamiliar with the diagnosis prescribed medications for asthma and antibiotics to treat a lung infection, neither of which I had. I passed the cough to Jennifer. For the next six months we were both homebound, hacking to the point of incontinence, succumbing to every little flu. I avoided anything that might incite a new round of spasms, like conversation and laughter, the coal smoke emanating from rural shanties, chills from the ancient city's stone walls, gusts of autumn blowing down from the Black Sea. The only thing Jennifer and I were suited for was speechlessly working, and we only wanted to think about the anthology.

"Embedded here, we're destined to be alien."

I brainstormed in an email to Jennifer, pointing out the dilemma of life abroad—even for those who want to blend in to local culture, it’s near impossible. Our cultural instincts will forever lead us to different choices— from simple aesthetics like lipstick color to complicated interpersonal communications.

Topkapi Palace harem door by A.Ashman

"The Expat Harem is a place of female power," she shot back, linking us to an Eastern feminist continuum little known in the Western world.

Harem communities offered women the possibility of power—in the imperial harem, they offered the greatest power available to women in this region. These women had the sultan's ear, they were the mothers of sultans. Several harem women shadow-ran the Ottoman empire, while others co-ruled.

Giddy with our anachronistic metaphor, I replied.

"Ethnocentric prison or refuge of peers—sometimes it's hard to tell which way the door is swinging!"

Like a secret password, news spread as we called for submissions from writers, travelers and Turkophiles. Fascinating women from fourteen nations poured their stories into our in-boxes. They shared how their lives had been transformed by this Mediterranean country in the past 50 years, moments that challenged their values and their destinies as nurses and scientists, Peace Corps volunteers and artists.

These women's tales were not universally known.

Many had never before been published and all were minority voices in a Muslim country with a reputation for censorship.

 

ALTERNATE REALITIES flooded over me: eerie Sufi pilgrimages to Konya, the intimacies of anthropological fieldwork on the Black Sea, glimpses of '70s civic unrest in Ankara, a wistful gardener's search for the perfect Ottoman rose in Afyon. Many represented a depth of involvement with the country I couldn't imagine: harvesting dusty hazelnuts on a brambly hillside, trying to follow the 9/8 rhythms of a clapping Gypsy, sharing space on a city bus with a dancing bear in the Technicolor 1950s.

I whispered to Jennifer, "Compared to these women, I'm a cultural wimp!"

Their struggles to assimilate nudged me to forgive my own resistance, and inspired me to discover the country, the culture and the Turkish people.

Now I could use the editing skills I had been suppressing since I was an infuriating child who returned people's letters corrected with red pen. From the comfort of my home office-with-a-foreign-zipcode, I was able to shape other writers’ stories. The anthology rewarded me for postponing the memoir, by laying the foundations for a more insightful next book. The joys of collaborating with writers from my home office clarified confusing aspects of my character—like how I am a prickly introvert who nevertheless craves connection with people.

One late winter day Jennifer and I stopped coughing and sold Tales from the Expat Harem to Doğan Kitap, a prominent Turkish publisher.

"That's more like it," snapped the librarian when I next saw her at a club meeting, my reputation somewhat rehabilitated in her eyes.

Four decades’ worth of expatriate self-discoveries earned its shelf space, more than my own 40-year life story would have.

"It's a love-letter to the country. I put it on my house guests' pillows!" shared the smiling socialite.

The anthology became a #1 English-language bestseller in Turkey and was recommended as a social and cultural guide by National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet.

My literary career and conflicted mindset about life abroad now had a promising new cultural context in the expat harem.

 

I FOUND MY THEORETICAL HOME. I arrived an insular writer afraid of losing my voice. In a temporary silence, Turkey suggested an empowering metaphor. It seems the country not only connected me to a worldwide band of my global nomad and expat writing peers, it provided a place to flourish out of restriction -- and raised my voice in the cultural conversation.

[This essay first appeared in JANERA: The Voice of Global Nomads, January 2008]

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What surprise context has your location provided you?

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[18 months, 2 expat writers, one feminist travel anthology with three editions. Our first book! A bestseller. How'd we do it? Read the story of making Tales from the Expat Harem]

Talking About Commitments To Work, World, & Myself

Excerpt of interview with Expat Harem editors and the women's website CommitmentNow.com, "for women committed to their work, their world, their soul mate, their children, their friends, themselves." 1. Tales from the Expat Harem is a collection of essays by Western women living in Turkey. Where did you get the idea for this book?

Anastasia Ashman: Jennifer and I met at an American women's social group in Istanbul, formed a writing workshop with some of the other members and soon realized we were all writing about our Turkish experiences. We thought they might begin to piece together the puzzle that is Turkey, so we brainstormed an anthology proposal that would encapsulate our work. We imagined the Expat Harem concept as foreign women in Turkey constricted not by physical walls of the harem, but virtual walls. For instance, a lack of language skills, undeveloped understanding of the culture, the ethnocentricities we cling to. The Expat Harem is not a negative thing, necessarily. Most expats will identify with its survival technique. The title also positively reclaims the concept of the Eastern harem. It's been a victim of erroneous Western stereotypes about subjugated women, sex slaves, orgies. In fact, the harem is a place of female power, wisdom and solidarity. Like the imported brides of the Ottoman sultans, we consider our writers inextricably wedded to Turkish culture, embedded in it, though forever foreign. We put out the call for submissions - to groups of women, writers, travelers, expatriates, Turkey expats, and Turkophiles. We heard from more than 100 women in 14 countries who felt their lives have been changed by Turkey. They came pursuing studies or work, a belief, a love, an adventure: an archaeologist, a Christian missionary, a Peace Corps volunteer, a journalist. Thirty stories spanning the entire nation and the past 40 years share how they assimilated into friendship, neighborhood, and sometimes wifehood and motherhood, and reveal an affinity for Turkey and its people. Not everyone is Western. We have one Pakistani contributor, along with writers from Ireland, the UK, Australia, Holland, Guatemala, and the US.

3. In "Water Under the Bridge," Catherine Salter Bayar laments that although she knows that she, an independent American businesswoman married to a Turkish man and now living in Turkey, would have to adjust to small town life in Western Turkey, she "didn't realize that adjusting to life in a house of fifteen would be a one-way street." Do you think many of the foreign women who have made Turkey their home have found that their adjustments are one-way?

Anastasia: No, I don't think so. It's certainly not the case in my life and for most foreign women I know. If anything we're in a constant state of negotiating which way the street is going at any given time to accommodate both our instincts and those of the people around us! Also, keep in mind Catherine's in-laws are from a rural village in the far east of Turkey with a low level of formal education and that background factors in to their world view and their ability to be flexible to new ways of thinking and doing things. There is a huge spectrum of society in Turkey, all with their own quotients of modernity and comfort with Western traditions. My Turkish family is secular, modern to the point of being trendy, and highly Europeanized. Everyone's mileage varies.

6. In your essays, you discuss your parents' reactions to your decision to marry and live in Turkey. How would you describe their feelings and have they changed over the years?

Anastasia: My mother worried she wouldn't be able to wear pants in Turkey and my father was hung up on news reports about the black market in kidneys, and the reverence in which Turks hold the military. In liberal Berkeley these things seemed suspect. Coming to Istanbul and meeting my Turkish family they were shocked to find a sophisticated, world class city and modern people wearing whatever they wanted. There's a lot to absorb about this complex nation and I think my parents are now better attuned to the limited information circulating about Turkey than they were before. One story, one view does not cover it!

7. Anastasia, it seems as if you acclimated easily to Turkish traditions and customs, perhaps as a result of the fairy tale wedding to your Turkish husband. What is it that you most love about Turkey?

Anastasia: I wouldn't credit my acclimation to a fairy tale wedding! The fact it went so smoothly was an indication of the depth of cultural sensitivity I strove for and my ability to collaborate with my husband. I continue to draw on many hard-earned lessons from my five years as an expat in Southeast Asia in the 1990s, from basic expatriatism techniques to melding with a Eurasian (Turkish) family. However I don't mean to say it's not a fairytale, because it is.

I love Turkey's heavy history overlaid with vivacious new layers of lives and dreams. Modern-day Turkey has more than its share of fabulous places, people and events -- using its breathtaking Roman amphitheatres, Byzantine basilicas, Crusader castles, Ottoman fortresses for cultural activities like concerts, exhibits, festivals. There is no mistaking that this is an important place of power and energy and ideas, and has been for centuries. Istanbul's historical significance as the center of the ancient civilized world is never far from my consciousness and I find that inspiring.

8. How did you decide to make Turkey your home?

Anastasia: My husband and I were living in New York, in what became Ground Zero after September 11th. Transport, basic shopping, air quality, employment: they were all affected badly by the attacks, the dotcom bust and the bottom dropping out of the New York media market. Meanwhile he'd been running the tech side of his brother's Turkish company for years, and when the cellphone work ramped up we decided to give Istanbul a try. The mobile scene here was so much more advanced than in the USA., it gave him more cutting edge opportunity. He was born in Istanbul but moved to Belgium as a toddler when his father took a job at N.A.T.O., so it promised to be a similar adventure for each of us. With my portable writing career and a degree in archaeology it wasn't hard to say yes to a stint in ancient and fabulous Istanbul! We came with the intention to evaluate our options in two years and recommit or make a change. So far nowhere and nothing has been able to top our experience in terms of quality of life: Spacious apartment with an unobstructed view of the Bosphorus and the hills of Istinye which look like Switzerland, organic groceries delivered weekly from the farm to our door plus the secretly-stupendous Turkish cuisine, all kinds of family and community support, holidays on the Aegean and around Europe, a more leisurely pace of life. It's kind of hard to beat.

9. Many of the women in your anthology write about the way women are treated in Turkey - from the role of a daughter-in-law to the rules regarding dating. Do you think being a woman in Turkey is more difficult than being a man?

Anastasia: We might ask that same question about any country in the world. Turkish men have gender and cultural expectations placed on them as well - and expat men here certainly labor under their own set of macho constraints. Although we do enjoy some leeway for being foreign, Western women in a liminal East-West place like Turkey have special confusions - what becomes of our homegrown gender markers of a modern woman like sensible shoes and unadorned faces, doing our own home repairs, not being a docile servant girl? The biggest culture clash we face may be the definition of femininity and the levels of our particular embrace of those definitions. In general I find Turkey full of pro-woman surprises. For instance, the positive attitude about motherhood and breastfeeding here puts America to shame. Cabbie driving too fast? Tell him you're pregnant and presto, he's a model citizen of the road. Several of the country's biggest business titans are women - groomed and promoted by their dynastic families, while female executives abound and women make up the majority of university professors. Turkey's had a female head of state, and awarded women's suffrage fifteen years before France. Is being a woman in Turkey more difficult than being a man? Probably. How much more difficult will depend on your socio-economic background, your family makeup, and your educational opportunities.

Publishing And The Digital World Citizen

I once opened a can of ebook whoop-ass on Stephen King. “No interactivity, no extra benefit for readers!” I scolded the usually imaginative novelist back in the go-go days of Y2K. From my desk on New York’s Silicon Alley where I had the publishing beat at an internet industry magazine, King’s self-publishing experiment The Plant – a flow of static installments lacking flexibility, community and collaboration – was a lackluster leap of faith.

I was used to doling out tough-love to content owners peering across the digital divide. After previous stints in media and entertainment, intellectual property rights and audience concerns were also familiar to me but my exuberance came from a new media clean slate of the expat sort.

I'd just parachuted into the dotcom boom from Southeast Asia.

For five years my Malaysian office was minutes from Kuala Lumpur’s Multimedia Super Corridor, a futuristic zone advised by Bill Gates and Intel’s Andy Grove. Like the rest of the Newly Industrialized Nation, I was plagued by weekly power outages and wrote by candle light. While my attention span shrank to the length of a Compaq battery life, expatriate skills included patience to wait one month for a government-issued phone line. Waiting for internet access expanded my endurance to a couple of years.

When I finally got online the possibilities of global and real-time connection revolutionalized my estranged expat life.

A decade later I’m dipping into the professional fray from 6,000 miles to the East. I’ve been a writer and producer of cultural entertainment in Istanbul since 2003, and continue to live here. My first book Expat Harem took a conventional route: lit agent, Turkish and American publishers, road trip book tours, an electronic release for Expat Harem on Kindle (aff) and Sony eReader. My second effort — an edgy nonlinear memoir of friendship — requires a complete rethink. (Three months to set up our 49-day 10-state road tour across America, three years to recover from? Wouldn't do that again!)

Geographic disadvantage demands I compete in my home market virtually. With the economic crisis, collapse of traditional publishing and fresh hope pinned on the social web, my global audience is also now virtual.  I’m shifting to new school thinking in distribution, promotion, and sales.

Like internet access equalized my ‘90s expat reality, now social media closes the professional morass as my Tweetdeck columns resonate thought leadership across publishing, technology, and marketing. (Follow my Twitter lists of  300+ publishing professionals and 200+ interactive media people, transmedia visionaries, digital storytellers and marketers.)

I’ve got Web 2.0 and 3.0 plans for my second book -- see Digital Book World, the publishing community for the 21st century -- not only because as a contemporary author abroad I must connect with readers and offer dynamic interaction with me and my material, but because as a digital citizen I can.

Building community around the healing power of friendship – the memoir’s heart — promises to bring my writing world even closer to who I am and what I care about, making where I am viable. Exactly where I want to be.

Have you been culturally or geographically challenged in your career? How has the playing field shifted today?

A version of this essay first appeared in former editor of Writer's Digest Maria Schneider's Editor Unleashed, 2009.

See more images relating to this story here and here and here.