Ten Things I Learned from my ‘In Conversation Masterclass with Olga Mecking’, author of Niksen, the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing
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On November 26th 2020, I had the privilege of chatting to the writing whirlwind that is Olga Mecking.
Here's the low down
When a highly productive and talented writer says that there’s value in not doing anything, it’s time to pay attention. Olga Mecking is the creator of the blog The European Mama, translator of her father’s memoir, One Chance in a Thousand, editor of and contributor to the 2014 anthology Dutched Up!, has been published in the Guardian, BBC, The Atlantic and The New York Times, and has recently published Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. After her NYT article, ‘The Case for Doing Nothing’ went viral in 2019, Mecking had the opportunity to investigate the topic further and produce a complete book on the topic. She recently joined me for a remote chat in which we discussed her career so far and the development of her new book. The full conversation will be linked at the end of this article, but here is a taster of some of the things I learned:
1 – Blogs are a great place to get started with your writing
Back in 2011, Olga Mecking set up a blog called The European Mama to process the isolation she felt as a second-time mother in a new country. As a Polish writer with a German husband living in the Netherlands, holding further connections to France alongside her Jewish roots, the blog helped her to define her own identity as a mother and multicultural individual. She wrote about raising kids with multiple languages, living abroad, travel, recipes and more. Now, as a published author, she is able to repurpose her blog as an author’s website to showcase her work and ensure everything contributes to her career.
2 – But they aren’t a guaranteed secret to success
“I love blogging,” Olga admits, “but [over] time it’s become so professionalised.” What once took an hour to prepare and post now requires far longer in order to compete with the vast numbers of blogs currently out there. With this amount of time and effort, Olga realised that it would be better to put her talents into writing that would make her money. Networking with other writers allowed her to learn more about the industry, where she discovered that…
3 – Newspapers want freelancers
We generally assume that newspapers produce their written material using… well… their writers. After all, that’s what they hired them for, right? The reality is that newspapers are always looking for fresh perspectives and experiences to supplement their own content. Starting out with pitches to small publications and paying blogs, Olga developed her skills and portfolio with these articles, which soon meant that she could start pitching to bigger and bigger outlets. By 2016 she had received her first payment, and she hasn’t stopped since.
4 – A good writer is hard to pin down
“My degree is not in journalism,” Olga points out, “but it is in language. I used to work as a translator and I speak five languages. I see what I do now as another form of translation. It’s not just words from one language into another, but concepts from one culture to another.”
When I congratulated her on having such a unique written voice in another language, Olga laughed. “For me, every article is different, and I try to adapt to the voice of the publication,” she explains, before adding, “right now English is my best language for writing.” It’s not about first or second languages, in her view, “but how long you have been using it and what for.”
5 – The importance of luck
Olga is too cautious to draw easy conclusions from her success, and wryly points out that having an article go viral “really helps.” She discovered the concept of niksen by chance in a Dutch wellness magazine, and publishers contacted her after the piece went viral. The topic was being taken up by lots of publications whose stories were referring back to her article, so agents and publishers who were actively looking for interesting topics swiftly pounced on her sudden success.
What’s more, the final book came out a week after lockdown had begun in the Netherlands. So whilst her initial article tapped into a general feeling of frustration amongst readers who want to reclaim laziness, boredom, and procrastination as important parts of life, her book was fortunate enough to land on shelves just a point where many readers had nothing to do, and so could turn to her for advice.
6 – Book production is a collaborative process
Olga did not agonise over her first draft, assuming that she had more time than she did, so wrote 1500 words a day with no further research, and finished in six weeks. “My first draft was a mess,” she admits, but the skeleton was complete. Next came revision, a massive amount of research, interviewing, and rewriting of her manuscript under increasing time pressure to get the book out. A similar book came out just a few days after her own! Her editor was very helpful in pointing out what could be cut, what expanded, and what should be shifted around. After this, her publisher brought in an illustrator whose quirky, fun illustrations fit the book perfectly.
“I admire people who have design skills because I have none.” Olga grins, “So it’s great to have that artist on board as well.”
7 – The ‘nasty bit’ of publishing
Of course, after the book is finalised, there’s still the nasty bit of publishing to deal with; marketing, promotion, and sales. Olga is grateful to her publisher’s marketing team who organised so much of this, but was surprised to find producers contacting her directly on Twitter and email, with podcast appearances on the imminent horizon, underscoring the importance of having an active social media profile that interested people can use to find you.
8 – You cannot predict what people want to read, but you know your own tastes
“My favourite thing to do is to offer a new perspective on a certain topic,” Olga says, citing her desire to parody the ‘wellness’ genre which “tell[s] you [that] you have to do this and this and that and then you’ll be amazing, but if you don’t do it you’re a loser.” She thinks that part of her article’s success came from it tapping into a general sense of exhaustion with this kind of thinking, and remarks that people in the UK and US are keen to hear of philosophies from other cultures that they might not have access to due to the language barrier.
None of this can be predicted, however, and during her transition into professional writing she would pitch articles that didn’t fit with her blog in order to make herself comfortable with moving out of her comfort zone by thinking about new ideas and defying “the experts who tell you to stay in your niche.”
9 – Niksen and the art of writing
Seeing the irony, Olga is the first to admit that she rarely embodies niksen in her own work. “I think I’m terrible because I don’t write every day,” she chuckles, “but I do something writing related every day.” Reading a book, going out, taking the bus, sitting around, and even going shopping can all result in writing. It may be a single idea she encounters or a sentence that strikes her which leads to an article.
10 – Pitching articles as the removal of obstacles
Finally, Olga has some wonderful advice for writers struggling to develop a pitch. “I’ve found it’s all about getting obstacles out of the way. So if you have an idea that’s already good, it’s one obstacle less. If you’re able to find the magazine you want to pitch it for, that’s another obstacle gone.” Next comes finding the editor’s email address (not as hard as you’d think), writing the pitch, and finally the article, with each stage a single obstacle to be dealt with one step at a time. So if you’re struggling to write the pitch, just remember that you’ve passed some of the biggest obstacles already!
I want to thank Olga for talking with me. The complete video of our conversation can be found here, and her new book, Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing (2021) is available in hardcover and eBook from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishers (256 pp.)
This post has been collated by our new intern, Charlie Wellings, who is helping us to produce more content to inspire your writing.
It takes a team to write a how-to
I'm delighted to announce that the wonderful Families in Global Transition conference will take place from 12th – 14th March. So far, I have attended at least 15 times. Last year’s live conference was scheduled to take place in Bangkok but was inevitably postponed. Now it has metamorphosised into a virtual event, taking place over three days in four hour slots to suit every time zone. The programme looks jam-packed and fascinating. There are still the same three keynotes, workshops and small group discussions and this time I’ve decided to step out of my comfort zone and do something new. So, I’m running a lightning presentation on How Writing a Book Builds Bridges.
If you are not familiar with the format, let me explain: I have to present 20 slides in six minutes on my topic and I need to talk for exactly 18 seconds per slide. It’s a lot harder than you think to turn a massive topic into 20 bite-sized portions of exactly the same size, I can tell you. As a result I’ve distilled the massive topic of writing what I call a ‘how-to’ book into under 1000 words.
Any writer worth their salt will tell you that all work can be improved by cutting and that in so doing you come to realise what matters and must stay.
It takes a team
I have come to see more clearly than ever that the success of a how-to book hangs on the connections you make. A book like this cannot be written in isolation, by the author alone. No, just as it takes a village to raise a child, I believe it takes a team to write a how-to book. So, here, culled from my presentation, are the main characters you need:
The 15 connections you need if you are writing a how-to book
If you want to catch my lightning presentation and the other events at the FIGT conference, tickets cost just $89. All events can be viewed live or at a time to suit you and there are plenty of opportunities for you to make connections and network with participants throughout the weekend.
Join one of my Book Writing Circles if you want to write a book of your own. Details on my Virtual Events page.
A taste of my own medicine
Robin Pascoe, one-time ExpatExpert, is one of my dearest friends and, over the 20 years or so of our relationship, we have settled into the roles of being each other’s cheerleader and coach. We’re both writers and authors and our lives appear to be on parallel paths, albeit a few years apart. Last week it was time for one of our regular catch ups. Robin goes for a walk at some ungodly hour of the morning in her part of the world, while I’m just switching off the computer for the day.
“So, how do you feel about your birthday coming up?” she asks with that trademark throaty chuckle in her voice.
“I hate it. Can’t bear to think about it,” I reply.
“I remember the year I was 59. I know, Jo. I know.” And she laughs again. “You are writing about it, right? By the way, you are writing, you know, for you?”
“Nothing? This was the year I wrote The Year I Took Piano Lessons, remember?”
“You must write about this, Jo. It’s what we do. When’s your birthday?”
“March.” I pause, feeling the enormity of the big looming number.
“Oh dear. A bit soon.” Now it’s Robin’s turn to pause. “How many days is it until you are 60? It must be about 60,”
I do a mental calculation. Feel sick and reply, “Guess so,”
"Write every day, half an hour. Set a timer. Write anything. A haiku, stream of consciousness, a story, a poem. Anything. Do this for you. It’s self-care. Okay?”
“Okay.” I can feel myself shrinking, curling up into a comma so that my body resembles that abominable 6 shape, with my head doing its best to hide from the truth.
“I’m your coach, remember? Promise?”
“Yes, Rob. I will. I promise.” Now it’s this writing mentor’s turn to feel the fear of the blank page. Not because I’m scared of writing. Not because I’m blocked. I’m simply terrified of telling the page that I will be 60 in just over 60 days because then it might actually be true.
And so, I left that call, opened a new document, typed the words Day 60 at the top and began. I tell you, half an hour is a very long time. Yet so many of my students wail that they don’t have time to write. I tell them that ten minutes is already a lot. My goodness I managed to write a lot in half an hour. It felt like an eternity. And it felt like an indulgence. I kept checking my timer. Were there really still ten minutes to go? And you know what, afterwards it felt SO GOOD. I had one of those “Where have you been all my life?” moments.
So here I am taking a large dose of my own medicine. I’m committing to writing every day. I’m doing it for me.
Introducing The Daily Inspirer
It's about time.
After 19 years The Monthly Inspirer has had a baby and I named it The Daily Inspirer.
From now on, over on my Facebook business page and on Instagram @JoParfittWriter I will post a picture of something that, when I first saw it, poked my muse in the ribs and planted surprising words in my brain.
It all started more than 300 days ago when my school friend, Kim, started posting a nightly #candleofhope image on Facebook together with a few words that described the candle that evening. Words like 'unfurling', or 'moulten', or 'more light rays'. Each morning I'd pop over to Facebook to see the next candle and the sight of the shiny red candle and the strong, upstanding flame made my day start that bit more brightly.
Kim is a silversmith #silverbykim and has a creative soul, so it's not surprising that her work resonated with me and was the catalyst for The Daily Inspirer.
Duly inspired, I am starting my own daily post. Each week we'll see a new theme. We'll start with Candlesofhope. Seven days, seven posts. I'll start with my comments and see what your muse prods you to write. Ready? Go!
See you on over at Facebook or Insta.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer