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It was a dark and stormy night

When I was asked to write about writing, I thought it would be easy. I was wrong. It's precisely because writing is as automatic to me as breathing that it's unexpectedly difficult to describe the process.

I was tagged by Kaori via Miwa to answer these four questions:

1) What am I writing or working on?
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
3) Why do I write what I do?
4) How does my writing process work?

Hokay, 'ere we go.

What am I writing?

I write a lot and edit more, and sometimes I even get paid for it, but let's focus on Le Petit Blogue in this post. I'm usually working on several scribbles at any given moment. "Yes," I respond to a chorus of disbelief, "I know I'm not posting as often as before, but my head remains as active as ever."


1) Hiking, horse-riding and cracking two ribs in Nagano. (I didn't fall off a horse. I fell off … Wait. We'll get there. Eventually.)

2) A temple where you can pray for help against haemorrhoids. I'm serious.

3) An idea that's been gestating for a long time: the master post to beat all master posts about Sensō-ji. Guide books have no idea.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

1) So many English bloggers rabbit on about wacky Japan. I don't. I do write about wacky temples, but come on, haemorrhoids?

2) So many English bloggers rant non-stop. I rant occasionally, but get real, students who take Cup Noodle with them when they travel to Paris?

3) So many English bloggers focus on manga and anime and kawaii stuff. Not my area.

4) The biggest difference is my focus on the shitamachi, the blue-collar working neighbourhoods in eastern Tokyo; my fondness for old forgotten customs; and my description of unusual shrines and temples. The unifying theme: old Edo, as Tokyo's predecessor was called. I'm not a history buff at all, but I can usually find a reference to Edo in whatever research I'm doing.

5) As far as my style is concerned, I think it's a combination of factual plus what I call brain convulsions, when I go off on a tangent (often accompanied by brackets) [because there's so much extra interesting stuff] {but I'm never quite sure whether others would be as intrigued by minutiae as I am}. There's probably a touch of New Journalism (which isn't so new anymore, is it?) in my writing.

Why do I write what I do?

1) I got tired of blogs about wacky Japan.

2) Ditto kawaii Japan.

3) I realized there's very little English information available about the shitamachi, or less-known shrines and temples. Sumiko Enbutsu is my muse.

4) That's why I started. I keep going despite an increasingly heavy teaching schedule because I have a thousand untold stories, because I've met awesome people via cyberspace, and because this little blog has a ridiculous (to me) hit count. Where do you all come from? Why are you interested in haemorrhoids?!

How does my writing process work?

Err. I sit down and write and stop when I've finished.

It starts with an idea, usually encountered when I get lost and stumble across something interesting, or found in the pages of an old book bought in a dusty Jinbōcho store.

The next step is a dozen sticky notes in various books as my fuzzy memory connects concepts, and 27 open tabs on my computer as I follow hyperlinks.

The post starts brewing in my head, predictably during a boring lesson, but I don't plan it, I don't write outlines and I seldom edit its contents. I think of an angle of attack – non-barbarians would call it an opening paragraph – and then …

I sit down and write and stop when I've finished. That simple. I've written professionally for many years, usually under considerable deadline pressure, and it gets easier with practice. Not necessarily better, grin!, but definitely easier. I'm talking about news articles and blog posts. Academic writing and textbooks require more blood, sweat and cursing.

It's my legacy as a journalist raised in a hard school before social media turned everybody into a hack: all facts are triple-checked in written sources, preferably books; and even if I don't include footnotes in my post, I do keep references in the draft that's saved on my computer.

Once I've finished a post, I proofread for typos, spelling mistakes and inconsistencies. I refuse to use Spell Check. I'm a former copy-editor damnit and I. Will. Spell. Correctly. Without. Help. Now. Shut. Up. And. Go. Away. I resign myself to the ineluctable truth that I will have missed at least one typo in this article. It's when I'm at my pedantic best that I commit my gravest errors. It's called divine justice.

Research takes a long time because I get ADHD-ish when I'm Googling. I start by reading about haemorrhoids and end up in the county of Brabant via the Greek physician Galen. I also need to refuel regularly with chocolate. (Hint: do no, I repeat do NOT, do a Google Images search for haemorrhoids.) [Why did I? There's a statue at the temple, OK, and it's supposed to look like a haemorrhoid, and I had no idea, and now I do, and I wish I didn't.]

The writing itself is the quick, easy, no-fuss part. It took me less than half an hour to write this post.

The most time-consuming and to me frustrating bit is the selection of photos. Despite my love of good photography, I'm a scrivener, not a pictures person.

And … that's that.

Thanks, Kaori! I'm rather chuffed. (There's a bit of British for you.) I'm tagging astronomer Massimo Marengo to tell us about his writing process. I want to know how/where he finds the time to take so many photos and write posts that are both scientific and lyrically beautiful.

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