Newbie Writer: Old Files That Led Me To Write a Book


Have you taken on a major task you never intended to tackle? Launching out from your familiar shores into unfamiliar waters? That’s the situation I was in three and a half years ago when I began writing Vaccines & Bayonets. It’s the historical memoir of my family’s life in the midst of smallpox eradication in West Africa.

This year, when my mentor Sandy handed me the last of her edits I was giddy. Holding the manuscript for a book–my book!–in my hands was unbelievable!

Me: “This is such an exciting dayyy!” (eyes widen, pitch rises an octave)

Sandy: “Hmm. Well, I guess it is.” (ever the realistic professor) “I was just thinking that you have miles to go before you sleep.”

What did she mean? Hadn’t I finished the book? Hadn’t I poured my blood, sweat and tears (not to be dramatic or anything) onto those 300 pages?

Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

But I get ahead of myself. You don’t yet know why I decided to write a book about my life in West Africa.

The Footprint of a Public Health Warrior

After my husband Carl passed away in early 2014, when I could face it I began the long task of sorting through his bank of filing cabinets.

To appreciate my task, you need to know that over the decades of our marriage I had needled Carl, telling him that when he died, the ink, paper and plastic sleeve industries would go out of business. Now, sorting through it all and deciding what needed to be kept was a two-month-long project.

As I tried to process the grief of losing my husband of fifty-three years, going through all this paper took me on an emotional roller-coaster.

The Africa Cache

Then one day, there in its perfectly organized space within Carl’s archives was a gold mine.

Version 2Thousands of pages recounting our sojourn with the West Africa Smallpox-Measles Program.

Nigeria. Equatorial Guinea. Cameroon. And Carl’s dispatches from Bangladesh as the global Smallpox Eradication Program neared the finish line.

I left all of these files to the last. I wanted to take my time, absorb what I found. For twelve days I shut out the world, kept a pile of sticky notes, and immersed myself in the memories.

Several people had asked for a copy of the biographical summary I wrote for the minister to read at Carl’s memorial service. “It made me wish I’d known Carl a lot better,”  they said. Now they wanted to know more about our life in Africa. I asked them to wait for me to write something a little more complete. Ten or fifteen pages should do it. Going through these old files would help me deliver on my promise.

Well, there were just a few things:

  • letters, memoranda, reports and cables: between Carl and the ambassador, Carl and USAID, Carl and Washington, Carl and CDC, unclassified State Department cables to US embassies in West Africa,
  • Carbon copies and mimeograph copies of letters to family and friends,
  • Audio tape letters letting our family hear our children’s voices, and the minutiae of our daily lives,
  • Photos, 8 mm film, maps.

And even an urgent note the embassy had taped to our front door, hurriedly scrawled on a piece of scratch paper, the masking tape now brittle.

What a trip, running across accounts of incidents I had totally forgotten. And some of the facts Carl included in his reports, I had never known.



Ten or fifteen pages wouldn’t come close. I had to write a book.

I never intended to write a book. But as every page of the archives filled in details of another Africa memory, I developed a passion to tell the story. Working on this bookwriting it, working toward publication, and spreading the word–are bittersweet. Vaccines & Bayonets is Carl’s final gift to me.

If You’re Going to Write a Book, Just Do It

No time to waste. I broke down and invested in modern technology–and stared at the intimidating black screen of my new iPad. But just so you know, I’m nothing if not persistent. Undaunted, I went to the Apple store to ask how to turn it on.

During the three-year journey since that day, my mentor Sandy, and my writing groups, critique partners and beta readers have encouraged, prodded, improved my writing, and enlarged my circle of friends. I’ve begun looking for an agent for Vaccines & Bayonets, my historical memoir of Africa, and taking the first baby steps into social media.

Still miles to go before I sleep.

I have a question for you. Have you ever run across old letters or photos or a silly knick-knack that triggered memories so powerful you had a passion to write or paint or sculpt? I’d love to hear.

See you in a couple of weeks – with one of life’s deepest philosophical questions: “So I’ve turned on the iPad. Now what?”



12 thoughts on “Newbie Writer: Old Files That Led Me To Write a Book

  1. It’s an adventure for sure, reedel. Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad my post inspired you. All the best, and let me know how it goes!

  2. Thanks, Betty. And thank you for urging me, from day one, to write down our Africa stories! I’ll keep you updated with my journey toward publication through these blog posts.

  3. What an eventful life you and Carl (and your children) had together! I’m anxious to read the full account of your adventures. We meet people in life and never really know their background and the lives they have led. It’s awesome that you have the ability to put the facts all together and skill and drive to write a book and get it published!

  4. Andrea, thank you for sharing your own “miles to go” story. And let me know the next time a picture-triggered memory leads to another one of your great pieces of writing! You’re an inspiration!

  5. As I was reading this post, I was reminded of the house my husband, Chris, and I built. We were SO excited when the framing was up, until our mentoring general contractor said, “Yeah, you think you’re so close to being done when you see the frame. But you’re only about a quarter of the way there.” Boy, did we learn that! Then there was the wiring, the window placements, the drywall, the texturing, finish framing, painting, cabinet installation, tile, carpet, toilets, hanging lights, appliances and counter tiling (ugh!) etc., etc.

    There have been several occasions where a picture has triggered a memory that prompted me to write a story about it, but more often than not, it’s just the memory and my daydreaming about it. (I’m a big daydreamer!) But maybe there will be a lot more picture and letter-induced writing activities for me in the future. I plan to unearth all of my family photos early next year!


    Andrea Arthur Owan

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