#3 The Book You Didn’t Know You Were Going To Write

It was time. Just dive in and start writing. The memoir of my family in the West African smallpox eradication campaign. Vaccines & Bayonets. I had file drawers full of historic documents. Plus–I’d gone to the Apple store to find out how to turn on the iPad, so no time to waste.

Time to delve into one of life’s deepest philosophical questions:  

So, I’ve turned on the iPad. Now what?

I realized I might need to learn a thing or two about book-writing. There were several writing classes available, but I decided to look for no-cost help. I searched for “creative writing groups” and voila! A MeetUp writers’ forum was scheduled for the very next day!

I walked into a welcoming group of about ten writers led by Joe Sweeney of JS Blume Publishing. The members ranged from newbies such as I to authors with published books under their belts. I told them about my cache of documents from our lives in early post-colonial Africa, with Nigeria only 9 years into independence, and Equatorial Guinea only eighteen months old, and that I had no choice but to tell my story. I had yet to write a single word.

Their advice? Don’t wait. Just start writing it down before any of the paper is lost in some way. Don’t worry at this point about how it reads—that can all come later. Write it down as fast as you can. And so, I did. I first wrote two Equatorial Guinea vignettes that were most seared into my memory, either because of their traumatic nature or because I had told the stories over and over—actually both.


Family and friends had been so fascinated by the letters I sent home from Africa that they had said I should write a book, so I must be a natural. Right? Confident in my cleverness, I started on my book and the brilliant phrases just seemed to pour forth and light up the page.

Critique Needed Here

My daughter, my sister and my niece loved what I wrote. Puffed up and eager to bask in adulation from my son, who is a terrific writer with multiple published articles to his credit, I went to visit him. I looked him in the eye and ceremoniously placed the pages in his hands. I watched his face expectantly. And watched.

Finally, I said, “This is when you say, ‘Wow, Mom!’”

He replied, “I thought you wanted my help.”

Ha-ha. That boy has such a dry sense of humor.


Now, I’d written reports throughout my career as a speech-language pathologist, but that kind of writing bore no resemblance to what I needed to do now. Medical charting requires just-the-facts-ma’am. No emotional coloring, no subtext. Just bare facts. And when I had to deliver scary test results to parents of a young child, or to the family of a head injured patient, I looked for soft, gentle ways of telling them bad news. What I was not looking for was the most cut-to-the-chase language. To write this book I would need an entirely new skill set.

Unbiased Critiques for My Book

I asked my friend Sandy, who I knew had shepherded students through their dissertations, if she would mentor me. After I convinced her that I could take criticism and that her guidance would not wreck our friendship, she took me on. Being an academic writer–textbook chapters, academic articles, editing academic journals–she said I also needed input from the creative nonfiction community. So I joined critique groups.

Well. Those brilliant phrases that had felt so effortless? Sandy and other critique partners whittled and pounded away (kindly) my passive voice, five-dollar words, literary cliches and adjective-laden prose.

IMG_2028The whole process revived a sepia-toned memory of my grandpa in hay-scented overalls sitting at an Oklahoma court house square, whittling. Or the artisans doing thorn carvings in Nigeria.

It was obvious I had a lot to learn. I developed a routine of writing all morning, soaking up books and webinars about writing in the afternoon, and reading well-written prose in the evening. I also became a YouTube student, watching university lectures, author interviews and panel discussions. And I attended every free and low-cost workshop that came along.

One of the workshops that helped me find my voice was TELL IT!: Presentation Skills for Writers. TELL IT! is being repeated again September 30, 2017.

Where have you turned for help with your writing? Have you found a routine that fits you like a glove? Feel free to share.

Writing My Memories of Africa

As I began to get the hang of writing–and re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing–I struggled with a very practical challenge. In the early months I wrote straight from my African memories. As I increasingly explored copies of my letters and the many other files to dig deeper, I was overwhelmed. They were a gold mine, but there were so many of them. I needed a plan.

Next time: my Africa timeline.


Thanks again for visiting. While you’re here, if you find my blog and website interesting, please take time to follow my blog and share my website. Thank you!

See you next time,



8 thoughts on “#3 The Book You Didn’t Know You Were Going To Write

  1. Thank you, Janice, for visiting my website and for your kind and encouraging comments. I’m glad you see the story as an important one that needs to be told, and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog. All the best.

  2. Bee, Your writing, choice of words, and descriptive ability to paint a picture while just writing about something is amazing. Enthralling chapters in an important effort to erase one of the medical scourges of our lifetime. More people should know about this. I wish you much success

  3. What a great reminder that every writer, no matter how seasoned, sometimes needs to push over, around, or through all the hindrances and Just Do It. Thank you for sharing your expertise and wisdom, Pamela. And thanks for the encouragement!

  4. I’ve been writing since I was 15, and taught writing for almost 30 years, and I STILL need the advice your writing group gave you: Don’t wait! Just write! Everyone who writes discovers this–it’s a little (or a lot) scary, every single day. And avoiding writing only makes it harder to start. So don’t think. Write.

    (I’m telling this to myself, of course, as well as anyone else who writes or wants to.)

    Bee, I’ve told you before: you’re an inspiration.

  5. Yes, it is indeed quite a process. It’s certainly one you’ve mastered. The writing of your Norwegian family saga, and the writing of my Africa sojourn have travelled much of the road together. Thank you, Mary Lou, for all your input and encouragement along the way.

  6. Oh Bee, how familiar your process sounds to me. It’s a slick trick to move from business writing, or newsletter writing, or even short essay writing, to a book that must keep your reader interested from beginning to end. You have the story, and you learned how to write it down. Thank you for your encouragement to all of us!

  7. These two blogs about your early learning process of switching from discursive writing to creative non-fiction give a window into the process that may inspire other would-be writers. I look forward to reading your next blog. Thanks.

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