The black mamba in my yard of dust and scrub south of the Sahara, the woman’s hideous smallpox scars, and a thousand other snips of memory. How did they become Vaccines & Bayonets? I found 3 Keys essential to writing my memoir—writing, reading good writing, and reading about writing.
(If you’re not a writer and not thinking you might write or take on some other creative project one day, you may want to scroll on down to see some of the things I discovered in my Africa documents.)
You, of course, know that I did not have some flash of brilliance and come up with the three writing components. They’re nothing new. They’re handed out in the sage advice from writers and writing professors everywhere.
But how on earth to make time for all three, especially if you—like me—are a slow reader? I had to find a way. I didn’t want them to become the “1 Key and 2 Traps.”
Key #1 Write (well, no kidding!) – But what? When? Where? How? How long?
Key #2 Read good writing – Now there’s a tough one. How do you choose?
Key #3 Read about writing – Hmm. I could read How To all day and never write.
Plan or Flail
I’d found a way to organize my huge cache of documents from our Africa years with the smallpox eradication program—the chapter title cards taped inside my closet door, and the masking-tape-sticky-note-Africa-timeline running the length of the hallway. (See my Post #4)
But I needed another plan. I needed to organize my day. I’m retired, and a widow, so I have the luxury of Plenty of Time.
Perfect for a writer. Right?
Wrong. Better beware of the. . .
Freedom to write and learn about writing any time you choose? I don’t know about you, but I do know about me. Without a plan I could bounce from one task to another throughout a day, and my goal of writing the book would get pushed one more day into the future.
Dirty dishes, piled-up laundry and wilting plants shout for attention, not to mention that I’d better have the oil changed before I leave for that Writers’ Digest conference.
Even after I sit down at the computer (we all know this) it’s: I’ll start writing just as soon as I check out this editing software. Oh, look what popped up–another great writing newsletter to sign up for. Okay, I’m ready to start writing my next chapter. But first, I’ll just see if there’s any urgent email.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash
So I Planned around the 3 Keys:
(You would arrange these in the order that best fit your way of working and your energy level.)
- Morning: writing (including delving deeper into my files, and other topic research),
- Afternoon: reading books and articles on the craft of writing,
- Evening: reading good writing, especially memoirs dealing with Africa or smallpox.
I needed the whole package.
(Full transparency here – for three years I did little besides work directly or indirectly on my book. I’ve now posted a sign above my stove.)
The First Key Is, Well, KEY
The Writing Key (I’ll share my use of Keys 2 and 3 in later posts)
Since I was writing a memoir, I just started writing down memories. They were already in story form in my head. After all, I had told them over and over through the years. This was free and easy, and fast. At first.
Where, When and How Long
At first I wrote sitting at a desk or at my dining table, and stayed with that for a couple of years. I did it even though I knew that sitting for hours was disastrous for my health—for muscles, for bones, for respiration and circulation, for blood pressure. For weight.
I started hearing and reading “sitting is the new cancer.” Yikes.
Levitating Desks?? Who knew there was such a thing? I priced the levitating thingys (they are as expensive as they sound) and second-hand hospital over-bed tables (still expensive).
My solution: stand on a thick floor cushion and work at my kitchen counter. It’s cheaper and it works. Now I alternate between standing and sitting.
Best Time of Day to Write?
I intended to experiment with writing (including rewriting) at different times of the day to see which worked best for me. But I could never resist starting first thing in the morning. Often, I couldn’t stop. I sometimes cut out my reading time and wrote all day, even into the evening. (And between you and me, I couldn’t be trusted to put anything on the stove!)
But Why Write So Many Hours at a Stretch?
I felt a real sense of urgency to tell our story. I had just lost my husband to brain cancer. I needed to write about our lives in the context of his involvement in what many have hailed as the most significant achievement in the history of medicine–
the global eradication of smallpox.
And I also think writing our story helped me to process the grief.
You may not have the reasons I did to write so many hours each day. Or the option. You likely have other demands on your time.
You’ll have your own reason for a commitment to writing, or whatever it is you want to accomplish, and find your own way to make the time.
To Edit as You Write – or Not?
We’re often advised to just write and leave the self-editing for later, so that we don’t interrupt right brain activity with a left brain one. So that we keep the momentum going. I know that. And I tried. Honest I did.
But I landed in the camp of those who can’t stand to leave a page before doing at least some cleaning up of the text. Just me.
What about you?
Mining My Africa Documents
For my memoir, writing was naturally combined with mining my cache of Africa letters, cables and memorabilia.
Memories and reminders of experiences I had completely forgotten jumped out from every page of the thousands in my files.
Like – How could I not remember the police slapping Ulrica and kicking the dog?
Or – Oh, that’s right. Chickens do have earlobes.
Or – I’m so glad I found this report from Carl to his boss! I’d forgotten a key point about the night we sheltered in the embassy. That the street mobs attacking people with their clubs and machetes were under the direction of the Minister of Health, the person Carl had to deal with for the smallpox program.
Or – Oh my goodness. Carl even saved that ominous note the embassy taped to our door.
Besides studying my own documents and photos from Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, going through articles, books and travelers’ YouTube videos of Africa jogged my memory of small details of the setting.
Some Nuggets I Wouldn’t Have Remembered to Write About
- That camels and donkeys scratched themselves on the hard clay of those abandoned twenty-foot-tall termite hills
- That men in Kano often chewed on kola nuts for the caffeine.
- That when dancing, African women typically bent forward, eyes focused on their feet.
Historic Kurmi Market, Kano, Nigeria 1969
One tourist’s video I found followed the dusty uneven path through Kurmi Market in Kano. The video was old enough for the bamboo-and-corrugated-iron stalls to look just as they had when we lived there. It brought back smells and the dust-in-the-nostrils feel of my shopping trips.
So, if you’re writing about a setting you’ve long forgotten, or perhaps never actually visited, try to locate videos on YouTube, or photos on Pinterest. And of course, there’s Google Earth.
From the Files and Hallway Timeline to the Keyboard
For most kinds of writing the research would have to come before the writing. In my case, with my hallway timeline as a guide, and my documents organized in stacks spread across a bed, I combined the two —- went back and forth between them.
What about you? Any great ideas to share about how you organize your time and your work?
I’ll have much more to say about memories of life with the smallpox program in Africa.
But next time I want to share with you another writer’s memoir of Africa and how it stirred my memories. That will also show you how I used Key #2, Reading good writing.
Thank you for reading. See you again in a couple of weeks.