“[Smallpox eradication] required the right people: doctors, epidemiologists, administrators, and volunteers who risked their safety and sanity in pursuit of an elusive goal…These heroes as much as technical, scientific, and bureaucratic advances, gave the world its greatest victory in the war between human and microbe.” (Bob H. Reinhardt in The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era)
My husband, Carl Bloeser (center), one of the heroes who eradicated smallpox
The most indelible memories of my husband’s international health career are from our lives with smallpox eradication in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. They are the subject of my memoir, Vaccines & Bayonets.
Could an account of even such drama-filled years lose my reader before the 300-page mark? You bet.
I couldn’t let that happen.
To honor my husband as I told the tale, even medical facts about smallpox (watch for this a couple of posts from now when my blog turns to the topics of smallpox and Africa) had to be anything but a dry recitation of facts.
I had to read the experts’ advice on how to write an engaging story.
Read About Writing / Learn About Writing
How could I learn about writing? Let me count the ways.
-Read the best books on writing (The public library and used books – easy on my budget)
-Consult Writer’s Digest, Poets and Writers, Creative Nonfiction, on-line articles (Library, used books and the internet to the rescue)
“101 Best Blogs for Writers”
-Take writing classes – Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), community college offerings
-Attend writing workshops
-Join writing groups (Most are free or nearly free)
-Watch YouTube interviews with great writers, and university lectures and symposia on writing
Any person who has a computer or a cell phone and thinks she’s an authority on writing can put something out there. Be picky. I stick with advice from well-recognized authors and writing instructors, or universities.
Even then, be aware that you’ll find opposing viewpoints at times and will have to decide what fits for you.
Moving From Technical Writing to Creative Nonfiction
After decades of writing medical and educational reports in my career as a speech-language pathologist, it was a challenge to write in such a different style. I needed help. Lots of it.
If you’re in the same boat, search for help. There’s plenty out there.
Let the How-to-Write-A-Memoir Education Begin
“Don’t speak. Just listen. Grab the kids and an overnight bag. Be ready in ten minutes.”
These words open my chapter “The Terror.”
My husband was calling from his office at the American Embassy on an equatorial West African island. We lived in a country that masqueraded as a tropical paradise while people were crushed in the vise of a bloodthirsty dictator.
Did I have a recording device on the phone that day? No. We were fortunate just to have a phone.
Can I certify that I remember every word with complete accuracy? Not a chance. Especially given the emotional grip of an ominous message followed by spending the night under the protection of the flag while official murder and mayhem reigned in the street.
So, What About Dialogue?
The reader knows and accepts that dialogue in memoir is not a court reporter’s transcription of words spoken.
But is my dialogue just made up? No. It’s the way I remember it across the decades.
Readers even accept recreated dialogue of a seven-year-old boy as in the late Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes, and that of a little girl as young as three in Jeannette Walls’s iconic The Glass Castle.
In the case of the phone call from the embassy, every word seems imprinted in my memory like it was yesterday. Those exact words. In that exact order. I think.
In fact, they are burned so deeply that they are the first words I wrote as I began the book.
If you’ve been following me for a couple of months, you know that I have the benefit of the extensive archives saved by my husband.
Many of the letters and diary notes include quotes from conversations. Cassette tape letters to family members flesh out others.
But even dialogue that is based only on my memory of interactions and emotions shows the reader the scene as I remember it.
The words aren’t the only player on stage here, though. What was my physical reaction to that phone call from the embassy? Did my stomach tighten – my heart race? And my thoughts? What about gesture? Any sound when I hung up the phone? I have to recall and recreate as many sensory details as possible–draw you, the reader, into the scene.
Here’s one other small bit from the scene as thoughts whirl in my brain.
“Why are we in danger? Who’s coming for us? Where are we going?
No opportunity to ask. Not safe to ask. The phone clattered back into its cradle as I ran to grab our children….”
Next week: Truth in My Memoir – No Fake News
To be one of the first to learn the release date of Vaccines & Bayonets, add your name to the email list. Thank you for visiting.