Writing the Book–My Africa Memoir–Was the Easy Part

Writing, writing, writing—12 to 14 hours a day. I loved it! I was writing down my memories of Africa and of smallpox eradication—some humorous, some horrifying.

So many chapters to write. In this post, I’ll share a few brief excerpts as well as showing you how much I enjoyed, and was consumed by, the writing.

 

#1 RULE OF WRITING

Experts are fond of saying the #1 rule of writing is “put butt in chair.”

I was so engrossed in my memories and documents from Africa I didn’t have to make myself put my gluteus maximus in the chair and write. I couldn’t get out of the chair. Though I later used my kitchen counter as a standing desk and split my time between standing and sitting.

Another rule “they” say: experiment to find your best time of day to write.

I didn’t need that rule either. I couldn’t resist starting first thing in the morning. And then I couldn’t stop after only 5 or 6 hours—or 8 or 10. I had so much to say. And an urgency to saying it.

 

AFRICA STORIES, SMALLPOX STORIES

My upcoming historical memoir, Vaccines & Bayonets: Fighting Smallpox in Africa amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War, has been in process for four years. So many stories.

In our two years in West Africa, we’d lived in northern Nigeria during the Nigeria-Biafra War, then in Equatorial Guinea, a country Amnesty workers dubbed the Auschwitz of Africa. My husband Carl was helping eradicate smallpox, and I was having my naiveté shattered and ground to powder.

There was a lot to tell.

 

MY PROLOGUE FOR VACCINES & BAYONETS

I came up with the prologue after the rest of the manuscript was finished, and it begins like this:

It was called the Cold War. The powerful angled for more power. They eyed the continent of Africa with its newly and soon-to-be independent countries. All that gold. All those diamonds. All those energy resources. Russia and her allies, America and hers, China—they all purchased loyalty with aid. They fought proxy wars. The CIA, the KGB, Israel’s Mossad, and more maneuvered to outwit each other in now widely documented espionage.

In this Cold War context, Carl and I, with our two young children and our ideals, moved to West Africa, assigned first to a country that was always in the news and then to one that should have been….

 

AFRICA? IT’S COMPLICATED

My memoir is a complex one. African post-colonial history, women’s history, tribal pogroms, political intrigue—all part of my story.

So much humor So much tension.

Like the chapter that starts:

February 4, 1971

The familiar soup of an equatorial afternoon surged up from the tarmac and sucked me into it as I came down the steps of the little Convair 440.

Looking beyond the Guardia, with their semi-automatic rifles and fixed bayonets, I saw my husband, standing rigid outside the shabby little terminal. Carl’s jaw set, his feigned smile tight, he shifted awkwardly. He’s trying too hard to look casual. Something’s up….

 

How could I stop writing? My material was so intense I couldn’t be trusted to put anything on the stove, even water for tea. Should I replace my 4-ply stainless steel pan or just invest in a whistling tea kettle?

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MORE FROM MY AFRICA ARCHIVES

And research? I loved it. Most of it in my own filing cabinets. I would leave the computer to dig again into the vast archives of letters, telegrams and official documents left by my late husband. I wanted to include in my memoir incident reports like this copy handed us by a friend in West Africa on August 16, 1970. He and his wife had arrived at our door that morning in quite a state.

“On Saturday, August 15, 1970 at 9:23pm I went with my wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 12 years, for a walk. Our ten-year-old daughter had a dog on a leash. Approximately 75 feet from our house a uniformed policeman appeared and started kicking the dog, pushing my daughter around and hit my wife twice….

 

COMIC RELIEF A MUST

My memoir couldn’t be all grim. It had to have comic relief.

In our early days in Africa, I fell victim to the tag-team gambit at our front door. The first vendor spread out his wares in a way that showcased a single brass mortar and pestle, gleaming among all the beads and carvings and thumb pianos. He didn’t pitch it—just waited for me to notice and comment on it. Even then, he wasn’t eager to sell it but guessed he might be persuaded to part with it. We bargained. I don’t remember how much I paid. I just know it was too much…..

You’ll have to read the whole story when my book comes out, but just know that I fell for a gambit by a trio of vendors so that I bought four more sets, at a higher price than I had paid for the first one. At the end of our Africa tour, each parent and sibling received a brass mortar and pestle for Christmas.

 

ENGROSSED IN AFRICA MEMORIES

Yes, I had had experiences in Africa and with smallpox that kept me engrossed in what I was writing. Who needed a rule about “butt in chair?”

I kept waiting for someone to apply for the position I advertised in a sign above my stove.

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I’m still waiting.

Like I said, writing was the easy part.

 

BUT WHAT COMES AFTER WRITING THE BOOK?

Yes, I loved everything about the writing. Even all the rewriting.

  • My mentor guided me from the get go.
  • My nonfiction group critiqued chapters.
  • My beta readers, some of whom are professional editors, reviewed the manuscript.
  • And the formatting glitch is finally resolved.
  • My book is done. Right?

So, what do I do now?

 

PLATFORM!?  DID SOMEBODY SAY PLATFORM?

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Photo courtesy of Verne Ho on Unsplash

Before I get back to any serious blog posts, I guess we’d better find out what that means–what I have to do!

Will you stay with me, friend? I’m sure gonna need the company.

12 thoughts on “Writing the Book–My Africa Memoir–Was the Easy Part

  1. Mr. … talked about your book in class today. Also – there was an article in the paper about smallpox vaccine being stock piled in case of chemical war fare type “stuff”. So many thoughts of you and your book this week!

    1. Thanks for passing that on, Sandy. Articles are appearing in many news outlets now, not only on stockpiling of the vaccine, but about the smallpox treatment breakthrough, 17 years in the making. Up to now there was no treatment for smallpox, so this is a big deal. When we were eradicating the disease in the 60s and 70s who would have thought there’d someday be a fear of it being unleashed on humanity again. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Yep! I’ll be here for you. Love the burned out pan–done that myself a few times. Finally got an auto turnoff tea kettle–a shrill whistle interrupting my focus was not for me.

  3. Hi Bee, I love how you write. I am sticking with you. But, I have to say, the writing part was not easy for me. Partly because of the content and partly because I din’t know how to weave the story. It’s complexity and hard subject matter. What came after was much easier but still a hard job. It is best to know what you are up against and prepare for it ahead of time. I am social media savvy so that helped. I am excited to read your story one day soon.

    Mary A. Havens

  4. I will stay with you all the way, but in full transparency, I have to add that it’s not all altruistic.
    I’m almost at the same place as you. Getting up and deciding I will just go and jot something down on the computer to remind me to write about it later. Hah! How many mornings have i written the next chapter to present to the Writers Group, revised the one from the previous week, looked up a few details about the Great Wall and Grand Canal in China, because if I don’t get the dates or statistics right, someone will be sure to point it out. And finally around two or three in the afternoon, I realized I haven’t had breakfast or even brushed my teeth!
    But, like you, loving it! And now strange people are beginning to talk to me about platforms. Let me know, will you?

    1. Yep! I just delete emails that promote some book or webinar about writers’ block. Definitely not something I can relate to. Now if someone posted one about, uh, oh let me see. Cooking and cleaning block? Maybe. Thanks.

  5. Excellent post, Bee. And the “tease” at the end – so, what about that platform??? I can hardly wait to find out! ~ Glenda

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