The rules for writing A Peace Corps book

There are no rules. And that is what is so great about writing a book.

Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) a successful writer/editor/creative writing professor and RPCV, author of How To Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes, sent me these wise words on how Peace Corps writers should go about the task of writing a book.

Her list:

  • Hopeful Peace Corps writers should take writing courses from reputable instructors to learn the basics and to have the opportunity to workshop their writing among peers.
  • They should also read lots of good How-To books on the craft. There are a gazzillion of them out there.
  • They should avoid at all costs: exclamation points, stereotyping, cliches, and all other proofs of lazy writing.
  • They should plan on revising each chapter or piece at least ten times. Quality writing is all about revision.
  • They should NOT confuse explicit, titillating, borderline-pornographic sex scenes with “intimacy” with the reader.  A writer of worthwhile prose must work harder and dig deeper to achieve emotional intimacy with his/her reader.

I would add that a good Peace Corps book is a journey. It has a beginning, middle, and end and the reader is on the same journey as the narrator. If the reader doesn’t care about the narrator, he or she will stop reading.

How do you get a reader to be interested in your journey?

You do it with language. Here’s how. This is a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher describing the arrival of his students to his school in Malawi. Read these sentences out loud and listen to how the writer has shaped the information that he is telling you:

This is a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher describing the arrival of his students to his school in Malawi. Read these sentences out loud and listen to how the writer has shaped the information that he is telling you:

“My schoolroom is on the Great Rift, and in this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved liked prisoners, muscle showing through their rags. These children appear in the morning out of the slowly drifting hoops of fog-wisp. It is chilly, almost cold. There is no visibility at six in the morning; only a fierce white-out where earth is the patch of dirt under their bare feet, a platform, and the sky is everything else.”

What the writer does first is set a scene. With a few words we know where we are in Africa with school children, and then like a panoramic shot, he draws back, pulls the camera of his description away from the “line of children” and we feel the cold dawn of Africa, the immenseness of the landscape: “the earth is a platform and the sky is everything else.” He uses wonderfully telling words to make the scene real: “drifting hoops of fog-wisp.”

The writer has achieved this powerful image by carefully selecting the right descriptive adjectives, and by building the sentence [the effect] slowly. He doesn’t say, for example, “….earth under their feet…” He uses the word “patch” to modify earth; “bare” to go with feet and show the poverty.

So select wisely, slowly, and rewrite. By the way, those few sentences were written by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65). Read Theroux  (or Bonnie Black) if you want to know what good writing is all about.

 

 

3 Comments

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  • Awesome, I could almost see those school children on their way to class. Thanks for the “kick in the butt” to get us ready to tell our stories.
    Bob

    • Yesterday for the first time–a RPCV who read part of the manuscript for my new book “Different Latitudes” called to say how much he liked my writing and the way I tell my stories–which was encouraging since it confirmed I’m making progress. I definitely agree with Bonnie recommendations to read good books–and Paul Theroux is one of my all time favorites.

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