“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part is that is original is not good.”
Well, we’re RPCV writers and we are both good and original!
One of the great gifts of the Peace Corps is that everyone’s experience is so special and individual. No matter when a person served in the Peace Corps, what year or where, the Volunteer comes home from the tour thinking “this is the Peace Corps!” and she or he is right. No two experiences are the same and, therefore, whatever you write is original. Now you have to make the telling of your story original.
Planning and Writing Your Book
In this lesson, I want to cover the structure of your book and look at three examples: Sarah Erdman (Cote D’Ivorie 1998-2000), Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) and Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87).
In writing your book, you need to be concerned about the structure of the material. I am not a big believer in developing an extensive outline before writing. I do believe, however, that you have to have some understanding of what your goal is, and how you are going to accomplish that goal with your book.
When I wrote my first novel, The Piercing, I started with a sketchy outline, but I imposed on it a time period structure. In this novel, it was the 40 days of Lent, and I divided the book into 40 chapters, one for each of those days. By so doing, I gave myself as the writer a structure..
If you look at three Peace Corps memoirs, you’ll see how these RPCVs structured their books. Below are comments on each of those books, plus comments that come to mind on this topic from other writers.
1. Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) structured his book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze around this river. He begins with: “I came to Fuling on the slow boat downstream from Chongqing.” He ends with: “Our boat picked up speed and we rushed away against the steady current of the river.” The river is part of his title; it is the metaphor; it is the symbol for his time in China. If I were an English Lit professor, I could build a whole lecture around the river representing the changes in Hessler’s life in China.
Peter comes back time and again to the river, but he was not writing about the “river.” It is the background, the pending death of this place, his home, Fuling, where he is a Peace Corps Volunteer. In a sense it is his metaphor for his Peace Corps tour.
If you break River Town down, you’ll see his Peace Corps tour provides another the structure of the book. From the beginning of his tour to its end. Not a bad plan, but not the only way to write your book.
2. When I wrote my first Peace Corps novel, I began on the last day that the PCV was in-country and then flashes back to the arrival of the Volunteer in country.
That book is entitled A Cool Breeze For Evening. It begins:
“So you are going away tomorrow!” Kebede spoke again with a quick burst of enthusiasm. The conversation had fallen away in the quiet of the evening. I had been listening to the night and there had been no sound in the town except occasionally a faint strand of music from the cinema and once the hum of a Landover that drove carefully through the square, and past the Ras Makonnen Bar where we were sitting behind the thick bougainvillea bushes letting our bottles of St. George beer go flat on the small table between us.
Okay, what do we have? The title suggests warm climates. The first name “Kebede” is “odd” and is certainly “foreign” and the “Ras Makonnen Bar” is foreign. “Land Rover” suggests Africa, “St. George” beer is foreign, and also, the “bougainvillea bushes” are from warm climates. We are somewhere else; but it doesn’t suggest Peace Corps.
I’m not sure if it works or not for an opening, but it does have a lazy feeling about it that means warm climates, distant lands, etc.
The point is that you need to grab your reader fast–on the very first page–and there is more than one way to do it.
3. Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) in a review of a Peace Corps book wrote that, “For better or worse, Peace Corps memoirs tend to have a predictable time-order coherence, with which every RPCV can readily relate: I applied… I trained… I was posted… I was (culturally) shocked… I taught… I explored… I listened… I (slowly) adapted… I was humbled… I learned….”
4. Sarah Erdman (Cote D’Ivorie 1998-2000), however, began her memoir, Nine Hills To Nambonkaha, with a short “memory” – a way to “set” the book in terms of mood and tone. And it is a dramatic moment: the birth of a boy. She has our attention by focusing on a tense situation, one we can relate to from our own experience – or from watching too many hours of “ER.” It works.
Sarah Erdman takes the whole of her Peace Corps experiences into this hut with these women. She is inside a hut, on a hard mud floor. She is a rural health worker, a PCV in the middle of Africa, and this is the “real thing.” She delivers the child, so to speak, then goes back to the very beginning – to her training day in-country. Hers is a nice device because she has “hooked” her reader. Wow, we think. If this writer is going to do this, what else does she have to tell me?
In the telling, she writes a series of “set pieces” that link loosely together; she is not bent on a continuing narrative as much as the moment, the page, the prose.
If we compare Peter and Sarah, we see two different approaches. While they are both excellent reporters, Peter is much more objective, there is distance between the subject and himself, between his language and his emotions. Sarah is “up close and personal.” I think this might just be the difference between a female writer and a male writer. They find different points of interest.
5. Barbara Fine Clouse says in Writing: From Inner World To Outer World, “Remember that it is far more satisfying to treat a narrow subject in depth than a broad one on the surface.”
6. Too often all of us start with too large a canvas. Keep it small, even if you start “big.” Here is Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65) writing on September 1, 1964, less than a year into his Peace Corps service.
“There is a crack in the earth which extends from the Sea of Galilee to the coast of Mozambique, and I am living on the edge of it, in Nyasaland.”
Do you see how he pulled the reader from high up looking down at the length of the Great Rift Valley right into his Peace Corps village? Not a bad beginning.
7. But Peter nor Sarah nor Paul write like Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87). Mike wears his prose on his sleeve. He has an interesting opening: “How do you pack for a two-year trip to Africa?” He is focused on his Dad’s Air Force duffel bag. A lot of his introduction really is this connection Mike makes with his father. His book, however, really begins with training. So, of the three books, two start with training – one in-country, one in the States. Only Peter starts with his tour, going to the job, and the job is what is most important, not training, not the Peace Corps. That, I think, is also true of Mike, while Sarah is into the village and the people, the sights and sounds, and, of course, the children.
Of the three books, the tone of Mike’s is the much more personal journal. His prose too is the most “in your face” while Sarah’s is lovely and sweet and refined. Peter’s writing is that of a journalist, with only a few moments when he lets his “ego” go to work. Remember the long distance race in Peter’s book? That’s Hessler is in your face.
What we have then is three unique presentations of the “Peace Corps book” and they all work. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, once told me that he thought Tidwell’s book was the best book he ever read on the Peace Corps. However, in fairness to these other two writers, this was before Peter had gone to China and while Sarah was still in middle school.
These three books approach the experience in different ways. How you “tell your story” is an individual decision that is important because it will carry you through the whole project, so start thinking about the structure of your book. At some point the natural way for you to write the book will come to you and you’ll feel at home with writing it that way. It will be the only way that you can tell of your time in the Peace Corps.
Week #2 Assignment
Prepare a rough outline of your book. This can be either a short narrative, or a listing of chapter titles, or brief chapter descriptions. This exercise will start you thinking of how the book will develop.