Self-Publish Your Peace Corps Story Or Not?

I have been writing the occasional blog about self-published books, mostly as a way of encourage people to write them, and while encouraging them to write, to suggest–urge–that they get a good editor (or 2) to work on their prose and poetry.

Writing good prose is not easy and it takes a lot of work just to write one good sentence, let alone two good sentences. Lauri Anderson (Nigeria 1965-67) a creative writing professor as well as a novelist dropped me a note recently that I think adds to my discussion about self-published books. Here is what Lauri has to say:

“I have read a few fine books that were self-published.  An RPCV friend at the University of Michigan Flint self-published a novel that I read from cover to cover and enjoyed.  One of my favorite travel books was self-published.  For every one such well-written self-published book there are hundreds of mediocre or awful ones.  I teach English at a university and write.  I’m often besieged by people who call themselves writers because they self-published.  Sometimes it seems as if practically everyone that I meet is the so-called author of a book of poetry or of a children’s book or a travel book or… I’ve done lectures/readings/signings where everyone in the audience later approached to tell me that he/she is a writer too–invariably self-published.  Almost all of this stuff is awful.  A lot of legitimately published stuff is also not wonderful but at least it was edited and awkward sentences and bad grammar and poor punctuation have been cleaned up.  It also was chosen because it will have an audience.  I can’t imagine anyone beyond immediate family and friends buying most of the self-published stuff that’s now all around us.”

That said, I think that there is value in collecting letters and narratives of the Peace Corps experience into book form. But lets all remember that: just because you wrote it, that doesn’t mean it is any good as literature or even as a story. But on another level it is very good, for your recounting of your Peace Corps tale might someday have value as a historical document about the agency. That’s not a small honor to have, or to take with you into retirement.

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  • I totally agree with Lauri in regards to many self-published novels. Of course, there are also plenty of bad writers out there posing as “Book Doctors”, “Professional Editors”, Liiterary Agents”, and yes, even college professors who managed to jump through all the requisite hoops without having to show any great talent. An obsession with grammar and form can at times be a symptom of limited imagination. None other than Mr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti told me that once. Of course, he was well in to his cups at that moment. But beyond that rather gratuitous slam, I could name you any number of fabulous musicians who couldn’t read music and wonderful story tellers who are functional illiterates. In fact, I met quite a few story tellers like that in Colombia during my Peace Corps days. Oh well, guess they’ll have to live out their days in blissfull obscurity without the approval of the New York Times Review of Books who won’t even look at self-published works. Que pena!

    Craig Carrozzi

  • While enjoying Mr. Coyne’s support for all writing, I’d also like to be so bold as to add two thoughts.

    First, I wish more people would be more kind to the hobbyist, or learning writier. Not many would ever think to diminish the efforts of tens of thousands of nice men and women who rightfully consider themselves to be fishermen, water-colorists, golfers, hunters, antiquers, tennis players, quilters and such who employ much of their own energy, resources and time, while never earning a so much as a dime for their efforts. Yet the hobbyist, and learning writer seems to be so easy (and sometimes smuggly fun) to rough-up. True, some may naively ask for it, but most just wish to write – probably because they love to read.

    Secondly, and as one who’s been published traditionally as well as self-published, perhaps these learning writers would be better served if they sought the help and talents of the smaller self-publishers who take great pride in some 6 to 12 titles per year, as opposed to the machines out there that churn out hundreds, or more annually, caring little for their product. These smaller houses would be much more discrininating, and much more helpful.

    Keep up the good work, Mr Coyne.

    Larry Kimport

  • Well said, Larry. I have been adding suggestions of what RPCVs might do with regard to writing, as well as, adding the names of smaller publishig houses. I will say, however, that small houses tend to be much more demanding with regard to the quality of writing than larger commerical places. It is often easier to get published by a commerical publishing house, than an academic or small press.

    Anyone who knows anything about good writing can look at the list of best sellers and see The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown or fiction by Nicholas Sparks and ask, “what gives?” I can write that well. Why can’t I get published?

    The difference–if any–between Dan Brown and you is that Brown and Sparks and James Patterson or Danielle Steel, etc., have a gift of telling a story, no matter how poorly it is written; they keep the reader reading.

    Then, you have someone like Pat Conroy. Conroy can write and he can tell a story! He is a very good commerical writer. He is not Richard Russo (also on the best seller list) or Nicholson Baker, or for that matter, Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69); Lauri Anderson (Nigeria 1965-67); Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67); or many other fine RPCVs writers who can write the pants off 2/3 of the writers on the NYTIMES best seller list.

    Style and taste change. Let us not forget that in the mid-sixties, F. Scott Fitzgerald was out of print! Only because of the book on his wife, Zelda, and the women’s movement, did young people ‘rediscover’ Fitzgerald, and he came back into vogue and is taught today on every college campus in America.

    There is a wonderful writer, J.F. Powers, who wrote for the New Yorker years ago. My guess is that there are less than a 1,000 readers who know his work. Or Irwin Shaw? Who reads Irwin Shaw these days?

    My point is that even if you live in the woods and write in long hand or on a typewriter, at some point on your journey your prose and poetry will be found.

    So, continue to write and write and write. Everyone gets better the more they write and someday a stranger you’ll meet in a writing class will look across a crowded room and nod and say, “this is pretty good.” And it will be. And you will have written it!

  • I became a PCV because my father, Joseph (Dominican Republic 1963-65) was one — indeed, it was the frequent storytelling and slideshows that he shared with me and my brothers during our childhood that inspired me to apply three times — I finally went with my wife, Erin, to the Republic of Vanuatu in 1997.

    So when I discovered that dad had returned from the DR, told his story to my grandfather, and that my grandfather had written a manuscript about those PCV experiences, I was doubly proud. I took that manuscript, edited it and produced it as a book through the print-on-demand Lulu.com. See http://zuiker.com/steptofreedom/.

    That book won’t win any awards, but it stands as a testament to the power of storytelling in linking one family to the Peace Corps. I’m darn proud of it.

  • I simply had Sir Speedy print my memoir on Senegal and was surprised that I actually sold almost a hundred copies to friends and acquaintances and got many favorable comments about it. So I decided to try print on demand and my memoir has been accepted by Publish America. It seems, from their emails, that they hope I’ll buy most of the copies, though I expect they’ll do some promoting for me as well.

    Will anyone reading this blog who has been published by Publish America please tell me about their experience.

    Thanks! lkaldi@hotmail.com

  • As a self-published author (one of the first to list his book on this site), I read, with interest, the comments above on the value of such books. We put an awful lot of time and effort into our works and many of us have had great responses from those who have taken the time to read (and yes pay for) our books. I was quite disappointed to read that our books are not worth the effort to read, after getting through the first few pages. We seem to fall into the same dilemma as first time job seekers. “You need experience to get a job and you need a job to get experience.” The comments above do not give a lot of encouragement to returned volunteers to write about their experiences. I had hoped that this site would give an honest review of my book and help a fellow Peace Corps volunteer in exposing it to others who had had similar experiences and might enjoy reading it. Instead you seem to be more interested only in authors who already have some success and just happen to have been volunteers. Is self- publishing only for those of us who should have just emailed our stories to our families and friends?

  • This is an interesting train of ideas and opinions. Commercial publishing, whether large or small, provides a great product. Unfortunately, the changes in book publishing during the last 3 decades tend to exclude most writers from publication. In the case of former Peace Corps Volunteers, their memoirs are a valuable source of information, like a captain’s log. In fact, they actually offer two types of information; an account of what they did and at the same time, a description of the place. The last half century has been a time of incredible change worldwide and RPCVs offer an unusual perspective since they were not tourists but men and women who learned the local language, lived and worked amongst the people. It is fascinating to note that another iconic government sponsored project- the CCC- involved 2 million young men over a four or five year period. Yet, when one investigates, there are hardly any first-hand accounts of what it was like. If future generations are to remember the Peace Corps and what the world was like, it is a wise idea to publish books. If self-publication is the only avenue open, why not? Most of the work will not be deemed “literature,” but is that title really so important? Are we only to read what someone else has deemed “important?” The Journals of Lewis and Clark are not literature, yet they are treasured in the Library of Congress. Hmmm.

  • Brian: Last night I ate dinner with an honest-to-God editor of a small press which specializes in poetry. Unfortunately, I am a horrible poet. We had a great conversation during which he told me that the last time he sent out a request for manuscripts, he received about 50. Of those, he deemed 48 publishable. “These were really educated people who certainly knew how to write,” he told me. “The problem was that they were boring. In fact, have you ever noticed that students from writing programs all write the same, like a cookie cutter?”

    Soon, we were talking about self-publication. He remembered an era before Print-On-Demand (P.O.D.). “The Beats had to forsake the Eastern Establishment in order to find an audience. Some of them used self-publication, as have many other esteemed authors. Why? Because nobody wanted to publish them. Thank God that they didn’t give up.”

  • Thanks Lorenzo. I was told, by many people that I have known, that I just had to write a book about my experience. I finally did, after 37 years of procrastination, and am glad that I did. It may never be a literary success, but it exists and I am a “Published Author.”

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