Why write about the Peace Corps?

[Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77) is an urban planner and author of eight books and seven pamphlets, all self published. His latest book, Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010, (the first book of its kind) just came out and is available on Amazon.com.  Larry writes here on the importance of writing about the  Peace Corps experience, for yourself, your family, the world!]

For fifty years former volunteers and staff have wearily trudged home convinced of a duty to share their experience with family, friends and community. Some have created and performed songs, dances and plays while others have written poems, short stories, novels, essays, history and even memoirs. Together, they form a huge mosaic about the Peace Corps Experience.

There are other sources of information: government reports and records. Although some dusty report might list the incidence of rabies in a far-off place, it will not describe the fear of an unarmed village sequestered in their homes made of rotten sticks tied together with moldy twine as a rabid dog jumps, growls and smashes into their flimsy wall. A report may describe the prevalence of water-born parasites but it will not explain the horror of watching a newborn’s face contort in one last grimace. Likewise, a record might mention whether a certain river is navigable. It would never describe the joy of bathing in its waterfall as the sun set or the sweet scent of wild fruits that grow along its banks. A record could list marriages but it would never mention a husband lightly touching his bride’s hand and her blush.

Memoirs do. Peace Corps Experience memoirs describe, in many cases, a world and people that no longer exist. These are peepholes which offer meaningful details held together with the twine of a story- a true story about a normal American who lived a few abnormal years and learned valuable lessons about self and the world. A memoir breathes life into history for it is witness literature.

Almost all Peace Corps Experience memoirs are published and distributed at the author’s expense. The best news is that it is now possible to create a book at an incredibly low price. Fifty years ago, the cost of producing a book was considerable and most printers required a minimum run. What alternatives? Photocopy machines, personal computers and the internet did not exist. So, the author needed a thick wad of cash and a dry place to store the books. Today, it is possible to create books one at a time and sell them on the internet. Initial investments have been cut and the need for a warehouse evaporated.

There is quite a bit of ugly gossip about self-publication in any form. Generally, one of the comments is that self-published books are not good enough for commercial publishing. Well, commercial publishing in its present form has only existed since the 1920’s. There were plenty of books before that, some good and some poorly written. Good enough? Scan the shelves. A book ostensibly written by George Herbert Bush’s dog, Millie, was a best seller. So was a book that was accompanied by a tiny ball constructed of sewn leather panels and filled with dried beans. It was called the Hacky Sack. The commercial publishing industry at one time was owned by men and women who employed youngsters to search through unsolicited manuscripts looking for new material- the diamond within a slag heap. Those publishing houses were gobbled up by large corporations decades ago. In order to increase profits, they let the youngsters go. Unsolicited manuscripts are now unread. If you want to publish commercially and are not a well-known person, the best way to land a commercial contract is to commit some horrific crime and then contract a writer for hire to pen the book for you. This is great material?

Writing teachers and their students disparage self-publishing as well. As they hold private conferences, pin shiny medals on each other’s lapels and hand out plastic trophies, their mouths twist and some spit when asked about self-publication. They claim it is all poorly written. Then, they whine about not being rich and famous as they hold up trophies and tug their lapels. Had you graduated from their program, you might have had a reserved seat at the awards ceremony.

Is this really why you itch to write? Wouldn’t you love to read something written by your ancestors? It starts with you. Maybe it ain’t high art but neither were Grandma Moses paintings. This is folk art. Beginning in 2008, the number of self-published books in this country surpassed the number of commercially published books. For the first time in decades, book clubs are blossoming around us. They do not sell as well. A self-published book averages 50 to 200 sales. However, they collectively form a new movement.

Not so long ago, there was a real person who traveled around planting apple trees. Today, he is remembered as Johnny Appleseed. Americans with the courage to write and publish are modern Johnny Appleseeds. They seed tomorrow’s great thoughts by example. Join us.


Leave a comment
  • I wonder how much was learned if, as you say, it is a ” a norrmal American who lived a few abnormal years and learned valuable lessons.” Abnormal is a rather judgmental comment. We who are Peace Corps Volunteers live as part of the communities, which is not “abnormal” to the people among whom we live. It may not even be “abnormal” to other places in America. That is a rather elitist comment.

  • knj- Feel free to purchase a copy of my Peace Corps memoir. You can read all about what I learned. It’s called “South of the Frontera; a Peace Corps Memoir.”

  • knj,

    I believe you are absolutely right in your observation. There is a classic book by Robert B. Textor, “Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps.” In the introduction, he describes three different “sub-cultures” within the Peace Corps – basically, PC/DC; the HC Director and his staff; and the serving PCV community. He talks about the different tasks for each group and how they may color their values. It is an excellent book, true today, even tho it was published in 1966.

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