There are many things I’ve learned about myself during the past 21 months living abroad in a developing country, so many, in fact, it would be hard to list them all. At times I feel as if I’ll take away more from this experience than I’ll leave behind. One thing I know I've learned is that I like to write and, even more surprisingly, that people like to read what I have written. Luckily, my schedule has also allowed me to do a lot of writing and a lot reading. These really go hand-in-hand; it’s hard to do one without the other. It seems that exploring other people’s style, their rhythm, and their cadence, is an important part of developing your own.
Recently, I read a series of novels by Anne Lamott that follow a young girl and her family over a 10 year period as she grows from a sweet little angelic child being raised by an anxious widow to a manipulative teenage addict who challenges her mother’s new marriage. When reading any series of books, whether it is Harry Potter or the Millennium series, I always find it interesting to watch the characters grow and change as the storyline evolves. I was happy to come across a fourth book by Lamott in one of our regional house libraries, Bird by Bird, a non-fiction book that, as its subtitle suggests, offers “some instructions on writing and life.” The book is filled with stories about how Lamott became interested in writing and some of the challenges she’s faced along the way. It follows the same format she uses when teaching writing classes at UC Davis, giving new writers tips and tricks for assigning writing tasks, dealing with perfectionism, discovering characters, and letting plots develop alongside them. She’s very funny, so in addition to this being an interesting read it’s also entertaining. One of the first exercises that she suggests for learning how to craft a story is to give yourself a manageable, short writing assignment describing a brief moment in intricate detail. She references some advice her father once gave her brother when he was ten years old and had procrastinated about writing a report on birds. He’d had three months to complete the report, but waited until the last minute to begin it. Seeing his frustration and despair, their father, who was also a writer, suggested that he take it “bird by bird”, focusing his writing on the description of each bird instead of being overwhelmed with the entire assignment. This advice stuck with Lamott and she recommends it as an exercise for focusing on the details of a single situation and letting that set the scene to expose characters and settings that can later be explored. I liked this idea so much that I decided to give it a try. Here is what I came up with:
Having lived in the midst of the Sahel for the past 2 years, she still had not gotten used to the intermittent brown-outs that roll through during the hot season. These brown-outs have nothing to do with electricity, although that’s often a problem as well. Instead, the brown-outs are aptly named because of the color they change the sky. The hot dust-filled Harmattan winds that blow in from the north are still as eerie to her now as they had been the first time she’d experienced them, well over a year ago. This time they came on quickly. She was sitting on her porch admiring a couple of neighborhood kids who were studying in the outdoor classroom recently built in the courtyard of her compound when the winds began to pick up and the late afternoon temperature began to rise. Within minutes, the sky above and the air all around was sepia-toned and filled with fine particles of sand. After the girls ran home, she took shelter in her hot cinderblock room closing the door and shutters behind her and drawing the curtains in a futile attempt to keep silt and sand from coating her belongings. Unfortunately, the small cluster flies that usually only torment her in the early morning while she enjoys a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle decided to follow her. To avoid them, she took refuge under the mosquito net on the small twin bed that occupies a quarter of her room. Luckily, the power stayed on despite the high winds, so she was able to use her most valued possession, the oscillating fan she bought when she’d first arrived in Senegal. As the evening descended, she ventured out a few times to refill her water bottle and check on the weather. Not much had changed; it was still hot, still brown, and still windy.
What seemed stiflingly oppressive to her, surprisingly did not affect the neighbors who’d come by earlier in the day to pick up the stackable plastic chairs that she and her host father rent out for parties and events. Soon after the 7:30pm call to prayer, she heard the sound tests from their rented speaker system and then the amplified drums that would continue on throughout the night. When she returned to her room and splashed her face to cool off, she noticed that the water returning to the sink was brown and that her whole body was covered in grit, which prompted her to rinse off completely. After a quick shower, she patted herself dry and then crawled back under the mosquito net, unclothed. Being completely naked in this conservative Muslim country is a rare event, for anyone, and it felt a bit risqué. Although women are not shy about walking around topless, especially in the extreme heat, being totally naked is something that rarely happens, even in the privacy of one’s own room. She’d recently learned that some women even keep their bottom halves covered with a crocheted wrap skirt when showering or giving themselves bucket baths. That night, however, she did not hesitate to disrobe. It was too hot for her to care about modesty or cultural integration. She lay on her bed with arms laid flat above her head and her legs spread wide so that no part of her skin was touching another part, as if preparing to make a sweaty snow angel atop her damp sheets. On occasion, a limb would bend in an attempt to find a comfortable position on the lumpy bed, but as soon as the skin on either side of the crease of her knee or her elbow would touch a stream of sweat would work its way down the limb like a raindrop on a window. The fan positioned just two feet from the net provided some relief as it attempted to dry the trickle of sweat before it reached its destination.
Sleep was not an option, at least not until she was thoroughly exhausted. The neighborhood drum-fest was loud and intrusive. Even her host dad was trying to drown out the beat of the tam-tams by blasting Miles Davis and John Coltrane from his computer speakers. The sounds of both kept her from sleep so she picked up a book and tried to read. The hum of the fan did not completely drown out the drone of the mosquitos and flies that zoomed around the net attracted, no doubt, to the headlamp she was using to read. The wind, the insects, the drums, the jazz, the heat, all mixed together in the air filling her room with an amplified agitation. The insects soon outsmarted the net and many of them found their way through the small holes that had been created when the bracelets she wore to mark each passing month snagged and caught on the delicate netting. After a while, smashing mosquitos between the pages of her book became less fulfilling and more of a hindrance to her actually being able to read the words in the book, so she turned off the headlamp and resigned herself to a restless night, pulling a sheet above her head to keep from being feasted upon in her sleep. Just two more months of this, she thought, and then the rains arrive.
So, what do you think? Do I have a novel in me? I think I should probably just stick to blogging.