But What’s It About, About?

Can you sum up your favorite book in one word?

Can you sum it up in one sentence?

Can you sum it up in three words? Three sentences?

There are two kinds of ‘about’ in this question. There is the plot: what happens? And there is the theme: what does it mean? Or, how do the events in this particular story touch on something universal?

What is It about?

One of my favorite books is Unbroken. It is about former Olympian, Louis Zamperini, and his struggle to survive in the air, at sea, and as a POW during World War II. And, it is about resilience and what it takes to overcome evil. Resilience. Survival. Evil. War.

Another favorite of mine is Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It is about life in an Indian slum. And, it is about finding beauty in brokenness. It is about a family wrongfully accused of their neighbor’s murder and it is about the creative and terrible things people stuck in poverty do to both get ahead and to affirm their dignity. Poverty. Beauty. Brokenness. Dignity.

As I work on my current project, I am really struggling to boil it down to these kinds of words and sentences.

Whenever someone asks me what it is about, I stumble.

I need my ‘elevator pitch.’ This is what writers call the answer to ‘What is your book about?’ If you were stuck in an elevator with a top New York literary agent, what would you say about your book before the doors open? What could you say that would make them want to read it when you only have thirty seconds, maybe a minute? You can’t give a full plot. You can’t lay out the intricacies of your fascinating character. You only have a few words, maybe one or two complete sentences.

It really helps me when I hear what people say about other books.

What are some of your favorite books and what are they about? And then, what are they about about?





10 Ways to Generate Story Ideas

I recently wrote this for my fellow EthnoTraveler writers and thought I would share it here as well. Generating story ideas can be infuriatingly difficult but also really fun. I hate the way I feel staring at a blank page but I love the way I feel looking out at the world with my mind full of curiosity.


Here are some of my favorite ways for generating story ideas, the primary ones being to cultivate an endless curiosity and to pay attention. But more specifically…

“To pay attention, that is our endless and proper work.” Mary Oliver

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.” Eleanor Roosevelt

I love coming up with story ideas. Most of my ideas are terrible, but terrible ideas can spark great ideas or can become less terrible over time. And, somewhere in the middle of the terrible ideas there are usually one or two good ones. I keep several lists, saved under the names of the websites or magazines they match and I add to the lists almost weekly so that when a big blank strikes, I have someplace to turn to. The lists include names of places or people, links to articles or books that spark ideas, turns of phrases that I like, anything, just so that when I look at the list, my mind starts gathering scraps for a story.

In no particular order, here are suggestions for generating these story ideas:

Follow your own curiosity. What have you always wondered about? Is there a monument or a historical event or a well-known person or a popular folktale that every time you see or hear it, your curiosity is piqued? Follow that. What do Djiboutians think about love and how does the Somali Romeo and Juliet folktale impact men and women differently? That question led me to research and write Death by Heartbreak.

Be bold. Don’t be afraid to approach someone in order to ask questions. I am always terrified before making a phone call or approaching someone And I’m always glad, afterwards, that I did it. Most people love to talk about what they do and are honored that you are interested. Once people start talking, though at first they may have been reticent, I often have a hard time ending an interview. Brian McKanna could never have written The Women in the Fields if he hadn’t stepped into a potentially awkward conversation with women he didn’t know. It ended with a good discussion, Brian holding a bag of organic pears, and a beautiful essay.

Follow your own interest, transplanted. Discover how what you love is similar in this new culture, or radically different. I love to run. So I naturally gravitate toward Girls Run 2, the only all-girls running team in Djibouti. I like to cook, so I am interested in Djiboutian attitudes toward cooking and food, both in restaurants and in the home. Are there recipes passed on for generations, how do young people learn, what about that flat bread that is cooked over charcoal?

Follow other people’s curiosity. What do other people wonder about where you live? What seems to draw their interest? Do you get a lot of questions about what you eat, what you wear, what the houses are like? Are people fascinated by the politics or the music or the sports in your city? When you post on Facebook about the slaughtering of goats on Eid, do people pepper you with questions? Follow their curiosity and write, keeping in mind the people who have never seen or experienced your particular place.

Go for a walk. There are two main benefits of going for a walk. First, it clears your head. Get out of the chair and move. Second, you’ll see something or encounter someone or remember something. Make sure to bring a notebook or smart phone along so you can jot down the ideas that come to mind. Let Down and Hanging Around on the Hippie Trail came from Chris Watts’ walk around India’s Anjuna Beach.

Cultivate a personality of asking questions. This goes back to curiosity. Do that annoying toddler thing, “But why? But why? But why?” You could expand on the question, too. Like, “And then what? And then what? And then what?” Be a learner, always be a learner. If you’re lucky, people around will recognize you as a learner and will even start bringing stories to you that can develop into essays.

Don’t know things, even if you do know them. You don’t know them from this particular person’s perspective. Ask anyway. I’ve lived in Djibouti for almost 12 years and still ask questions about day-to-day life because I will never know it as well as a local person, and because people have a wide variety of stories, ways of saying things, and ways of seeing things. It might be the thing that is most mundane to you that fascinates another reader.

Pay attention. Small details make an essay come alive, but they also propel more questions and might lead down intriguing trails. Use all your senses as you go about daily life and find a story in the smell of the sunrise over the desert or the sound of silence after the geese have flown south.

Find the universal in the unique. As you pay attention, think about what that specific sunrise smell says about new beginnings. Tara Thomas did this vividly in her piece Desperately Seeking Autumn. She wrote the specific story of autumn in Germany but as I read, I could hear the leaves crunching beneath my feet when I walked home from elementary school in Minnesota. Her essay was about how she both missed and enjoyed autumn in Germany but it touched on the universal experience of autumn.

Always say yes. This isn’t really practical, but as often as possible, say yes. Invited to a concert? Go. Someone wants you to tour their school for kids with special needs? Go. Someone hands you a plate of steaming rice with a boiled goat tongue on top? Eat it. Debbie Porter followed her strange yearning for a souvenir into a shop in a Chinese market and out came the story Postcard from Kowloon. Everything might not turn into a story (though as Annie Dillard said, writers are always cannibalizing our lives for parts), but it could. At the very least, you’ll have a grand adventure.

And of course, as one last suggestion: read.

Read like mad.

Read other EthnoTraveler pieces (or other pieces in your genre).

Keep reading.

*image via Flickr

Click here to buy the Djiboutilicious e-Cookbook. All proceeds for the next two weeks will go toward funding the International School of Djibouti.

By |October 16th, 2015|Categories: Writing|Tags: , , |5 Comments

Down with Exclamation Points!!

I hate exclamation points. Okay hate is too strong of a word. I’m anti-exclamation point. When I read them I feel like people are shouting at me. When I write them I feel like I have written poorly because I shouldn’t need to rely on an exclamation point to get across the excitement or power of what I have written. They seem kind of lazy. Plus, I’m not really an exclamation point kind of person.

Exclamation Point

I know someone who cries when I cook her waffles (yeah, you know who you are). I am the mother of someone who does exuberant tuck jumps while waving her arms in the air and cheering when her watermelon plant sprouted. I know someone else who talks so fast, and with so much conviction that each word seems to be accompanied by an invisible exclamation point.

I’m not those people. I like the steady, plain, no frills, simple period. Period. I don’t hang up curtains, I don’t wear sequins, I barely put on makeup unless you count chapstick. Simple, casual, what you see is what you get. Like a period. That nice, round little dot at the end of a sentence. That inconspicuous, unpretentious point that lets the words do all the talking and demands nothing for itself.

This pretty much works for professional writing. Unless I’m writing for certain websites (here are some pieces in which, yes, exclamation points have been inserted into my pieces. I can neither confirm nor deny that I placed them there myself).

But when it comes to other kinds of communication, like the kind between people that isn’t in the form of an essay or blog post, exclamation points seem to be creeping in (as does the smiley face).


I live in the digital age. The age of texting and Facebook and email and Twitter. The age when so much communication is done without sound or visuals. No tone of voice, no face or hand gestures, no body language.

I’ve heard people say that a text without an exclamation point or smiley face makes me sound angry. Why can’t it make me sound neutral? Or stable? Or happy and excited? Or sincere? Why do I have to shout my texts at people? Or my Facebook messages?

At first I thought I would just refuse all uses of the exclamation point and insist on using the period. But when people on Facebook wonder if I’m resentfully wishing them a plain old Happy Birthday or if they assume I’m pissed when I accept an invitation via text with a basic, ‘Ok,’ that’s not cool for my relationships.

So I guess I’ll concede. On social media. Sometimes. But let it be known that if I use an exclamation point here or in an email or *gasp* in a published essay, it was with great intention and possibly against my will and better judgment!

How do you feel about exclamation points?

*image via Wikimedia

When to Stop Researching and Start Writing

Another vigorous debate between my husband and I took place while we were running together. Interesting, since our last debate was about whether or not I am a runner… Anyway, I have been feeling stuck on a few writing projects and he thought I should just start plowing through the historical nonfiction work I’m attempting.

How Much Research Do You Do?

I thought I needed to do more research. He thought I could make stuff up, which I referred to as pulling stuff out of my butt. He suggested I just get words onto the screen and then fix them later (he wasn’t telling me to pull stuff out of my butt, at least not without wiping it off later) and this led into a long debate, through huffing and puffing and torrential sweating, about how to write nonfiction. How much research needs to happen and when does it need to happen? How much interpretation can happen especially when weaving together events that happened decades or centuries ago? How does a writer acknowledge interpretation or separate fact from sort-of-fact from utter fiction? Is there a difference? Isn’t history written by conquerors and so it already comes with some twists and interpretations? How does a writer find her way in the maze? Does she defend every word choice with an appendix that is as long as the book itself? Some of my favorite writers do and others don’t, or offer notes on a website.

So if I have an idea of a scene do I try to recreate it or do I lose myself down the rabbit hole of research and clicking, clicking, clicking, or calling, calling, calling and then find that at the end of the day I have written a single sentence that might be deleted later? I say yes, all that research means that sentence is as true as it could possibly be and that is what makes writing nonfiction feel like a treasure hunt – finding pearls and beading them together.

He thought, wouldn’t it just better to get something, some darn thing down on the screen so I don’t mope around feeling like I’ve wasted my time earning a single fact, a single date, a single name of a particular road by scouring maps and comparing date stamps? I can always go back and update it later, I could highlight the places that need more information in order to be confident of their factuality, and then I could just lose myself in the creative process of writing that scene.

Probably we are both right and this is what it looks like to write. Moping, staring, searching, moping some more, deleting, and then…aha! Discovery! And the thrill of that one detail makes it worthwhile. A treasure. That’s why I love nonfiction. When it is well done, I know how much each sentence was a battle the writer won in the end.

Here’s to winning with facts (and to winning debates with spouses).

How much do you research and when does it happen in the writing process?

*a great example of end notes that are as much fun to read as the book itself is: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

*image via Flickr

By |May 28th, 2015|Categories: Writing|Tags: , , |1 Comment

Writing: Rejection and Community

For writers, in between the Facebook likes and the retweets and the comments, there are piles and piles of rejections. In my case, these rejections are immortalized on an Excel worksheet. Titles, places submitted to, the date submitted, the expected waiting period. Then the NO. NO again. Another NO. Oh look! NO. Every once in a while a YES appears and usually it looks more like this: YES!!!!! Sometimes there is a maybe, generally followed by a NO.

But even worse than the rejections, there are the harsh comments, which I don’t intentionally immortalize but sometimes stuck in my brain on endless repeat. The cruel, anonymous jabs that I try not to read but sometimes can’t avoid.

And even worse than that, there are the words we wish we could take back. Or rethink. Or clarify. Or just erase. Maybe they went out into the world before they were really ready. Maybe they went out before we were really ready. Maybe we’ve changed a lot, grown a bit, thought some new things, learned some new facts, seen a fresh perspective. Too late now and thanks to the internet, most things can be found much, much later, or can be found forever. There’s no erasing the trail of our ignorance. Maybe that’s okay, it shows growth. But it still stings.

Writers know full well that we are not necessary. There will always be another writer coming along, saying it better. We know that not everything we do is ‘acceptance’ worthy, very little of it, in fact. We know we probably earn at least some of those harsh comments, we can’t please everyone and sometimes we don’t even try and then, well, here they come. And when we do try, we sound wishy-washy so again, here they come. We know we are far from perfect, have not even come close to thinking things out thoroughly or wisely. It is all an opportunity to grow in humility.

And courage. And persistance. And teachability.

And community.

And so I just want to say thank you. Writing is officially an isolated activity. I can’t write a single letter if someone is looking over my shoulder. But writing is absolutely not an isolated activity. Its about communicating and conversation and community.

isolated writer

Last June I was seriously contemplating closing the blog. I was in Kenya, taking a walk. A woman I have never met before nor seen since approached me and said, “Thank you so much for your blog, it has really blessed me.” She didn’t know it, but after we parted ways, I cried. Thank you for being part of my community, anonymous lady.

This past month was a sad and a good month. And almost every day Lennox sent me a tweet with a photo or a sentence expressing his and his family’s delightful experiences touring Djibouti. He was so generous in his affection for this country and in his kind words to me. I felt honored and like I was part of a community that came about through writing. Thank you, Lennox.

Email messages and cultural insights from Djiboutians help deepen essays, echo the warm welcome we receive here as foreigners, and remind me of my local, physically-present community. Waad mahadsantihiin.

I have been blogging now for eight years this January. Life has changed a lot, my words have changed. I think they’ve gotten a teensy bit better. Thanks to my sister who knew better than me and said, “You should start a blog.”

To which I responded, “What’s a blog?”

To which she responded, “I set one up in your name as your Christmas gift.”

And voila, we were off and running, building a community.

I often go to bed with a pit in my stomach, thinking of something I should have said or written differently, remembering a way I could have loved someone better that day. Or I think of a piece I had really hoped would be accepted but I had to write a NO on my excel sheet. Or I dream of all the questions I have for the people I would like to interview here, who have so much to teach me. I’m learning to release it all, to trust that somehow my failures can be redeemed, that sometime or another the questions might be answered, the conversation might build into a relationship.

Being part of a writing and reading and living community facilitates that ability to release it, rejections and all.

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