writing

Home/Tag: writing

Pirates! Poverty! War! FGM! On Manipulating Headlines to Capture a Reader

How the heck do writers get people to care about other parts of the world?

Editors often tell me (in my many rejection letters) that North Americans don’t care about the Horn of Africa.

Unless I can come up with a salacious or titillating angle (both intriguing words), why would a reader in, say, Minnesota, care about Djiboutian girls making bead jewelry? Maybe they like working their hands to create beautiful things. Maybe they are serving their families by earning extra income, maybe they are developing math, business, negotiation, marketing, and general work ethic skills, maybe they are forming a beautiful community.

But.

Who cares?

Clearly, I do. And clearly, I hope you do. But writing about community, creativity, and beauty isn’t click-bait the way other things are.

(By the way, you can see the handiwork of these young women on Facebook and Instagram and you can even purchase it as of April 2 here)

Stories of hope and joy out of a far away region and culture, struggle to capture the attention of a general reader.

This is why Syrians are crying out for people to care but few respond. It is why many have not even heard of the war in Yemen, what has recently been called the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years, even with Syria in the picture.

How do writers up the readership on stories from this part of the world which I find inherently fascinating and which I love, but about which few outsiders care?

Here’s what I came up with (while on a run with a friend who also cares about this part of the world):

It has to be about FGM. Female Genital Mutilation. Or pirates, poverty, war.

So here are some possible headlines, to get clicks, readers, and attention. Whether or not they actually represent reality is highly debatable.

For a story about Dreamer and Co, the bead business:

Girls Saved from Pirate Marriages Turn Trash to Treasure

(granted, they were never at risk of getting married to pirates, but I suppose its possible, in the sense of all things are possible)

For a story about the most amazing place I visited in Hargeisa, Somaliland during Marathon week, a place that almost made me cry:

They Don’t Have Clitorises but They Have a Library!

(because who wants to read about a library in Somalia, even if it is the most inspiring place in the entire city)

For a story about the incredible strides Somali women are making in medicine:

Raped in the Middle of the Day, Now a Medical Student

(as if sexual assault has anything to do with her capability as a student or doctor)

For a story about the running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2:

With No Bras, Underwear, Socks, or Shoes, Girls Still Run

(as if the most important thing about them is what they lack, rather than what they have to offer)

Of course FGM, piracy, poverty, rape, war…all these things are significant issues for the region, for the world. I’m not saying they don’t matter or shouldn’t be written about. I write about them, I talk about them with friends. And there very well could be a place in an article about the first class of medical students to graduate to write about assault and trauma. But using those kinds of troubling details as the main point or a kind of requirement for getting through the editorial doors, skews stories and perpetuates the ‘exotic’ otherness of people, rather than our shared humanity.

We are all broken, broken in unique ways. We can also all celebrate unique stories of healing and beauty, while lamenting the brokenness, without dehumanizing each other.

Maybe it is wishful thinking, to imagine people care about those far away and outside our own borders. There is both too much brokenness and too much beauty to expect anyone to hold it all. I can’t summon the emotional energy to care about all the joys and problems of the world. But at the same time, there are billions of us. Surely there is room for all the stories, surely we can diversify a little bit more, stretch our minds past presidents, past preconceived ideas, past our comfort zones.

Surely we can tell all the stories, in all their dark and beautiful complexity, without insisting on twisting them.

(and no, I will not be using any of those headlines. Preempting the fail of sarcasm online here)

 

New Expats, Old Expats, Hold On to What You Believe

Quick link: Don’t Forget the Things You Know Are True

In case you missed it, A Life Overseas published my post this week about some of the things we know are true that are deeply challenged in the first year abroad. And in every year after that.

All the training, preparing, packing, and planning has left you utterly exhausted, unprepared for reality, insufficiently packed, and carrying plans that will be chucked out the window upon arrival. Those who sent you and those you received you have done their best, but they haven’t been perfect or complete, and I want to remind you of some important things.

There are some things you know to be true. These things will be challenged to their very deepest core in your first few months abroad. You’ll forget them. You’ll call people liars (even if just in your head) when they remind you of them. You’ll wonder how you ever could have been foolish enough to believe them. That’s part of the process. That does not change the fact that these things are things you know. They are true. They have not changed, even while life is only wild, chaotic, and stressful.

Read the rest of Don’t Forget the Things You Know Are True here.

The Mother Writer

Quick link: Blood, Sweat, and Words

I had a piece published in The Sunlight Press this week. I was traveling (college tours, yipes!) and am finally able to share it with you now. It is about my first published essay, a bloody nose, and being a mother trying to write.

My first published article arrived in my PO box in Djibouti three months after being printed. Rats had gnawed the corners of the box to get at Easter chocolates inside but the magazine, Get Born, was untouched.

The cover photo pictured a Djiboutian mother and baby standing in the downtown market in the pouring rain. I was in awe. My first story and it earned the cover photo. And, a photo of rain in Djibouti. Djibouti is a small, desert country in the Horn of Africa and at the time, it was in the middle of a drought. I wasn’t sure if my article or the rain was the greater miracle.

I stood in the post office’s open doorway to catch small wafts of steamy breezes and tucked the box and the rest of the goodies my mom had mailed between my elbow and my side. I held the magazine between my fingertips so I wouldn’t leave sweaty palm stains on the pages. I stared at it for a few seconds, then climbed into the car and drove home.

To read the rest, click here Blood, Sweat, and Words

Podcasting and Owning Our Stories

Quick link: What Happens When Your Essay Becomes a Modern Love Podcast

Beyond Your Blog published my essay on Monday, about nerves and editors and expectations and owning our stories.

In 2016 I got an email from Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love column in the New York Times in which he explained the podcast that was launching, based on the column.

I love podcasts and was excited to listen but there have been over 600 Modern Love essays published and there was no way mine would make the list. I’m a small blogger with a few lucky clips in well-known places, no formal writing education, no connections, no writing community. I live in Djibouti where I’m the only blogger I know.

A year later, I got another email.

The actress Mireille Enos, of The Catch and Big Love, had chosen to read my story, A Child of Two Worlds.

I jumped out of my chair and let out a ‘whoop!’

My daughter Lucy was in the room. She looked up, “What happened?”

“You are going to be on the Modern Love podcast!” I said.

She high-fived me and then said, “What’s that?”

Click here to read the rest of What Happens When Your Essay Becomes a Modern Love Podcast

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?

*Flickr

 

Save

Save

Stories from the Horn Newsletter