When Diplomacy Fails—Write!I was asked recently if, while living and working in third world countries for several years as I did, I found it difficult to write. Actually, I would have to say the writing itself wasn’t that difficult, however, some of the conditions I had to write under were...interesting, to say the least.
Just after graduating from law school in Southern California, I landed a dream job as a non-fiction writer with an educational research & resource company based in México City, whose teams worked throughout México, Central America, and the Caribbean. My job description included keeping a log or diary of my team’s research activities and recording our results. I was also charged with reporting my own personal observations on the culture and people my team encountered as well as my thoughts on the impact of the rampant illiteracy on both the people and their culture.
Before landing this job, I was a sporadic writer. I could only write when it was convenient, when I could sit at my word processor, had at least a couple of hours free, the house was clean, supper over with, the dishes done...well, you get the idea. To my dismay, I discovered after heading out on my first assignment that none of the above conditions were feasible or practical. In fact all my required prerequisites to writing were luxuries I could ill afford. I now had deadlines to meet, and excuses related to lack of proper writing conditions would not only have fallen on deaf ears, they would have gotten me fired.
So just like a combat soldier learns to sleep anywhere, anytime, because if he doesn’t, he might not get another opportunity for a while, I learned to write under any conditions. I had to write when and where I could, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t meet my deadlines. I was given a state-of-the-art laptop computer—which was great, except I couldn’t use it often since there was rarely any electricity to charge it. So I wrote on legal pads and tablets and took notes in the margins of old newspapers, on restaurant napkins, used envelopes, and once on my own forearm. When you need to record important information on something so you don’t forget it, you use whatever is handy. It’s probably a good thing I had mostly dark-colored clothes in my wardrobe. No doubt any white one would have soon been covered in ink.
As far as writing conditions were concerned, I wrote sitting on a fallen log in the pouring rain, in the back of a pickup truck slogging through the mud, perched on a rock beside a campfire, fending off mosquitoes the size of small dogs with one hand, while writing an overdue report with the other, and even dodging beer glasses during a bar fight. Hey, you name it, I’ve probably written through it.
When I think back on what I considered acceptable writing conditions pre-dream job, and what I consider proper writing conditions now, I have to laugh. After fighting cockroaches for a square foot writing space on a table, or scribbling notes on a bar napkin while hiding under my bar stool to avoid flying mugs—and their contents—I can write through just about anything. A barking dog, noisy neighbors, or squabbling family members? Doesn’t even phase me.
Something else I discovered during this time. People in a country plagued by illiteracy consider reading and writing almost sacred. Whenever my team interacted with the local people in the rural areas of whatever country we were in, it wasn’t the scientists or teachers, or even the medical staff who were treated with a respect that bordered on reverence. It was myself and the one other writer on the team, both of us scribbling furiously away on whatever writing material we could find. Not that the other team members couldn’t read and write, they just didn’t seem as obsessed with it as we did.
In fact, in the bar fight I mentioned—which my team didn’t start, by the way, we just sort of stumbled into it—we were the only two team members not injured. While the local drunks had a marvelous time bouncing beer, bar snacks, and the containers that held them off everyone else in the room, no one aimed anything at us. Now whether they were just superstitious about disrespecting someone who possessed the amazing ability to read and write, or they figured anyone who grabbed a pen and a napkin during a bar fight was mentally-deranged and therefore off limits, I couldn’t say. Luckily, no one on the team was seriously injured, but we adopted a new Team SOP (standard operating procedure) after that night—the next time diplomacy failed, we’d all grab something and write!
Rock the heck on. As someone who dreams of being able to live in Central or South America doing the same thing that Ms. O'Neal got to do, I'm bewitched by this post. Talk about trial by fire! It looks like Ms. O'Neal had an unbelievably amazing time--even during conditions that sound potentially traumatizing! ^_^
Thank you to Pepper O'Neal for an awesome guest post. Her recent book, Blood Fest: Chasing Destiny, is out now. Check back tomorrow to enter a giveaway of the book!
Until then, check out a quick synopsis of the book (or read the first chapter on O'Neal's website). See you tomorrow!