By Bonnie Stanard
Human experience, especially misery, is fertile ground for writers. Misery is not hard to find, whether produced by our fellow man or visited on us by nature. Just think of the books written about cancer, diabetes, and other diseases. The criminal hardships we visit on ourselves, such as murder, slander, and theft inspire innumerable books. Governments, because of their authority, are capable of widespread misery, and writers like Stephen Ambrose, Elie Wiesel, and Philip Caputo have made careers of recording warfare’s toll on us.
I’ve just finished reading Mukiwa, A White Boy in Africa, a personal account of life in Rhodesia at the time of its civil war. Author Peter Godwin begins with his childhood, which is recalled with nostalgia and only the occasional hint that the indigenous tribes are chafing under unfair government policy. The pleasant life of the first pages is the quiet before the storm.
Black resistance becomes more organized and develops into guerilla warfare, and the winds of change ratchet up to gale forces. Godwin, in spite of his sympathy for the oppressed blacks, is forced to fight in Ian Smith’s army. Atrocities occur, and as we already know from history, the whites lose control and are defeated.
Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe. Just as there’s hope that the new black leadership will usher in a judicious government, the storm becomes a hurricane, exceeding in misery and death the former rebellion. The Shona tribe, which controls the government, attempts to wipe out the Matabele, resulting in wholesale slaughter of unarmed villages.
Zimbabwe’s government is able to make peace with its victims and survives with impunity in spite of the bloodbath, or perhaps because of it. From the Matabele perspective, peace is purchased at an enormous price.
Godwin’s story grew out of a background of insurgency and warfare. However, many good books are written about less dramatic challenges. Writers like Joan Didion, Bill Bryson, and Tobias Wolff call attention to everyday events in a way that allows us to see them in a different light. Some of our workshop writers are in situations that are mundane or exciting, depending on our way of seeing. For instance, here are titles for books they might could write (yes! might could—they might, they could):
My Worst Moment with Shakespeare (Leigh)
Mother is Funny, But She’s not a Joke (Sarah)
Dropping into a War Zone (Mike)
A Lightweight In the Ring with Fighters (Laura)
Lucifer’s Embrace—Friedreich's Ataxia (Ginny)
An Alien In Antarctica (Shaun)
I Had No Idea I Had An AVM (Debbie)
Sometimes the things closest to us escape our notice. We hardly think of writing about them. We wait for a lightning muse to strike us when the earthy one is with us all the time.