Write what interests you

When I sent my former coworker a link to this blog, I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be. After all, last winter when I asked him if he liked a scarf that I had knit, his only response was, “I’m really not the right person to ask about that sort of thing.”

But his honesty about my knitting skills – which, admittedly, are just barely adequate – made his feedback about the blog all the more exciting.

“This is amazing,” he texted me later that night. “I mean maybe because I hear your voice when I read it and it makes me die laughing, but still.”

But still, indeed… I’ll take it! In fact, I was so happy to have his approval that when I saw him for lunch a few weeks later, I made him tell me again in person. And then, because he is probably my most ambitious and most practical friend, he asked me what my long-term plan was.

“What’s the goal with the blog?” he wanted to know.

If I’m being perfectly honest, this blog is an entry point – just a way to gather steam. Perhaps the next step is to continue writing guest blogs, and then work my way up to being a contributor in a mainstream publication. That all sounds very nice, but I know that the real goal is write a memoir about my time in Nigeria.

“How are you going to write memoir?” my mother asked me over Christmas. “You’re 32.”

It’s a fair point and I know she means well – but no one, not even my mother, can tell me that I don’t have what it takes to fill a book. In fact, it would be easy to string together all the pieces I wrote previously about the few months I spent working in Abuja, make mention of the conflict that’s brewing there, push it out as a travel memoir and call it a day.

I have plenty of material for a book like that. For example, there’s the story about the night I woke up to find a cockroach the size of my thumb crawling around inside my shirt. At the time, I told myself that would be the worst thing that happened to me that day, but that wasn’t true at all. A few hours later, the building that I worked in caught on fire.

“Everyone needs to get out!” my co-worker shouted as she ran through the front door of the office, the smoke quickly filling the room. “There’s a fire downstairs! Everyone out!!”

I had to hand it to her, if I saw a fire on the 3rd floor of a building, I’m not sure that I would continue running up two stories to warn everyone about it. I would probably go outside, send a text or two and hope for the best. It’s what I seem to recall learning during fire safety week in grade school.

But my moral compass is neither here nor there because no sooner than we all filed out into the hallway and down a flight of steps did a man – a man who did not look particularly official, I might add – announce that it was just a small electrical fire and it was under control.

“Please go back upstairs,” he said to us. “You can all go back to work.”

Everyone appeared satisfied with this explanation and began walking back to the office as though small electrical fires break out on the 3rd floor every day. I wasn’t convinced, but I went along with it anyway – because, as the old saying goes, when in Nigeria, do as the Nigerians do.

Later that morning, as I was reviewing a document with one of my co-workers, the lights went out for the second time. He said, “You must hate this. You must think there is something wrong.”

I decided it was best not to complain about the fire or the lights or the smoke, which was still working its way out our tiny windows. And I didn’t tell him about the cockroach, lest he think that I was a total slob.

Instead, I laughed. Then I said, “Oh. I’m getting used to it. Pretty soon I won’t even notice.”

“Don’t say that,” he said. “You don’t ever want to get used to this. You shouldn’t get used to this.”

Those stories – the ones about outrageously large bugs and questionable fire codes and hauling water and crashing the pool at the Hilton on Saturdays – are fun to tell. Some of them – like this one – have an air of sadness about them, but for the most part, they’re happy snapshots about fumbling through living somewhere very different.

But there are stories that are not so light. Ones that don’t end with a few poignant words delivered by someone with an African accent or a sprinkle of self-deprecating humor about how comfortable life was back home. Whenever I sit down to write those stories, I feel almost as panicked and anxious as I did while I was there. The smoke doesn’t clear so easily.

“I just don’t want to write it,” I told my friend over lunch that day – three bean chili with avocado and hot spiced cider. It was a meal I would have almost killed for while I was in Nigeria. “I know I have to, but I just can’t. It’s awful. I feel like I’m drowning when I try writing them.”

I pitched him a backup plan: “What do you think about writing a stunt memoir where the person follows the advice offered on Yahoo! Answers to the letter for one year?” I asked. “I think it would be amazing.”

I can’t actually take credit for that idea. Laura Miller, who writes for Salon and The New Yorker among others, posted it on Twitter. If she’s not using it, I really want to. (I’m sure she’s not, by the way – because she’s a reasonable human being.)

“I think you should write what interests you,” he said finally.

What good advice: Write what interests you. How obvious. How perfect.

Here’s to doing just that – even if what interests you is chronicling dismal Tinder dates and the half-marathon you ran during a blizzard. Those stories may lack the substance of a Nigeria memoir, but I doubt they’ll result in an anxiety attack. And right now, that’s of great interest to me.

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