#MyWritingProcess BlogTour

Its been awhile since I blogged about life.  I’m back in Minneapolis working the strangest summer job I’ve ever had (for which there is some competition).  Abra Staffin-Wiebe tagged me from her blog (here).  So, without further ado: My Writing Process Blog Tour Post
  1. What am I working on right now?

My big project is a travel guide to Vanuatu. (Think Lonely Planet back when they were a scrappy young company.) I’m currently in the editing stages and I wish it were going faster. In other travel writing, I just turned in an article for Groove Korea about silversmithing in Bali which will run in their fall issue.

On the fiction side, things are slower. I’m editing a zombie apocalypse story that I hope to sell to an audio market and wrestling with a story that started as a short piece and is trying to break free into a novela. It will probably write itself into a novela in the end, but I can pretend it will be manageable for awhile.

There is also a script for a comic that may or may not ever see the light of the internet, but I’d still like to write the story and see the characters grow into the complete badasses I envision them to be. In this world, the environmental collapse coincided with another form of apocalypse and caused a complete societal collapse. The chemicals poisoning the environment cause regular and significant genetic mutations which some people worship and others revile. The main character sports a comb of feathers instead of hair in a society that thinks that she should have been put to death at birth. The first episode is her coming of age, and her leaving everything she’s ever known.

  1. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know that my work differs dramatically from other related work. Writing within a genre is a conversation with other writers and the readers. The conversation progresses and iterates with each new story, it doesn’t take sharp turns and leap about. My work is unique to me, but it hasn’t left the conversation behind. So, to say that my work differs strongly is to say that I’m not listening to the conversation.

I will say that my strength as a non-fiction writer is a willingness to do the research, which for travel writing means living through the experiences. I delight in travel and love to experience new places, cultures and foods. I take much less delight in 11 hour bus rides on bad roads and intestinal parasites.

As a fiction writer, my experience traveling and living outside the US has informed the worlds I build. Everything from differing cultural values to differing climates influence how a person interacts with their daily world. I’ve been lucky enough to observe several ways of living, which in turn informs my work. I hope that my works can in turn inform the ongoing conversation and help lift it to the next iteration.

  1. Why do I write what I do?

I love to travel. I love dragons. I love Vanuatu. I love social change and challenging the status quo. I love snarky people with strong moral fibers. I love experiences that change my outlook. I love stories.

I write what I love.

  1. How does my writing process work?

I’m a binge writer. I write best when I can sit down and write for hours upon hours and crank out a story in a day or two. Then I may not write much at all for several days to recover. I think its like averages. If I do a few days of massive word counts, I have to balance my average words used out by not using any for a few days.

I don’t do a lot of conscious pre-writing. I’m working on learning to plot as conscious effort, but I’m not there yet. Instead, I wait for the character to walk into my mind. If there isn’t a character home that day, it is a great day to do some editing.

My sit-down-and-write process is pretty informal. I used to have a routine involving tea, solitaire and music but a few years with limited electricity boiled that down to just the writing. Now, I decide I’m going to write, and I sit down and make words happen. They aren’t necessarily good words, but that’s not important.

Next up are Jen Green and Doug Cole (http://gamingballistic.blogspot.com/)

Jen graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2009 with a degree that included writing. Now, she is a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Vanuatu, a tiny archipelago in the South Pacific. She mostly writes novels, though she has been known to try her hand at short fiction when inspired.

Doug blogs about Role Playing Games, specifically the GURPS system, and how to incorporate realistic violence into your game.  His experience includes intensive study of martial arts and casual target shooting, along with a lot of research into guns, bows, and physics.  He wrote the book on grappling rules in GURPS titled “Martial Arts: The Art of Technical Grapping” and is a regular contributor to Pyramid Magazine.  Check out his blog for information on all things technical fighting and interviews with gamers and game designers.

4-16 Boston

There is nothing to say here.  There are no words that can un-make a tragedy.

I can swear about people in the world who have become so twisted and warped that they no longer recognize the value of a human life.  I can write a eulogy for the people who died and for the lives that have been forever changed.  I can devote my life to words about the common theme of humanity.  I can tell stories that illustrate how we all suffer and try to spread empathy through the world.  I create works of fiction where characters highlight the best of humanity.

What I can’t do is re-write today’s ending.  I wish I could.

9-10 Back to Beautiful Pentecost

It has been a busy week.  Our Close of Service Conference alone was a busy week but I packed in a few funding meetings, meetings about my upcoming job possibilities, dental and physical appointments and a surprise birthday party.  Busy, busy.  We’ll see if that trend continues when we move to Vila.

We head out in about 2 hours to return to Jurassic Park (aka Pentecost).  We will be on our lovely island for another 6 weeks before the big move into town.  Expect to hear from us in mid-October.

9-9 Too Many Goodbyes

Where is everyone going?

A lot of the Close of Service conference was dedicated to purely practical things like resumes, job hunting and health insurance but we spent a lot of time talking about feelings. I am not a big fan of talking about feelings but I’m about to give it another shot on the blog.

Peace Corps service is full of transience and transience means goodbyes. Two years ago, I said goodbye to friends and family and jumped on a plane bound for Vanuatu. It was hard to say goodbye but it was a goodbye that was more like a see-you-later. I knew I’d be coming home, someday. I knew I would see most or all of the people I was leaving again. I knew I could stay in touch through phone calls and emails and the wonders of facebook. I was still sad.
I spent 2 months in training and made friends with the other volunteers and my family in Epau. Training ended and I said goodbye to those friends and new family and left for Pentecost. Even those goodbyes were just see-you-laters. The people I trained with would be in Vanuatu with me for two years. We would cross paths in Vila, visit each other’s islands and see each other at CoS. My Epau family, too would be around. I’ve run into them almost every trip to Vila and gone to visit twice.
In October last year, the group of PCVs who was here when we arrived started leaving. Those goodbyes were harder. I still keep tabs on them on facebook or through the occasional email. I will probably see some of them when I return to the US but a lot of those moments were truly goodbye.
This week and more than anything this evening, will be goodbyes and see-you-laters that I don’t want to say. When I go back to Pentecost tomorrow, I won’t return to Vila until about half of my incoming group has returned to the US. I know I’ll stay in touch but it isn’t the same as saying, “I’ll see you two months.” It will never be the same as this experience we’ve shared, here and now.
In six weeks, I move from Pentecost to Vila. Those are the goodbyes that will break my heart. I know that despite my best efforts, I will not stay in touch with most people on the island. Phone numbers change as often as underwear and there is no internet. I would try to send a letter but the literacy rate is almost as low as the chances of the letter actually getting through. I will live in Vila and hopefully return to Pentecost at least once to visit, so maybe the goodbyes won’t be the end. I will tell myself that, anyway.
I’m tired of saying goodbye and I’ve barely started. I can only wish all the best to my PCV buddies in whatever their next adventures.

8-30 Small Steps, Big Challenges

This is Wata.  He is awesome and useful, unlike everyone else.

It is pretty much confirmed that I will be getting replaced in Vansemakul, though that may still change. With that in mind, I’ve spent some time thinking about what I would like to ready for that person. Some of it has been personal stuff, things to make her life easier in adjusting and being self-reliant but at least half of it is work stuff.

On the personal front, I have things like the garden that I am continuing to plant in, knowing that the plants won’t bear fruit until I’m gone. That’s ok, it will give the next PCV either a bargaining piece or food to eat. Similarly, we are leaving the cats here. I’m a little sad about this but I don’t think bringing Goldy or Melvin, if we can find/catch him, into Vila would be fair. They are island cats, they grew up running around the entire village and it would be mean to expect them to become semi-indoor cats.
This week has been work on the professional side. Rather, the last month has been working on the professional side. I am not a politician. I am terrible at playing politics mostly because I am too blunt and I don’t like to lie or even really smudge the truth. Or at least when I do I feel really bad about it. Despite all of that, I have spent the last month playing politics. I’ve been talking to people, hinting at things and slowly working towards a new Aid Post Committee (APC) as well as some new help in the Aid Post. I was making progress, too.
I’d gotten the working Village Health Worker (VHW), who is also the one on maternity leave, to agree that she could use more help in the Aid Post. I got the Health Center to agree to take a trainee or two doing observation rounds. I convinced the chiefs we needed a new committee and put the wheels in motion to set up that new committee. I was ready to tear my hair out at the slowness and the amount of politicking it took. Each of those points took about four conversations of several hours, just to get people to agree that that would be the next step, forget actually making those steps happen. But it was progress.
Until this week. This week has been…challenging. The kind of challenging in which I wanted to punch someone in the face or go to Vila and never come back to the island or sit in my house and cry. I did none of those things, though I did sulk for a day and refuse to leave my fence.
It started last week, really. We had set a time for a meeting to discuss a new APC. (Bureaucracy at its best, a committee to create a committee…) I went to Melsisi and typed up invitations to go out to individual people making them responsible as an individual instead of more generally to the community. I brought the invitations to my co-conspirator then I passed a message for someone else to go see her about writing in the names for the whole thing. Two days later, I went back to make sure the invitations had gone out. I was informed that the meeting had been canceled.
Yep. That’s good. The meeting I just spent a month setting up got canceled because one person wanted to go pull out a bag of kava. And I wonder why my work feels like it goes nowhere most days.
I tried to go chat with the chief about setting up a meeting. If I couldn’t get my work done one way, I’d try for another one. He was at a wedding and would be back late. I went back the next day. He was in the nakamal because someone died in Vila and they were doing kastomfor it. Not a time to talk work.
The next person I saw was the VHW who hasn’t done any work in about a year. That turned out poorly for both of us. He stopped by on the day of the canceled meeting to tell me he was going to the garden. I told him off. He didn’t know the meeting was canceled but had decided that going to the garden made more sense than going to the meeting, which is the same thing that happens with his Aid Post hours and most of his other commitments. I listened to his statements about how the lack of community support is the reason he doesn’t do his hours and how I couldn’t expect someone to give up their personal time for the good of the community. Excuse me? What the hell am I doing in Vanuatu except giving up my time for the good of a community I didn’t even know before I came? That didn’t go down well. We had a lovely conversation about the whole situation in which he got mad at me and told me everyone hates me. (I think he may also be a pathological liar but I’m not sure about that yet. He certainly has a different view of the truth than anyone else around here.)
I let the “hatem yu” comment go and we finished our conversation. Then I went to a slightly more reliable source of information to ask about the rumors. She wasn’t terribly helpful. So, like the mature adult I am, I sulked about it. I spent a day doing other work that didn’t involve talking to anyone.
Early the next morning I went to go discuss some things with my reliable source and friend. He confirmed part of the rumor, not the hating part but the part where people say I’m not doing enough work. I got a bit mad. Not the yelling and screaming kind of mad, I only put on that show for my family and close friends. Then he told me that there was a meeting today. The meeting I’d sung out for. Really? News to me. He showed me the paper, it was in fact the one I had written and printed and left with someone else, except now it had a new day written in. Stellar, we were going to have a meeting that I would have missed.
I had a nice long chat with the chief. A very long chat. We discussed many things including how if no one comes to meetings, it is very hard to get work done and how saying that I have failed to do work when no one shows up if I sing out a meeting is sort of hypocritical. We also discussed the lack of functional Aid Post in which to do health-related work and the lack of people to do that work with since of my 2 official counterparts, one disappears for months on end and the other has a 2 month old. Then, he sent me to the other chief. I had the same chat with him. Then I went back to the first chief and we went to the meeting.
The meeting was set for “morning” which here is between 7:30 and 9. It was 9:30 when I got there. It was 11:30 when the meeting started. It was 2 pm when it finished and people were confused about whether we’d gone past lunch. Really, people, are you not hungry?
The good side of all of that was the meeting. Once it got going, it got properly going. We created a new APC that has a much better balance of people. It has representatives from each part of the community and people who are responsible and likely to show up for work. We have the next meeting day set and an agenda for it written. On that agenda is the lack of Aid Post hours and the potential of getting someone else into training. We even revived the toilet project and changed it to be for VIP toilets (better idea!). All-in-all a highly productive meeting.
Now, if people will stop slandering me and actually hold on to those commitments, I will leave here on a good note. Of course, if I find out who exactly it is who is saying I’m not working hard enough, we may still have words. I’ve learned a lot about how to play politics but I’m still me. I like to know where I stand with people and failing that make sure people know where they stand with me.

8-13 The End of the World is Nigh!

I am sitting in the school office using the power here. It is the end of the term and grades are due, so a lot of other teachers are also around writing in their grades, marking papers and general taking advantage of having light in the evening.

Toussaint, the other computer teacher, just walked in. He heard on the radio that a meteorite is going to strike Mururoa, an island in French Polynesia. From what I can gather, that island has already been a nuclear testing site, so the island itself isn’t the issue. If the meteorite strikes the water, it will cause a 50 meter high tidal wave, which is just reason to panic around here.
Of course, all of the currently available information is coming from one, slightly kava-drunk, 20-something man. That is enough to cause a minor panic among the teachers and students. Not a real panic, just a lot of conversation and threats that the world will end. Of course, even with those, no one can be bothered to stop working on grades to go home to their families, so I guess they aren’t that worried.
For as much as I complain about the teachers in Melsisi, there are some people who are real jewels. Flavi is one of them. She is the year 9 and 10 science and math teacher. When some of the students came to ask about the rumor of the end of the world, Flavi whipped out her (brand new) laptop and opened a program she just got from the Ministry of Education about meteorites. She did an impromptu science lesson about meteorites and atmospheric entry for the curious students and teachers. Everyone seems much calmer now so whatever she told them made them happy.
I’ll let you know if the world doesn’t end. If it does, I’m sure you’ll have noticed.
UPDATE 8-17: The World Did Not End
As a shock to exactly no one, the world did not end last week. There was in fact a meteor shower going on, according to the calendar my mom sent me, but no large meteors were scheduled to get through. The day after that happened, I asked the teachers what happened to the meteor. Turns out the radio station was wrong. Again, this is a shock to exactly no one, since this radio station also reported that a ni-Van woman had a dream that told her where Bin Laden was hiding, which she then reported to the US military and that is how they found him. If you hear it on the radio, it MUST be true, right?


The teams were introduced in proper style

 We had a football tournament. Our local team, named USA but the letters mean something different, hosted a week long football tournament in Melsisi. It started on Children’s Day and was supposed to end Independence Day but that got re-adjusted with the French being in town.

I didn’t go to the opening. I was busy at Children’s Day at the school. I didn’t go the next day either, because I was teaching in Ranwadi. I popped in and out through the rest of the week and listened to the band play every night. USA hired Vanlol, the band in Lalbateis to play for an entire week. I think it is both good and kind of silly that they basically hired their brothers to entertain them for a week. Still, they are a good band and I appreciated it. So did everyone else in Melsisi.
There were 12 teams playing and each team played almost every day. They did four days of pool play and then direct elimination with a third place round. The prizes weren’t huge, but they weren’t nothing either. Third place was 25,000 vatu (~$250 USD), second place was 50,000 vatu (~$500 USD) and first was 75,000 vatu (~$750 USD). Some of the guys from up north said those were low stakes. I guess last year there was a tournament on Ambrym where the winner got a truck. But still, in a country where the average household income is in the $2000-2500 USD range, that is a good pot.
A good summer outing.. in the middle of “winter”

On Saturday, we spent most of the day laying in the sun, watching football and eating junk food bought at food stalls. It felt like a lazy summer day at a tournament in the US. Of course it is mid-winter here, all there was to eat was gato(fry bread), rice and beef stew, and green coconuts, the announcements were happening in Bislama and the occasional cow would interrupt the games. Seriously, midway through one of the games, a cow came wandering on the field and play had to be paused while it was chased off.
One of the other volunteers in Melsisi is on a team that played. We made it to one of his games to support him. They lost that game but still we came and cheered for him. I may have gotten distracted counting a little girl’s toes. She was puzzled that she and I had the same number of toes. I guess being white should have changed that or something. Hannah also pulled out her binoculars and entertained some little boys by making the world come much closer for a bit. One of the boys managed the turn them over and got really confused when everything was further away. That was also funny.
Paul joined in the fun

July 30th is Vanuatu’s Independence Day. We had a party. We sat and drank kava at the school’s stall while we listened to the band play and watched people dance on the football field. It felt as normal to sit and drink dirty water, speak Bislama and eat bread with coconut jam while listening to string band as it did to lay in the sun and watch a football tournament. I guess this is home, too.

8-3 Children’s Day

Getting salusalued is embarrassing.

International Children’s Day is July 24th. I don’t ever remember celebrating it in the US, but here it’s a big deal. Schools have the day off and boarding schools do a special meal for the students, parents take it as a day to celebrate their kids usually in the form of small presents, salusalus (like a Hawai’ian lei) and treats like cake and it is conveniently a week before Independence Day.

This year, we got involved in the celebrations. We were in Melsisi because Tuesday is Jason’s normal day to teach, though school had been cancelled. We’d set up plans to drink kava with one of the other teachers on Monday night. (We try to adhere to a policy of no kava on school nights. Sometimes we fail in that.) On Monday afternoon, the school administration called a very timely meeting about what it was doing for Children’s Day. They decided that every student should get a salusalu. No one had made the salusalus yet. Lisa volunteered to go get started on that because it meant we could sit in her house and drink kava. Which we did, while sewing up salusalus. A handful of the year 8 girls sat and helped, which lead to the awkward moment of drinking in front of the students. Hannah bribed them with bubble gum.
Delicious steaks! (For those of us that enjoy them)
A side note on salusalus: Those are a TON of work. If there are no flowers in season, we make them out of brightly colored leaves. The first step is stripping a tree of half its branches and carrying them to wherever you plan on making the salusalus. Then one person tears off each leaf and rolls it while a second person strings the rolled leaves on a thread, like making popcorn chains. It takes about half an hour to make one. We were supposed to make about 100. We ran out of kava at 11 pm and decided we’d had enough, though we’d only made 40 salusalus.
The next morning, I helped make a few more before it was time to go hang them on the students. Luckily, a few other groups had come through with more salusalus and we had enough to go around. The students had a special mass to celebrate Children’s Day. (Catholic school. Special mass would not be a celebration for me…) We hung the salusalus on the students and they went to mass. We all went back to bed. Another group of teachers had been up past midnight (they had more kava) cutting and tenderizing meat to marinate over night. That group got to the kitchen to start cooking around 9 and cooked straight through until 1 pm when we ate.
The kids were excited by the meal, since it was fresh beef, kumala and rice. All of those are hard-to-get items and thus a special treat. The students get fed a lot of tin meat and cabbage with either rice or taro so fresh beef and kumala made them very happy. We should have done a cake, but we weren’t that organized.
Candy from Save the Children Australia

People here don’t really celebrate birthdays. I’ve been to a birthday for a one-year-old, which was a big deal and there is a bit of kastomthat happens around one year that marks that birthday but after that, they kind of get lost. A lot of kids don’t know their birthdays and the older adults don’t know how old they are. I think that Children’s Day sort of takes the place of the birthday celebrations here. It gives everyone a day to celebrate their children specifically as well as the children of the community. Isn’t that what we do on our birthdays? We use the day to mark the importance of being us or to spend a day appreciating a person. International Children’s Day is just one big birthday party. Now, where’s my birthday hat…

7-17 Heading home

Here is a cute chick who is living in my kumala patch.  That is all.

It is Getting-on-a-Plane-Eve, which means it is time for all the details of life in blog form.

It has been a quick trip to Vila, though a pleasant one.  I am eager to go back to site to enjoy my last few months before that terrifying prospect of Close of Service, of course it is giaman smol since I’m actually staying for another year.  Still, I will be watching a lot of my friends leave and move on and I will be moving off of Pentecost and into the big city for whatever opportunities that will bring.

Which leads me to my next point.  Soon, I will not be on Pentecost to receive all your lovely letters.  I would like to continue to receive letters, though so let me break down the timeline a little bit.  Letters average about 2 months to arrive at site.  I will be leaving site in October/November, so giving enough leeway for the long side of average, you my lovely friends, should stop sending me letters directly to Pentecost in early August.  Since I will not be back in town between now and then, I am posting my Vila address for you.  This address will automatically forward to me and Jason, wherever we are in the country and be held for us if we are out of the country.

Me and Jason
C/O Peace Corps Vanuatu
PMB 9097
Port Vila

We will be going home to the US sometime in December and staying until sometime in January.  We would love to see all of you, if you are around any of our likely hang outs.  We are looking at Minneapolis area and a trip east to visit family.  We’ll see what else happens around those.

Enjoy the end of summer and I will enjoy the end of winter!

4-19 Sewing with the Sister

College de Melsisi is attached to a church, sort of.  It is a complicated relationship which I don’t really understand but involves two nuns living on church grounds and teaching at the school.  (Of course when the Oxford volunteers were living in the church-run guest house, the school was paying for it.  I don’t get it.)  Anyway, the nuns teach, mostly catechistebut one of them, Sister Anita, teaches technique which is like home ec mixed with shop.  They learn nutrition and how to cook and sewing from Sister Anita and basic construction things from a different teacher.

After over a year of living in Vanuatu and not having a use for my martial arts clothes, I sent them back with my dad when he came to visit.  Two weeks later, we were asked to do a show and start teaching.  I don’t really have pants, I mean I have capris I wear in Vila and jeans I wore to New Zealand, but beyond that I don’t really wear pants.  I have to wear skirts outside my house, so the pants I do have are not martial arts show appropriate.  (Tie dye with fringe and beads. Don’t judge, they’re comfy.)

I was left with a quandry.  Do I do the next few shows that we’ve been asked to do in capris?  Or do I ask my dad to send my pants back?  Neither seemed like a good option, so in true Peace Corps fashion, I found my own way.  Awhile ago, I inherited a bag full of fabric from a PCV who was heading home.  In that bag was a chunk of white fabric.  Perfect.

I asked Sister Anita if she would teach me to use the sewing machines at the school.  It was either that or do a whole lot of hand sewing.  She agreed to teach me and we set a time.  We missed that time and set a new one.  We missed that one, too.  Third time is a charm.

The room with the machines in plastered in posters about nutrition and family wellness and has pompoms the students made hanging from the ceiling.  Along one wall a table holds eight or nine sewing machines, each covered in its own wooden carrying case.

These sewing machines are possibly the coolest thing I’ve seen in months, and I live on a tropical island.  They are real, working antiques.  They are hand crank or foot pedal machines that are older than me.  The one I was using was made in The People’s Republic of China.  Even though they are industrial and produced industrially, they still have a level of artistry about them.  They are black laquer with a winged, gold sphinx and gold details painted over the black.  Each one is set in its own wooden frame with a lid that buckles down for carrying.  The best part is, they still work.

The hand crank isn’t too hard to get used to using, though it could get tiring for a full day.  I can see where doing finicky little work with it would be a pain since it takes one hand to turn the crank and the other to steer the fabric.  Next time, maybe I’ll try to use the foot-pump one instead, just to get the full range of possibilities.

I made my pants, they turned out serviceable.  I will have pants to wear to do demos now.  Put that wasn’t the important part.  The important part is thinking up a new projects that let me play with those sewing machines.  They are so cool!