It seemed straightfoward enough. Live life. Write life. But the reality has turned out to be very different.
First of all, there are the many ways to tell a story. I picture early storytellers sitting around campfires after all the day’s work was done, telling of the bear they saw while gathering berries, the old man they met up by the cave on the hill, the lightning that frightened their babies in the middle of the night. Stories with gestures, actions, and, at some point, words. Next, I would guess, would be poetry. Condensing experiences into words that ebbed and flowed and had meanings beyond the obvious. This would naturally lead to song, ballads of deeds great and small, carried from town to town in the hearts and minds of travelling bards. Writing, of course, came along at some point, and made the lives of storytellers both easier and harder; they could remember and tell stories the same way every time, and share them more widely, yet the written word is so final, so sure, so true.
Secondly, we live lives that, while they have much in common with other people’s, are unique in a billion different ways. How do we describe people, places, emotions, and experiences using our own truth in such a way that others can experience it? How do we find common ground, while celebrating diversity?
I have been struggling with these issues from the first time I put pen to paper to tell the story of my almost ten years living in various parts of Yemen. I faced some difficulty from the start, just because my journals are still in Yemen, and the Arab Spring that forced us to leave the country has also held my notebooks and books hostage since I returned to the States. I find myself having to tell the story completely from my memory, without being able to look at what I wrote at the time for a timeline and verification. Beyond that, much of what I saw and went through there, especially that which was related to the Arab Spring and the war that took place in the village in which I lived, is beyond the experience of Western readers. Finding a way to bring it all to life in a way that makes it understandable is more of a challenge than I ever thought it could be.
I started out with the idea of a straight memoir. I took the time to figure out and write down why I want to share the story in the first place. I want to open a window into a world that most people will never know, and I want to find a way to build bridges between cultures that seem, at times, so alien to each other. I made a timeline as best I could, mapping out the major events. I diagrammed and outlined and, finally, was ready to write.
At first it flowed easily. It was easy to use storytelling magic to tell of the beauty of Yemen and the beautiful character of its inhabitants.
Then, as I came to the most intense parts of the story, the time spent living in a mountain village in the north of the country, the time of sickness, desertion, and war, my words backed up, filling my heart without being able to come out of my pen. Eventually I found the only way to write about this time in my life was through poetry. The story is still not completely told, as I work my way through the twists and turns of the maze, trying to show how light comes in darkness, and strength is born in fire.
Now I sit with a jigsaw puzzle of story in front of me. How do I know if all the pieces are all there? How do I arrange them in all of their myriad shapes and sizes and fit them together? How can I tell the story I burn to tell in a way that will set fire to the imaginations of the ones who read it?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I am determined to find them, and share my story with you.