Writing My Fingers to the Bone in Bamako

I started reading Old Friend From Far Away by Natalie Goldberg last February right before the trip that took us from Bamako to Accra, then Abidjan.  I was only one chapter in, when I decided to leave it on my book pile in Bamako, thinking I’d return to it in 3 weeks after our return.  That 3-week trip turned into a 9 month trip because of the COVID restrictions on travel that were imposed in this part of the world.

We finally returned to Bamako on 3 December and after the first very busy week introducing our Mission President to our world here, I picked the book back up and started again.  I enjoy reading books like this about writing memoir and personal history.  I brought several with me, thinking this would be a good project to do in my down time here in Africa.  This particular book grabbed me as soon as I started reading and I determined to complete each writing assignment Natalie Goldberg gave, on almost every page.

During the next week, I spent every spare moment I had writing, writing my fingers to the bone.  I felt like a window of time and opportunity opened to me here.  As John did the heavy work cleaning and organizing our Bamako apartment after being away so long, I sat at my computer and let my fingers fly, answering prompt after prompt.  I wrote about things I’ve never written about, many were hard delicate topics, many left me mourning and sad.  Natalie Goldberg asks that you dig deeply into your memories and face some of the wolves in the room.

There were also plenty of happy memories of my childhood and growing up years on the farm.  Many of her topics are just random to see where they lead you, like “write for 3 minutes about cabbage.”  The topics were not chronological or organized by subject, rather her chapters taught writing techniques and then prompts were given to practice those techniques.  I enjoyed what and how she taught, but more importantly, her words motivated me to write.

After 8 days, I finished the book.  My hands ached with fatigue.  But my heart was lightened, knowing that more parts of who I am are now preserved.  I typed 88 pages of memories and stories on all sorts of topics.  Then I listed several more pages of things I will write about next.

If you are inclined to write a personal history, or capture some of your stories, I strongly recommend Natalie Goldberg’s book.   It’s not intended to be devoured and digested in a week, rather maybe a year or two.  I just got carried away and had some hours to write and so I dove in and did it.

Another favorite I’d highly recommend is To Our Children’s Children by Bob Greene and D. G. Tulford.  I’ve purchased more than 100 copies of this book (used on Amazon) for my family history students and friends who are serious about writing and preserving memories.   It is also excellent.  The entire book is filled with interesting and unusual (not the ordinary) prompts that are thoughtful and fun to write about.   I promise this little book is worth it’s weight in gold.

Here is one more book I just finished that I’d recommend by Dawn and Morris Thurston– Breathe Life Into Your Life Story.  This husband and wife team teach sound principles of writing memories and recording stories.  They are helpful teachers who give a good overview of the entire process of writing and publishing your life story.  Their book also has helpful prompts and exercises to help you practice your writing craft.

If you are wondering if you have stories in you worth telling, the answer is YES.  There will be individuals, many in your own family and among your own descendants, who will want to know who you are and how you lived.  They will want to know what moved you and what things you stood for, especially in a world that is filled with so much change and turmoil.  If you do not tell your stories, your life will fade into oblivion after you go.

Historian, Ron Barney said, “If you do not write your story, your name will be obliterated from the human record and you will not speak from the grave. You will not have any influence on those who come after you. Those who write about the things they have done and learned in life have a huge impact on posterity. Write your story. You have overcome things your children need to know about.”

Please pick up a pen and let the new year be a time to start recording.  Don’t wait until you’re old and forgetful.  Don’t wait until the window of opportunity comes.  If you start, the window will open.  You have a life to save!

Telling Stories, Saving Lives!

About Ann Laemmlen Lewis

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5 Responses to Writing My Fingers to the Bone in Bamako

  1. Marjorie Conder says:

    I will probably still read these books, but wish I had known about them (maybe they weren’t even available) sooner. Four years ago when I was 76 I finally finished a too long bio (about 500 pages) that only took me nine years to do including a probable (for real) a nervous breakdown. In the end I split it in into three parts; a basic bio from birth to 76, a part called a “Journey within a Journey” (becoming a faithful, fearless, feminist) and something called “More”, which was something of a hodge-podge including all the stuff that made my family of origin furious at me, but that I still didn’t want to lose. I saw myself as writing history, not a PR document and I was as honest throughout as I knew how to be. I think as a whole it is basically upbeat but still addresses head on some things I thought needed to be addressed. I have recently started writing an add on, mostly dealing with Darrell’s demise and death and learning to be widow. I don’t think I will leave my posterity wondering much about what I thought about many of the important happenings of my time.

    • I honor, respect, and am always amazed by you, Marjorie. Your example is one I always feel inclined to follow. Thank you for that. I have often wished we were neighbors–our hearts seem to be drawn to the same kinds of things. I hope this new year will either move us to better places, or will see the destruction that is prophesied before Jesus can return. Both necessary. My love to you from Bamako!

      • Marjorie Conder says:

        Thank you Ann. I too wish our paths could cross more often. I also agree with your feelings for the new year.

  2. Karen Hilts says:

    Hi Ann I am in awe of your great work and all your helpers for the girls cloth pads. I stumbled on your sight to see photos of Mali. I am praying for your health & John’s. (not LDS but praying anyway)
    I wondered if any of your group/great work will be helping the family with 9 newborn babies that will be living in Timbuktu Mali You have been to Bamako. I wanted to send flat cloth diapers but I am afraid they will not pay duty and tax and not receive them. Any ideas would be appreciated. My twins are grown & I just wanted to help somehow. Karen Hilts

    • What a kind heart you have, Karen. Thank you for your prayers and concern. Unfortunately, Timbuktu is far from Bamako where we live, and it’s in a dangerous place (terrorists), so no one travels there these days. It will be interesting to see how that dear mother cares for all the babies! I’m sure she will have some help. I’ve never seen a child here wearing a cloth diaper. They don’t use them. Disposables are also very expensive and are only used by those who can afford them (not many). Somehow these kids learn when to go and when to hold at an early age. We need to learn from them!! I am hoping that there will be some kind companies who will be interested in helping this family by sponsoring aid for the children (in exchange for advertising exposure). We’ll have to keep an eye on that to see what comes. In the meantime, I’m sure the dear mom would be grateful for all of our prayers. Bless you for that. Thanks for the note! Ann in Bamako

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