The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books


Seven years ago, my son and daughter and my brother’s daughter took time from their college years to volunteer in an Ethiopia Reads library in Addis Ababa.  They taught English classes and made stories pop off the page using puppets and dance and songs.  They lived in the neighborhood of the library, hopping over sewage puddles on the way to the compound every day.

These things always sound like grand adventures when they become words on a page, don’t they?

I was proud of them for being so interested, so brave, so willing, so open to the world.

The girls had raised money for their adventure and prepared for months and months.  They intended to stay a year.  Jonathan joined them at the last minute, but–as a young man–he was the one who ended up with a lot more freedom to travel around and practice Amharic.

He became a photographer in Ethiopia.  He’s the one who took one of my favorite mountain pictures while he was hiking, an image I never get tired of looking at, especially when I think of all the people who ask me questions about hot, dry, flat Ethiopia.  (It’s below.)

The girls, meanwhile, struggled with some of the realities of being young women outside of America.  Part of the adventure was that they got homesick.

My daughter got especially homesick.  So when I was invited to do author visits and speak at a reading conference in the Persian Gulf, I jumped at the chance and planned a stop in Ethiopia to see the kids.

I’m going back to Abu Dhabi in February to do an author visit, so I’ve been remembering that time as I pack.

What did I know about the Persian Gulf before that first trip?  My basic image was a guy talking into a microphone with an explosion in the background.  Women covered.  Sand.

It’s embarrassing–since I’ve spent so much time talking about Ethiopia with people who have inadequate or wrong images in their minds–to get out into the wide world and discover how little I know.

There’s no doubt a reason why travel writing is such a powerful genre.

We get out into the world and we open up.

We see and smell and taste and hear the things that our minds gloss over when they become everyday occurrences.

Writers are travelers.  Sometimes we get on an airplane, a train, stick out our thumbs by the side of the road.

Sometimes we travel to worlds within.

We pay attention.

We are surprised.

2 thoughts on “Surprise”

  1. What a lovely post, Jane! I feel, too, that if we just keep our heads up and eyes open, the world will constantly surprise us. And “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” is one of the markers I use by which to judge my own writing. My husband had lunch with friends the other day and one of them told him he had never gotten a passport until he retired, despite the fact that he had plenty of money to travel. Oh, there is such a fascinating world out there – how could anyone resist the desire to explore it?? Here’s to wonder and surprise, no matter where or when they present themselves! Here’s to opening up!!

    • I love that “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” It captures why I’m uneasy with thinking that a strict outline to write by is the answer! On Saturday I was at a book group where the author of MINK RIVER talked about his process and how he DID have a plan for the novel but the stories and characters carted that plan right off and threw it in the river :>


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