How I Wrote my Book

I’ve told you how my author website was born. I told you what the book is about and who I wrote it for (yes, you!). Let me now tell you, just to pass the time until its actually available, how I went about writing it.

When I now think back to the most important events on the timeline of my Kilimanjaro Diaries, I immediately picture a threadbare sofa in the lobby – if you can call it lobby – of the Springlands Hotel in Moshi. A sleep-deprived woman is madly typing onto her iPhone at 3 in the morning, mosquitoes buzzing around her ankles. The date is September 9, 2012. That woman, as you might have guessed, is me. Why on earth I’m squeezed onto a sofa instead of tucked into the super-luxurious bed (or what passes for a super-luxurious bed after seven nights in a freezing tent) in my peaceful room under a mosquito net, I cannot tell you. Somehow I have the urge to prolong that last evening, after the last beer has been drunk and the last joke has been made. Maybe I hope to find company, another climber with a head full of life-changing thoughts unable to sleep? As it is, my only company are the buzzing mosquitoes, and I idly think that given the risk of malaria, even though I’ve been taking the prophylaxis, I probably shouldn’t be here. But even that thought is not enough to  make me move.

I have an almost manic urge to write down my rawest emotions, before they are lost to a cooler head with my usual structured thoughts. I want to tell the world about my incredible week. Somehow the sofa seems the best place to achieve this. Or perhaps it’s the internet connection – although weak and spotty – that’s keeping me rooted to the spot. In either case, I am furiously hitting the keys in my rush to get it all documented. If you’ve see Homeland and know Carrie’s character, just substitute Summit Night and Toilet Tent for Terrorist Plot and Abu Nazir, and you will understand the magnitude of my obsession.

Here is an excerpt from the very first email I fired off that night to two good friends of mine, one of whom had summitted Kili just two weeks before me.

…I summitted and reached Uhuru at 7:53 am on Friday morning. We are now back safe and sound at the hotel in Moshi and I have so many emotions running through me I don’t even know where to begin. Phil, I’m sure you can relate. Here I was asking you all these control-freak questions about what to bring and where to pack it, when all you probably wanted to say was chill out and just enjoy every moment of it as if it was your last and soak up life as much as you can. In other words, Hakuna Matata.

I just got out of what is likely the longest shower I’ve ever taken, washing off layers of dust and sweat and maybe a whole lot of other stuff, and I admit it was wonderful. The luxury of an ensuite bathroom, my very own flush toilet, and the simple luxury of having enough personal space to walk around naked in. Upright.

But still I’m sad that we are leaving this place tomorrow and that I can never get back what I had on that mountain. Kind of like summer camp when you fell in love for the first time. The companionship was wonderful, the incredible kindness and life force of our guides, the realization that you can push yourself to unbelievable limits one step at a time. Pole pole…

Sometimes people ask me how you write a good blog post. I’ve written about my ten tips about that here. But first and foremost, what you need is passion. Every serious writer knows this. If you find yourself with the powerful urge to write about your experience, if the only thing standing between you and a keyboard is the road home from your son’s soccer practice, if you disregard all safety precautions and start typing into your phone at the red light because you’re afraid to lose even a morsel of the story, if you find yourself on a sofa in Tanzania not caring one bit whether you’re catching malaria or not – that’s the kind of passion I’m talking about. If you have passion for your story, the rest will follow.

The other ingredient for writing a book is collecting facts. Even the most mundane and unimportant pieces of information will later come in useful. I sometimes feel like I’m a huge reservoir of stray facts (often unwanted, and they have a way of invading your otherwise peaceful day). The trick is to retrieve them at will and somehow connect them together for a compelling story. For instance, I had kept all my pre-climb emails in a folder on my computer, and much later I came across this little gem or information in an email from Sharon, one of our climbing partners, about an acquaintance who had given her some tips about her Kili climb:

…For the ladies she recommends getting the travel rest stop urination bags as a better option to the “she wee” (Outdoor warehouse has these), as well as carrying small packets of wet wipes for evening washing…

Reading this months later as I was writing the book, the reference to “she wee” intrigued me and after some research the chapter “Peequality: The Last Frontier of Women’s Equality” resulted, which I promise you is an entertaining read. (Of course I’m a little biased, I admit; I could have peed my pants (no pun intended) when I came up with that chapter heading.) I might share a sneak preview of it here in an upcoming blog post.

Collecting odd facts, in a way, is nothing more than taking your passion one step further, nurturing not just your passion for writing but a passion for facts and interesting personal stories around you. Trust me, they are there, you just have to open your eyes. But if you’re not curious by nature, you might find this hard work. Which brings me to the next ingredient for writing a book:

Curiosity. I saw a quiz recently about inventors and which character traits they might most need to be successful, like perseverance, organization, the ability to work independently. But of all the traits on that list, curiosity stood out to me. If you’re not curious, you’re not going to want to find out. It’s the same thing about writing. You have to be curious enough about a topic to want to find out more. Often just for the sake of knowing and no other reason. Bill Bryson wrote an entire book (At Home) after he once stepped into a hidden recess of his house and started wondering what kind of history his house had seen over the generations.

So there you have them, my ingredients for writing a book, for what they’re worth:

  1. Passion
  2. Fact collecting
  3. Curiosity

This is it for now. Stay tuned for some upcoming excerpts!

2 comments

  1. I remember a similar feeling -I spent a good two or so hours on the floor next to the power point beside the gift shop in the Springlands hotel on both ends of the trip. Mine was totally for the wifi (and the power) and to share as much as possible as soon as possible.

    • Nikki – I didn’t know you were also at the Springlands Hotel! How cool. I feel a special fondness for it, though I”m sure they are all very similar. I still have to think of you when I think of the packing list and especially the cut-off pants:-)

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