“If actors can be aid workers, then aid workers can be authors.” Scrawled across the top of his Evil Genius Publishing website, this message describes two aspects in the life of J (his pseudonym). Humanitarian aid worker and prolific blogger – his sites include Tales from the Hood, AidSpeak, and being “half-owner of the über-awesome Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like” – J has also written aid worker fiction. His novels include Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance; Honor Among Thieves; Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit; and for the sci-fi lovers, Human. Then there’s his one (so far) work of non-fiction, Letters Left Unsent.
As someone who struggles to write a blog post every few months while still working in the aid industry (Missing in the Mission started during a break!), it is pretty amazing to meet a person who has started three blogs, a self-publishing company (only one employee – himself – but still…), and written five books—all while keeping his day job. Thus, I asked J a few questions and he, of course, found the time to reply.
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Missing in the Mission: You mention having a personal life as a writer as “cathartic” alongside decades of responding to large-scale disasters… were you a writer or an aid worker first? Or did they grow together, each feeding and sustaining the other?
J: I guess you could say they grew together, although I was an aid worker / career humanitarian for many years before I began to consider myself a writer. Not too long ago I reconnected with an old roommate who recalled that even back when we were undergrads I always seemed to write with ease. It’s funny – I don’t remember writing anything in college. Certainly nothing creative or “for fun.”
Since becoming an aid worker, writing of some kind has been a consistent task in every job I’ve held. The usual reports, briefs, advocacy materials. One of the longest jobs I’ve ever had, very early in my career, was over a four year period where my primary responsibility was to write USAID and PRM grants. I was so glad when I finally left that job, I vowed never to accept another position where grant acquisition was the main focus. But in retrospect, all those Child Survival and Food Security proposals were fantastic practice for eventually writing humanitarian fiction!
In all seriousness, though, despite the fact that after four years I was sick of proposals and ready to move on, that job was excellent training for an adult life of moonlighting as a writer. The discipline of turning rambling thoughts into coherent text on a screen; the mechanics of working with large and complex documents; the value of a robust editorial and review process, and as part of that the thick skin that comes with having your writing endlessly critiqued and picked apart by others—I still sometimes have visions of those phone book-sized drafts, covered in red ink, snarky comments by my teammates in the margins—all prepared me for blogging and self-publishing in ways I could not have appreciated at the time.
Writing consciously for catharsis was something I first started doing as a country director in Southeast Asia in the early 2000s. By the time I got pulled into the Tsunami response in early 2005, writing essays and fiction had become part of my daily routine in the field. Correspondence was a big part of my writing routine, too, and had been since the 1990s when I corresponded very faithfully with a couple of close friends in the industry. Many of those early essays on humanitarianism were sent as email letters. Over time, we adopted an inside joke that references a 1995 urban horror film set in south-central Los Angeles entitled, Tales From the Hood: the joke being that we always seemed to get sent to the roughest neighborhoods in the global village. When I started my first blog in 2007, the original intent was for it to basically be an open online newsletter to those same friends, and the name of the site (obviously) had to be “Tales From the Hood.”
In late 2008, I discovered Google Analytics, and shortly thereafter discovered that Tales From the Hood was getting a LOT of traffic. It consistently received in excess of 1,000 page views per week! This was especially impressive for a non-agency branded, non-search engine optimized website.
MitM: How do you write in these “Tales from the Hood”-type circumstances—assuming you do—as there is often unreliable electricity, little free time, little mental space….
J: The truth is, I often get more writing done “on mission” or “in the field” than at home! At home my evenings and weekends are often filled with family and home commitments, which of course I don’t mind. But I find in that setting, after the dishes and homework are done, and the kids are in bed, it takes more discipline and focus to sit down in the evening with my computer. The gravitational tendency is to sit and veg in front of the TV. Whereas out in the field, I typically have more open time during evenings and on weekends.
Perhaps this is the right moment to address the question that I already hear coming, which is invariably: “How do you ever find the time?” (The obvious unspoken implication being that I must not work hard if I spend even one moment of my time in the field on any activity not directly related to saving the lives of small children.)
My response is generally that everyone finds time for what is important to them. Even in the field, even in the craziness of a first-phase rapid onset emergency, and despite humanitarian culture, which tends toward ostentatious displays of being endlessly busy. Some people make a big deal about yoga or book club; some people learn the local language or take cooking classes; some people binge on Netflix or alcohol; some people scour the web for funny videos of baby pandas which they then cross-post on all their social media… I write.
Yeah, sure, there are days when work is crazy and all I want to do at the end of it is go straight to bed. Sometimes there are power outages, but even then I cannot really remember the last time I was in a field setting where lack of power was a serious hindrance to writing. Poor connectivity is a bigger problem, at least for any blogging or social media. But in any case, I do try to write most days. At least a few paragraphs. It helps me stay balanced and focused.
MitM: Can you tell us the impetus for starting what is arguably the most famous humanitarian blog, Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like?
J: So, here I must give credit where credit is due: to one of my dearest friends in the humanitarian world (and in the world in general), Ms. Shotgun Shack. As memory serves, she was the one who first came up with the concept for Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. I seem to remember that it began as a bit of a spiraling Twitter conversation with the #stuffexpataidworkerslike or #SEAWL hashtags. It really took off, and a few hours later she Skyped me and was all, “We have to do this as a blog!” And I was all, “Okay, cool.” It was one of those things that just immediately clicked – people seemed to really like it. In all fairness, I have to also say that throughout the life of SEAWL, Shotgun Shack did most of the work to keep the site live (and it was a ton of work). Technically I’m half owner, and I put a lot of time into SEAWL, too. But it was really Shotgun Shack’s baby, and she absolutely deserves that recognition.
In retrospect, the timing was nearly perfect. It would have been right in that Haiti + 1 year lunacy period where much of the media coverage of the humanitarian world was quite negative, and every aid worker who’d been in the game for more than a year or two was starting to seriously question their life choices. I think that a lot of people (industry insiders) wanted to draw their own first blood and maybe laugh at themselves and this crazy industry in the process. Somewhere there’s still a Google doc with a bunch of B- and C-list guest posts that never got edited and published – the meme, plus the community contribution aspect of it all seemed to really speak to humanitarians at the time.
Most people probably don’t know or remember that we also started a “Stuff Local Aid Workers Like” website, and tried (really tried) to generate interest. Several people committed to writing for it, but then never came through. In the end not one single post ever made it to the website. We can analyze the possible reasons why, but I suspect it was also related to timing. Now, in 2017, there’d probably be more traction. But then, now the whole “Stuff ______ Like” thing is pretty much done.
MitM: What drew you to longer-form fiction? Do you find that easier or harder to write, when compared to keeping a blog site up and running? And which is your favorite novel… or is that like asking which is your favorite child?
J: Three specific things drew me to longer books, and fiction specifically:
1. Haiti and the teamhouse dynamic that led to Disastrous Passion, which was kind of where it all started.
2. In early 2012 someone outed me to my then employer, who took a very dim view of my blogging and online presence/persona. After what I would describe as an excruciating HR process that nearly (but not quite) resulted in me being fired, I mostly transitioned to self-publishing, the logic being that if “they” want to fire me for writing, at least they’ll have to pay to read it. Fiction also provides a bit of a buffer in that, like, it’s fiction.
3. It seemed that the reasons I’d begun blogging were no longer reasons. As I explained in an interview with WhyDev, I started Tales From the Hood mostly to shout into the void. I’d come out of a very dark time personally and professionally in the context of the tsunami response, and needed to exorcise a few demons (not literally). Blogging my aid industry angst was a big part of that, but I’m in a different place now. Books, especially fiction, make more sense.
I find that blogging versus writing books and self-publishing are entirely different disciplines, and I find it very difficult to do both. I’ve got three books in some stage of process right now (I know, I need to focus), and it’s really all I can do to keep the Evil Genius Facebook page more or less live at the same time!
Blogging is great for the sort of instant gratification of reader reaction and any kind of social media buzz that might surround it. But in terms of the actual craft and process, I find I enjoy writing fiction more. Over and above any workplace issues of the past, fiction feels like the best way to get across the contradictions and nuances of real humanitarian work in the real world. Blog posts are too easily taken as the end-all, be-all of your opinion on a subject. I’ve seen blog posts go viral over a single strident, provocative sentence, while thousands of words of nuanced discussion around that same issue in other posts went essentially ignored. Fiction, on the other hand, gives me a better shot at making a reader deal with the larger entirety of an issue. It’s harder to soundbite me on a given subject in the context of humanitarian fiction.
As for my favorite novel, how about this:
- Disastrous Passion is by far the most well-known within the aid world.
- Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit and Letters Left Unsent are the most purchased.
- Honor Among Thieves took the most effort to plan and write. It’s the most intricate.
- HUMAN is like an unexpected but welcome love child. I never set out to write science fiction, but I think it’s my best writing so far. But no one will read it… 😦
MitM: :::promises to read HUMAN::: What changes have you seen in the world of humanitarian writing and blogging over the last couple decades? You mentioned writing email essays to your friends in the 1990s… I assume this was before email and Facebook took over our professional and personal worlds, so that we write and share bits of our lives all day and all night. How do you think the access to social media, iPhones and Kindles have changed the experience of writing, reading and sharing “in the field”?
J: What I generally see is an explosion of volume and style over substance. Professional looking websites, lots of team blogs and “communities” (maybe like this site), but also a lot of what feels to me like overly earnest self-indulgence (not this site). I miss some of the older blogs like Hand Relief International and La Vidaid Loca. It doesn’t all have to be funny or sarcastic. Aid Leap is excellent, but sadly The Pillar is no more. But even so, I miss the days when it was all a bit more fun and snarky and to the point, and a bit less “here’s 1,000 words on what I pondered as I savored my morning tea while overlooking Machu Picchu.” I feel like much of what passes for aid writing in general in 2017 is as much, or maybe more cultural performance than anything else, without actually exploring any kind of new territory in terms of ideas or issues.
I suspect that the explosion of social media options in recent years is behind much of this. Now anyone can and does write and post. There’s a lot more to weed through to find those voices that actually have something new and instructive to say.
MitM: :::Pauses to contemplate whether MitM has anything new and instructive to say… decides to postpone existential crisis until after the interview::: Do you have any final words of wisdom for aspiring aid worker writers and bloggers, and for those already seeking to be part of meaningful conversation :::cough::: like the MitM community?
J: The above having been said, I guess:
Do write. Do be part of the conversation. Do put yourself and your ideas out there.
But, at the same time,
Don’t force it – don’t say something just to say something. Don’t be too earnest. Have a point and write toward it (your generalized existential angst is not a point to write toward).
And by the way, I say all of this with the full knowledge that I was also prone to earnest self-indulgent naval-gazing and generalized angst, back in the day. Some of my early posts on Tales From the Hood (many of which have been taken down for your benefit) would certainly have been in that category. Maybe what I had the benefit of being able to learn before the full-on explosion of, seriously, everybody writing everything and posting it was to narrow in on my own “style” or “voice”, and also getting toward a much narrower array of issues on which I had particular opinions to expound on and debate. And that’s where, I think, we all want to get as writers and bloggers in the humanitarian sector. In the course of a day in the industry, I’ll see 17 things that raise my ire, but I have basically narrowed the list of what I’ll expend energy writing about to just three, maybe four issues.
So, the short version: develop your style, find your focus.
Oxford comma, active voice, get an editor and take her/his advice.
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To read J’s books and get author updates, visit his Amazon page.