Sometimes your biography is so familiar to you that you fail to see how to craft something creative from the raw materials of your life. You're too close to it.
I went to Chad in 1977 as a 21-year-old freshly minted college grad in the Peace Corps. Chad has been very much a part of my personal narrative for all of my adult life. Of course, I knew when I was in Africa—especially in my remote village where I was the only foreigner living amongst 4000 Chadians—that this was not a usual stop on the list of locations for budding writers. I knew about the Hemingway and Fitzgerald wannabes and their louche residencies in Paris.
But I came from a poor family and there were no funds to support an apprenticeship in Europe birthing deathless prose. The Peace Corps seemed to make sense. I could be of service for two years to people who really needed help, and then on my return to the U.S. I could travel and see parts of the world I wasn't likely to see otherwise. It was a deal I was willing to make in my youth.
Chad forced me to live on a very basic level. I had no running water or electricity, and I was in a difficult-to-reach village nestled in thick vegetation at the fringes of a tropical rainforest. It was hard. When civil war broke out and all the Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated, I was heartbroken to exit Chad so suddenly.
I became a diplomat and wound up traveling the world through my various assignments as a Foreign Service Officer. It seems ironic now, looking back, to understand that I thought the Peace Corps would deliver my only chance to travel. I had to squeeze all the gusto from my time abroad in the Peace Corps because I believed it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It just goes to show that we often have little clue how our destinies will unfold in ways we could have never envisioned in our youth. Life is about what surprises us.
While I never forgot my time in Chad, I went on with the things any adult embraces as he matures: relationships, jobs, a home, family. I got busy with the mundane details of life, and rarely mentioned my time in Chad.
One day, I learned I had some very serious health problems. Things might end for me sooner rather than later. That kind of news grabs you by the lapels and makes you sit up and say: what does my life mean? What have I done that anyone might care about, after I'm gone?
Although I was in the middle of many international events when I worked for the State Department, and a memoir might be interesting for others to learn of my behind-the-scenes roles in some key conflicts in the Middle East, eventually friends and other writers told me I was burying the lead. Another tale about infighting within the government over some policy of what to do in the powder keg Middle East? Did the world really need that?
My friends said I should write about Chad. The story of what that 21 year old experienced in Africa could be a compelling tale, they said. In my mind, I thought about all the mistakes that 21 year old had made. He knew so little about life, and often didn't choose wisely. I could look at him now—with the perspective of an older man in his fifties—and see the pitfalls in his reasoning as he tried to make sense of living in a culture—the Chadian culture—so different from the American one.
I listened to those friends. The novel, Under Chad's Spell, available through Amazon, is the result. It's a fictionalized account of some of the things I learned in Chad. Not everything that occurs in the novel actually happened, but that's the beauty of crafting fiction. Your creative juices get to exercise their influence. You take a kernel of a real event and make it pop with some more accelerated drama. The incidentals that you describe give it that air of reality, of someone having lived this story. But your characters lead you to perhaps something very different from what actually took place.
You can get more information about the novel by visiting my website, www.michaelvarga.com. The story that Glimmer Train has chosen, "Chad Erupts in Strife," was part of that novel originally, but in the end it wasn't a good fit for the book. Luckily, it has found a home in Glimmer Train. It's an honor to have it recognized through this competition.
Writers write. I encourage you to review your biography again. Maybe there's something in it that you know so well, that you take for granted in your life-experiences. Think about them as raw material that could be shaped for a very different outcome for someone like you, who's not you. Find the seeds in your own life. Let them sprout into something creative that your imagination shapes to hold a reader. You may have to reveal some pitfalls you fell into, but that's all part of living, and the living is what feeds our writing.