Three Cups of Yak Dung

22 April 2011

According to the serial character assassins of “60 Minutes”, Greg Mortenson, hero social entrepreneur who (claims to have) risked his life to build schools for girls in the Pakistan Outback (talk about a Death Wish), author of the 5 million seller “Three Cups of Tea”, made a lot of it up.

In case you are not one of the 5 million, the tale related in Mortenson’s book, while billed as non-fiction, reads like a novel: Mountaineer tries to climb second highest peak in the world to pay homage to his dead sister. Mountaineer fails to summit; nearly dies on the descent and is rescued and nursed back to health by friendly villagers. Mountaineer asks friendly villagers: “How can I repay you?” Answer comes back: “Build us a school for our girls.”

The next part of the book, which deals with Mortenson’s stateside struggle to recruit supporters and raise money for his cause, is actually the one I like best, perhaps because I can identify with it, having experienced similar skepticism, rejection and opposition throughout our struggle to build FINCA. There are also what now appear to be telling portents about Mortenson’s resistance to the efforts of his supporters, particularly board members, to get him to accept the chains and manacles of policies, systems and internal controls.

Throw in a kidnapping by terrorists, a succession of women who reject him (ha ha, who’s sorry now, eh?) and you have an irresistible “story arc” of the kind they teach you in screenwriting class (speaking of which, where is the movie, anyway?).

Turns out that could be because it is a story. Or at least the authors took great license with the facts. As in “compressing time” between the events so that they occurred in a way and sequence more convenient to creating suspense and dramatic tension.

Sorry, guys, not on. Choose another medium, like maybe the one Capote invented in “In Cold Blood”, if you’re going to play it that way.

Having struggled with being unable to play with time and sequence in “The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook”, I just don’t have any sympathy for Mortenson and his ghost writer, David Relin, if that’s what they did. Each time I felt myself tempted, Sergeant Friday’s face resolved itself out of the darkness, warning me to stick to “The facts. Just the facts.”

I found myself on the other side of that paradigm during my 30-year struggle to bring “The Sheraton Murders”, my novel about the murders of Hammer, Viera and Pearlman in El Salvador in 1980, to life. There the challenge was the opposite: How could I turn what was an amazing real life story into a novel?

That was where dear old Papa Hemingway came to my rescue, with one random line from “A Moveable Feast”, the memoir of his expat years in Paris. Describing a breakthrough in one of his novels he said: “That was when I learned to invent rather than describe.”

It hit me like a lightning bolt: Don’t “report” what happened. Focus on the events you weren’t present for, and the people you didn’t know and imagine what happened, and what they said, and how they said it.

After that, it poured like honey.

Well, a jar of honey so deep, so rich, so sweet, it took thirty years to empty.

Rupert Scofield


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