My grandfather used to tell me stories, and my aunts and grandmothers did too. I didn’t always understand them, but I understood the underlying lessons: the cadence of language, turn of phrase, warmth, surprise, horror, and silence.
Many people bought me books and withstood the lifelong barrage of questions I brought to them. My father was the first person to say to me: “I don’t know; why don’t you find out?” And I guess it stuck.
I ask everyone stuff all the time. I don’t actually write, you know. Very few people do. This thing we have between us is a conversation. I am sat at your table, or perhaps you are sat at mine, enduring an intense period of eye contact. We are doing what people have always done: communing. That is all.
And because enough of you have emailed to ask how this can be done, the subject cannot be put off any longer. Certainly not for the few who despair, thinking that they are not “good enough.” Please don’t do that to yourself. There is no such thing as ‘good enough,’ there is only the journey. You are already good enough as it is because you write.
Not only are there many guides on how to write well out there, there are also many teachers and examples of brilliance. The only ones who have ever stuck with me are the ones who somehow end up saying “just be yourself.” When you are manifesting your passion it doesn’t need very much definition, it just needs time and practice and occasionally guidance.
We have to talk about the cultural aspect. As I said, it was the stories that were told to me as a child that got me interested in storytelling as a practice- the writing came later.
But it could have been music, it could have been oratory, these lend themselves more easily to us all and to us as Africans in particular. Our oral culture is strong and beautiful. We learn how to write in school as part of an education and it is not something that comes easy to most of us. This is in direct contrast with our oral culture, and yet somehow complementary because at the end of the day the story is the entire point of the endeavour.
When people ask “How do you do it?” they mean at least two things. First: you are a woman. Second: how does one sell the written word? Again, the truth is that I have no idea. Mostly it has to do with communicating, really.
Language is beautiful: it dances, it is integral to forming ideas and it is also on occasion inadequate to forming ideas such as how does one sell a piece?
Maybe passion is the thing. The passion for knowledge of all kinds is what forms the foundation of thinking and by extension writing. Everything is fascinating except football, in my case.
People are always full of stories because they are people and when you talk to them you travel the universe through their eyes. All you have to do is listen.
And then there is reading, of course. Again, taught to us in a formal situation and something that can be hard to master but if you do two things happen.
Your love of the word becomes an even greater one as others’ works refine your mind. And you gain an inner world of infinite wonder as you imagine every story told to you. It is a hard place to describe, that inner world, but it is where the stories are born.
As an aside, for some reason it is best not to have too easy a life if you want to be a writer. Angst, torment, alienation of some kind are all useful. If you can’t manage it, at least be sensitive to the human condition. Anything less makes a liar of you.
Finally, and I have this on good authority, you have to be willing to spend large amounts of time appearing to do nothing. This can be hard.
As a woman, someone is always trying to get me to do something “useful” that they can frankly do themselves such as cooking or childcare or ironing. Nothing is wrong with any of these activities and busy-ness can be rewarding and relaxing but it is the few and gifted writers who can manage to be productive if they are being useful. The rest of us have to avoid too much responsibility.
Luckily I have a combination of superpowers: laziness and stubbornness. Anyone aspiring to write should truly embrace them. It is necessary for reading, for imagining how to fictionalise the complex world we live in so it can be told in small chunks, for flights of fantasy. This is how you can create and protect the quiet mental space required to feel, to think and to compose.
But to be honest, I don’t actually write, you know. Very few people do. This thing we have between us is a conversation. I am sat at your table, or perhaps you are sat at mine, enduring an intense period of eye contact. We are doing what people have always done: communing. That is all.
The only thing I can truthfully say to folks who ask about writing is: fall in love with stories. The rest will, hopefully, follow.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]