There were over 150 of us in the auditorium and when I say 150 of us, I deem myself worthy to be counted as part of the ‘us’. The West Midlands writers’ Toolkit conference was something that gave me the best Saturday yet here in the UK. I must admit that up till now, referring to myself as a writer still feels like a dream, and part of me, the part that admires the Wole Soyinkas and C.S Lewis of this world, restrains me from classing myself with this ‘worthy’ people. However, sitting in that crowd of writers and getting to meet with international award winners, people who had written scripts for Hollywood, worked with the BBC, I felt privileged. More importantly, it felt comforting seeing many more like me, who had their eyes on the stars and carried immense hope and optimism in their hearts.
I won’t go into narrative details about the program of events because really that does not bode much for intellectual development. As we all sat there listening to speaker after speaker and asking tonnes of questions, I saw in my minds’ eye, a group of people who are like the X-men in the popular Hollywood movie: we were all freaks with one hidden special power or the other. Most of us never really fit into the societies where we found ourselves, and in coming together, it was more than reassuring to find that there were people like you, and even in some cases, crazier.
I met a writer who was planning to write a novel without an end, his reason was that he wanted his art to be evolutionary and as such, his novel should be able to evolve much after his death (you can add an ‘r’ behind the evolutionary if you so desire). He compared writing to the architecture of Antonio Gaudi, as portrayed in his masterpiece La familia Sagrada house – A house designed to forever evolve. A house, even the architect knew would still be work-in-progress after his death. I advised him to write those stories and at the point where he hands it over to evolution, he should simply insert blank pages for the readers in the future who will fill in those blank pages with their own conceptions.
There were other freaks there too, each with a different shade of insanity; however what I observed and learnt was the common pains we all felt regardless of our insanity levels, and how other writers were dealing with these pains. First of the collective pains, is the pain of pursuing a career which might not be appreciated. Second, is the pain of nurturing a passion that may or may not eventually put much money in your pocket.
First, the pain of pursuing a career which might necessarily not be appreciated, especially by our family members.
The endnote speaker recalled his revulsion when after he had gone away to a Greek Island for three months and come back with a novel, his father had asked why he simply went to waste three months of his life writing about a son’s hate for his father. “Who cares?” was his father’s response “My father hated his father, it did not change anything, I hated my own father and I know you hate me now. Who cares?”. And this phrase, “Who cares?” is something we can all relate with because at the birth of your ideas or your novel, no one really cares but you. My girlfriend for instance did not read my book until it was in publishing. Not until I started to blackmail people by threatening not to have their names in my acknowledgment did they pick up the manuscript I sent to them.
Such is the life of writers. Even the perception of our lives leaves a certain bad taste in the mouth of our observers. We often look like jobless folks who are not brave enough to eke a proper living especially if we were even classed as full-time writers – a phrase that loosely translates (for most people) into – low lifers with a notepad, hanging around the neighbourhood on a Monday morning. This perception is even worse when the closest people to us feel this way about us but don’t want to hurt us by saying it, even though as writers, with our keen sense of observation, we can see it in their actions. The key note speaker explains this in a beautiful analogy of the ‘Deck chair on the front porch’. He explains how, after his wife has gone to work, he will first sit at his computer watching the blinking cursor, then he will play solitaire for inspiration and when inspiration does not come, he will sit in the deck chair on the front porch all day without writing a word, and when he hears his wife’s car approaching, he dashes back into his study and sits in his chair until she comes in. When she comes in and sees him sweating and asks how the day went, he would reply. “Hectic”.
I can totally relate with having to prove to someone you love that you are really serious even if you have to lie. In all of this, a take out for me from the workshop was this: Write for the love of it! Damn everybody and everything else. My slant to this is, so long as it does not affect you in carrying out your everyday responsibilities like fathering, husbanding or childing, disregard people’s non-acceptance of that idea and simply carry on. If you make sense of it, they will catch up. And don’t have any hard feelings about it because it is really not their fault. Most people can’t see the reason for our excitement – they are simply not freaks like us.
The pains of nurturing a passion that may or may not reward you financially.
This perhaps is the greatest fear for writers and may be the bane of our collective existence. What if the novel our endnote speaker vacationed to a Greek Island to write, did not eventually sell more than 10 copies? The truth is that our optimism as writers is fuelled by the success stories of the J.K Rowlings of this world, who tuck themselves in a corner of a café to write a book with a queer title like “Harry Potter” and a few years later on, it is selling 11 million copies on its first day – that is 125 books per second. Or an author who writes his first novel in just a week and it turns out a bestseller. Unfortunately, the success stories are a drop in the sea or supposed ‘failures’ (and I used supposed because of what I explain later on our different perception of success). This supposed sea of failures are writers with 8 novels, 5000 books who have only sold 100 copies in eight years, most of it to their friends. The truth is that of the books we write, chances are 99 times in 100 that they will not sell or make any serious gains in the light of the Harry Potters.
My learning points on this particular ‘writers’ pain’ as I listened to the personal experiences of established writers are these:
- Define your success. The world defines success (for writers) as selling a million books and making a lot of money. In reality, even though this is a possibility for every writer, it is a rather romantic conceptualization. The reality is that most writers will not sell a million books and won’t make a lot of money. However, the catch is this. As writers we will have to define our own individual successes because frustration comes when we are benchmarking our actions with the success parameters of others, which we often fail to meet. Success for you could be getting an award, it could be being published, it could be getting national mention, or it could be getting Chinua Achebe’s comments on your book. Whatever it is, it behoves writers to define such notions of success that will lead them to personal fulfilment, give them a future aspiration and cause them to celebrate even when they have not sold a million copies or made a lot of money. For me, I will say success is when my writing touches a life so well, that that life changes. I almost cried when someone sent me a message once thanking me for having changed his life. I still get emotional when I think about that. Anything beyond this my own definition of success, whether money or fame, is just an add-on.
- Another cue is for you to work hard. Listening to the testimonies of the much more established and celebrated writers that were at the workshop, I recalled the age old wisdom that there is no substitute for hard work. John Grisham worked as a full time lawyer and wrote from 5am to 7am before work everyday. We will need to work harder than your abilities and be our most critical boss and we will need to continuously push the boundaries against all odds. Like one writer said, we will need to push the boulders up the hill until it becomes a balloon and starts to float up into the sky.
- Try your hands at writing every genre you find opportunity to write. Try not to limit yourself to poetry or prose or screenplay. Try out different genres, opt for any commission you find and if you fail at doing it, try again. The thought is that the genres present different structures of writing but the idea behind the content of the writing is basically the same. So if you are a children’s book writer, try fiction, try writing for radio, try everything and keep what works. The more the areas of proficiency you have as a writer, the better off you are and the more likely that you will have your hands in many pies at any point in time.
- Try working on other income sources asides from writing. This may be particularly difficult for novelists who need an immense stretch of time to follow through their stories; however in their hiatus periods, it pays to get involved in other things. And like one of the writers said, “Do other things you love doing that will pay you to buy time for yourself to write, and feed you with more experiences. And even when you can’t find such a job, volunteer!” That way you get to live a fuller life, find more inspiration for your writing from the other activities you are involved in, and you get to shield your heart from being broken by frustration, which is the tyrannical lover of us writers.
- Be accountable. Because our income sources are not in steady stream like most others, writers must be accountable to themselves. Follow the basic rules of accountability. Don’t spend what you don’t have and as it was almost a consensus at the meeting, creative people are rarely accountable; hence get an advisor, a friend, an accountant, or whoever will work with you on this.
- Finally and most important for me are the words of the end note speaker, which is this. Be creative. This point sounds dry because it’s like telling a Chinese to eat noodles. However, without trying to sound in the box, I will say ‘Think outside the box of paperbacks and hardcovers’. The endnote speaker reeled out the different mediums he wrote for and you will be amazed. He is on the writing team for a Hollywood series, he writes story lines for game developers, he writes e-books for Amazon kindle, he writes blogs, he writes for theatre and has 16 published novels. One of the other writers was currently exploring translating stories to Japanese and launching it on tweeter. Because 140 Japanese characters is enough to tell a story while 140 English characters won’t say much. Think of story themes for musical rendition, stories for online short shoot-it-yourself video flicks, manuals for companies, teaching workshops, articles and speeches; there is no end to the areas a writer can apply his art, only if he or she expands the horizons and think beyond it. In his words, storytelling has endured so well for thousands of years beyond the many forms in which they are conveyed. In his opinion, the era or paperbacks and hardcovers are soon passing away; publishing houses will soon fold if they don’t evolve. Albeit, what will remain with us is our special ability as writers to tell stories. Storytelling will not die, he says, only the forms will change, and as writers it is either we evolve or we fossilize.
At the end of the day, I was so excited 9 hours passed in a blink. Plus I sold some of my books and got one of the participants who read a portion of On a lot of things, commenting about how cultural the book was and how numerous the possibilities were for securing a reading at the black arts festival. As I lay on my bed later that night, I felt more fulfilled than I have been in a long while. Need I say that last night, my dreams were more dramatic than they usually were.