I often write short notes. These notes express my opinions on a miscellany of things. Why do I never try to post or publish any of these notes? I realize I am held back by two major reasons, two reasons which defy each other. The first of these reasons is that I have a tendency to be magisterial, to express myself in a tone that suggests that I have arrived at a definitive conclusion to the matter, that I have closed the loop. This is a foible. The second reason is that none of the non-fiction articles I have written has ever achieved a state of completion that I found satisfactory. I am always adding or detracting.
I find that by my poor writing, ideas extraneous to my essential views find suggestion. There is also the innate realization that I cannot, will not, say all I wish to, a direct consequence of the native inexpressibility of our human condition. Thus do the two reasons defy each other. It is not as if my considerations of these two reasons make me lose any sleep. In a world of such staggering numbers, and by inference, perspectives, no one can claim to have seen the end of the matter, nor can one see the end of any matter, even at the cost of exhausting his élan vital in the pursuit of which.
If we assumed an honesty of self, everyone’s opinion would be his perspective. Simple is it? But is there not such a thing as a change in perspective, can not a man’s present opinion on any issue develop further with the passage of time, or be even completely overhauled? Is it not possible that he ceases to have any opinion on the issue? I have written all these, preempting criticism, I hope that my short note is read with a considering eye, that the reader understands that this is merely my opinion, and it could all be entirely false. That I am simply blubbering, that I might in time disown these views, and that I mean no one deliberate harm. “I have always felt that we all possess a vital force which drives us to our accomplishments.
That this vital force has its effect most felt when we apply ourselves to tasks most suited to us. That quite apart from this vital force which belongs to each of us, there is the current of life, of the life that goes on around us, and a current that we sometimes ought to resist, and sometimes surrender. A little more on this vital force; all our energies for work and play, devoted to mundane or heroic tasks, spent in contemplation or dissipation, or in idleness or activity is drawn from that well, the exhaustible well given to us by nature and God. How best then to apply this force to maximum effect?
What tasks are most suited to us? In my own peculiar way, I have come into the realization that I am a writer. Everyone probably has a sense of the things which when doing they are happiest, most comfortable and most importantly, willing to constantly improve upon, to master, to perfect. (This is not merely about the arts or sport; although because of the way it is represented in modern life, as a deviation from the regular path, certifying dazzling success for those few who will merit it, and little or nothing for the rest, makes it a pronounced example). One may take up carpentry and make an art of it, or bird-watching, and make a science of it. Every occupation is sanctified by a devotion to it. Now, in spite of this stated fact that most people have a strong idea of what they do best, why do they not do it? But one can only answer for oneself. It is often said that writers in Africa have regular daytime jobs, and that their great works were written in spite of their busy schedules.
In one sense this is a complement to these courageous people, and in another sense, it is the tragedy of African literature. One imagines what may have been. I do not think literature is a hobby, to be done in one’s spare time or on Saturdays. I have always looked at it with a serious, critical eye, worthy of the investment of every ounce of myself. Most other activities represent themselves to me as a distraction, a sapper of my vital force. All the same, and in defiance of all these theories of mine, I took a degree in engineering. Why did I not turn my back from that path? I possessed no great aptitude for it, I failed courses regularly, and I tried to cheat my way through. Was I not strong enough to swim against the currents of life at that time? Was it caused by A longing for financial security? Did i not have confidence in my literary gifts? It is a combination of many things.
All the same, it appears that I am watching a tragedy in which I am an actor, and that I am acting against my better judgment, that I am travelling the same path which I have always privately repudiated, keeping eggs in different baskets. A lot of writers in Nigeria may have similar stories, or may not. Many young writers have shaved time off a busy career to write novels. Successful or not, it is an achievement in itself. But I can say with certainty that those novels are unlikely to be particularly good ones. And if they be good, the writer had better in him. They have divided their vital forces. (Of course one might work in a field related to literature, such as taking a teaching position or jobs that neither imposes significant responsibilities on one’s brain nor takes up too much of one’s time. A certain amount of distraction is necessary for one to be able to focus).
My eyes once fell upon an old ad by General Motors- Do one thing, do it well- it requires no further explanation. I know a professor of engineering who also writes fiction. I have passed my eye- as well as my judgment- over two of his novels. I do not know enough about engineering, but I can say that his books are not good. We had a few chats, he spoke about his passion for writing, and how he sets out time every day to write etc. he had great enthusiasm. Was I to feel sad for him? He was rich, successful and respected; he was a professor of engineering. I think He may have been better served had he applied all his forces to engineering, or applied his forces to each of them not simultaneously, but one after the other, just as in the case of Joseph Conrad, who took first to the sea, then to the novel. He who will make his mark upon any field cannot afford to be a dilettante, a dabbler.