I saw Nthikeng Mohlele, the author of The Scent of Bliss, at a panel discussion at the Cape Town Book Fair. The topic of the discussion was the personal vs the political in our writing. Mr. Mohlele shared the stage with Zubeida Jaffer and Sindiwe Magona, two powerful women, sandwiching the young author and I felt afraid for him. My fear soared when Mme Magona went on to describe black men as public enemy number one and then Mike Nicol turned to the fresh-faced Mohlele asking him to speak on behalf of his species. What a terrible burden for a writer! It seemed unfair; I wished he would refuse to speak, thinking any word at all was going to add fuel to the roaring inferno started by the perennial fire starter, Mme Magona. But he spoke, and his words didn't- add fuel to the fire that is. They were calm and sensible and intelligent and I fell quickly in line behind him as a fan.
So today as I fume at the third day of cloudy, cold weather and huddle around the fire hoping my out-of-socket back will get back in socket and my adopted country will behave as it should- meaning pull out the hot, sun and push these blasted clouds away- I was so pleased to find an essay by Mr. Mohlele in the latest issue of the excellent South African literary journal, Words Etc. (Please everyone- an appeal- subscribe to this journal so it can live a long and healthy life. )
In the essay, Mohlele discusses the awful topic of how writers write, where inspiration comes from. Those types of questions are similar to asking non-writers the correct way to fall in love or to raise a child. Books are written about such things, but in the main they are little more than one person's path, one person's way, and there are as many ways as there are people, so when it all levels out it's mostly an exercise in futility. But nevertheless the questions continue to be asked.
"How does a writer write?" Mohlele asks. "Is the process stuff for music videos, or can it be easily captured in steps one to ten, like tractor maintenance manuals- how to knit donkey-coloured cheap jerseys? When does the writer know - if the creative engines are fired up ready to go...?" Mohlele admits inspiration is a tricky and flighty bedfellow. A lot of a writer's time is spent waiting for it to return and suffering with the doubt that it may not.
The waiting for inspiration is often misdiagnosed by those around us as idleness. The writer must suffer from all sides; family members trying to fill up the 'wasteful' hours and the stubborn muse who refuses to come out from around the corner and play. "The writer has no defence against the abuse of inspiration- how it tells lies; drags him through smoke screens, whips him in public squares. He has no choice but to abide by the rules of engagement....Inspiration is a lying cheat, is drunk with self importance, and does not apologise for its tacky behaviour. It's stingy while at the same time generous, comes in a trillion disguises: a baby's laughter, a call from a drunken friend, lightening bolt thundering into a swimming pool."
But Mohlele realises he has no answers, none of us do. He says, "God, we are conditioned to believe, gives talents, but the awarding ceremony, at birth, does not include a user manual." For me, I think that's the most exciting part about this writing gig- no user manual- each and every one of us is basically winging it. I think that's the fun , at least for me, finding my way through. What do you think? Can someone be taught to be a good writer or is it a path we all walk alone?