Monday, July 6, 2009

There is No User's Manual for Writing Talent

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?


Tania Hershman said...

Very interesting post, Lauri, I am going to go and read this essay. Nthikeng Mohlele sounds like he has spent a lot of time thinking about this. I have no pat answer. I know for a fact that there are techniques to unleash creativity, to free the imagination, I use certain methods to get me into that space where I write. But could anyone do that with the right tools? I have no idea. Is a love for words and for shaping sentences innate or can it be learned? Should it be? Has anyone ever tried to make a writer out of a non-writer? That sounds a little odd, eh?

I just want to mention that another thing we writers suffer - and I am sure this happens to you too! - is those around us saying "Ooh, that would make a great story, write about that!" Nothing annoys me more. That ain't how it works!

Anonymous said...

What do you think? Can someone be taught to be a good writer or is it a path we all walk alone?

I believe that that if a person has the aptitude and the desire he or she can be taught to be a competent writer, i.e. to write with clarity, conciseness, and cohesion. Competent writing then becomes good writing after years of practice (how many years depends on the individual writer and his or her natural talent.) Great writing is when the craft of writing transcends craft and becomes art and is, arguably, something that cannot be taught.

Also, although there are always exceptions to the rule, I have found the greater majority of good and great writers are voracious readers (or were so in their formative years.)

As for walking the path alone, it is not so much a path, as it is paths. Paths that may have started as one path at the dawn of civilization but has now become a complex highway of paths forged by oppressors and the oppressed, traditionalists and radicals, and sundry innovators. Each writer walks with the spirits and ghosts of their ancestors.

Great post, Lauri, very though-provoking.Thanks. DavidM

"I trust inspiration, which sometimes comes and sometimes doesn't. But I don't sit back waiting for it. I work every day." - Alberto Moravia.

"When they come, I write them; when they don't come, I don't." - Jack Kerouac

On Ideas, Inspiration, Imagination and Genius

Anonymous said...

I certainly couldn't put it any better than David or Tania has other than to tell you a quick little story. I used to have a girl in my writer's group who had every writing How-To book ever published. She went to every class under the sun on creative writing but in the few years she was in my group, I don't think she put pen to paper once. She was so busy figuring out the how-to of writing that she never actually wrote.

The best writers from that group never went to a class. They just read a lot and wrote a lot. Who would have thought?

Unknown said...

Can someone be taught to be a good writer or is it a path we all walk alone?

Interesting question and interesting post, Lauri. My take on this is, while one can be taught to express him/herself better orally or in written form, the truth remains, that a writer must first and foremost possess that specially gift for storytelling. That, cannot be taught.

Lauri said...

Tania- I'm always a bit confused when people say that because normally the very thing they are saying would make a great story, I can't see at all. You're right it doesn't work like that.

David- I think you are correct, there are many paths and, like your quotes illustrate, everyone finds their own and none is the right one. I also agree reading matters. Reading inspires writing.

Selma- Great story. Preparers such as the young woman in your class I often think are frightened. They've built a picture of themselves as writers and they don't want it not to be true.

JD- I also believe that there are people who just have an immense gift. They just write beautiful words. I, as I've mentioned before on this blog, am a systematic hard worker because I know I was not born with that immense gift, just a thin slice of it perhaps. A thin slice that needs a lot of nuturing. This is why as I once said in your blog- I need to live very long if I am to see my best work. It is somewhere out there waiting for me to work my way to it.