Letters to my Protege: seminal thoughts on the art of writing (1)

Dear Babatunde,

First of all, I must express my deep-felt gratitude for the letter you wrote to me by which I am greatly humbled – the fact that you took out time to carefully pen those words. Reading them, I could tell that these were words straight from the heart. I am awed, flattered even, that you consider me to have made such an amazing impact on your life and on your writing. Even I didn’t realise it.

I live my life for impact and it has always been my primary motivation and drive to impact my generation with whatever little knowledge I may have acquired on how to transform our lives and leave the world we live in a better place than we met it. I am glad, truly, that I have been able to inspire you to want to be the best you can.

I do not consider myself to have arrived as a writer if ever there was an “arriving” in the real sense of the word seeing as we never get so masterful at the art that we become exempted from the pleasurable burden of continuous learning and improvement.

Both of us are travellers in this common journey to literary utopia. Yes, I reckon that we may be at different stages of that oft-solitary travel through uncertain waters – but we share in common an objective of reaching that dream literary destination where we hope to joyfully pitch our tents – the mere thought of which thrills the soul and fills it with incomparable delight.

I could not help but notice how well off you have become in your writing since the last time I had the opportunity of reading you. There are marked improvements in your grammatical constructions: your tenses and syntax were near spot-on. Sentences were simple; there was a conscious and deliberate effort to keep it simple in your language and choice of words. I was pleased with your shunning of ambiguity and verbosity.

I could see imagination at the soul of your writing and the elegance of expression was well noted. Even though you said you see the antecedents of a great writer – one in the mould of the Chimamanda Adichies and Teju Coles – every time you read me, I thought to myself while reading your letter, that same could have been said of you too on the strength of the words you so masterfully threaded together. Surely, no one would have contested the fact.

Never let go of your hunger and desire to be counted among literary royalty. It is very much a mission possible if you persist on this path of continued development on which you are set. “Read more than you write,” says Teju Cole in his “Letters to a young writer” – which can be downloaded for free in pdf format online. You do yourself a world of good to ingest and digest all he says and incorporate the lessons there into your writing.

You spoke of how you thought writing was easy and how there were times you felt like writing and times you didn’t. Samuel Johnson says, “What we must do with ease, we must first learn to do with diligence.”

First, if ever there existed a notion more false than that of the earth being at the centre of the universe, it would have to be the erroneous belief that writing is easy. It would perhaps be easy, if the words being written were the equivalent of someone merely talking but not communicating or that of someone merely hearing but not listening. Such words couldn’t persuade a hungry traveller to eat the food he most craves, if ever such a man needed persuading.

If your writing will be worth its weight in gold, it will demand your all. You will read broadly, study obsessively, consult widely, think deeply, listen attentively, agree cautiously, observe maniacally, disagree necessarily, relate circumspectly, believe compellingly and live productively.

It may take days, even months to write the first five lines – but the immortality of the words, not the length of time it took to pen them, should be your primary pre-occupation. This anecdote should provide elucidation and encouragement: “A playwright, who had written five hundred lines in three days, taunted Euripides because he had spent as much time upon five lilines. “Yes,” replied Euripedes, “But your five hundred lines in three days will be forgotten, while my five will live forever.”

Second, no good writer worth his salt writes when he pleases, let alone the prolific maestros. Writing your way to literary paradise is a matter of duty not leisure – because the experience is hardly pleasurable at times. You may need to contend with bouts of anger and frustration.

As writers, we do not just write because we can or when we can, we write because we must. Write diligently that you may learn to write easily. Write when you feel like it – when the floodgates of inspiration are open and flowing in all directions – take advantage. More importantly, write when you don’t feel like it, when the task at hand feels cumbersome and it appears the doors of thought and imagination have been cruelly and hopelessly slammed shut against you for what may feel like an eternity.

As you labour through the dry, sun-scorched wilderness and navigate the thorned pathways, you will suddenly and inevitably happen upon an oasis of ideas that will magically explode, with time, into oceans of mind-blowing inspiration that will birth eternal words.

Above all, believe in your rubbish, for we are told, that the earth, charming in so many ways as it is not, was fashioned out of chaos. Know that where you are today is not your destination – it is merely a stop on a journey. Your “rubbish” like a diamond in the rough, is destined to one day evolve into the glistening jewellery that hugs the fingers and breasts of royalty.

Keep writing.

Your fellow traveller

Bamidele Salako

(C) 2014

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