Letters to my protege: seminal thoughts on the art of writing (3)

Dear Babatunde,

Writers are reservoirs. Of knowledge and ideas. In the mind of the writer, imaginations run wild jostling for prompt, purposeful and precise expression. Think of the writer’s mind as a reservoir which must constantly be inundated with an endless stream of knowledge and ideas through voracious reading and study.

A steady reader then makes a ready writer. Let it then not befuddle you when you happen upon one whose pen expresses with grace and charm, the yields of a mind enriched by constant study. With musical precision and purpose, the studious writer delivers every time a demand is placed on his skill.

Yes, not all readers are writers but rest assured that you will never find a writer who has written anything worth reading, that was not first an ardent reader. In fact, great readers may not always make great writers (since we read to different ends) but there was never a great writer in the pantheons of this noble occupation, who became an apotheosis for succeeding generations, that was not first a great reader – reading anything and everything and developing a robust, informed and cultured mind.

And so, while you’re applauding the genius that is manifested in the written words of your literary heroes, make sure to acknowledge and applaud the effort behind the scenes that produced such genius. Also, when you look with envy upon their brilliance and wish to be imbued with their almost flawless abilities, make sure to wish for and seek to be imbued with the resolve and discipline that produced such brilliance.

This resolve I speak of is reflected in your commitment to a SMART prioritisation of your literary development. One of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin once said, “When I get any money, I spend it on books; if any is left, I spend it on food and clothes.” Priority! It is little wonder then that he made, not just a great inventor, but a great writer as well whose memory became immortalised and whose accomplishments, sayings and writings continue to inspire many aeons after his corporeal existence faded graciously into the realms of memory.

He was a noted polymath, a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in
the American Enlightenment and the
history of physics for his discoveries
and theories regarding electricity. His is a perfect example of the influence and impact of reading on writing proven by a lifetime of exemplary era-defining works.

Inversely, shallow reading produces shallow writing. Your literary essence derives its potential from the quality of literary matter that you consume. Ensure that you are taking in works full of width and depth – works produced by quality minds and not some voluminous garbage that deadens the intellect and does your mind more harm than good. I say this because more often than not, the work is the worker and the book is the author. The quality of a literary work is more often than not a reflection of the quality of mind that produced it.

“Watch what you eat for your health’s sake!” the doctor bellowed the other day: I now say to you, “Watch what you read” for the sake of your mind’s health. The doctor has advised that your body requires a proper and balanced daily diet for nourishment and optimal function; I say your mind requires a healthy diet of compelling compositions for mental alimentation that will translate into imperishable works.

Writers are conduits. The conduit principle says you can’t give what you don’t have or you can only give of what you have. Statedly, the conduit serves only as a passageway for matter flowing from a reservoir to which it is linked. In like manner, you can only keep tapping from an inner reserve that is constantly being topped off with daily knowledge desserts. Out of the abundance of ideas enriching your mind, your pen will write gracefully and expansively: and out of the scarcity or poverty of ideas plaguing your mind, your pen will write penuriously.

Any writer worth his art is a person with an all-consuming passion for reading and reading wide. You must constantly ask yourself – “Every time a demand is placed on me as a conduit of knowledge, stories or ideas, do I produce stale and nondescript works or do I transmit fresh, rich, elegant, inspiring and captivating works that keep my readers coming back for more?” If the latter is to be your perpetual experience, there’s no alternative to reading dutifully like your very life depended on it – and in truth, the soul of your work, the life of your literary reputation depends on it.

A writer, whether of fiction, for the mass media or for any noble ideal at all, is someone who represents and presents reality or an aspect of reality through his works. He thus must possess a broad knowledge of the things he writes about. He must know a little of everything and one of the most potent tools for attaining such level of knowledge is constant study. Think on this.

Writers are creators. All through the ages, men have, through their writings, shaped the world as we know it, influenced and inspired whole generations, and defined and even altered the course of history. The writings of the likes of the German protestant/reformer, Martin Luther, led to the great spiritual awakening of his era and the subsequent reformation of the church, thus creating an abstraction within Christendom that possessed its own unique set of values, values which remain to this day.

Writers are leaders. They are leaders of thought. They propose and propagate ideologies and ideas and infect and influence whole societies with their convictions and ideological leanings. Writers like Karl Marx evolved whole new forms of political ideals expressed as modern communism which impacted tremendously on history.

Writers for mass media are also able to hold government to account regarding their duties and responsibilities to the people they serve. And when government reneges on its promises to the citizenry, such writers are able to use their pens as tools for social correction and mobilisation to bring about social change and transformation.

Writers are communicators. The whole essence of communicating is to share meaning – meaning being the intended, expressed or signified message. People must understand what you’re saying to them through your writing. String your words and expressions in such ways that your readers get your intended meaning and not a supposed meaning. Therefore, you must embrace simplicity.

In all your getting, get the mastery of simplicity before attempting to venture into what could otherwise prove to be a slippery alliance with complexity. Write in clear, simple, easy-to-understand language that the mass of your readers can relate with and understand. Don’t try to sound or write like Wole Soyinka when you can sound and write like yourself to equal or even greater effect. You shouldn’t outdo yourself by getting ensnared in the fickle and futile temptation to impress. Your goal is to deliver your message in the clearest means possible.

Yes, the writer wears many hats, one of which is the hat of an educator and it is true that as your readers lose themselves in your narratives and ride on the wings of your burgeoning prowess to engage with new words and expressions, the dedicated learners in their ranks will be compelled to ascertain the meaning of said words to enrich their own mental lexicons. You must however, never sacrifice simplicity and clarity on the altar of complexity simply for the sake of sounding exotic and esoteric.

Keep Writing,

Your fellow traveller,

Bamidele Salako

(c) 2014

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