Letters to my protege: seminal thoughts on the art of writing (6)

Dear Babatunde,

Number 6 hits close to home as I am at a loss for what to write. No structured lesson on style to give you today. I guess this is just one of those moments shaped by the grinding realities of the hustle for daily bread in our peculiar clime. But I believe that as I write on, and try to give expression to the incoherent ideas playing in my mind – it will happen! The writing will take over and my readings from the past week will have a say.

All through the day, I have struggled to find the words to share some lessons gleaned from my own long walk along Writer’s Boulevard. This is because it has been a very hectic week for me at work – so hectic, I doubt that I have managed 40hours sleep all week. No exaggeration. However, my unvoiced pledge to stay true to our weekly rendezvous made certain that my self-enforced insomnia was a welcome and palatable guest.

Ever since I committed to this weekly date of ours, it became my self-imposed burden of responsibility to deliver – always – on what I and I alone, consider a divine debt, a solemn promise and a sacred responsibility. Since you thought it needful, in your compelling desire to write, to confer upon me the very high office of midwife to your lofty literary ambitions, I also think it needful not to take this responsibility lightly. I hold it dearly with every sense of duty and obligation.

Accepting to be your mentor, being a studious protege to some amazing writers myself, was the easy part. The tough part – the hard work – lies in embracing the immense responsibility cloaked in this relationship we share and my role in it. It is convenient to hash a raft of rules on writing and to shove them down your throat every week, demanding with an air of pedantic pride, that you embrace the ineluctable exertions that precede the mastery of our craft, all the while, concealing my own crippling failure in oft-futile attempts at subjecting myself to the same rigours.

I say this because I find myself occasionally struggling with the same shortcomings you say you struggle with. I will not paint a picture of false perfection for you; it has in fact never been my attempt to. The things I write to you, I write to myself as well. You should derive encouragement from my failings as much as you do from my strengths and successes. You should however, never excuse your failings as I never, mine. The fire that will ignite your sustained yearning, discipline and devotion to writing and doing so successfully, cannot be feigned. I can only give you of what I have. I cannot promise to adorn you with royal robes when I myself am clothed in rags.

It was for this sole purpose of avoiding the ironical situation of being a blind guide of the blind that I, in spite of the exasperations of the past week, devoted no less than two to three hours of what would otherwise have been sleep time after work, to reading. The fear of falling miserably short of my own expectations, as well as of yours, provided sufficient drive. Truth be told, the experience was hardly palatable at times. It was in fact, a continent apart from easy; but when I recalled that you, as well as others who have voiced their admiration and anticipation for my letters, are lodged almost endlessly in this weekly waiting room where together, you yearn earnestly for my little contribution to your literary development, I exorcised sleep out of my eyes like a priest would, demons from a possessed human body, and I set about the work. I thought about the future I have always sought and instantly thought sleep an enemy of progress in that moment.

I live in a world of words. I relate with them everyday. Almost every moment of the day, I am attaching words and meanings to people, events, places, experiences et al. As opposed to gangsters, I roll with wordsters, kindred spirits who are fascinated by the power of words and language like I am and for whom the art of writing is a like passion.

At work, one of my wordsters, Dejino (you know how mafiosi names end with vowels and this is my wordster name for him), triggered (or was it added coal to my inner fire) me when he showed me a highlighted response by American crime fiction writer and essayist, James Ellroy, in a 2010 TIME interview in which the “L.A. Confidential” author was responding to questions from fans around the world. Stephen Seome Ntsoane from Pretoria, South Africa had asked, “Are people born good writers?” This was Ellroy’s brutal response: “No. You have to read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read and read. As you read, unconsciously you assimilate the rudiments of style and technique. And when it comes time for a person to begin to seriously write, they either have it, or they don’t.”

Blunt, frank and precise! I couldn’t agree more. The reason why I have gone through the pain of reliving the rigours of the past week in this letter is so you see – in perhaps the clearest and most practical of terms – that writing, as anything at all that you will excel in, will involve and require a lot of hard work and commitment. There will be sleepless nights spent reading…and writing. It won’t be easy but there’s no alternative path to it. There will never be time you see. You will always think you have to sleep or have to do some other legitimate thing. In the end, if you will make an accomplished writer, there would have to be sacrifices of legitimate needs to really get into the business of reading and writing. Look, I could give you the most assured suggestions and instructions on swimming but in the end, the only way to learn to swim would be to actually get into the water and swim.

I can give you a thousand and one rules and tips to it; in the end, you will have to pick up those books, sit down and read. You will read long, read hard and read wide and then write as much as well. In fact, he has no business writing who has not made a business of reading. It is as you read, read, read and read good works, like Ellroy rightly stated, that an appreciable and promising style is harvested. And I cannot even begin to show you the pertinency of the night season to this exercise. While the world is sleeping and dreaming, you are reading in the quiet, solitude and serenity that the period provides – carving your dreams into reality. Teju Cole alluded to this fact in his “Letters to a Young Writer” when he said, “…if you’re ready to stay up late at night to do the work” You will be required to explore the power of the night season my friend.

It was little wonder that American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow asserted, “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” It was he also who mused ever so delightfully, “The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books.” You must cultivate a love for books and a love for reading generally.

Meanwhile, you should read up more on James Ellroy. He’s one character who fascinates me as much as – and perhaps, more than – the characters in his crime fictions. He once wrote that he read at least two books a week growing up – even admitting to shoplifting books to satisfy his love for reading. Amazing! Today, he’s a globally acclaimed author with several of his books adapted to mega-buck spinning films and screenplays. One which I love and which I saw as a high school kid was the double-Oscar winning L.A. Confidential with eight Oscar nominations. Rising out of the ashes of depression, drug abuse and different lows, Ellroy continued and still continues to churn out classics that thrill our sensibilities.
His story, words and works should provide you with a more than sufficient dosage of inspiration.

As I retire my pen, I should share this with you. Journalist and New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, David Brooks, was one of those who really spoke to me in the past week through his article “Really Good Books.” It came in two parts. You’d do yourself a world of good by adding them to your checklist for the weekend. Kick me out of your life if you’re disappointed with them. In the two-part article, he gives us a peek into his bookshelf and we see some of the titles that have shaped the man over the years. He rounded off with a profound remark that helps put book-learning in proper perspective:

“I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.” A fact Longfellow attested to when he said, “A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.”

Yes, I have been angling for books and reading: while they are in themselves awesome and you must read, you and your work will be shaped into the finished article you envision by more than reading. Your relationships, your work, your observations, your interactions, your hobbies, and so forth, will have a big say. It’s a total package. Learn to pay attention. Please read David Brooks’ articles and never forget to…keep writing..

Your fellow traveller,

Bamidele Salako

(c) 2014

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