My Dad recently gave me a quote: ‘all writing is vanity’ or something like that…. Writing a blog is the ultimate vanity. You can wax on about anything, unchallenged and from your exclusive perspective just like in a diary. To then press ‘publish’ and put your writing out there on the web is irresistible. The possibility of feedback in the form of comments is thrilling.
Many blogs I have read I suspect are written by aspiring authors. My dirty little secret is that at the moment I’m trying to be one of them and this week have been abandoning my homely duties and escaping to take part in a five day writers workshop (9.30am to 1.30pm) organised by an African publishing organisation called ‘Kwani?’, right here in Nairobi.
So far, for me, the week as a student has been playing out like a comedy. I arrived back in Nairobi with the family on Sunday night. Having paid for the course before I left for our England holiday but still vague on details I immediately fired up my computer to see where Monday’s literary festival would be held. Setting my alarm clock for what was 5.30am in English time (but an unimpressive 7.30 here) I shot out to the supermarket to buy bread, milk, eggs etc. and fill the fridge then pulled a carefully thought out cooked bolognaise from the freezer for the kids lunch, leaving various instructions for the unwaveringly patient Florence regarding cooking, unpacking, state of the still sleeping children etc.
When I left home I knew that I was going to be late. What I didn’t know was that I was a half hour late before I had even started because the Literary Festival itinerary had at some point been changed unbeknown to me. I was excited as the ‘Advanced Fiction’ workshop I had signed up for required a ten page manuscript to be sent in ahead of time. I had spent weeks perfecting my ‘chapter 1’ of my upcoming novel of which I hope to sell film rights and become a millionaire. Monday’s venue was some nightclub in Nairobi’s town centre. Unfortunately the entrance gate was positioned along the side of the veranda where chairs and tables were laid out for writing students in cosy groups. I willed my husband’s shiny Landrover to look less conspicuous and sound less chugging. Everybody was seated and already deep in debate. As I suspected, there were no familiar faces.
I rushed in, newly bought Nakumatt note pad and biro in hand, to ‘register’. ‘I’m doing fiction,’ I said, ‘That table over there’ whispered the helpful organiser. Fortunately a few others were arriving late in dribs and drabs. In total there were about seventy divided into tables of twenty-ish. After we had finally introduced ourselves giving reasons for wanting to participate in the workshop, our group leader (and published author/expert), sombre faced and serious (quite possibly irritated by late comers like me) threw out a question. ‘Who can tell me what they think creative non fiction is exactly?’ Ever the ‘keen bean’ I was the first to shout out an answer, ‘It’s a story, with imagined characters, following a plot with a series of crises leading to a climax then finishing in a tie it all up ending or resolution!’ My neighbour turned to me and said: ‘I disagree, I think that ‘non fiction’ means giving accounts of events from real life?’ The penny dropped – what a prize ass I felt in front of my twenty fellow ‘creative non fiction’ students. ‘I’m so sorry, I think I’m on the wrong table. Where’s fiction?’ I asked. ‘Over there’ someone helpfully put in, but it wasn’t the tutor.
Much chair scraping later I joined another table and was asked to introduce myself again: ‘Um, housewife, non African, no job, blogger etc etc.’ After twenty minutes my heart sank when I saw a folded piece of A4 in the centre of the table that read: ‘Starting to write.’ This was not what I had signed up for either. We discussed things like writer’s discipline and the fact that none of us would ever make money from writing. It was useful, but it was still the wrong bloody workshop. I decided to stick it out until the tea break out of embarrassment, whilst in the knowledge that I was missing out on my own class. Break came at midday. I switched again.
This time I found my tutor and my class. This tutor asked me to introduce myself again and looked nonplussed at my answer. Within minutes I was struggling. We had to read out loud around the room from a text. Our genius style tutor with dreadlocks and African shirt kept slipping in and out of Swahili for the benefit of every single other student in the room. I followed it, but I struggled. We got late. ‘Anyone up for reconvening after lunch, maybe for 45 minutes?’ ‘Yes’ they all said. ‘I can’t’ I thought and scuttled off, skipping lunch too as it was already 3pm. Once again I was manhandling the huge car out of a tiny parking spot and back past my fellow students.
Today was a little better… and a little worse. This time I was not late – but I found, to my horror, that the others had been set homework during the afternoon session. I asked around and scribbled something that I hoped would do. Thankfully our tutor was late. We were supposed to describe a character, not by telling, but by describing him or her through their actions. We had to read out our work and everyone was required to make comments. We started all saying ‘lovely writing’ ‘I enjoyed it’, then our tutor said, ‘this is not some church meeting, you are here to learn something so give a proper critique!’ My hands shook for three hours in anticipation as I was one of the last to read. I said conspiratorially to a fellow student over mid morning coffee: ‘I’m dreading reading mine out!’ to which she replied, ‘Oh really? I can’t wait to do mine!’ Needless to say her piece was sheer brilliance and our super laid back tutor was moved to clap heartily and bang his fists on the table in appreciation. After class ran over time, once again I scuttled off back to the kids with feelings of guilt for leaving them all morning, but at least this time with proper instructions for homework.
This evening I rushed back to the venue for a billed talk by a Random House editor, a Zimbabwean lady now based in the UK, it was called ‘how to make a publishable material from your raw manuscript’. The Literary Festival organisers were excited to have got this lady – an absolute coup and invaluable advice for aspiring writers! I arrived at 8pm only to be told, ‘I’m so sorry, we changed the time to seven. We announced it over lunch. You’ve just missed it!’
My stress levels are on super high, as are my guilty, ‘terribly bad mother’ feelings but being a student again for a week and thinking in a ‘really straining to think’ kind of way is fantastic. Wish me luck!