8 infinite lessons in being a writer

My past semester of Writing and Editing was entitled Writing for you life – and man oh man does that say it all. I have been writing for my life through this crucial crux semester, the whole culminating year of my undergrad studies, and through my entire education experience. 2014 has marked the end of a five-year long marathon in completing my undergraduate degree – I want to weep. Hands down this has been my toughest tertiary year – and considering I dropped out from Wits University last year, that is saying something. Studying Journalism and Media Studies III: Writing and Editing has been a full-circle experience for me – and like a O I am left feeling simultaneously whole and empty. It has been a multidimensional completion and considered lesson on the continuous quest of who I am as a writer, and consequently who I am holding the pen.

I’m my own unique snowflake and all that feel-good crap, but I am well aware that I am also a pain-in-the-ass drama-queen (and have a sailors’ mouth) and like my writing, I am long winded, lush with love (and lunacy), sentimental, searching and occasionally something presentable enough that you might consider taking home to your parents. My first assignment of the semester sent me into a splendid swan dive straight into self-absorption; asking us why we wrote, who we were as writers. I finally felt I managed to polish this effusive lament when I honed in on my lecturer, Gill’s, advice: “discover something about yourself, then share that discovery.”

Lesson 1 – Be fearless

After completing my first year towards a BJourn at Rhodes, I had to get out of this town I grew up in. Like a moth drawn to a flame, I headed straight for the city lights of Johannesburg and pursued Film and Television at the University of the Witwatersrand. To put it mildly, shit hit the fan in my third year. My dear friend and brotha Dwayne (22) died due to a motorbike accident, I dropped out of university, my lengthy relationship ended, and with no other option I returned back home to Grahamstown with my rose-tinted glasses shattered on my face. I was defeated: angry and devastated, I felt failed by Life and a failure myself. More fucking failure and fear. I was not fearless, I was scared shitless. Another failure. @#$%!!!

Lesson 2 – Be brave

Fearless I was not, but being brave, now that I could do. The only course option that would fit with my credits was Journalism, and the course was full. I walked in for the deciding meeting with my heart racing in my mouth. “I feel like I have a date with destiny,” I stammered to the professors. When I began this years’ Writing and Editing course, I don’t think I anticipated quite how it would challenge me, or how confused I would be trying to operate on a new system. I knew from first year that journalism wasn’t quite what I was cut out for – but I could be a writer! I had always wanted to be a writer! How compellingly glamorous, how wonderful to work and weave words – ah!

Skip to the end of the year – sitting in socks with a bird’s nest ruffled on my head, my skin oozing pungent stress into the stifling air, a caffeine drip by my side and overflowing ashtray, and my face awash with “snot en trane” as I gurgle and gulp and break down at a blank computer screen. Oh yes – this is really attractive, definitely no one going to question this blubbers sanity. At least that is what that infernal voice tells me. Who IS that guy, damnit?! Every time I think I have it, that voice pops up with the insistence of a mosquito until my head is ready to explode.

Freeze! Hands up right now and back away from the keyboard… slowly!

Lesson 3 – Be braver

I have always been a proud member and believer in the University of Life and its sister School of Hard Knocks – but this year my academic University life came to be the melting pot for my toughest challenges and necessary lessons. My studies of Classical Civilisations, English and Journalism have lead me to extraordinary texts. Classics introduced me to the ancient sacred script of the Mahabharata (an epic poem and commentary on the Dharmic workings the Universe – the Indian sacred guide to being), Hesiod’s iconic Works and Days was an encapsulation of the classic Greek understandings and explanations for life, then of course the usual gay sex, incest, orgies, matricide, fratricide, eating of children, bloodshed and warfare – all in a Greek tragedy (or comedy, depending on the amount of wine and singing).

English had me finally suffer through all 514 pages of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (just a tad effusive – you know he was paid by the word, right?), and hurled me head first into an existential crisis at the beauty and brutality of Tony Morrison’s literary blessing on slavery, Beloved; then again as Jude the Obscure’s young son murders his siblings before killing himself (the last novel Hardy wrote which he said repulsed him to the medium for life); as Anne Sexton clung to sanity through writing and then killed herself; and again as I was left violated by witnessing the violence, rape and rawness of Once Were Warriors.

Lesson 4 – Wear ‘Wellies’ (you are going to get deep down and dirty)

Then came Journalism – ‘stories’ is what you write, but the rest is real. Hard news aside, we were required to take a course on coping with the trauma often involved in Journalism. Class consensus was that “Truth and Trauma” was trying to achieve this through desensitisation – bombarding us with testimonies from the TRC, accounts of apartheid brutality, and an assortment of the most graphic and disturbing films I have ever encountered. If desensitisation was the goal, I completely missed the point, and left it feeling oversensitive if anything. Be braver. The course ripped through some tough topics and scars of mine, which I thought had healed. But healing and atrophy might as well be opposites.

My beat category was education, and drawing from our training with PSAM (Public Service Accountability Monitoring), we focussed on investigating the state of infrastructure in local schools and comparing it to government standards. This proved to be a double-fold dilemma – not only because of the shocking conditions of many of the schools, but because of how well they compare in terms of the governmental requirements. Our findings of the Eastern Cape education system can be summarised in a maths problem: 1 + 1 = – p. Investigating libraries showed a similar result – our local township libraries were standing with half their shelves full of out-dated books, and the other half empty. I could not write about it – that felt like doing worse than nothing – I needed to do something. My beat solidified the knowledge in me that I want to be a teacher – though my childhood self is disappointed I am not the journalist she thought I would grow up to be, she is glad that I have found a career where I can see potential for me to effect change and contribute to making a difference. Working in the education beat has thus been deeply stirring – the shocking experience churned complex emotions while feeling unable to create the change that is so desperately needed. Investigating the schools paralysed my words, yet kick-started my brain to create a competition to get more books into our libraries, investigate celebrated teachers and how to have what I needed – a more hands on impact, not just my rambling on the topic.

Lesson 5 – Be both murderer and mother

A random meeting of my beat group where our usual supervisors weren’t present turned into excited chaos that sparked some incredible conversations and articles. We five girls yammering about our matric dance to Rod for two hours got all our creative juices churning. If there is one way to see if or how you have processed an experience – try and write about it. Within minutes you are back in that memory, and you either see it differently or you see it the same. Be caring and be critical. Then you realise both scenarios are actually in your mind – no matter what we experience, our lives are the fodder of our creative souls. By destroying the memory, you create a new one. By facing your fear, you grow stronger.

Texts as old as time, novels ancient and modern, films foreign and futuristic, newspaper articles, academic articles, essays essays essays – old and new were saying the same thing – nothing is new so there is nothing to fear, but the only constant is change. The fact that we think there is any other hope than going with the current is the only insanity. All rivers lead to the sea – we end up endless and everything. This course has shown me creative destruction. I have created pieces, murdered them mercilessly, fought for every baby and darling that I refused to kill, and through focussing so completely on the death of the old, I have created and grown anew. They say medicine is what keeps the mind distracted while the body heals itself – and I say a degree distracts the mind while the soul grows up.

Lesson 6 – I tell you lovingly, shut up and write

That being said, I would not alter the lessons and experience of this course at all. Two seemingly contradictory yet equally valuable realisations were the main product of this semester. Firstly, that I truly enjoy writing and want to continue to write. But secondly, that ‘being a journalist’ (as I understand it), is not for me. Journalism has provided the space to both induce and hold this confused state in balance. News writing, hard-news, ‘proper journalism’ does not appeal to me – I have needed to accept the reality about myself that just keeping up-to-date with what is happening in the world as a member of society and the human race can overwhelm me with despair. Despite little Eva’s big plans, I find journalism by its sheer nature to be something which exacerbates a sense of depression in me. Though this year is the end of my formal road in Journalism, I am still a reader, writer, and proud thinker.

Though I have decided to pursue English Honours and then teaching at Rhodes, Journalism has come with and encouraged the equally valuable realisation that I have a strong desire to continue to write in whatever form that may be. The task of working on our own blogs and establishing beat blogs has excited and awakened me to the possibilities afforded by the ever-increasing expansion of technology – whereas in fist year the concept of putting my life online was appalling to me, and having a Twitter account was something I refused to stoop to. In reality, having my ‘own space’ to express my thoughts, regardless of what others may think, has been a liberating (albeit a bit daunting) exercise that I feel has reawakened a passion for ‘journalism.’ This is a space I definitely intend to expand on in as many ways as my imagination allows – I am opinionated by nature and this is a continuous exercise in ‘saying-my-say’ but making a concerted effort to refine and structure an emotive response.

Lesson 7 – process the process of processing (or “you live you learn”)

This course has not been smooth sailing for me, but has impacted and transformed me beyond what I ever expected or anticipated. The hardest won and most memorable experiences tend to be – be tough and turbulent, but invaluable lessons in perseverance and surrendering to the raw and real process of learning, and learning to question relentlessly to the heart. I do not profess to have “found my [booming] voice,” but I am looking; each step of the way I am talking, reading, writing, learning, making mistakes, unlearning, questioning, crying, criticising, thinking, imagining, feeling, smiling, succeeding, changing, growing deeper and higher, truer and taller, tentative but trying – I am my voice, and it is breathing “Thank You.”

I feel I leave this year with a solid foundation – but roots cannot be seen, and a bud must bloom to be noticed. Ultimately, I don’t know if this change is visible to anyone else, but I have looked through the dark and mined the depths of myself through this process, grown into the dirt and muck and found myself rooted in rich and rocky soil, littered with ideas twinkling like hope.

Lesson 8 – tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth

Virginia Woolf had a point when she said, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” Writers are both explicitly told to and criticised for following the “write what you know” formula. But I have come to feel there is actually no such thing in writing – what works once might not work for you again, and if it does you might get board. Of course you can imagine things you haven’t experienced, but this is the essence I take away from this fragrant composition and (un) charted jungle of a year – authenticity is the smell that best becomes someone and cannot be washed away by blood, sweat or tears, only made more true.

Life-Death-Life: The phoenix from the flames.

Life-Death-Life: The phoenix from the flames.

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