Writers write

April 24, 2013 § 7 Comments

I’ve just been reading a heart-wrenching essay by someone on how she battles with writing. She’s someone who’s moved from an academic role to a communications role, where she’s expected to produce various documents in English – which is her third language – and not unexpectedly, she finds it something of a struggle.

I’m in awe – if I had to produce corporate documents in Xhosa, my third language, I would check myself into the loony bin. That’s a tall order. And yet, her writing isn’t nearly as bad as she thinks it is. Yes, it requires some work, but then most of us could use some help.

Now, I don’t claim to be the perfect writer – there’s no such thing – nor do I claim to know everything there is about writing. But having spent the better part of 20 years writing on an almost daily basis, I do know this:

1. Writing is seldom easy. It really is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Really good writing is to be found in rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. And still more rewriting. And if it’s still not the way you want it, rewrite again.

2. Most of the battle is just starting. We allow our inner critic to shout too loudly sometimes – so loudly that we can’t even start for fear of failure and awfulness and not being good enough. But as my writing teacher, Jo-Anne Richards, likes to remind people, that’s why you have a backspace and delete key on your computer (or if you’re old-school, an eraser). So what if you make mistakes or do it badly? You can always rewrite it. And it’s much more difficult to write perfectly the first time than it is to fix something that’s bad. At least if you begin, you have something to work with, a starting point.

3. The more you do it, the easier the nuts and bolts – the actual mechanics of writing – become. I’m talking about the way you use language. The more you write and rewrite the more you will learn to pare things back to their simplest, most elegant form, and to express yourself in your own, unique way. But you have to just get in there and do it. And keep doing it – it will come.

So, if you’ve been wanting to try your hand at writing, my advice is simply this – start. Pick up a pen or open a document on your computer, and write something. It might be wonderful; it might be terrible. But it’s a start. And every writer has to start somewhere.


My dirty little secret

April 17, 2013 Comments Off on My dirty little secret

Okay, so there’s something you should know about me. My dirty little secret. I’m a huge fan of Pitbull.

No, not the dog that gets itself into trouble for eating people from time to time – the rapper. Armando Christian Pérez is his real name, but Pitbull is what you call him, yo, and he pops up on all kinds of people’s songs (and a lot of his own), with a trademark throaty chuckle that has me immediately cranking up the volume on my car radio.

I’m not the typical Pitbull fan, it has to be said. I’m a fortysomething mother from the burbs, with a good Calvinistic upbringing and I love to listen to Paul Simon and Billy Joel and, dare I say it, country music. Pitbull is something of a departure for me, musically. The most gangsta thing I do is run the dishwasher without refilling the rinse aid and salt when they run out – sometimes for more than a week. Yes. I’m that hardcore.

So it was with a little blush that I wrote “Pitbull CD” on my birthday list last year, wondering if my family would take me seriously. They did, to my delight, and I happily unwrapped Rebelution and popped it into the car CD player as I drove my then 10- and 12-year-old daughters off to school.

Big mistake. Six words into the first song, it felt like we’d heard ‘motherfucker’ at least four times. I hastily switched it off and decided I’d listen to it later: the underpinning philosophy of my parenting style is “do as as I say, not as I do”, and I am trying to raise polite daughters (in the hope of succeeding where my parents clearly failed with me). But once I’d dropped them off, Pitbull and all his mofos blasted me joyfully all the way to work.

I’ve tried to understand what I love so much, and I think it’s the Latin American rhythm. Cuba is on my bucket list of places to visit, solely for the music, and there’s something about the energy of Pitbull’s stuff that has me bopping along in the traffic. (I know, I know, it’s not a pretty image, but embarrassing my children is part of my job description.) I love the verbal agility of the lyrics: rapping is an art form that fascinates me as someone who loves words, and tries her hand at songwriting from time to time.

But actually, that explanation is a little disingenuous. It’s actually that voice, that slightly gravelly voice, and the chuckle. I have a crush on that voice. And when I hear the chuckle, I think, “Be still, my aching loins.”

So there you have it. My secret is out. If you see a frumpy, middle-aged woman with mad hair busting moves in her car in Johannesburg traffic, it’s probably me. I apologise in advance.

Writer’s block

April 10, 2013 § 5 Comments

In my line of work, writer’s block is seldom a problem. Or at any rate, it’s not a viable option. As a freelance journalist, I am commissioned to write a story, given the relevant brief, which includes the length and scope of an article, and off I go.

There’s a deadline, and it must be met – there’s no room for drama. You don’t get to hold the back of your hand to your forehead and cite “writer’s block” as an excuse.

As a result, I never thought it existed. Until, that is, I tried my hand at fiction. Yes, like every Tom, Dick and Mary out there, I decided to attempt writing a novel. And then, for the first time in a decade and a half of having to write daily, I understood what it meant not to be able to write.

Sure, I’ve sat staring at a blank page trying to find the right words for an introduction to a story, but that’s usually for ten minutes at the most. This was so bad that I would avoid even opening the file that held the novel for days, weeks, even months. Just the thought of working on it would have me tidying my desk and filing papers, even washing my hair – anything except writing the damn novel.

But actually, I’m still not sure actual writer’s block exists. Or at least, I think it’s badly named. For me, it feels more like “writer’s fear”. Fear of failure, fear that I’m useless at fiction, fear that what I’m writing is absolute crud and no-one in the world is ever going to read it, fear that people will think I’m writing about them, or me… the list is fairly long. And if I start thinking about all of those fears, they can be pretty paralysing.

And then I decided that I also needed to blog regularly – once a week – and designated Wednesday as blogging day. It’s amazing how quickly Wednesday comes around and suddenly I have to think of something to write again. And some weeks it comes very easily, but sometimes I struggle to come up with something to write about.

Tonight, after a plea for ideas on social media, the idea for his post came from Twitter friend Samantha Perry (@samanthaperry), a fellow journalist who says she struggles with writing a monthly editor’s letter. (And I can well imagine how difficult that is.)

Once she’d given me the idea, though, putting the actual blog post together wasn’t that hard – because it was a bit like getting a brief, I suppose.

But it occurs to me that it’s not dissimilar to the dilemma I face every evening when I have to cook dinner for the family. The cooking’s not the hard part – it’s deciding what to cook that is the problem. Have I cooked this recently? Will everyone eat it? Do I have the correct ingredients? If someone just told me what to cook every night, it would make the process much less stressful.

And those questions are similar to the ones I ask myself when I’m writing a piece that I have had to generate myself – whether it’s the blog, or the next chapter in my novel. Am I writing something that someone else has written about? Will everyone enjoy reading it? Do I really have something to say, and the right ingredients to keep people reading?

It’s a path laden with self-doubt for me, and self-doubt in general just happens to be my superpower. I am very, very good at it. So for me, it really is a case of writer’s fear, not writer’s block, even though the mechanics of writing – putting the actual words together – come very easily to me. The fear very easily overrides my ability to express myself through the written word.

And that’s why this quote by US writer Gene Fowler has always resonated with me: “Writing is easy – all you do is stare at a blank page until drops of blood form on your forehead.”


People and things

April 3, 2013 § 6 Comments

I have a long and enduring love of language, which is one of the reasons I studied sociolinguistics for many years. So I’m something of an armchair linguist. And I noticed something odd the other day, while helping my daughter with her Zulu homework.

She was studying for a Zulu test, and had to learn the Zulu nomenclature for each of South Africa’s 11 official languages, plus the speakers for each of those languages. It’s the equivalent of learning that the Danes speak Danish, or that Belgians speak Flemish, for example.

Now, bear with me while I give you a crash course in Zulu. Like many other languages in the Bantu family of African languages, Zulu works on a series of pairs of noun classes. Broadly speaking, nouns are grouped into these class pairs and the first class in the pair indicates the singular form of the noun, and the second class in the pair indicates the plural form. Sentences take their concord from those classes, and you know which class you’re looking at by looking at the noun’s prefix.

It sounds complicated, but the best thing to do is look at some examples (and I’ve highlighted the prefixes in bold). Since I’m more familiar with Xhosa, I’ll give you examples from there: umntwana = child, whereas abantwana = child. Or incwadi = a book, or iincwadi = books. Or isithuthuthu = a motorcycle whereas izithuthuthu = motorcycles. And so on. (I could not resist using isithuthuthu – it’s one of my favourite words!)

Languages take the isi- prefix. So, in Zulu, Xhosa is called isiXhosa, English is isiNgesi and so on. All 11 of our official languages take the isi- prefix.

And then I noticed a curious thing. When it came to the speakers of those languages, there was a slight anomaly. Normally, people fall into noun classes 1 and 2. So, if you look for teachers, parents, children, students, etc, you’ll find them in classes 1 and 2. And here, I noticed, all of the speakers of South Africa’s Bantu languages – Zulu, Sotho, Tswana and Xhosa, for example, fell into class one, with their plural in class 6. So, a Sotho speaker is umSuthu, or many Sotho speakers are amaSuthu for example. It’s the same for the nine official ‘African’ languages spoken in South Africa. And then you get to English and Afrikaans speakers.

Neither of them is in class 1 – and I think that’s telling. No, English and Afrikaans speakers are relegated to class 5 – the same class as many ‘things’ are found in, like the motorcycle mentioned above, with the plural in class 6. So the noun pairs are iBhunu/amaBhunu for Afrikaans speakers and iNgisi/amaNgisi for English speakers.

Maybe I’m over-reaching, but I think there’s something in that, and it pleases me. For me, it’s telling that the speakers of those languages (and historically  both the English and the Afrikaans were South Africa’s oppressors) were put in a noun class never meant for people. They are put at the same level as things.

I think the Zulu speakers of yore were perhaps unwittingly having a little dig at we whiteys by the way they named us in their language. Language has a funny way of revealing people’s world-views, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it – what do you think?

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