February 20, 2014 § 15 Comments
I’ve just seen the following tweet on my Twitter timeline, and I admit it irritated me a little. And it irritated me because it is all too familiar.
Somehow people still seem to misunderstand what it is that writers do, so I thought I’d explain a little, in the clearest possible terms.
Writing is our job. It’s what we do to make money. It’s how we send our children to school, put fuel in our cars, and buy clothes to wear. It is a skill that takes years to hone, and which you would not need us for if you could do it yourself.
I don’t know what you do, but imagine you arrived at work in the morning and you had landed your dream job, with the corner office, after years of working towards that goal. Maybe you’d had to do some other jobs along the way, but now, finally, you were doing what you’d always wanted to do, and knew you had the skills to do it. And then imagine that your boss said, “There’s just one catch: we can’t pay you a salary. But what we can do is send traffic to a website of your choice. Just think of the exposure!”
What do you think the chances are that you would grab that job with both hands? I thought so.
And yet, writers are asked to do this all the time. Exposure is the favourite carrot to dangle in front of our noses. But here’s the thing. If I offered to pay the school fees with exposure, I’d be laughed off the school campus. If I tried to pay for groceries at the supermarket with exposure, they’d call the men in white coats. Exposure just isn’t a valid currency anywhere in the world as far as I’m aware.
And writing isn’t some kind of fun hobby. Those of us who write for a living take it as seriously as you take your job. We read about grammar and spelling and punctuation, we read style guides. We keep office hours and then often write well into the evening too. Now and then there are things we can just sit down and churn out, but that’s because we’ve spent years practising. And even then we go back and rework, rephrase, rewrite until we are happy with what we have crafted. Why? Because we know the impact that changing one verb can make, that placing a comma in just the right place can make all the difference to the meaning of something.
Mostly, good writing is a slog. It requires dedication, an eye for details, a measure of ruthlessness and a dash of flair. And that’s on top of being able to construct grammatically correct, stylistically sound sentences that are clear, concise and impactful. And it takes the ability to continually self-assess and redo something as many times at it takes to get it right, not just written. It is an exercise in endurance.
So, when you ask us to write for nothing – and I’ve done it, so I know – we actually lose money. Because we could have been writing for someone who’s prepared to pay us for our work in the time it took to write something for you. That’s not a sensible business model, is it? This is our business. This is what we do. It’s how we earn a living.
It is actual work, and it does take a lot of effort. And all we ask, is to be remunerated in return. I don’t think that’s overly demanding – do you?
February 19, 2014 § 6 Comments
I am a compulsive singer. I am that annoying person who hums along to the movie theme. I burst into song at the slightest provocation; my brain makes lyric associations with almost anything people say. It’s got so bad that my children throw words at me as a challenge. Yesterday’s word was ‘yoghurt’ – I haven’t come up with a song for it yet.
Last night I was walking around the house screeching bits from Bohemian Rhapsody in my best imitation of Freddie Mercury’s falsetto; I took a walk around my neighbourhood in the afternoon and belted out some show tunes. Right now, I’m singing River Deep, Mountain High at my desk because someone posted a video of Ike and Tina Turner singing it on Twitter. I know. I’m certifiable.
My late mother told me I started singing at 18 months. One night, after she’d put me to bed, she heard a little voice coming from the darkness of my room. A familiar hymn we sang at church, horrendously mispronounced, but perfectly in tune, issued forth from tiny me. And thereafter, every night, after story time and kisses, I sang to myself quietly in the dark until I fell asleep. And I did that for years.
My waking hours, however, are a little more raucous. Sometimes I sing along to things, sometimes I sing harmonies. Sometimes I sing softly, sometimes loudly, which raises epic eyerolling from my kids and giggles from their friends. I have been known to sing harmonies with buskers I pass on the street, or reinvent lyrics of silliness on the spot. And even when I’m not singing out loud, I’m singing in my head. There is a constant melody – a personal playlist – always about my person. I just love to sing.
When I tell people I’m like this (just in case they haven’t noticed) often they shake their heads and say, sadly, “Oh, I can’t sing. If you heard me sing… I’m tone deaf. I sound too terrible.”
Well, here’s what I think. “So what? Why does it have to be about what it sounds like? It’s not a performance, it’s an activity. And if it makes you happy, then let rip – who cares if it’s slightly off-key or your voice sounds like Leonard Cohen with a razor blade lodged in his vocal chords? Were you planning to release an album or play at Madison Square Gardens? Of course you weren’t.
So forget about what you sound like. Just sing. Open your throat, open your heart and let it out, and bugger what anyone else thinks.
Go on. I dare you. Make a beautiful noise.
February 13, 2014 § 3 Comments
On Friday I received an email that no parent ever wants to receive – news that my daughter’s bus, on its way back from a school camp, had been stoned by angry youths. A window had been broken, the bus had reversed out of the situation, and they were coming home via a different route. No-one was hurt; everyone was safe.
I was bathed in a plethora of feelings: relief, separation anxiety, fear, sorrow. I cried for most of the almost two hours between hearing the news and finally hugging my child. But not once was I angry, as many others were.
Because while I don’t condone the rock-throwing, on some level I understand it. Those rocks, hurled through the air at a bunch of 11-year-old girls, are the symbol of people’s intense frustration with a government that is failing its people. And in so many ways, they are the most South African of metaphors.
Because those self-same rocks might be used to weigh down the tin roof of a shack in shantytowns all over South Africa tonight, by people who have nothing, people who have to scavenge signs and sheets of plastic and corrugated iron to fashion themselves a makeshift shelter they call home.
People use rocks as a form of protest because while apartheid might have been dismantled and removed from our legal framework, in a very real sense it still exists. And those rocks are really all people have to protest with. Too many South Africans don’t have economic power, they don’t have social power, they don’t have educational power. All they have, are those rocks. And so, I can understand why they throw them, even if I don’t condone the violence and wish my daughter hadn’t been caught in the crossfire.
No. If I feel any anger at all, it’s towards the cronyism and corruption I see from our ANC-led government. The lies, the empty promises, the self-aggrandisement, the first-class seats on the gravy train for a small handful of people. And then, the blind loyalty of so many to a once-great liberation movement, now a party, that seems to have lost its way entirely.
This is not the freedom so many lost their lives for, surely?