April 26, 2017 § 5 Comments
There’s a question I’m asked almost every time someone hears I’m a writer. “Where do you get your inspiration?” they ask, their faces beaming up at me, waiting to hear about this magical thing I do. And then I have to be the one to burst their bubble, rain on their parade and, as we say in South Africa, piss on their battery. Because the sad and sorry truth is that there is no magic.
Oh, how I wish that there were some magic potion I could sprinkle on my fingers moments before they hit the keyboard each day. I wish that somehow whole paragraphs could leap to life, fully formed on the page before me.
The truth, however, is far less glamorous. The truth is that writing is work – like any other work. The inspiration is the easy part, usually. The perspiration is another thing entirely.
Because you don’t just sit down and magically write something. You can’t write well if you can’t think well, or if you haven’t ruminated on what it is you’re going to write. So before you put a single word on the page, you have to have some kind of shape of what you’re about to write in your head – a road map of sorts. You need to know what you’re going to be covering, in some sort of rough order; how you plan to start and finish, and then you can start.
No matter how how good you are, you still have to write the way we all write: one word at a time, brick by brick, till you build your house. But when you’ve done that, you still only have the most basic structure – the outer walls and the roof. Now you begin the process of refining – moving the internal walls to improve the flow of the building, choosing finishes to create a certain aesthetic.
It takes time and effort and craft. It often requires that you research various topics as you go along, that you hunt for exactly the right word here or there. That you learn to be detached from the work itself, but remain very attached to the outcome you wish to achieve.
You have to walk in the reader’s shoes – experience the piece as they might – and ensure they will understand exactly what it is you are trying to say, feel what you want them to feel, leave with the right message ringing in their ears.
Sometimes you move a word here or there, or delete it completely, because somehow the rhythm isn’t quite right. You join two paragraphs here, divide that one there, or change a punctuation mark to create a bigger or smaller pause. Good writing ebbs and flows – it moves and shifts and doubles back on itself, pulling the reader by the hand along an unfamiliar path, requiring complete faith that the destination will be worth the journey.
And then once the house is more or less built, you go to the garden and weed. You take out anything extraneous, anything that distracts, detracts, diffracts. You want that house to stand out clearly against the sky, to be appreciated for its beauty, its function, its form. You want the reader to see the welcome mat, the open door, the warm fire and the mugs of hot cocoa inside.
And if there is in any magic to this process, it’s in that mythical stuff – bum glue – which must be religiously applied to your seat before you sit in it each day. Some days you’ll need more, some you’ll need less. Because if anything will turn you from “I want to be a writer” into “I am a writer”, it’s bum glue: sitting in that seat day in and day out.
Writing requires that you show up at the page – regularly, religiously, relentlessly – till the words are finally there, and the damn thing is written. Trust me. I’m a writer.
April 19, 2017 § 5 Comments
There’s been a bit of a drama in the South African media arena in the last week or so. In case you’ve not been keeping up (tsk) here’s a summary: someone deliberately wrote an opinion piece to prove a point, sent it to one publication, who rejected it, then sent it to the South African Huffington Post, who chose to publish it in their blogs section. It caused an outcry at first because it was deliberately controversial and poorly argued. But hey, it was driving traffic to their site.
However, the main outcry was because it turned out the writer was a figment of the hoaxsters’ imagination. The editor had written a piece that appeared to support the writer’s point of view, and then the publication hastily backtracked when an actual journalist sensed something was amiss, did some basic research, and blew the whole thing out of the water.
Confused yet? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. There are excellent analyses of various political, journalistic and other concerns here, here, here and here, which will explain it all much better than I could. And I’d suggest you read them in order.
The reaction to this has been quite startling. There have been calls for HuffPo’s editor, Verashni Pillay, to resign. I’m not sure that’s the solution; I’m still thinking about all of this. But there is one part of me that feels like this kind of event was almost inevitable in the media environment we now live in. And that’s the part that really interests me.
I’m old enough to remember a time when keeping up to date with the news meant that you actually had to pay something – the price of a newspaper or magazine, your TV licence or satellite TV subscription. That time has passed. It’s an information era now, they tell us, and everyone expects to have that information for free, on tap, 24/7/365 – with little or no thought to how that news arrives on the screen of whatever device you use to consume it.
When you’re not paying for the news, but expect it to be there, for free, whenever you want to consume it, I don’t need to point out what the problem is (I hope). And while advertising revenue traditionally provided the vast majority of a news organisation’s income, that revenue stream has become more and more difficult to capture. What this has meant is fewer journalists in the average newsroom, and often what’s termed as ‘juniorisation’ – a euphemism for getting rid of the older, more experienced journalists, who cost more, and replacing them with younger, and therefore cheaper, people.
So now you have a website for your news organisation with an insatiable need for more and more content – words, pictures and videos to fill it up. And you have fewer and fewer staff members to provide that content – staff members who firstly don’t always have the gravitas required to make difficult decisions and, selfishly, insist on going home to sleep from time to time, and see their families or friends once in a while. I mean, really!
But wait! You have a cunning plan! There are bloggers and other members of the public out there, many of whom are just dying to have their say. And they don’t mind being unpaid for their labours, because they quite like the idea of being published. In some cases, this is the only way they would ever be published, because of the mind-numbing dreck they churn out, not to put too fine a point upon it.
What you have, as a result is something that looks very much like a win-win situation. The newspaper can satisfy its content needs without handing over any cash, and the unpaid contributors get to have their say on a newspaper’s platform.
There is a positive side to this – in a sense, it democratises the media; opens it up to diverse voices and opinions. But as they say, opinions are like arseholes. Everybody has one – just because you have one, doesn’t make it worth knowing about.
In your traditional newsroom, you see, not everyone gets to have an opinion. The right to espouse an opinion is earned. It’s earned through years of experience and knowledge and research, by working a particular beat, by reading voraciously around particular subjects, and being exposed to people who are the best in their field.
And then, once you’ve been given right to publish your opinion, you are required to analyse thoughtfully, think critically and back up your opinion by referring to facts and evidence, those old-fashioned notions. Good writing and language skills are generally required as well.
Alternatively, you are an expert of some sort who writes an op-ed for the newspaper: again, because you have some expertise in an area. You might submit the op-ed, in which case your bona fides will be checked out (patently not what happened in the case of the HuffPo piece), or you might be asked to submit one, because your bona fides are well-known. And not everyone will agree with your opinion, but it will be published anyway, because that’s how adults behave. And there was quality control – it went through several stages before it was loosed upon an unsuspecting public if it was controversial.
Today, however, it’s too easy to scan something, think you have the measure of it, and post it – because you know it will be controversial and probably go viral. It’s too easy to accept whatever drivel comes your way in your pursuit of that catch-all: ‘content’. It’s too easy to think of unsolicited submissions to your publication as ‘citizen journalism’, which is a positive development when it actually is citizen journalism; not so much when it’s a vomiting of vitriol. Because, hey. It’s going to drive the clicks, add content to your website and besides, it’s not going to cost you anything!
Well, it may not cost rands and sense, but it may cost you your reputation. In the case of the HuffPo, many are calling for the editor to lose her job – that’s quite a cost for her. And in a media environment where the advertising pie isn’t big to start off with, it may cost you a great deal of advertising revenue.
Mess up badly, and the advertising revenue could dry up all together – advertisers are very skittish creatures. Think I’m exaggerating? A big food company once threatened to withdraw all its advertising from a local media conglomerate some years back just because a journalist had criticised its new packaging, for example. No, really. They threw a major commercial tantrum, and the conglomerate nearly lost massive amounts of money. (I can’t find a link, but this kind of thing happens all the time.)
And what it all boils down to, is that old Afrikaans saying, goedkoop is duurkoop (loosely translated, buying cheaply often ends up more expensive in the end). If you want a quality product in a factory, you need quality workers and quality machinery. The same applies to newsrooms. You also need people to buy your product – the same applies to news. It’s a product, and you should be paying for it.
Remember that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you pay nothing, monkeys start to look like members of MENSA by comparison.
People complain about paywalls and subscriptions, but in a world of fake news, outright lying, shoddy reporting and the fairly recent formation of dedicated fact checking agencies (does it not blow your mind that we need to have these?) we should be looking for reputable news organisations – yes, they do exist – and paying for quality, not quantity. And those newsrooms should be paying for the content they put on their pages – because when you’re paying for something you are far more likely to ensure you’re buying something of value, not so? And in the long run – in the greater scheme of things – surely advertisers are far more likely to stick around for quality over tacky quantity?
I know journalism isn’t exactly in its heyday at the moment. But I also know that it’s bloody hard to be a journalist at the moment. And that many colleagues in news are burned out by the impossible demands placed on them – produce more and more with less and less, blood from a stone. But you can’t expect quality anything for free. Somewhere, something’s got to give.
I bumped into an old colleague in the supermarket the other day. She’s 50, she’s a seasoned, superb journalist and political analyst and she’s just been retrenched. And after we’d caught up a little she remarked of her retrenchment, “There’s no room for analysis in newspapers anymore.”
And that was one of the saddest things I had ever heard.
March 15, 2017 § 3 Comments
On a whim I took down the polka-dotted box labelled “Memories”. I knew there were some photos of Gavin Andrews and Mark Irvine, blonde, blue-eyed boys I loved with innocent passion at nine and eleven respectively. I remembered the adolescent love letters, folded in complicated shapes, from a boy I kissed on a long train trip, probably for no reason other than it was something to do.
At the bottom of the box I found a number of magazines dedicated to Princess Diana at the time of her death, and oddly, my French notes from university. But the rest was mostly letters and cards.
As much as I spend my days tapping at a keyboard, I love a handwritten note. The noticeboard above my desk has cards and letters pinned to it – words of love, thanks and appreciation that warm me when I’m feeling low. In my bedside table there’s a letter that makes me smile, and two that make me cry. Letters fall out of books sometimes, bookmarking my memories in their papery folds.
In the box there were letters from my mom, my dad, my grandmother, the handwriting firm and sure. They took me by surprise. Remembrance caught at my throat, pricked in the corners of my eys. Five or six birthday cards reminded me of the short poems my dad wrote each year for our birthday – some wise, some witty, some downright silly. Postcards and telegrams carried birthday greetings and congratulations. Bundles of cards, in groups, marked achievement or occasion: deputy head girl, happy 21st, deepest sympathy. Not all occasions are happy.
But I love that each of those notes has something of the person left behind on the paper, in blue and black ink, the whorls and turns of looping letters as individual as the writer. I love that I can tell by the handwriting – and sometimes the misspelling – who the letter is from.
I still write letters from time to time, by hand, frustrated at my scrawl wrought by too many years of frantic note-taking and at the ease with which my hand tires. I have no idea if the recipients – my children, my friends, the people I love fiercely – will read and reread as I do, carefully folding those notes back along their original creases, or if they’ll simply read the words and discard the letter.
But I hope that we never forget how to write each other notes – for important occasions, or for no reason at all, other than to connect in a very personal way. A handwritten note doesn’t have to be fancy, or well-structured or eloquent. There’s no right or wrong way to write one.
In my box there’s a letter from my dad, in pencil, pleading with teenage me over the space of four pages, to pull myself together and be more organised at school. And there’s an unsigned scrap of foolscap, torn from an exercise book, in childish blue ink, consisting of just four words.
But really, they both say the same thing: I love you.
March 8, 2017 § 8 Comments
It might seem strange that I’m writing about men on International Women’s Day, but I just saw another of those ‘men are trash’ tweets, and I wanted to weigh in.
There’s a prevailing ideology on social media in particular, that men are appalling human beings. Look, I concede it’s still very much a man’s world, and they haven’t done a stellar job of running it on the whole, but this sweeping generalisation that men are trash and women, somehow, are superior to them in every way, is starting to get up my nose.
At this point, some of you will be poised to call me a men’s rights advocate, or wait for me to hashtag the post #notallmen. Go right ahead. I’m saying this anyway. It isn’t all men. You’re just hanging around some crappy ones.
I’ve spent two or three years going through a very difficult time, and my girlfriends have been supportive and kind and helpful. And guess what? So have my male friends. They’ve looked out for me in a myriad different ways, helped with this or that, and sometimes just dropped me a line to see how I’m doing.
They are good men, all of them. They’re great husbands, boyfriends, brothers, uncles, fathers and friends – and it’s just who they are.
By the same token, all of those things women accuse men of on social media, are also perpetrated by women. We are no better than men. It’s true we don’t sexually assault men they way they rape women. And I’m not trying to minimise that in anyway – let me be very clear here. But again, it’s not all men. And I’ve know women who are hugely abusive, who cheat, who lie and steal and treat the men in their lives like shit. We are far from being paragons of virtue, if you’re going to start generalising honestly.
Because the bottom line is this – we’re all just human beings. And some of us are good people, on balance, and some of us aren’t. So if you’re constantly being disappointed or mistreated by men, I’d suggest that, perhaps, you just need to leave those humans behind and find some better humans to hang out with, regardless of gender.
And a final point – when you’re spouting your ‘All men are trash’ nonsense, it’s as sexist as ‘all women are stupid’. That’s not feminism, it’s misandry.
February 27, 2017 § 3 Comments
The trouble with eating milk tart made by one Lettie Stevens, is that you are ruined for life. No wobbly, cornflour infested, namby-pamby sweet pastry concoction – even from the local tuisnywerheid – stands a chance. It has to be Lettie’s milk tart or nothing.
Lettie, my grandmother, baked the kind of milk tart you’d change an RSVP for – the most objectionable company or gathering could be tolerated for a slice or two with a cup of coffee: proper moerkoffie, hot and milky and sweet.
Her tarts began with puff pastry, which she made herself. I remember marathon sessions grating butter into slabs of cold pastry, folding them this way and that, her fingers deft and slick. Puff pastry’s savoury flavour provides the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the filling, the crisp layers complementing its milky smoothness.
Next, the pastry was rolled out, blind baked in enamel pie plates, and piled into tall cake tins, ready to be called into service at any time. And the tarts were so in demand, before you knew it, it was pastry making time again.
There was none of the wobbliness you find in today’s milk tarts. My granny used flour in hers, not cornflour, which gives it a different mouthfeel, and a dollop of oomph and grit that perfectly represents an Afrikaner woman of a certain era.
And it’s the milkiness that makes milk tart so distinct from its relatives – English custard tart or Portuguese pastéis de nata. Here the egg doesn’t take centre stage; it’s all about the comfort of sweetened warm milk when you can’t sleep, or the scent of cinnamon warming the air on a wintry day. Which is why it’s at its very best at room temperature or slightly warm.
My grandmother left me her handwritten recipe books, still among my greatest treasures, so when I heard today was National Milk Tart Day, I had to whip up a crustless version for dessert – in honour both of the day, and the woman I miss so much: a five-foot-nothing dynamo of wisdom and sass, of discipline and old-fashioned common sense, the toughest will, and the softest cheeks.
It’s been years since she died, but the sight of that handwriting still brings both a smile and a tear to my face. Tonight my kitchen smells of cinnamon and milk, and I’m warmed by the comfort of a childhood made sweeter by her capable hands.
February 22, 2017 § 6 Comments
I remember that it was turquoise – a small, turquoise, rectangular box that epitomised glamour for me. It lived behind the rows of brown envelopes where my mother kept the cash she had allocated to various items for the month’s budget, each envelope meticulously labelled: chemist, groceries, bus fare, school fees…
The tiny box only came out on special occasions, containing as it did my mother’s mascara. This was not the tube and wand affair of today’s mascara, however. One compartment held a black substance that required a drop of water to be activated, the other a miniature brush, like a fairy toothbrush, for applying the moistened mascara.
My mother’s idea of everyday make-up was minimalist. Most days, a slick of lipstick was all she wore. But on nights when she and my father were going out, out came the mascara box. And I, just four or five years old, in my nightie and fluffy pink slippers, hung around in the doorway to their bedroom, enthralled by her preparations.
My father wore a suit, always; my mothera long, brightly patterned dress, marcasite at her throat and ears, a dab of Chanel at her wrists. One blue curler provided just the right amount of lift for a section of her short, dark hair, and she dab-dab-dabbed at her eyelashes with that teeny tiny toothbrush. And then they would leave in a cloud of perfume and cologne, while I sat in Granny Bridger, the babysitter’s lap, for one last story before bed.
Today, going out is a much more casual affair. Go to the theatre, and you’ll find people in shorts, jeans, even slip slops. Some restaurants only permit long trousers and closed shoes, but you can wear a good pair of jeans. It’s a far cry from the formality of dress codes gone by.
Even the workplace is a lot more casual. As a freelance writer, I most often resort to a uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, but it’s not just me – many offices I visit seem to have a similar dress code. And while I love the comfort of casual clothes, sometimes I miss dressing up.
I know performers and chefs can do their jobs just as well regardless of what we wear, but there was something respectful about putting on something special for a special night out; a sense that this was a treat, a small celebration in the midst of an otherwise mundane life. And I think, in some small way, you behave differently when you’re well-dressed. There’s a sense of decorum that prevails.
I know those distressed jeans and T-shirt are more comfortable, but I wonder sometimes if we haven’t become a bit too comfortable in life as in our theatres and restaurants. I wonder if we couldn’t do with a bit more decorum, a bit more discomfort, a bit more of a sense of occasion.
Maybe one day the pendulum will swing back to a more respectful, more genteel, more gracious way of navigating the world. In the meantime, I’m putting my mascara on, just in case.
January 29, 2017 § 2 Comments
I spent today in a pleasurable haze of writing and baking, the smells of cinnamon and vanilla wafting through the house like a prayer as my fingers rapped out an irregular rhythm, making words, painting sentences, telling stories.
I love the alchemy of baking. I love that you take the simplest of ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, eggs – and create something that is at first unprepossessing, but later transforms into something new with the simple addition of heat. I love the warmth it adds to the air, the slow motion rising and reshaping, like a live time-lapse video behind the oven’s glass screen.
And there are many similarities between baking and writing, even if the ingredients and tools are not the same.
Of all the culinary arts, baking is the most precise. Too much butter and your cake will be limp; too much flour and it will be dry and dull. Add moisture to the raising agent too soon, and the bubbles meant to lift the batter into mouthwatering softness will evaporate into thin air before they can do their work.
Just as the baker mixes together the right quantity of this and that, the writer must take those most ordinary building blocks of communication – words – and meld them together in just the right combination, just the right order. The baker stirs to combine. The writer combines to stir.
Neither will be rushed. Of course you can speed up how quickly you measure and mix both the batter and your words, but you run the risk of disturbing their balance. There’s a delicate chemistry and process to both, which must be honoured.
And it’s so important to get the temperature right. Too hot and your cookies burn; too cold and they’re doughy and raw. So it is with writing: too much rewriting and your words are brittle and scorched; too little, and they’re turgid and pale. Somewhere in the middle, you learn to leave them alone, to let them find their own rhythm across the page – sauntering here, marching there, meandering sometimes, or coming to a brisk stop.
In baking and in writing, you also learn that sometimes you just don’t get it right. Sometimes it flops despite your best efforts, and you simply scrape it all into the bin and try again. Because you still have your building blocks – flour, butter, eggs, words. You will measure them all again, combine them in the right order, and produce something better next time.
Most of all, you learn that what you produce will never be perfect. One biscuit will be slightly bigger than another; that chocolate cake always rises slightly more on one side; this vanilla flan tends to sink in the middle. And every time you read what you’ve written, you’ll see a new, better way you could have expressed this or that.
But ultimately as long as the eater – or the reader – enjoys what you’ve produced, those tiny imperfections become completely unimportant.
* The topic for this post was suggested by Gus Silber, a friend, colleague and devoted fan of cinnamon buns, who would be a master baker if he baked half as well as he writes.