This blog post is based on a talk I recently gave to a small group of people from my local church. It was part of an event we run for those in their 20s and 30s. The event is based loosely on the TED Talks format. Each speaker seeks to challenge and encourage those listening to learn something new: a practical skill or some piece of knowledge. We believe that God is Lord over all Creation therefore he doesn’t look down on bike fixing, or gardening, or even writing. In fact, he cares about these things. The big aim of my talk was to encourage my listeners to begin to take the first steps towards writing publicly. I did this by sharing some of the lessons I’ve learnt from my five years of blogging.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in newspapers. My dad used to often buy the daily papers and I made a habit of reading them too. During my primary school years, between arriving back home from school and eating my lunch, I would go into the lounge, pick up the papers for that day and lie on the carpet reading. During those years, I also wrote to a few editors on matters of socio-economic justice. Yes, I was quite a geeky child but those were, and still are, some of the issues I deeply care about.
I started my first blog in 2010. It had a very general focus – my thoughts on random topics. I then created my current blog MasukuOnMyMind in 2012. It started out with a focus on the politics and economics of Southern African countries. In recent months, I’ve broadened it out a little to include thoughts and questions on culture, identity and religious faith. My blog posts tend to examine these themes through three lenses: my African heritage, my experience of living outside my home country – “in the diaspora” – and my Christian faith. Besides the blog, I also do occasional freelance work. In 2013, I spent six months writing for an online publication which I thoroughly enjoyed.
WHY I WRITE
Five years on from my first blog post, I’m just about able to articulate a response to one of the big philosophical questions I’ve been asking myself ever since: “Why do I write?” Or put another way: “Why should I write?” Coming up with an adequate response to this question has been of great importance to me because whatever my motivations for writing, they will determine whether or not I keep going.
When I consider why I write, I sense a strong moral obligation driving me. I want to change the world through different means, but chiefly through writing. So why do I write? I write to educate and inform; to question and challenge; most importantly, I write to humanise. But what about you? Why should you write?
Anne Lamott, author of ‘Bird by Bird’, a book on lessons in writing, says that we write “to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence; to make real or imagined events come alive.” She adds: “Good writing is about telling the truth.”
Sadly some people write to mislead (e.g. propaganda). But good writing, whatever form it takes, is about looking at the world and telling the truth.
So today, I want to encourage, even convince, you that writing and sharing your work publicly is a worthwhile endeavour. I simply mean starting a blog and writing on whatever topic you choose. You don’t need to have every question answered before you start. Think of yourself as an explorer – a “life explorer”. You’re observing what’s around you and you’re seeking honest answers to honest questions.
Life is both beautiful and ugly. Some of the most powerful blogs I’ve read are those that capture this strange tension. They ask deep, uncomfortable questions about us as humanity but they also show us the beauty of creation; the fact that we possess something of the Divine despite our brokenness. Writing and telling stories in this way is therefore a deeply human thing to do.
But you’re probably thinking: “I like the idea of putting my thoughts down on paper, but where do I begin?”
Well, let’s start with you (this is actually one of Lamott’s suggestions). You are an individual. You are unique in your own way with unique life experiences up to this point. Let that be your starting point.
In the next few days, try to begin by writing something brief about your childhood. Maybe a memory that’s stuck with you for years. Write as much as possible around that memory. Here are some examples: What do you remember about school? What was your favourite school lunch? Who were your childhood friends? What did you like about them? Did you go on school trips? Did your family take holidays? What about your brothers and sisters – what things did you fight over?
Doing this little exercise will hopefully help you start to get comfortable with the idea of writing. It will also help you to know yourself a bit better. Of course you know yourself to a large degree but you’ll begin to better understand how your life story to date has informed your prejudices, your worldview, etc.
As an example, my life story to date has included: living the first 15 years of my life in a different culture to this one; having four siblings; Sunday School; family holidays; extreme shyness as a child; hearing stories from my grandmothers and aunties; 3 years at boarding school; being a teacher’s pet throughout primary school; having a father who was a church minister for most of my childhood; university; marriage; interracial marriage; living by the sea, and more.
Consider what your list may include. Once you’ve done that, it’ll be important to work out your writing aims.
MOTIVATIONS FOR WRITING
Now with this, start small. There’s no point aiming to be the next C.S Lewis or some other Great by the end of your first blog post. It won’t happen! As you grow into it, your writing aims will become clearer and better defined. Still, having an aim right from the start will help you not to give up after the first day.
In an essay entitled “Why I Write”, George Orwell, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, gives a list of four possible motivations for writing. It’s not a definitive list; it might not include some motivations you’ve thought about. Here are the four possible motivations for writing, according to Orwell:
Sheer egoism – arrogant confidence; a desire to seem clever; the opposite of humility.
Aesthetic enthusiasm – a pleasure in words; an appreciation for good poetry, prose, rhythm.
Historical impulse – the desire to see things as they are; to find out the true facts and store them up for future generations.
Political purpose – Orwell’s using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense here; a desire to push the world in a certain direction; to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society that we should all strive for.
If you had to choose one of these four motivations, which would you pick? What would motivate you to pick up your pen or open your laptop and begin to write? My guess is that your motivations won’t sit neatly in just one category.
When I started writing publicly, points 2, 3 and 4 were my biggest motivations. The three lenses I mentioned earlier – my African heritage, my experience of living “in the diaspora” and my Christian faith – undergirded these motivations.
Once you’ve worked out what motivates you and you’ve finally started to write, I promise that you’ll face many battles with the beast called Perfectionism. It’s one of the biggest challenges for writers.
Perfectionism has been my biggest struggle. I tend to spot all the possible problems with a piece after I’ve submitted it. Sometimes it cripples me whilst I’m in the process of writing.
It’s okay to want to become a better writer but perfectionism is not that. Perfectionism is about control. I’m beginning to understand that I’ll always be dissatisfied with my work if I feel the need to control it. The desire to be in control fools many of us. It enslaves us. And if I’m a slave, then I’m definitely not in control! Oh the irony. Anne Lamott says something very helpful about perfectionism:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a sh***y first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it. Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”
Now you know to expect battles with Perfectionism. But you might be asking: “Will perfectionism be my only struggle? How else should I keep going?” Like most things in life, practise makes perfect, so keep practising. Short, regular pieces are the best for this. Here are a few more ideas of things you can do to keep going when the tough times come – whether fear, discouragement or writer’s block. In no particular order:
- Feed your mind with good stuff (like this nice salad). Read regularly. Read from a variety of genres. Doing that will help expand your vocabulary, show you different writing styles, give you the opportunity to critique someone else’s work and bring you enjoyment.
- Engage in good conversations. Find people who enjoy thinking and exploring questions about life. Do this over a meal or on a walk. Talk about life but also about writing and creativity. This will help you sharpen your ability to express yourself and give you new viewpoints to consider.
- Leave your work for sometime and enjoy other life pursuits. Explore the outdoors, do creative things unrelated to writing, watch films, see friends, etc. These things will keep you “topped up” and will most certainly give you material for when you next sit down to write.
- Get a mentor/friend to keep you accountable and to encourage you. Writing makes you vulnerable. You are bound to worry about other people’s opinions at some point – being misunderstood; letting others read your true thoughts on a particular topic, etc. You need somebody trustworthy to help keep you sane.
- Keep your language simple. When you write, keep it honest and unpretentious. Isn’t it ironic that the word unpretentious sounds so pretentious! I digress 😉 Your language must be real, accessible and alive; not cold and distant. Orwell wrote an interesting booklet called “Politics and The English Language” in 1947. It’s basically an insightful rant into the ways the practise of politics was changing the English language at the time. I’m always stunned by Orwell’s foresight; the booklet is scarily relevant for our present day. In it he writes: “A good writer will ask him/herself in every sentence: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”
- Be Yourself. Read other people’s work but develop your own style. Find your voice. This will come with time.
- Read your Bible. This might sound weird but as a writer, you are “examining the human condition” (Carl Bernstein). That can a bit depressing at times. As I said at the beginning, life is both beautiful and ugly. We know that’s true from our experiences, it’s impossible to deny. When we open the pages of the Bible, we find that it reflects that tension accurately. In fact, it gives us a reason for why the tension exists in the first place. It also gives us a wonderful solution found in what Jesus of Nazareth does at the Cross and three days later at the Resurrection. I’ve found that the Bible gives me perspective and hope. It helps me understand why things are the way they are even though it doesn’t give me answers to every question I have. Reading the Bible is invaluable not just for Christians but for non-Christians too.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne is a great hero of mine. He died at the age of 29 – very close, I suspect, to the average age here! He was a Scottish church minister who was born in Edinburgh in 1813. He took seriously the call to live life fully under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He was passionate about sharing the Bible’s message of salvation with people in this country and beyond. He also was a deeply Godly man who had a great impact on the church and Scotland.
M’Cheyne was a writer although he didn’t publish as many books as we’d maybe expect. We enjoy his writings today – his sermons, hymns, and personal letters. I’m thankful that he wrote. The fact that he did this, and preach passionately all before he was 29, challenges me greatly. M’Cheyne left an admirable legacy at quite a young age. What legacy will you leave? With God’s help, let us go out and live and write well.
All the photos in this blog post were taken by Sergiu Salcău.