When Writing Chooses You. Saaleha Idrees Bamjee on the inaugural Writivism Residency at Stellenbosch

When you choose writing as your art (or more accurately, when Writing chooses you as its medium) it comes with the flexibility to create in any context. Characters are birthed on coffee shop tables, worlds grow core outwards in quiet suburban rooms.

It is also, in its first drafts, the cheapest kind of art to produce, requiring only what the writer carries in her veins as pigment. What then is the thing that stills the singing blood? Where does the plaque that hardens the arteries of the artistic imperative come from?

You.

You are the writer who doesn’t write because you have to prioritise the essential economic and social matters of living. You are the writer who doesn’t write because you started watching one episode of Game of Thrones and can not account for the hours thereafter. There is also the matter of the sprite who squats in the head of a writer; a curious entity who is as bombastic as she is insecure. She slings between seasons of despair and delight, and you, the writer; stretched taut with glee at your perfect sentences in one breath, are in the next – self-doubtful and slackened, flung against the walls, your split skull oozing.

Oh. The Drama. Of It All.

Of course, an established writing discipline will do wonders to keep the mind on an even keel. There really is something to setting aside a portion of time every day and showing up to face the blank page. This is advice proffered by every writing manual worth reading and prolific authors will attest to its efficacy. The struggle is in establishing the ritual; carving out the time and girding your guts to confront the story.

In all of this, a writing residency is a bit like a kickstart programme to a healthier literary lifestyle. You are handed uninterrupted time (one month in the case of the Writivism residency), either fully or partially funded, to sit at a computer or in front of a notebook, and write. The sprite is happy because being awarded a residency is its own accolade. The writer is happy because the encumbrances of the everyday are displaced for a little while. There is nothing to distract from the business of blowing life into paper people. There is also the gentle nudge of accountability. By accepting the residency, you commit to producing work for either a seminar or some future publication. It’s a neat set-up for writing success.

When gifted this stack of time, you soon realise that it’s a good idea to have some kind of plan. If you’re a natural plotter, this chunking up of your day will come naturally to you. Perhaps you’ll find mornings are best apportioned to research and editing. Afternoons are prime for fresh writing. The evenings are for other people’s stories. However, you may just be more like me in the logistical sense; great at mapping out the to-dos, but easily done in by the doing.

And so I began each morning in the English department’s visitor’s office, with coffee from the hole-in-the-wall kiosk on the first floor (bought not for roast or origin but bitter practicality) and the best of intentions.

I opened Google Docs and stared stupidly at the manuscript in front of me. I’d decided to rework an experimental piece of writing into something brilliant and genre-defining. It stuttered before me. It would have been easier to start from scratch. It took me four days of changing tenses and viewpoints before I struck upon an idea. And even then, after my epiphany, I am a still a writer who plods. My characters gestate longer than elephants. I spent the better part of my mornings researching names and death rituals. I devoted a lot of time to thinking; about the story, its timelines (tricky things those), its potential themes, the voices I wanted to use. I also signed up for a Creative Writing MOOC, which proved to be a happy happenstance as it focused on cast and characterisation, the very things I’d been struggling with in this retelling. And I plodded. And I edited. And I researched. And it was slow work. I wish I was the kind of writer who is able to discharge readable chapters in a matter of hours. My writing pace is irritating, almost paralytic, but it is my process and I must be able to work within it if I am to produce anything at all.

A month was not enough to finish a manuscript. It was, however, all the time I needed to make a good start of it. I don’t regret the hours of thinking, tinkering and murky editing. It’s important to be able to cut open your work and stitch it back up without feeling queasy. And research is just as important as imagination. It’s the little details of how the body swells under water or how many pages are in a standard school exercise book that anchor fantasy to the everyday.

I returned from the residency with consolidated ideas and an assuredness I didn’t have before. For the first time in my writerly life, I could answer, “Ah, so you’re a writer. What do you write?” with a confident, “I am currently working on my first novel!”

By Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

The Writivism Residency for African writers is awarded to winners of one of the Writivism prizes for emerging African writers resident on the continent and is generously supported by the Miles Morland Foundation and Stellenbosch University.

Images from the residency.

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