What does it really take to be a writer?

Notes from a meeting with Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

Yvonne Owuor doesn’t mince her words. She goes straight for the jugular, without preamble. She asks the hard questions, relentlessly, and demands answers. This is how you develop a sense of what’s missing from the stories you tell yourself about yourself, she argues.

Contend with the mystery

What is your worst fear? Your deepest insecurity? Go back to the most excruciating moments of your life to find that spring of feeling that wants to jut out on the page. Throw it all there, do not walk away. To write truthfully is to live on the edge.

This discomfort isn’t gratuitous: at the heart of writing an honest story is a constant state of uncertainty. We must be willing to contend with the mystery and the unease to be able to tell the stories as powerfully as they require.

To be truthful is to seek details, to go out of your way to catch the fleeting moment where your new girlfriend is dabbing her lips ever so slightly and you notice the layers of rouge, the contour, the gloss, now a little smudged and you keep that image in your mind like a treasure. You can tell from the way she keeps passing her tongue over her lower lip that she doesn’t often wear make up. You picture her carefully composing her look in front of the bathroom mirror. Maybe she went back at the last minute to apply a discrete layer of gloss.

You wonder why she bothered, why today, and the train of thought goes on at the back of your mind. It won’t leave you alone until you’ve written it down. Even then, it’s just the beginning. All you have is a shitty first draft.

There is no turning back

As Yvonne puts it, deciding to write is like opening a little door to the unknown. The moment you step in, it closes behind you and you have no choice but to go on. It’s a struggle with yourself, to wring out the finest observations and the most authentic way of telling a story but in the end, if you care enough about books, there is no other struggle worth having.

It may be ‘just a story’. But a good story leaps beyond the borders of its original intent. It speaks to other humans about their own experiences, their ancestry, the tentacles of their suffering. For this to happen, the story needs to come from real feelings.

Yvonne told us of migrant birds flying across the world to find the parents they had never seen, she told us of maps embedded in poetry that the sailors of the East African coast chant on their dhows. She spoke of the maritime imagination she was seeking to rediscover.

She inspired us to create new senses to grasp what lies beyond our common perception. Every writer needs finely-tuned antenna to understand the world in ways we have weeded out of our imagination over the years.

Strip yourself naked

Learning where to look and how to look is the greatest education there is. It is a lifelong gift but also a demanding master that will destroy your sense of security in the world, your carefully curated identity. In exchange, it will light a path of wonder.

Why are you here, what do you want? Yvonne asked. And we yielded, each Amplify fellow dropping their pretense. We exposed ourselves so we could learn. But the questions don’t stop there. You have to pick up every statement like a pebble on the beach and consider it with care. Place it in the palm of your hand, notice the cracks under the polished surface, call yourself out on your own bullshit so you can grow.

To write is first to research, to question, to seek, to observe the movements of your own mind, to look at others with piercing eyes, to see them with senses you never learnt to hone before. And to take note of it all, constantly.

Cover picture by Internaz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.