The I In Writing
As the cliche goes, I remember the night like it was yesterday. It was the mid-2000s. I was standing outside the Johannesburg City Hall smoking a cigarette with a friend, Zee. I don’t know if he remembers the night but I do, although I don’t quite remember why we were there on a nondescript Joburg night, other than that there was a gala event of sorts to celebrate South Africa’s literati. I also remember that Professor Kgositsile Keorapetse was being named South Africa’s poet laureate. There was a time when I dabbled in the poetry world — well, dabbled isn’t quite it but my efforts often feel inadequate because on the occasions when they (whoever they are) talk of poetry, particularly in Joburg, my name does not come up too often.
For some reason, the legendary poet and writer, Don Mattera, came to stand with us, perhaps driven out by a space that acknowledged him by inviting him but not quite recognising his impact and influence as a poet and activist in this country. I did not know him too well and was not sure that he even knew who I was (who am I?) but he had interacted with Zee enough to proceed to school us. He talked about a tree. He talked about a tree as a metaphor for life. He talked about a tree as the root for poetry. He talked about how us young poets seemed to be so submerged in “I” that our poetry always feel short, creatively. As he talked, my poems rang through my head, all launched by “I” and “I” served as my raison d’être. I tried to silently and mentally write a poem about a thought, a belief, a feeling, a concern that did not stem from “I” but failed miserably. Fortunately, because the words were not being spoken out loud, my failure was not laid bare for him to see. Yet, it was.
Steve Biko said, “I write what I like.”
I can, and could, not use that as an excuse. Papa Don talked and we listened, without argument. Without explanation. Without excuse. We did not retort with theories of how our time needed us to voice the views of self as a voice for others because he has done that for years. With a tree as a metaphor for life, or joy, or pain, or thought, or feeling. He was talking craft and creativity and voice.
I always remember that night when I write, not just poetry, which I have not scribbled in some years, retiring from a space that others say I cannot retire from. People seem to take serious offense when you unlabel yourself ‘poet’. My argument — at least I have one here — is that, one night, after many nights of climbing on stages to share poems, I decided to label myself ‘poet’ and so, if I could call myself one, could I not also decide when I am not one.
Writing for self seems to breed a narcissistic view to writing. At least for me. About three years ago, I used to edit a magazine. I edit one now but that’s not the point. When I edited that particular magazine — Destiny Man — before I edited this one — Afropolitan — I used to get emails from writers who wanted to contribute to the magazine, usually in the form of columns. One particular day, a young man from Soweto, whose name I embarrassingly cannot remember, phoned me. I was driving with my son to take him for a haircut but, for reasons I still cannot tell you, I took this call. Please do note that I was using a handsfree so I was not driving with phone tucked between ear and shoulder, endangering both my son’s and my life.
This young man wanted to write a column for the magazine because he has “a story to tell” and not enough youth get the chance to tell their story, which I acknowledged. I asked him why I should take him on when I had received upwards of a hundred requests for the same from many young writers, around his age, all with a story to tell, from the perspective of the youth. His view was that since I had taken his call, it should be him over others. My follow-up question was which columnist I should cancel to accommodate his. To this he had no answer because, when he started the call, he acknowledged that he was a fan of all the five columnists in the magazine. I told him to rather blog, which I have attempted, unsuccessfully, to do regularly for the last 9 or so years. My reasoning for this was that, it took me close to a decade of writing for various spaces about things that I would have preferred not to write about just to build enough of a reputation to be granted a column to write about my views.
I tell this story not to demonstrate how cynical I have become about writing today but rather to point out how too many of us want to write about “what I think.” I have built a career writing about “I’. I have built a career talking about “I” and how what “I” have experienced has taught me certain lessons. Recently I gave a talk to s group of boys in the Vaal about the lessons “I” have learnt about work and life from the different careers I have had over the last twenty plus years. It truly is a catch-22 situation. Side note: One of my favorite books is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I have become lazy because “I” has given me so much and enabled me to build a career yet the craft of storytelling requires that I start to expand beyond the “I”. Or perhaps it is my lot to always revert back to the “I” because that is what has enabled me to get this far.
Is the writer unable to explore the craft up to a certain point serving a particular purpose? Is the writer who has never written a book still a writer?
I often think back to the night with Don Mattera and the schooling he gave us. It was a moment in time that has plagued me ever since. I wish I could take the valuable lessons he shared and applied that to my writing, even today. From the outside, looking in, some may feel I have, but, in those moments of reflection, I wonder whether I really have.
I and I do not have an answer. So I will keep on asking.