Wednesday, December 19, 2007

2007: A Year (or more) Of The Write Stuff

I’m writing this year end reflection stuff because I’m not going to be on the internet AT ALL in the last days that remain of this year.


In terms of writing, it’s been a great build up. It is interesting to reflect on the thought that started all this. I was in Ilsan, on the outskirts of Seoul, in an apartment perched above the busy streets around Madu, not far from Lake Park. Lake Park was the venue that allowed me to enjoy Korea, and importantly, train in a nice natural environment for the likes of my first two marathons, the half Ironman, and the Ironman, and other triathlons, including a race I won. This put me in a place of strength not just physically, but mentally. I had turned my life around in Korea, financially, and physically. But I was concerned because intellectually I felt like I was underperforming. Teaching English to 2nd language speakers made me feel stoopid. But what to do? I’d exiled myself to South Korea after being deemed too white, too male, too educated, too inexperienced, too boo fucking who.

Despite being excluded whilst in South Africa, in Korea I eventually found myself revisiting the issue, I was comparing myself unfavorably to others (in South Africa), in terms of the world of work. I wrestled a lot with this, until one day I asked myself point blank: “Nick, what skill do you have? Do you have any fucking skills? Other people are trained to be dentists, doctors, computer programmers, designers, professional athletes, accountants, lawyers? What’s your special skill?”
I couldn’t answer the question.

I looked at friends of mine who were successful – very successful – in engineering, in banking, relatives who were coining it in construction, and what the hell had I achieved? Squat all.
In the isolated silence that night, I persevered in the moment, and a very small voice, my daemon – an eagle chick with scabby gray down and the potential to fly – said: “You’ve got skill as a writer.”
It gave me pause for thought. I’d dismissed writing partly because of the nightmare I’d faced at high school, and while I had been good at sports at Grey, I’d earned something of a reputation as a great writer. Some kids who wanted to get A’s for English approached me, asking me how to write good essays.

Another reason I’d purposely put writing in the drawer was because of my mom’s suicide. I didn’t want to entertain introspection. I knew I was susceptible to over-analysis, that I was easily hurt by criticism, and I was very aware that writing, whilst a blessing, could also be a curse, and it could put me on the path to my Dark Side.

But in Korea, I was at wits end, and I looked at my life and said: “What the fuck can you do, because right now, it looks like you’re just an average Joe that’s not going to amount to much. Is that who you are?”
It was then that I opened the drawer. You know, I am still very aware of the likes of Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf, Enid Blyton – women who wrote well, but lived poorly.
But I opened the drawer there in South Korea, and started to work on my writing. I wrote the way I trained, assiduously. It was not that I started from scratch, it was that I now wrote with conviction, with purpose, and I began to see writing as a raison d'être. That made all the difference.

It was also serendipitous that [a particular citizen journalism website] came into being. [A particular citizen website] emerged at about the same time I did. The Ironman did a lot to boost my resolve: that I was as powerful as I decided I would be. And Jenny Lake, who’d read my blog, someone intelligent and well versed (she’d studied in Oxford for God’s sake), supported and believed in me and gave my little drive added credibility.

I started setting goals and actually left Korea on the understanding that I would return to take over the editorship of a magazine called Heartland. That didn’t work out, and it was never going to work out (the oke who bankrolled that magazine turned out to be a con artist and a thief), but I did get my foot in the door with 7 publications in 6 months. One article, on Peak Oil (predicting the current $90-100 levels when banks were predicting $60 for the next 5 years) elicited a strong response from some readers; some of whom called me.


In 2006 I studied 3rd year English at university (half committed to pursue teaching, half interested in getting a journalism qualification), whilst teaching. I enjoyed it and easily got distinctions. I published two more articles in Shape and go! despite having almost zero time to write whilst teaching. I also went to a blogging conference to represent [a particular citizen journalism website]. I was shocked to find the South African blogging community consisted of about 4 and a half people, all of whom were f&%$#ing each other up the you know what (crass code for a form of mutual consent to indulge and support one another in 'how they roll', no matter tedious that was, or how much they - I felt - bullshitted themselves).
I realized a different voice was urgently called for, and one independent from the incestuous South African club that had just been birthed. Having started my blog overseas, and having being blissfully unaware of the kak going on in South Africa, it was easy to go back to being blissfully unaware, and to get on with what I was doing.

The conference did confirm what I already suspected: blogging could be a powerful tool, and could leverage your voice as a writer.

It was during this period that my self belief began to crystalise. I didn’t see myself as a wannabe, I found that not only did I have something to say, a lot of the people around me suffered from a collective failure to see what was happening in the world. I began also to confirm my suspicions about writers (or people who thought they were) – they are a miserable bunch, simply because their lives are based on the lives and experiences of others. The hypocrisy is tragic. Somewhere, deep inside, they must be aware of this, hence the bitterness and the drinking. It is not fulfilling, to simply report on what others are doing. There needs to be a sense that you are doing something too. And thus, I became painfully aware of my own hypocrisy. I still am.

This helped me to finally dispose of the teaching lark. In part I did it to survive, but teaching in South Africa proved a nightmare, and while I thought I might move to lecturing English at university, the wake up call sounded loudly in my head. Teaching is not how you will resolve a personal performance issue: DROP IT!


Thank God I did, and God may have been involved, because I didn’t quit willy nilly. My contract was not renewed. I jumped onto a much better ferry, because I secured a surprisingly good position at Quintiles, and spring boarded from there to South Africa’s second largest Media House.

Whilst I maintain some aspects of [a particular citizen website], I no longer write for it, and I was initially hurt and disappointed by this. It was a comment I read at the time that turned this potential negative into a positive. I simply said: “Look, you’ve been writing for [a particular citizen website] for 2 years. It’s taken you places. Maybe it’s time to take the next step.” Within about 6 weeks I had my first story published in the Sunday Times.

Current Literary Oscars

The 9th and 10th spots on this top 10 Ohmynews list are my stories:
Taking Direction From 'The Golden Compass'
28 Ways to Live Better in 2008

Recently I offered an arbitrary suggestion for an article title, and it was used:
There’s only one Sandton Claus

This website has also seen extraordinary growth in 2007 alone. Started in October 2004, it has had an average of about 10 000 page impressions a year, bringing the total to around 40 000 by the start of this year. In October this year, in that single month, I had close to 7000 page impressions. And now, consistently, I get over 2000 page impressions a month. Having said that, I am increasingly averse to blogging merely in terms of the personal cost and sacrifices involved: it has definitely impacted negatively on my training, which is ironic, since it was originated in order to stimulate and encourage more accountability based on training for an Ironman (in October 2004)


My biggest achievement though, as far as I’m concerned, is an unsung manuscript I wrote over 2 months halfway through this year. It is called HOLIDAY. I think it is some of the best writing I have ever produced, and possibly the best I will ever produce. It’s not perfect, but it has an incredible mix of natural metaphor and meaning, interlaced with realism. I did after all, go to the Philippines once. I’m constantly surprised that the publishers who have seen it haven’t snatched it up and shouted HALLEJUH. I assume they have not read it, or the idiots who have, weren’t able to see the metaphor. I suppose it is possible to read it in a one dimensional way, in a purely literal fashion, but as I say, then you have to have a few screws loose and be rather dim. One reviewer from H&R sent his comments and proved exactly that.

In summary, I’m very happy with where that apparently small decision (stemming from the “What the fuck can you do?” Jerry MacGuire moment) - where that has taken me. But I’m nowhere near satisfied that I’ve achieved even close to what I know and believe I can. In writing I mean. Part of the resolution of this is publishing a book, and not through self – publishing. Maybe there will be a few books, we’ll see. I am working on something new and exciting now, and will continue until I crack a nod. But I continue to be irked by this reality: writing about real life still isn’t real.

So, although I’d like to grow and develop as a writer, I want to do so gradually and in a disciplined way. I don’t want to be a fucked up observer, like some of the rugby writers who ended up sabotaging so much to score personal points and sell newspapers. I don’t want to be a Paris Hilton writer; writing only to stroke my ego, prove how intelligent I think I am and get attention. Is the writing, in and of itself, making the world a better place? Is it really? Is it time well spent for the reader and me? Does it help – really help – the humans condition, or is time better employed going out there and mucking in, hands on? Writing can be meaningful and inspirational. I want to stick to that as far as I can.

I also want to step beyond writing, and create…I’m thinking of developing some land my father has. This will be up for discussion this Christmas. I’m thinking of taking my photography further and having more exhibitions. And I’m thinking it might be time to start a family (despite a recent article that having kids makes men's lives miserable). All these will fundamentally change who I am, because while I am a writer, and maybe that’s my gift, it’s not the end of the story, it’s the beginning of a lot more. The scabby eagle chick is becoming - I sometimes think - a large mythical eagle, large enough to carry Tintin on its back. Except it’s not Tintin; the eagle and me are one and the same. It’s not only up to me how high I fly, it’s also up to you. My dreams are part and parcel of the dreams the world must have for itself. Part of that dream must also be that we can all %$#&ing wake up. As it is, we're sleepwalking into the future.

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