Thursday, September 02, 2010

Why I Write

Why [Don't] I Write, or Why don't I write? by Nick van der Leek

Over the next few days five different publications will be paying me for writing and photography.  They couldn't be more different.  One is a financial magazine, another is travel, there's IT and bicycling.

I've become very caught up in the drama of getting 2000 word pieces published in beautiful, glossy, throwaway magazines.  I try to write about what I care about, and to express these writings in a voice that is sincere.  The trouble is the world couldn't care less about a lot of things that they'd rather not think about. 

I have a few complaints, so if you'd like to skip ahead, go to 'Research'


For example if you're writing for a Travel Magazine, and you made a blunder on your own trip, perhaps you arrived late, or got lost, or knocked over an elephant, the Travel Magazine would rather insist on a straight-laced [aka boring] 'expert' view than to look at a real experience, the sort of situation faced by the common man.  Editors moodily cry "I'm on deadline" and then wonder why your time sensitive piece has become obsolete. They ask for images in high resolution, then forget to use them, or change their minds. A 1500 word interview with Morgan Freeman is binned because it's 100 words to short.  You pitch an idea, only to see it rejected, and then appear in print either under the editors own name or one of their inhouse writers.  Nice one.  The theme music is 'frustration'.

Recently I have been pitching a story on my experience in Australia to just about every publication I can think of.  Personally I think it is one of the most important and topical stories for South Africans right now.  After the World Cup, the blues have set in, and we've settled into a phase of losing [Bafana, The Tri-Nations] and complaining [the ongoing strikes], committing suicides and the usual murder trials.  At the moment it is Bees Roux versus the Cops.  We're in dire need of some information that allows us to truly believe we live in a good place.  But all the publications can think of are these small picture forgettable things - like how to grow your abs, or what's fun on the Garden Route, or how to make the cover of your IT magazine as boringly businesslike as is humanly possible.

I get told not to narrate, just to provide the facts.  I don't know about you, but if I am going to read something, I'm more likely to read it if I can trust that the person who is telling it is personally involved.  I don't mean waxing lyrical at every turn, quite the opposite.  I mean that the person writing cares about what he is communicating; it's not just a job, and it's not just putting a few facts [crumbs] on the table.  Often it is those casual, off the cuff comments that sum up a piece that get cut.   To have a fact only piece is a bit like selling a balance sheet. If you hate what you write and your editor hates editing it, chances are good your readers are going to hate reading it.  The converse is also true! And realistically, we're living in a world where if you aren't entertaining, if you aren't interesting,  if you can't tell a story, nobody wants to listen.  Boring is the enemey.  The trick is to be entertaining but also to add value.  To add value but be interesting.  And to sell news and information at the same time. 


I did a lot of research on the Bible over the past few months and years, and I realised eventually that I made a mistake.  The mistake was to dismiss the importance of the Bible.  I am not going to argue whether it is true or not, but even if you argue that it isn't true, you cannot argue that it isn't important.  Beliefs always are.

Which brings me back to the point.  I started writing as a child; I wrote a Enid Blyton-Gerald Durrell mishmash when I was about 14 years old, and followed this up with a Star Wars-Highlander-Harry Potter [except Harry Potter hadn't even been conceived then] when I was about 15 and finished this book a few weeks after my mother's death, and on the morning of my matric finals science exam.  It's agonising to admit that those manuscripts have been lost; they were dumped in a garage and my father's Mercedes squished it to a throwaway pulp.  That manuscript took 2 years to type, and it was in writing that manuscript that I learned to type on an old typewriter.  I remember sitting in the garden, at the far end, behind the pool, typing, so that my brother could concentrate for his matric finals.  Even 30 or so metres away he complained that I was disturbing his studies [and to his credit, he got several A's].

At university I went on to write a crime thriller called Fly By Night, and by now the tally of [unpublished] writings, 50 000word + manuscripts, is at around half a dozen or more.  I have three manuscripts right now that I consider publishable.  HOLIDAY, a climate thriller, is my own version of Alex Garland's The Beach with some Cormac McCarthy's The Road thrown in for good measure.  The Half Full Moon is my attempt at the quintessential South African novel.  It's a reboot of the God's Must Be Crazy, but it focuses more on the spiritual side of man, the beauty of the Kalahari,and the metaphor of the Western man where a grain of sand can break his machine, than on comedy.  Finally there is the sappy HEAVEN IS IN YOUR HEART, which is a kind've ode to my mother, who, as I say, died when I was 17, just before my matric exams.

Love for writing

I have a love for writing, and for telling stories.  It's more than mere journalism, and it's more than entertainment.  It's about spreading meaning, and inspiring.  Sometimes real life does not inspire.  Sometimes, thoughts and ideas expressed on paper can lift us up to where we feel we ought to be. 

I didn't pursue writing at university because writers that I admired had very unhappy lives.  Enid Blyton, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Alan Paton and so on.  I also recognised in myself a vulnerability, that I could get lost in self-made world's of escapism and thus live unhappily ever after.  I wanted to live, and if I found the time as an old person, find time to write.

I didn't expect to be so disinterested in commerce.  I didn't expect to have so little faith in Capitalism and Materialism.  I must admit, I didn't expect to be so sensitive.  I studied advertising and economics, physics, architecture, law and English.  I loved all of these subjects, but I loved languages the most.  It seemed to me then, and now, that the most important lessons are philosophical.  You may think this is very vague, but if you consider what is happening in the world, that we spend millions on arms, on stadiums and white elephants, yet we can't find the budgets for education, or the poor, well you can see how important the right philosophy is.  I suppose politics is more potent a weapon than philosophy, but then again, when philosophy is used as mercenary - in religious uprisings for example, well, it's often unstoppable.

My dream has always been to write stories that will come to light on the silver screen.  To write movies.  I have made a 2 hour film once, a collection of photos, video clips and messing around which I screened to a 100 or so cyclists that I went on a tour with.  The feeling of the audience responding with laughter, cries and sighs to something you have created, with much subtlety and sensitivity, is very special.  When you can see what others often miss in life, and emphasise that, and share that, it can only enhance our common circumstances.

What am I?

So here I am in 2010, a full time freelance photo journalist.  Is that what I am?  A photojournalist?  I consider myself an artist, like my brother [who happens to be a fulltime, and very successful artist, styling himself after our great grandfather, Tinus de Jongh].  An artist who draws pictures in his mind but uses words or film to illustrate it.  My high school story, VERSATILE FLYING SECRETS [a title as meaningless but somehow impressive as ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING] was conceived with an imagination that would have defeated filmmaking at the time.  It utilised blue kingdoms and bloody sword battles in high definition.  It revisited the ancient genetic memories of the protagonist, Christopher Ulysses, and it's motive was to remind us, literally, where we come from.  That our genes are very old.  That we are more than who we are.  That survival is incredibly special, and rare, and also, painful.  It was also a story about the triumph of traditional values and technologies over modernity, something we see in Harry Potter and to some extent in Star Wars [swords and magic remain the ultimate weapon in the face of planet destroying spaceships].

My strategy has been to build a name for myself as a writer.  I have done that over the past 24-36 months, or, I think I have.  I suppose the time has come to try again to publish my manuscripts, and perhaps find the courage to reboot VERSATILE.  I can cringe and wail at having lost all that precious toil, or I can belive in myself and re-discover the essence of that story.

What I am convinced of, though, is the value that Story has to mankind.  It is more than you know.  Story is what delivered us through every trial there ever was.  Either the Story we told ourselves, or the Story we heard and internalised as our own.  Without a Story, we are nothing.  I feel this very strongly.  Hence, I literally am compelled to produce a noteworthy script in order to feel that I have truly contributed to shaping the philosophies of my peers, of my generation.  This is not an easy thing, and at the time of writing - Now in other words - I dare say I have failed in that mission.

But from here on out, for a season or so, I will dedicate myself once again not to the 2500 word pieces about a one-off trip somewhere, or the layout of rondavels, or how fast Korea's internet is, but to the soul food stories.  The stories you read that imbue your dreams with a touch of chrome, or the taste of vanilla.  From here I will look to producing, in factory style, 50 000 word chunks, with the aim of adding to the libraries of the world.  Perhaps, if it is good enough, I will get to see my name in lights, and my story shining for a darkened audience to share.  That's my prayer.  I hope you will pray it with me over the coming spring and summer.

1 comment:

Eni said...

Yes,Enid Blyton had a very unhappy childhood.Thoough my book was not centered on her personal life, I made fleeting reference to this unhappy episode in her life in my published book on her, titled, The Famous Five:A Personal Anecdotage (
Stephen Isabirye