I was a professional writer for twenty years. That’s a long time.
If you are a “lit”, “swaggerific” youth, bathing in all the glory and àdulation my current occupation smothers you with (wait. Hold that point. I am going to take one of many parenthetical breaks. I write like that now. In short bursts for short attentions. That is to say, I write ads now. It’s deep slumming, miles beneath me. My talents are a hawk with a shovel digging a tunnel underneath the rift valley. Time and my own lack of foresight clipped my wings. I an old man. A dull head among windy spaces. )
But for twenty years I was a wonder in full flight, from sky to sky, airborne and loving it as much as my readers did, because I was very very very good.
Twenty years is a long time. To be young is to lack perspective so you need my help to understand this. If you are in your twenties you need to understand how long twenty years is.
When you slipped out of a fallopian tube the night the other constituent parts of you shot out of a pair of testes, I was already out there typing for money.
While you gestated, curled up and asleep, formed a tail then reabsorbed it, when you chose which genes to keep and which to abandon — your father gave you a strong will, your mother a mild and timid demeanor and you picked one and dispatched the other– when you were doing this, I was already out there typing for money.
After you were finally born, while you spent that first year doing nothing but crying and crapping at the most inconvenient moments and driving your poor mother crazy, I spent the whole time with my fingers gliding over keyboards, making words dance.
You learned to walk and started doing it, shakily and badly, falling over often, while I was clicking save and send. You were in shorts and socks the same colour as everyone else in the school when I was spinning spiels of stories out of nothing but my neuroses, the sunlight, and spiderwebs.
When you finally learned how to read, I was already there to be read, my face a cartoon, my name a bold marquee on my own page in the best selling newspaper magazine in the land.
When you were pissing the bed in boarding school, when you broke your voice or had your first period, when you first came to be aware, or rather, (because it usually happens in the other direction) when the awareness came to you that the world is not yours, but that it owned itself, and you were confused and angry and adolescent, I was out there arguing with editors about my commas.
And when you got to legal maturity and the gates of adulthood, when you were finally able to count as a proper human person, I was getting restless. You were just getting started. I was beginning to wind up.
So now we meet. I have been writing your entire life. You missed most of it. Some of the best paragraphs. But now, here we are.
You know me because I have always been visible somewhere in your life– the cartoon or the photo in your peripheral vision (excuse the pun) of the newspaper every weekend.
You are what? Twenty three now? I was twenty three when I started. I know something about being twenty three. I know that twenty-three-year-old people know nothing at all. Certainly not how little they know.
I have not been a famous writer for some years now. I quit my column and vanished into an invisible wilderness, a dark forest, Selva Oscura some call it, and have not yet reemerged.
I still write, though. Plus, I am forty five now, so, going by unbroken precedence in my field, I am better than I ever was.
You want to be a writer too? You want to be good? Or you want to be famous? Or you want to be rich? Or perhaps all three?
I can help.
The Artfield Institute called me and asked me to do a couple of days of sharing what I can. It’s going to be on October 19th and 20th.
I will tell you everything I know, every secret of success and every secret of failure (The failures are especially enlightening: like why I ditched Anita Everything, Suki and ULK, why Ballad of Black Bosco was free to download and now I can’t use it to get an authors fellowship, why I can’t lie and why I can’t tell the truth, why I can’t be Charles Onyango Obbo or Bikozulu or Jennifer Makumbi, and why I never called Binyavanga.)
I could also tell you how nothing feels as good as making a story, and how words illuminated my darkest times and how reaching people with a funny paragraph gave a mediocre life like mine a sense of meaning and why this crap literally saves my life every day.
I’ll tell you how to be famous and how words can get you laid (then heartbroken, of course) and I will tell you what not to do so that by not doing it you become wealthy.
Remember when I said I write ads for a living now? I thought of writing an ad for this master class.
But then, nah. This isn’t something to advertise. Let Artfield advertise it. They are the ones selling it. I’m not going to sell you anything. I’m going to give you my twenty years.
I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”
I’ll tell you everything. Come along.