I’m a writer, I swing from a trapeze
I am a writer. I feel embarrassed announcing this. It sounds pretentious, dubious. Like, ooo, I swing from a trapeze. I can see people thinking, “Oh? And what do you do for a living?”
In my twenties and thirties, I was even less sure of the claim. When people would ask, “What do you do?” I often said, “I work in a dry cleaners.” That was the end of the conversation.
But that’s also when I began to understand what a writer is – apart from someone who writes a lot, gets published, and sometimes even makes money. A writer is the person who would say: “You work in a dry cleaners? Wow! How fascinating! I’ve always wondered about that weird smell. What is that? And what’s the strangest thing anyone ever asked you to dry clean? Blood? Have you ever had garments with blood and bullet holes?”
I’m a writer for my living. And I mean living not livelihood because without living and living hard I’d have nothing to write about. Creative writing teachers like to say, Write what you know. My approach has always been: Know more. Know the frying pan, know the fire. Know who’s cooking and what’s for dinner.
Conversely, writing is sitting for long stretches, it’s insular, confining and isolating. You talk to yourself, you develop quirky habits and superstitions. Your arse falls asleep. You wear crazy outfits to keep warm, or cool, and no one should ever see you like that. That’s why I have to be able to throw open the door and walk out. Walk about, abroad, for miles.
Bruce Chatwin set me on the path 30 years ago when I read “The Songlines.” It’s a collection of thoughts about walking wrapped around the central story of aborigines who believe creatures walked themselves into being, and that their trails are “songlines.” If you know how – if you are paying attention – you can sing the songs all the way back to creation.
So much of what I write about has come from my walking. In Nairobi, very often I didn’t have a car so I had to walk where all the poor Kenyans walked. When you have to walk, you realize how long it takes to cover even a few miles, and how difficult it is to carry a lot. You see and hear and smell and taste. Walking is sensory, stimulating. I’d see women walking with their small children, three- and four-year-olds walking miles and miles to the bus. You get so dirty; it’s dust or mud, and these people are walking to jobs where they need to arrive looking clean and fresh.
Once, I found a path had been closed. The path originally connected two roads, bringing the traveller right to a major bus stop. But the path passed through a church property, and even though it was some distance from any buildings, the pastor didn’t like wananchi “using” church land. I went to see him, to tell him that the closure meant people now had to walk nearly seven extra miles to reach the bus stop. He didn’t care. He had a car.
Werner Herzog, a friend of Chatwin’s, recommends walking as an alternative to film school. He once told an audience at a prestigious university that everything you need to know about filmmaking you can learn in a couple of weeks, it’s just technical. But to be a storyteller? You have to walk. Miles, years.
Also, I think you have to be really, really nosy on your walks. You have to look under rocks and at the innards of things. You have to put your ear to the earth and hear “why why why why” and know that you’ll spent the rest of your life looking for an answer that just isn’t there.