Friday, January 27, 2012

Charles Mungoshi: How I came to write Waiting For The Rain

One of the worst things that can happen and often happens - to a writer is to fall into the doldrums, that scary place where nothing happens at all, yet you are screaming at the top of your voice, “I want to get out!” I have since heard it called a writer’s block, mental block or a creative block. The same thing, really. I didn’t know its name when I first came to it. (Now we are familiars!) I was so scared I sweated. I thought I would never write again.

Ndiko Kupindana Kwemazuva had just been published. And then I found myself completely dry. Each time I wrote something down, I quickly destroyed it in disgust. Anything I wrote looked like the worst thing I had done in my life. I became depressed. I was scared of my writing desk.

I would welcome any excuse to be away from that desk: trips away from home, a wedding party or an interesting movie, trips to the beer garden, anything that would get me away from that damned desk, I accepted with both hands. And to compound it all, there were people who said they liked my work. It seemed they were in cahoots to torture me. “What’s in the frying pan these days?” they would ask. Some people think that to a fiction writer lying is child’s play. I have found that it isn’t so, I answer, best as I can, “Myself!” They laugh, thinking: It’s one of his jokes again. It is not a joke but it is a relief to say this because it elicits some benevolent responses like, “It can’t be that bad!” or “Come on, we are waiting” from the audience.

The sympathetic remark may be quite welcome and will probably raise your morale/spirits but it won’t drag you to your office/house and force you to sit at that desk to face what you have to face alone.

What I am driving at is, leaving your desk starts at some point. The thing is not to leave your desk indefinitely. If you can only leave it physically and not psychologically or spiritually. One of the saddest experiences I have had (outside of myself) was to run into a fellow scribbler, who had not been at his desk since his first (and only?) book was published way back. “What’s cooking?” I asked him. He went on to describe this wonderful story which he was about to finish. When he finished, he said, he will be back with wings on. I ran into him again, two years later.“What’s cooking?” I asked. He went on to describe this wonderful story he was about to finish. When he finished, he said, he will be back with wings on. There is probably no medicine for this walking-away-from-your-desk disease, but we have to try our best. And the best we can do, I suppose, is to try and guard against walking away from our desk forever. Walking away from our desk because the story won’t move, or won’t come, because you have hit a black spot, you forced yourself into a cul-de-sac dead-end and you can’t go forward.

I suppose, like in all things, this becomes a very personal issue where the outsider, counsellors, ministers of religion, etc, can only shout from the bank, without throwing any ropes, while you drown. But, finally, the formula is still the same, as in all things: don’t walk away, don’t turn your back. You can take a walk, yes. Go see your grandmother or whoever is good at cheering you up in the family (or any of your friends), go and play a game of whatever you feel good at playing. (I strongly advise against drinking on your own, if you feel a strong despair about your failure to go forward in your writing). Above all, leave your mind alone! (I know only too well how easy that advice is to follow!)

As soon as you are refreshed, come back to your desk and look at your story again. Change a few things. If your story is 200 pages long do not worry. There is more where that came from. (More than you think, in fact!) You do not have to destroy it. (Although some do, including yours sincerely!) You can leave the story as it is for future reference or as a monument. Re-focus and start afresh. (If you can completely abandon a story and start on another one, the better. Unfortunately, some writers get so involved with the one story they are writing, they become so obsessed with it that they cannot do anything else. Please try to be patient and gentle with yourselves. Listen.)

If you feel you want to continue with your story but you just do not know how, then try to see how you have been presenting it all along. Try and see it as a whole. Unfortunately, if it is already 200 pages long, you cannot just graft a new approach into it; it has to grow ‘organically’ as it were. So you really have to begin at the beginning, you may find that you need to change its point of view.

Point of view is, simply, the way your story “interprets the world”. Who is talking? By changing who is talking in your a story, you are, lets hope, forced to see the same story through other eyes, as it were. It may be that the way you were proceeding with your story is getting beclouded, that you need to detach yourself a little, stand back at a distance and take a look at it, that you have got yourself so entangled in it you cannot tell whether one of the characters is not you! Or it is also possible that your enthusiasm in the story has plummeted to rock bottom. Any or all of these things are possible, and, usually, in such situations one of the most desirable things, one of the easiest things to do, is to cop out. Some walk away from their desks – forever. Some become too sensitive and defensive it’s hard to get any help-lines to them. And so on. And so on.

Well, here are some personal experiences.

I think there are now more than a comfortable number of people who have heard (from the horse’s own mouth, no less!) that there is a Shona novel in the pipeline. This must have come out some 15 or so years ago! I have got a manuscript whose ink is fossilling into the colour of a cave painting on page 116. That unfinished story sits there like a lesson to me. It was once a shame, an embarrassment, but it also taught me some things I would not have learned otherwise. Now, it has been absorbed into me, it has become part of me like all the aborted journeys I have ever embarked on, the bad trips I have ever taken, the things that I broke before delivery, I wince when I read part of it today. But I won’t destroy it. It sits there. It exists as a reminder of the attitude I had when I started writing it: With this book, I want to break every record. I want to surprise people, to really show them…Good old vanity!

Be warned writer!

Most of that creative block comes from wanting to be better than you really are. Flying too high, reaching too far, and riding too fast! Just write!Now the embarrassment is out of the way.

Some positive experiences. In Coming of the Dry Season, the opening story “Shadows on the wall” is one story that cured me of something I didn’t even have a name for up to today. I had this image of this couple who gave each other hell everyday. I wrote the story from the omniscient author’s point of view. I gave the story my own interpretation. I found myself sort of screaming at reader: sentimental, melodramatic, and gushy. I tried to let the husband tell the story; I sort of could not get inside his skull. (Maybe this was partly due to the fact that I had never been a husband when I wrote the story!) I just did not have enough – as they say- dope on him. I tried the wife’s angle and I found that no reader would even feel any sympathy for her because she felt sorry for herself so much; the story would be awash in tears before she even told it. I could make no headway. Yet the story kept on tugging at my creative strings. It would not let me go. It wouldn’t let me leave it to write another one. Then one day it happened.

I was sitting in our kitchen – you know the one: round, fireplace in the centre, etc. It was raining outside and the chickens started in out of the rain, feathers wet and gathered round the fireplace, sending the most pitiful squawks into the already depressing atmosphere. And there, perfect image for the story! Not the couples fighting, no. Just the lonely child, alone with the chickens on a desolate wet day:Where is mama and papa? To answer that question, I found the son telling the story. So here, I had found the correct point of view from which to tell the story. And when I wrote it, I did not have to revise it. The pain it held was too vast to be told – yet it had to be told – and those chickens and shadows on the wall told it. That was my very first experience of how a story can be written in another way (or several ways) through a change in point of view.

Waiting for the Rain was another eye opener. This time the point of view was not in characters but the temporal, the tense. I had started off a short story on one of the characters, Betty and her unwanted pregnancy and her understanding brother, Garabha. It was all in a once upon a time tense. There was a girl called Betty, etc, etc. When I brought in the other characters, the story kept on expanding and before I knew I had over 100 pages of script on A4 on my hands. Yet something kept nagging at the back of my head: something is missing here. Yet I kept on writing, putting down everything that happened in the story. And the more I went on writing the more this uneasiness kept growing: Are you sure you are doing the right thing for these people (the characters)?

I had begun to notice a kind of distance, a coldness growing between them and myself. And I seemed to be losing interest in them, little by little, day by day. Then I completely felt disgusted by the whole exercise and I really walked away from my desk. I left the manuscript sitting there for days, meaning to destroy it when I came back to the desk, meaning to start on something else. Then a strange thing happened. I brought a friend home – a fellow writer (although he hadn’t been published yet) may God rest his soul – and we were drinking and I showed him the thing I meant to throw into the fire. (I almost didn’t show it to him. I was that embarrassed and also, I felt, he was a much finer stylist than I was and that added onto the reluctance). He took the manuscript home and the following day – the following day! He came back gushing: “What do you mean you want to throw this away? If you do not like it I will finish it off for you, write your name on the title page and send it people I know.”

I listened to him. Took back the manuscript, but, look at it as I might, I couldn’t see why he was so excited about it. The whole thing just left me cold.

Then one day I went to my local beer hall (masese) and there I watched that Jerusalem drum expert (now the national news signal!) and the people – his group and the sense, the feeling of being family, and all of them each with his or her problems and the drummer trying to assuage these with his unifying drum, and how the drum has been inherited from the past and how these long - gone – ones are present now with us in the drum and it was like a prayer joining people past and present and it can only be in a present continuous tense –urgent, very urgent, no time to dither, seemed to be the message of that drum.

I had meant the chapter in which Garabha plays the drum to open Waiting for the Rain but I felt that would be like pre-empting the story. Anyway, I had found out that this story was as urgent as the message of the drum and the only urgent thing is the present moment.

Another thing, another discovery I made, was that in the present tense, the characters became closer to me. They were like real living people. The landscape, the physical life of the book became much more alive, much more there because I was living it as I was writing it and I have never felt as blessed as I felt writing (or re-writing) Waiting for the Rain (I do not think I revised –not much, any way – this second version.) So, a story that had been destined for the fire was rescued by the writer’s change of point of view: This story didn’t happen in the past. It is a drum. It’s happening, it is playing, now.

And my late friend, the one who had forced me to look again at my story, even liked the final version better.

What I am saying is: you need not get stuck in a story. I do quite understand (and appreciate) the pain one feels in abandoning or re-adjusting, the story. Some writers even refer to their stories, “children” – there is danger, to the writer – in that. Well, if you feel they are your children, then be a surgeon and carry out this brain tumour operation on them!

For exercise, try to see in how many ways you can write a particular story. Dance around with this “point of view” thing. It is quite creative and it actually relieves your mind from a lot of unnecessary strain. Sorry about having to abandon a story on page 300, but this comes with the territory and, anyway, put it down to growing up, the necessary experience to be able to survive, to continue.
Hope this helps a bit.But write, write, write.
+ From the Writers Scroll, the newsletter of the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe, No.2, pp29-32, 2002.


  1. This is such an amazing post. Thank you.

  2. That's brilliant, thank you! I hope you don't mind if I post a link to this post on my blog?