Saturday, 23 June 2012

How I write

It seems a bit ‘arrogant’ to be writing about this – sort of as if I’ve now officially pronounced myself a ‘writer.’ The title seems to suggest that I’m presuming I can write, but in actual fact, I’m only taking this on because I do write.

For my fortieth birthday, I got two copies of Abidemi Sanusi’s book, Eyo, from different people. I devoured it over the next few days. It turned out to be the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. There is not a single ‘smile,’ not a single moment of respite in this tragic, powerful book. I have a tendency to go back and read good books (or my favorite portions of them) again and again. I have not been able to do so with Eyo. I have no desire to relive the protagonist’s horror. I highly recommend this dark, yet tragically beautiful book if you’re looking for a seriously good read.

It was actually Abidemi Sanusi’s blog that got me thinking about this question of how writing comes about ( I think it’s an interesting question. How do I write?

For me, there is no standard, linear way in which I come up with a blog post, but in thinking about it, I realize that I always ‘write’ parts of the posts in my mind for a period of time ever before I type them out on my laptop. The first month I started blogging, I could hardly type fast enough – the stories just ‘flowed’ one after the other. But that was because I had carried those initial stories in my head and my heart for a very long time. There was no need to agonize over how to begin because the stories were almost fully formed in my mind. I had told them to myself over and over again in my mind. All I had to do now was tell them to others.

In subsequent months, I began to record my thoughts on my laptop, no matter how disjointed. I still do this. When I get an idea that I think might be interesting to write about, I type it out as a bullet point as fast as I can, before I forget. And as more, related ideas come to me, I type them out, too, under that same bullet point, and then try to pull them into a coherent story line. I have a list of six bullet points right now – initial thoughts just waiting to be elaborated upon and written up. Most are really messy. For example, here is a bullet point that I’m about to delete because I’m now done writing the full post:

  • I have no right to be writing this right now. Not with all the deadlines I have. I’m supposed to be working. I’m much too busy. I need a vacation very badly. I don’t have time to take one. Can’t imagine how I can possibly squeeze it in. But I’ll make a way. You have to pay attention to your life. The way I haven’t had time to look into my finances. How good it felt to pay attention. Realize it was doable. Almost done paying. Without a plan your life will pass you by.
And yet another:

  • Mother-in-law, Dearest: He sent me a text last week telling me how ill he’d been lately, how he’d been admitted to the hospital, etc. Do my in-laws expect me to respond? And do they plan to penalize me in the future for not doing so? How I called her three times and she suddenly wasn’t available. How I eventually got the message. The struggle of divorce when you still love your mother-in-law. How I was hurt they didn’t tell me she went to the US. But do I really have a right to know anymore?
I get quite a number of ideas while sitting in traffic (which I hate – or ‘intensely dislike,’ to use my son’s correction). I suppose my mind wanders during these times to cope with the frustration of sitting in one spot when I’d rather be zooming back home after work. Sometimes, I draw inspiration from something I read, or from an incident that occurred in my life that day. Other times, I have a sudden, vivid memory of something that happened in the past. It’s usually a seemingly ‘small’ thing that begins to develop a life of its own the moment I start thinking about it, taking myself back to another time in my mind.  A small thing such as my wedding ring, a phone conversation, a dream, a prize one of my children won, or a prayer meeting. I make a concerted effort to go back in time and try to remember every little thing I felt at the time or about the object in question, and then I quickly type up my description of these feelings.

Sometimes, it all begins with the very first sentence. By this time, I have already pondered over the issue I want to write about, but the first sentence can often be key for me. Sometimes, a ‘good’ opening sentence just comes to me as I’m going about my business, with a particular blog post idea in the back of my mind. I find that the first sentence can be almost magical (if I feel that it sounds just right), propelling me to write an entire blog post. Coming out of the bathroom one day (‘T.M.I.,’ as my sister would say), the words ‘There’s a reason why I’m still not on FaceBook’ came to me. I had struggled with how to write the A Beautiful Mind post, but with this first, magical sentence, I suddenly felt free to just write. In bed one day, the phrase ‘There’s something wrong with my church’ came to me and I just knew I had to use it. At the time, I thought I would just use it as a sentence somewhere in the post, but I later decided to use it as a title, too. Today, as I tried to squash my misplaced feelings of guilt for not working on the weekend, the opening sentence I have no right to be writing this right now suddenly came to me.

Sometimes, when I’m done writing and I read a new post over before putting it online, I’m surprised by how well certain paragraphs seem to hang together, or by the logical interconnection of some of the ideas - especially because it often happens without any planning on my part. I only see the coherence after I’m done and I wonder how it happened, given the scatter-brained fashion in which I started out writing it. Of course, I'm not always coherent, but I just decide to write and post, anyway!

Sometimes, I struggle with the title of the post. With Far from the Madding Crowd, I initially uploaded it as Far from the Maddening Crowd and, immediately after, asked my sister if she thought ‘Madding Crowd’ sounded better. She went for ‘Madding Crowd,’ pointing out that those who had read (or heard of) the Thomas Hardy book would probably appreciate my sticking to the original title. And so I changed it. With A Beautiful Mind, I was torn between using this title and using (Almost) Becoming the Other Woman. My sister suggested I find a way merge the two. I opted not to, in the end. I realized that having a title with ‘the Other Woman’ in it would probably generate more traffic, but I loved the symbolism behind the A Beautiful Mind title.

I recently started displaying a list of the 8 posts that have received the greatest hits on the blog. It’s fascinating to me to see the posts that people are drawn to the most – especially because few of them are my personal favorites. I like the post about my mother-in-law, for instance, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as one of my favorites. And yet, it almost immediately became one of the top blog hits, unceremoniously kicking out some of the others which I thought were 'better.' It’s really interesting to see what appeals to different people.

For all you authors, writers, bloggers, tweeters, poets, essayists, FB-ers, etc. out there (both in and out of the closet): How do you write?


  1. Great to take a peep into the mind of a writer. I only do journals and even then not consistently. But I do have a few unfinished short stories...
    I really don't know how I write. Something for me to think about...But personally, I think I write better than I speak. Does that make sense?
    Your blog is interesting because it is personal, witty and you have the ability to convey your feelings to the reader effortlessly. Yep, you're a writer, a good storyteller.

    1. Aha! So you're another one of we closet writers - I always thought so. I've always thought I write much better than I speak, too, so that totally makes sense to me. In recent times, I'm not completely sure which I do better anymore. My day job involves a lot of (technical) writing and public-speaking alike, and my sense is that this has really helped strengthen my speaking skills. Thank you for the really kind comments.

  2. I write in my mind first- always. I. Oils be in the grocery store, or driving when the nucleus of an idea begins to form. I feel that bubble in my belly, kind of like when I am browsing a really good Internet sale ( I admit, I have a problem, lol) and hen I 'write' in my head. Putting it to paper immediately stifles my flow. So I write in my head, noting certain conversations that must be written word for word- sometimes it is just the bare bones, but usually I have a complete story in my head by the time I actually put pen to paper. Then, I edit. And prune, and add, and agonize, lol.
    I also write way better than I speak, for sure. :)

    1. Thanks for sharing. Can totally, totally relate (except for the bubble in the belly part!). It's really fascinating to see all the parallels across the comments. I know exactly what you mean about how putting it paper right away sort of jinxes it. I find that I have to type out snippets as they come to me, though, or else I'll forget - I forget things so easily and so the reminder on my cell phone is always full!

  3. Interesting, i've always thought i speak better than write, due to my work with children + youth, then when i put it down it kind of looks a bit 'off' - too short for one thing, but this blog + all the comments challenges me to do more of putting down what i say, the way i say it so it sounds like a conversation, like how this blog sounds like - big thanks!

    1. Thank you. Your comment encourages me to keep writing; to write just because, and to allow what is written to find its own audience. I encourage you to write, too (since you have a desire to). I bet you you'll be surprised to see the range of people that your writing attracts. Best wishes!

  4. Hi RMJ: your blog actually INSPIRED me to start writing about my life, right from childhood. I am the first born in my family and some of the childhood stories are proving quite interesting for my siblings, especially our last born sister who now understands where we came from. I started from age 3 and now am at age 7. I mostly write when I travel, sitting in a hotel room, and yes me too - the story is usually already formed in my head. When I told my sister I would write my life story and publish it in blog she asked me "for the whole world to read?". I didn't want to tell her I would be anonymous like RMJ, so I let it go and now I only send my siblings the chapters to read as I write them. Of course I am not as good as you, am only trying to document my life story for the benefit of my younger siblings and my children. I figure that since we no longer sit around a fire place and tell stories, that this will be the legacy that I will leave for my children and grandchildren, to know what my story was all about. You are a inspiration and joy to read. Your stores, construction of sentences and cross referencing with books and song (Held by Natalie Grant) is simply amazing. Thanks for finally starting to write. YOU ARE A NATURAL.

    1. Wow, Nzilani - congratulations on launching out and doing something you just had the desire to do, whether everything seems perfect to you or not (I can so relate) and THANK YOU for the extremely kind comments. I think documenting your life story is a beautiful idea. Since last year, I've bugged my mother to do the same, but she's been dragging her feet. Someone suggested I give her a digital recorder to just tell her stories, as that would be easier. Another great idea which I'll have to look into when next she visits. With my Dad gone, I've found that my mother is a storehouse of knowledge about our family - and her women's perspective on things is also really interesting to me. My mother spent a number of years living on a he Navajo Indian reservation! I'm one of the youngest so I had NO IDEA (wasn't born by then and just found this out last year). I was just fascinated by what it was like for her, as a very young, married Nigerian woman, whose husband was often away, with two or three little kids in a new country (to which she arrived by ship in those days), trying to grasp a new culture within a wider culture, trying to understand a different kind of 'English,' etc. The first time she saw snow, she thought it was salt! These are just precious little vignettes that touch me and that I want to share with my own children about their grandparents, so I can really understand what a gift it is that you're giving to your siblings, children, and grandchildren. Like me, you're too hard on yourself. I bet you write better than you think you do, but sometimes we don't believe it until we hear enough people say it. Keep on keeping on. I love Natalie Grant and I LOVE "HELD"!!!