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A leap of imagination: How I became a writer A leap of imagination: How I became a writer
by Kola King
2020-09-13 10:08:51
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“You should write a book,” Afolabi my youngest teenage son said in something of a dogged manner.

“Why?” I retorted.

“I mean you write well. I find your stories and essays quite interesting. And you write a lot of good stuff,” he said.

“That’s quite flattering,” I replied.

“It’s not about flattery. It’s something I believe you should do.”

Pleading to be excused, I replied, “but I am only a journalist. I’m not a writer in the true sense of the word.”

“No, no, I’m serious you should write a novel,” he replied.

“Well, I’m sorry. That’s a tall order. You would be disappointed because I’m not caught out for that. By all means, I’m a journalist. But a writer, no. Let’s leave writing for the likes of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and even smart guys like you. I believe you need to be extra smart to write a novel,” I pleaded.

“But it’s more about creativity and use of the imagination than smartness,” he reasoned.

“Well, I’m content with being a journalist.”

writ001_400Even though he had lost the argument, he shook his head disappointed that I had turned his request down. I was not in the mood to pick up the gauntlet, as it were. He had so much faith in me. But I had little faith in myself; it was less than an honest appraisal of my ability. Wearing blinkers, it was as if I hardly could see what he had seen in me. For me, being a journalist is crazy enough, with the pressure of deadlines and the lust for scoops. Living and working as a journalist is as though being in a pressure cooker. But to dabble in creative writing was another kettle. I imagine doing so means one would constantly have to stare into space or a wall all day trying to conjure stuff or knock out a story out of nothing and during which one would be confronted by the roaring silence of the mind. To be honest this was a bit too much for me to handle.

For one thing, I never thought anything about being a writer. For me, writing was time- consuming and nerve wracking. That would mean spending too much time in one’s head. Moreover, I believe living and working as a journalist was precarious enough. ‘How do I create something out of nothing,’ I thought in my own mind. At that point in time, I was editing a weekly. The pressure of editing that weekly newspaper and chasing reporters to turn in hot stories was tasking enough. Thus writing a book was not part of my pyramid of priorities.

Though, I should inform the reader that my son Afolabi and I have a passion for books. We are both voracious readers. He’s in a class by himself. And for him reading is an obsession. His reading habits are eclectic. He reads crime thrillers, classics, science-fiction and biographies. He has a habit of reading everything that’s printed in black and white. He would turn the house upside down in his search for books. Sometimes he comes up with some old, dusty and mouldy books which he cleans up. Then he would snuggle up on the three-seater buried in the books with a bottle of Coke by his side. Sometimes he juggles two or more books at the same time. I keep telling him that’s weird. But he never gives a damn as he shrugs me off saying, ‘I enjoy it.’

Afolabi has an unquenchable thirst and hunger for knowledge. He is hyperkinetic. He is one of those types who question things, hoping in the process he will get answers to things that confound. I suppose an apple does not fall too far from the tree. Apart from that at barely fifteen he had tried his hand at creative writing while yet in senior secondary school. He wrote a crime thriller. It was rich in description, dramatic scenes, dialogue and characterization. Both the plot and dialogue and characterization were simply superb. It was fast-paced, racy, tight, and tension soaked. The tense pacing of the plot was marvelous. And I had marvelled at his writing skill. He has a great felicity with words. That’s hardly surprising because he lives in a world of words. It was a brilliant work, well put together, considering the fact that it was his first and for someone of such a tender age.

Naturally, some friends and his siblings who later read the manuscript believed he had a bestseller on his hands. But we never got a publisher to pick an interest in it. It never got off the ground. Here publishers are only interested in doing academic stuff, mostly textbooks for primary and secondary schools. Thus his manuscript never saw the light of day. Still, as a teenager, he would rather use his pocket money to buy books rather than buy clothes or shoes or bling.

Well, it’s as though our home is loaded with writers. It seems reading and writing runs in the family. Again, at twelve my eldest son, Temi had written a storybook for children. Generally, it was rich in language, plot and structure. Excited at the prospect of getting the book published, I had contacted an editor in a publishing company whom I was acquainted with. She was excited when she browsed through it. And she assured me that it would be published. “Are you sure it was written by a twelve- year- old,” she inquired. “Yes, of course,” I replied. “That’s fantastic. He’s is a smart kid,” she added. “Ah! Well, he is very smart,” I rejoined. “I’ll go through it and pass it around,” she assured. “That’s fine by me,” I replied. Thereafter I left her office satisfied that my son was on the way to becoming a novelist at a tender age.

Regrettably, after keeping the manuscript for over a year, the editor later returned the manuscript, saying they were no longer interested in publishing it. I was devastated. I was at a loss on what next to do. I knew not where to turn since I knew next to nothing about publishing. Burnt by that experience, I filed the manuscript away. Back in those days, it would be far easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than to get major publishers in Nigeria take an interest in such things. Opportunities were limited. Sadly that ended my eldest son’s interest in creative writing. More painful is the fact that I misplaced the manuscript in the course of moving house. Anyway, Temi went back to school, got excellent grades and went on to study civil engineering. Now a practicing engineer he has forgotten everything about writing.

In any case, some four years down the line another ghost of calls for picking up writing would come up again. This time it was Ade, a friend whom I hold in high esteem because of his erudition and passion for books. He is a bibliophile. Hunting words is a passion. It would appear he lives, breathes and moves in books. Despite being a computer geek, he does a lot of writing himself, though mostly technical reports. And always by his side are a thesaurus and some big fat dictionaries. He thumps and thumps them doing spelling checks and getting the grammar right. His thesaurus and dictionaries have become dog-eared because of constant usage. When there is a dispute over a spelling or grammar usage he says “check the thesaurus or use the dictionary.” He strongly believes it’s better to check and double-check spellings, words and language usage. What’s more, he has a rich library with the most exotic books on his shelf. Boldly written with red ink on his books is a warning sign: “Read But Don’t Take Away.” He cherishes his collection of books.

So this time I had written a speech for his wife, which she was to present at the launch of her Non-Governmental Organization. I was part of the organizers so my contribution came in the way of speech writing. So when Ade saw the speech he was ecstatic. He said “Wow! This is terrific! Honestly, I think you should write a novel.” Not again, I thought. But he was insistent. He railed on and on and how impressed he was with the piece I wrote for his wife, saying it was “graphic, vivid and vigorous writing.”

Again I stonewalled. I hemmed. I hedged. I hawed. I gave a tepid reply once again saying, “I’m only a journalist and not a writer.” Still, he persisted and said, “You’ve got what it takes. You should give it a try.” I thanked him and said I would give his proposition a thought since I valued his opinion and judgment. And no matter how hard I tried to dismiss that suggestion from my mind the more it came to the surface time and again.

In plain terms, a journalist is a writer as well. In absolute terms, a journalist is a writer because he writes for a living. He is paid to think and write. He lives on words. But he deals with facts and figures from which he writes news stories, commentaries and feature articles. So my attempt to separate the journalist from a writer was disingenuous at best. For good measure, a journalist is a writer. Yet, the difference between a journalist and a creative writer is foggy at best. In short, a thin veil separates a journalist from a creative writer. Thus while the latter can afford the luxury of roaming in the wilds of imagination, the former is hemmed in the narrow street of facts, figures and concrete data.

As they say in journalism, comments are free but facts are sacred. That is the ground norm of journalism. Journalism is anchored in facts and not fantasy. This was the first canon of journalism I imbibed while in Journalism School. The new-fangled journalism school describes it as precision journalism. Although while writing feature articles a journalist takes the liberty to bring in a measure of creativity into his work, while not losing sight of the facts. In particular, I see journalism as the bone while creative writing is the marrow and fatness of good writing.

Still, a frontline Nigerian journalist Mike Awoyinfa had captured it graphically: “Journalism can be compared to a man driving a car, while creative writing is as though a pilot flying a plane.” There’s a huge world of difference between the two, even though it falls short of the difference between night and day. In short, you can’t compare apples with oranges.

While at the University of Lagos where I studied journalism, we wrote some feature articles in our first year. And the lecturer who handled that course had fired and tasked our imagination. The first assignment was to write about the university’s water supply system which the lecturer had described as the “Big Muskie.” Challenging our power of observation, he asked in class, “who knows where the “Big Muskie” is located.” There was a hush because in the first instance we had no clue what he meant by “Big Muskie.” Nobody in the class had an answer. Sensing that we had no clue, and then he went on to describe the gigantic water supply system which he referred to as the “Big Muskie.”

Back then, the lecturer, Mr Olatunji Dare, now a P.HD and emeritus professor of communication, was a prolific journalist and gifted writer. He knew his onions. He was full and overflowing with learning. He had an encyclopedic memory. He knew something about everything. He knew everything about one thing, that is, his first love, journalism. He had initially trained as a teacher, having studied physics and mathematics. But the lure of journalism had seen him turn his back on teaching. Teachings’ loss was journalisms’ gain. He was an excellent teacher and a great motivator. He was a very meticulous teacher. He brought so much light and knowledge to his students.

He came out with a first in the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos. He had done his graduate studies at Columbia University, New York in the United States of America. Later he returned home to impart the nuts and bolts of journalism into our thick skulls. As students under his wing, we held him in high esteem. We held him in awe. He was not just a theorist but a practical journalist as well, having worked as a reporter with the leading national daily newspaper in the country at that time, The Daily Times. After a stint as a reporter, he returned to college to study journalism and later veered into academics.

While giving us our first assignment, Dare had harped on the need to unfurl our umbrella of imagination and to develop a keen sense of observation. He prodded us to ask questions. “You must get the facts and figures. Get the dimension and size of the structure. Get the capacity of the tank. The date it was constructed and the contractors who built it and other relevant details,” he hollered. We all shifted in our seats and shuffled our feet as if in collective protest. “And by the time I am through with you guys you’ll have turned crackerjack reporters,” he thundered.

Above average height, dark, huge and portly and charismatic, he was fond of saying “when you leave here, you’ll become street reporters.” We didn’t like that bit because we believed upon graduation we’ll end up in cozy air-conditioned offices, and not pounding the pavements and sweating it out as street reporters. Anyway, we all went about to get facts and figures on the gigantic university water system. That was my first baptism into the world of features writing. I think I got good grades for that story.

More importantly, Dare had knocked it into our skulls that the most critical tool a journalist need was a heightened sense of imagination and a keen sense of observation. He also advised us to always question things, and not to take things at their face value. Over time, Dare had introduced us to the Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White. One day, he entered the classroom labouring under the weight of two big parcels which he carried in his arms. He dropped the parcels on the table and removed the wrapper on them. He pulled out one copy of the slim blue book and raised it up, saying this is the Bible of good writing. “I implore you to buy it, read it and enjoy it.”

Being eager and avid students, we all struggled to get a copy of the book, pushing and pulling just to ensure that we had a copy of the book. Like William Strunk would have told his students, Dare also told us “chose active verbs, chose full (not partial) quotes. Avoid exclamation marks as substitute for effective sentences. Avoid redundancies and clichés. Avoid wooly sentences. Avoid circumlocution. Avoid jargons. Use simple declarative sentences and avoid the long-winded sentences. Chose the familiar and avoid foreign languages. In short write in English.” Anyway, I forgot about the course, but not the lecturer. And in the course of my career as a journalist, it appears as if Olatunji Dare like William Strunk would always stand before me like a phantom with his stentorian voice booming in the background and ringing in my ears “avoid long sentences. Avoid wooly sentences. Avoid verbosity. Avoid dangler, which is, dangling modifiers. Keep it short and simple. Write and rewrite.”

Also, it is important to state the role of my father in shaping and kindling my interest in journalism. He had a rich library from which I soaked myself in knowledge. Besides my father was pertinacious about our being observant. The basic lessons were look, listen, and learn. Keep your eyes open. Thus my father’s insistence on our being observant had put me in good stead when I launched into journalism. It had helped fine-tune a critical faculty necessary for success as a journalist.

And that brings me to my salad days. Ours was a typical middle-class family in Nigeria of the 60s. It was a privileged upbringing because we had stewards, cooks and gardeners who served us. Belonging to the elite at independence, my father had a car and my mother ran her dressmaking business. We lived in the rarefied compound of the University College Hospital (UCH) in Ibadan where my father worked. The hospital was built by the colonial administration in the mid-fifties. It was one of the best hospitals in the Commonwealth at that point in time. The hospital was an architectural masterpiece. The hospital was always spick and span. And of course, fragrance and perfume of exotic flowers, plants and trees that encircled the hospital compound wafted freely into the atmosphere. The delicious perfume of the flowers was otherworldly. It was a beautiful, serene, magical and lovely environment. The new hospital was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth11 of England in 1957. In this atmosphere, my siblings and I grew and flourished like tender green shoots.

And I need to talk about my father. He was a product of St Andrews College, Oyo, which was the first teacher training institution in Nigeria set up in 1896 by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) for the education of gentlemen as teachers who would be morally upright, academically sound and devoted to the course of teaching. Now St Andrews College has been upgraded to Ajayi Crowther University, in honour of Ajayi Crowther, the first African Bishop of the Anglican Church, who was captured along with his family by Fulani slave raiders in his native Osoogun village in the ancient Oyo Empire and later sold into slavery when he was about twelve years old about 1820.

Being a successful merchant at that time, my grandfather had plans to send my father to Fourah- Bay College, Sierra-Leone for a degree in Divinity and in hopes that he would end up as a clergyman and help spread the gospel like Bishop Ajayi Crowther who was his contemporary and along with whom they built the first Church in Lokoja, Northern Nigeria. But my father had a different idea and never wanted to be a priest. In the end, he found his way to the medical line. Having received the best training and education at St. Andrews College in English, History, Classics and Religious Studies, my father had a stock of classics in his study. He had the complete works of Shakespeare. Also in his collection were great works by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Alexander Pope, William Thackeray and other great English writers.

My father’s love for books was also complemented by my mother, a dressmaker. She had travelled to the United Kingdom along with my father in the late 50s and while there she had studied dressmaking. Apart from that she had earlier trained as an elementary teacher. Coming back home some two years after Nigeria gained independence in 1960, she had transformed into a typical English lady, prim and proper. So my mother also bought books for us, complementing my father’s efforts in soaking us in knowledge. There were bedtime story books which she read to us before going to bed. She taught us several nursery rhymes. I remember vividly two nursery rhymes. They have been burnished in my mind.

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Baa, baa, Black Sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master,
And one for the lame,
And one for the little boy,
Who lives down the lane.’

Ring a Ring o’ Roses

Ring-a-ring o’roses
A pocket full of posies
A-tishoo. A-tishoo
We all fall down.’

And my mother, tall, beautiful and graceful would hold our hands, and forming a circle with my siblings and me, and we would recite the nursery rhyme and we would all fall down. It was teaching and learning through nursery rhymes and play acting. So in a word, I grew up in a world of books.

How did things come about? First I had left my job as a newspaper editor. I wanted something new and exciting, and refreshing. Then I had relocated from the hustle and bustle of Lagos to the serene and calm atmosphere of Abuja, Nigeria’s new capital city. Having relocated to Abuja the next thing on my mind was starting a newsmagazine. My little savings had gone into producing the first edition of the magazine. But I had to call it quits when it became apparent I truly needed a reasonable sum of money to put the magazine on an even keel. I was stuck. I was at my wit’s end. Thus I had to go back to the drawing board to think through the next thing to do. In this mode, I began to contemplate the future. In the short run, I picked up a teaching job. Thus when I picked up the gauntlet thrown down by my son and friend, it was with awe and trepidation. It started me on a path of discovery.

My light bulb moment came in a rather curious way. It was sometime in 2010. Nigeria’s Vice President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan had transformed to President when his principal President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua suddenly died in office. Dr Jonathan was trying to run for reelection. The Silverbird Group, Nigeria’s foremost entertainment TV channel and promoters of the Most Beautiful Girl Pageants had organised the Bring Back the Book (BBB) reading programme aimed at creating awareness for reading among the young ones and nurturing their writing talents. Children drawn from select primary schools in Lagos were part of the programme.

And as it happens, both the president and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka was billed to read to the children. Stumbling on the TV programme by happenstance, I marvelled that a sitting Nigerian president would create time to read for children and encourage them to read and write. Still, I nursed some doubts. Within me, I felt the president would be bogged down by more important business of the state and less likely to honour the BBB invitation. Thus I had imagined that the president would therefore be represented by one lowly government representative who of course cared not a fig about books and reading. But I was wrong. I had misjudged Dr Jonathan. Shortly after, the president showed up. He was there in flesh and blood. By honouring that invitation, he seemed to give the impression that he cared about books and knowledge. I thought within me that this was one president who put a value on books and education.

As soon as President Jonathan arrived the crowd became ecstatic with joy and he received a thunderous ovation. This time the president was dressed in a blue tee shirt and a black trousers and a black shoe to answer, and not in his usual traditional Ijaw attire with a top hat to go with. He looked relaxed and beamed with smiles. He acknowledged the crowd and waved back. Then he walked briskly and confidently over to the podium where Wole Soyinka had already taken his seat. Wole Soyinka was in a white cotton shirt and dark trousers, and he also wore a leather slippers. His full head of white afro hair stood erect like soldiers on sentry. I believe this was Soyinka’s first public reading with a seating Nigerian president. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

Now the military had ruled for almost three decades and they had scant regard for education. During that time, Universities were repeatedly closed and activist lecturers sacked as a matter of routine. But it is an irony that Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature during the military era. And curiously the military jackboots basking in the euphoria of that ecstatic event had conferred the national honour on him with automatic alacrity, as they say in military parlance

During this event, Soyinka was also in a happy mood. Even the president was in an expansive mood. This was not the usual crowd or campaign ground. He was here to enjoy the day and also extract maximum advantage from his interaction with the children. He was there to inspire and encourage them to reach for the highest height and to nurture their dreams. In spite of everything, his rise to the highest political office was due not only to fortuitous circumstances but the fact that he had a good education as well. And this had counted in his favour following the sudden turn of events. Observing the duo, I had inkling that for once Wole Soyinka in his heart would nurse the hope that this president would make a difference since the president had the advantage of a good education, and also had a PhD in his kitty. This time both the playwright and the president seem united in one task. They were united in getting children to cultivate the reading habit.

Anyway both President Jonathan and Wole Soyinka pumped hands warmly. After the initial banter and exchange of pleasantries, then the President took his seat. With the preambles and protocols over, the programme proper started. Afterward both the President and Wole Soyinka took turns to read for the children. And the children in their colourful liveries listened with greedy ears to Dr Jonathan and the Nobel Laureate as they read to them. I was almost transfixed as I watched the show on television. As events unfolded before my eyes, and in that process, something long buried and dormant stirred within me. It was mystical, magical and mysterious. It was as akin to an alchemical process that had taken place. It was as though a powerful force had washed my fears and doubts away. The pendulum of fear and doubt had swung in the right direction, giving way to positivity and removing the crippling doubt that had held me back for so long. It was as if an alchemical process transmuting fear and doubt into a liberating force of action had struck a chord within. Thereafter those inner thoughts were transformed and transmuted into positive thoughts.

This was a moment of transformation. It was an exhilarating height of self-discovery. There and then, I made up my mind to write. And I said in my mind ‘I would write.’ I had no idea how I would do it but I knew I would do it. Thus the wish to do had awakened a dormant force within. So I agree with the writer who said, “If you do a little research, it is going to become evident to you that anyone that ever accomplished anything didn’t know how they were going to do it. They only knew they were going to do it.”

And in tandem with this view, late President Nelson Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” The next day I sat in front of my laptop. Then I began to ruminate and think over what I wanted to write. In a sense, where reasoning ends, inspiration or intuition takes over. Suddenly an idea came as a flash of lightning. That was the eureka moment. Then a flood of thoughts came in torrents.

At this instant, I started to hammer the words out. Lo and behold, the words poured and poured as if a heavy downpour. The dark clouds had given way to an outburst of creativity. My creative juice was on the boil. I was ready to roll. In Eastern lore, there is a saying, “When the student is ready, the Master will appear.” I was ready and raring to go. And the Muse had knocked on my door. The Muse had brought a basket of ideas and left the door ajar, as it were. The story came in whispers. It was as though taking dictation from an unseen creative partner. “Ask, seek and knock, and the door shall be open unto you,” the Good Book says.

Of a sudden, the door of creativity was opened for me, giving me the leeway to roam and wonder in the forest of imagination. Three months later, the labour of love was over. Indeed, writing is labour of love. In a way, writing is like a man clearing a forest in preparation for farming and planting. He must fell the trees, burn the stumps, and clear the underbrush. When the ground is free of thorns and thistles, he can now plant the seed and cultivate his crop. Next comes weeding and in real time he would reap the desired harvest. After a while, I had brought to fruition my first creative spark of imagination. I had delivered the pregnancy of books which I had long nursed in my head. This was the fruit of my endeavour. This was the fruit of my imagination. This was the child of my brain. This was a child of my imagination.

The new baby on the block was named- A Place in the Sun. I suppose everyone wants a place in the sun. The bright ray of the sun gives warmth, heat and sunshine. Naturally, plants, man and mammals need it to sustain life. Without the sun, plants, trees, grasses and shrubs will wither and die. Sun is light. Sun is life. Nevertheless, embarking on an adventure of the heart and mind had opened a thoroughfare into the secret chamber of the mind, which is the storehouse of knowledge and information. Indeed imagination is the tool of the writer. Imagination is the handmaiden of creativity. Still, it was an exhilarating experience. Nothing compares with this type of experience. I suppose it’s similar to the feeling a woman has after delivering her baby. I think it far and away one of the most important things I’ve done in life. As the Chinese adage says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step. By Jove, I had taken a big leap of imagination.

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