Half Man, Half Words
Written by AK Kaiza
In my second year at University I alighted upon a bright idea (it would be second year; I had been in journalism class a few months by then and gone through the writing course enough to begin formulating my own ideas about it):
In solving the teething problem of picking the right adjectives (for reasons lost to me now, it particularly seemed important to have the right adjectives), I would pick an egg and attempt to summon up the most apt adjectives I could to describe the egg without naming it so a reader would know what I was talking about:
First I would choose those adjectives that described what the egg looked like. Next, I would close my eyes and touch and rub and tap the egg, drumming out the “qualifiers” — as the American lecturer called them — that remind you what things felt like in your fingers. I would turn off the lights so as not to cheat. I would then run my tongue over the egg — ergo — the right adjective would burst upon my taste buds. I would then smell the egg. Lastly I would throw the egg down.
Through this ingenuously simple idea, things would break out and I would launch into any essay like no one else could. I was as excited about the idea as any 21-year old would be discovering why the earth really is round. Like most 21-year olds, I never got around to the egg-work.
Reading now the journals I kept back then, the point of having plans seems to have been to write down those plans, not carry them out. Through sheer indolence, I was already a qualified writer, a Pol Potian re-education candidate.
Then again, I might have gone ahead with the plan had I chosen to use a mango instead. Running a tongue over an egg should be only so attractive; watching it crash and ooze orange-ly brings, rather than adjectives, queasiness in nose and stomach. Smelling what pops out the other end of a fowl that never bathes is taking writing experiments too far.
I never practiced on adjectives. To have done so, I would have been a bricklayer. I put off practice till later; I was busy turning out essays for newspapers to earn pocket money.
How I went about adjectives in those years I did not record in my journals. The adjectives I used in them now show overreach, trying for too much. A word like predilection would make acquaintance with me and we would go out binge-describing, dipping in the pool of overwrite, gallivanting in the countryside of cleverness.
Now and then I will read my journals and quickly draw a magazine (it can be a newspaper or the unpaid electricity bill, depending on what is on my desk) over them. It is an unbearable, cringing shame reading stuff you wrote when all you had was excitement and inspiration.
Searching for Things to Write About
Writing seems much easier when you have nothing to write about. You become weighed down with what you have come to know of things and thence, sitting down to write is like attempting to drive a car that breaks down the moment you insert the key into the ignition.
While I knew little about the world, I hungrily searched for things to write about, imagining that this second piece of the form/substance dicotyledon was what I was waiting for. I was energetically piling up writer’s blocks for later.
The journal entry of mid-1997 I run over rapidly. In one entry, I had just discovered the engineering genius that moved the massive stones up Egyptian pyramids. I know this discovery came of studying an axe. I know because the diagrams are in the journal.
More than a decade later, I read somewhere of writers who clamp up when an earlier book they would rather not have written is mentioned. I was in very good humiliated company. As a not-so productive writer, I tell myself I have escaped the shame of early books by having no early books myself. My first book will be a late book, late like breakfast at 11:30 am — with an overcooked egg.
I don’t remember in what particular order the other writing fixes came in. I spent a great deal of time recording conversations to really get dialogue as it is; I poured over sociology texts; I became an amateur linguist; I was attracted by the naturalists, the realists, magic realists. As each impulse came, so did I imagine myself laying out what the real world was, which ended up being a project of showing up how hard the nature of things was.
On that route was a country-full of the hard-bitten, which was too willful to pass muster. I laid out yards of manuscript in which things arose from sapling to bud to flower and smelled too much like perfume.
I would send Remedios the Beauty to heaven, clutching a pair of bed-sheets. I added other elements just for myself; the bedsheets wouldn’t be bedsheets and heaven would not be heaven; Remedios the Beauty would not be Remedios or a beauty. Then it would not be magic realism at all. By the time I got around to figuring it out, I had lost interest in Garcia Marquez.
I was parsing things, the route a writer takes to writing as an apprentice sculptor copies a finger off a great monument.
When I was no longer interested in this or that school of writing, I was no longer sure what writing was about. Literature with a capital L, I discovered, was not what you produced as a writer; it was what they talked about at universities.
In there, I must have been struggling to arrive at a certain equilibrium, at something synaptic, a biological thing comporting internally, moving its limbs about till properly arranged for sleep. I wanted to write and keep rewriting and re-seeing and re-thinking the world till that feeling of thinness which in a book breeds phrenic beriberi was gone. I wanted to go on filing and chiseling (and adding and casting more material, not just taking out) till a shape emerged that had me purring like a well-nourished cat.
Over the years I found that writing is not an exact picture of life (latterly, I had found out that I would not be a naturalist or any writerly affectation ending with ist). Writing is an artifice separate from real life.
Of life, you can only dock the ship of craft onto it, or only sail it close enough for your passengers to recognise that island passing by called life. Capturing the sound on the street as you heard it was not what let you sleep peacefully at night. What made you sleep peacefully at night was not what snapped you out of bed at 3 a.m. and crashed you onto the keyboard. The thing that ejaculates from the impulse is not what gestates at the end of the pregnancy.
Writing is not a tell-all
At this point, I was unsure if I wanted to be a writer. But by then, nearly a decade since the egg period, there was nothing else capable of hugging me in a passionate hug.
If there is a truth to be admitted to, I will concede this one; it feels like truth, scabrous, incomplete and grudgingly accepted: being a writer is like going on being married. You arrive at a point in it where you no longer have the energy to learn to live with a new person and hold down your peregrinations.
What emerged, like this essay, came from filling out the time till I could teach myself to really write, a cheerless, quotidian achievement to live with. Like any proper lesson with life, you end up with what you did, not what you wanted to do.
Of subject, the thing you write about, that’s even more chimeric. It’s enough to say there are issues to believe in enough in this world to fill books with, which they have done. It is grand to sketch out the world of a character, and sentences can be constructed, plots drawn to describe and drag out motive for this and that action.
It takes time to realise that writing on any scale that can be called art is not a tell-all. Beyond a few paragraphs, the choosing and placing of words and the shaping of them into assemble-able parts saps out whatever passions there might have been.
So it was back to the beginning. Unbeknownst to me, in the egg crouched a sturdy bird, one that had long hatched and was secretly growing into something wholesomely present, scruffy, ill-mannered and uncontrollable. It crowed and fought and got you in trouble with the neighbours and looked ready to kill you. I suppose that’s called writing career.
I don’t know precisely what brings that impulse shooting up to grip my attention when it comes to writing. The world is not made of words; writing is an ill-fitting window onto the frame of life, one you spend a lot of your own life shoving and hammering into an awkward parity.
To read a book is to view the world of man through scribbles, the woops of Os and Bs, swirls of Ws and Ms lining up like dots on TV (read too closely and it falls apart; read too closely and you fool yourself into thinking there’s anything to it). It is the melding of man and alphabet, the Frankenstein Thing.
What I suspect is that I cornered myself at any early age — somewhere around the age of 10 — into calling myself a writer and spent the years justifying the choice. I have never felt the need to be inspired into writing; I do not recognise myself when not writing. You already were before you learnt the alphabet, for you have a moral view of the world and won’t be told to shut up.
At some point, I was unsure if I wanted to be a writer. I was uninterested in writing because I had become writing itself and each thing I think of writing implicates my personality. I saw things, say a bush zipping past a car window and would find myself thinking; “He looked out the window and saw that each moment he drove past that bush, the same thoughts returned”. It would be walking into the kitchen and catching myself saying; “The hunger gnawed at him like a money-lender”.
Between me and the world had emerged a customs and immigration post of letters where things were screened and patted down and frisked about by a gang of words before they were let in.
AK Kaiza is a Ugandan writer.
For Issue 034 Jul ’13 of Startjournal.org, Editor Thomas Bjørnskau invited eight Ugandan artists from different art fields to write an essay about the essence of art, all responding to the same kind of question: to sing/write/paint/write plays etc — what is it really about? This is one of the essays. You can read the other essays here.