Why Write?

Written by Doreen Baingana

One of my most favourite essays is by the late Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera about her experience as a woman writer. She wrote about how as children, she and her friends would use small sticks to scratch words all over their legs, thighs, and arms, enjoying the different sensations provoked on different parts of the body.

This took me back to my own childhood and the long forgotten memory of doing the same. Scratching my name on my thighs was ticklish, and the flesh was too soft for a proper imprint. It was easier on the arms, but the best place was the lower leg where the skin was tougher, so I could press more firmly with the thin stick; I could write more deliberately. Also, the whitish-grey scratch marks where clearer on the darker skin. We would then spit on our palms and use the saliva to erase the words, rubbing hard into the skin, so that we start all over again, decorating our bodies with words.

This was the start of my love for writing.

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This memory would not have occurred to me as being worth writing about, because it was not like anything I had encountered in a book since almost all my reading has been of foreign books, that is, of experiences mostly foreign to mine. Such read experiences seemed to be the ones worthy of being written about.

Only someone dark-skinned can write on her body with a stick. I had ignored my own experience and yet it was so central to my make-up: it was about the beginnings of the love for language, for words, for the physical act of writing. It was a sensual experience, done purely for the pleasure of it; the actual inscribing was an artistic act. And it was done on the body, this thing we carry with us every day, that we love and hate in equal measure, but usually rank lower than the mind, especially as writers.

This was long before writing got loaded with the heaviness of school notes, homework, exams and reports.

From Poetry to Projects

I have always loved reading, fiction especially, that escape into other people’s lives, and this lead to my attempt at poetry and then fiction, and discovered that I loved it almost as much as I do reading, and people seemed to enjoy reading my work.

However, after taking numerous writing workshops and a master’s degree in creative writing, after publishing many short stories and essays, two children’s books and an award-winning collection, Tropical Fish, somewhere along the way, writing has become a duty.

The creative non-fiction book I am working on now has become a “project” I approach with some reluctance, because it is what I must do. Writing has become a profession for me, something with which to prove myself, and I am much too aware of the outward marks of success; of publishing deals, prizes to be won, blogs and lists to be included on, the competitiveness among writers that we never mention, at least not in public.

I would like to write again with love, from the body. I would like to go back to that essential sensual experience.

Writing is what I do best and I want to honour my gift. But I need to somehow go back to that innocent time when writing was more spontaneous, when it was about discovery, when a new true sentence was a thrill—did I do that? Back when my focus was on the creative act and not on the accolades or lack thereof.

How can we hold onto the excitement of the early days while still forging on as professional writers or as any other kind of artist?

The Love of Words

For me, one way is to keep reminding myself why I started to write and still continue. I write because I love words. Words strung together into a beautiful necklace of a sentence, that sound beautiful and make beautiful meaning. I write because of the effect words have on me.

Now that I have lived long and quite intensely, I find that the pleasure of a read experience told really well is just as good, if not better, than lived experience. The love scene near the end of Arundati Roy’s The God of Small Things is as evocative as the real thing. I have been to every continent on this earth, almost for real, in books. As a visitor, I can only scratch the surface of a foreign city, but in a book, I get to live there with each character.

If I can create this same sense of immediacy, of wonder, the shock of recognition like a slap in the face, I would have done my job.

I write because it’s fun. Spinning words out of nothing, like a magician, a witch—a good one!

I write because I have not read about how our birds squawk. I want to use the best words to record the early-morning song competition among Entebbe birds so that someone in Beijing or Lima can hear it in her head. To draw in words the swift and skilful art of peeling matooke, that lethally cool dance of knife and fingers. To re-create Kabale or Mbale on the page so we know these towns as well as we know London.

The Balancing Act

As a full-time writer, I have a lot of freedom, time and space, all precious, but the price for this is little security and stability. The next paycheck is not guaranteed, nor is the next publication or the next page written to my satisfaction.

The doubts hound: Am I really good enough? Who am I to think I have new stories to tell and a new way to tell them? But I have to go on because I have an ego that feeds on words, mine and anyone else’s. I need to prove that I can do it.

At the core though, I write in an attempt to make sense of this world. Who and what and why are we? Why do we do what we do, to ourselves and to one another? Why can’t we stop?

In Tropical Fish, for example, I asked myself, how do girls become women? What is that process? How is this sense of self created?

The stories—captured moments woven together into the whole cloth of narrative—helped me recognize that we often become what we see reflected back by the mirror of society: it’s expectations, definitions, walls, safe houses. And we grow into ourselves through separation from others, through the pain and joy of experience and through sheer trial and error, one event or action after another.

In writing, I find that when I pry open this closed bud, this mystery, scene after scene, I can better understand what a flower is, and so hold it more carefully in my hands. Or at least try to.

Ultimately, selfishly, I write to make sense of myself.

A recent short story I’ve written explores a mother’s ambivalent feelings for her child. We mothers are supposed to feel nothing but love; a heart-wrenching internal (eternal?) battle is reduced to a Madonna-and-child Hallmark card cliché. But the emotional truth is not as simple, not as sweet.

A story that works, for me, is a rebuttal against cliché, especially the ones we are force-fed by organized religion, by tradition, by ministers of ethics and their ilk. My story showed me I can live with this tug of war, this pull between self and other.

In other words, a creative act can re-create the actor. Or so I’d like to believe.

Doreen Baingana is a Ugandan writer and author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, which she won an Association of Writers & Writing Programs Prize for Short Fiction (2003) and a Commonwealth Prize (2005). She is now a member of Startjournal.org’s Editorial Board.

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.