By Nana Nyarko Boateng
In my writing experience, characters enter my head uninvited, staying or leaving at times of their choosing. And for however long they stay, they tell their stories. A character will wake me up in the middle of the night and say, “let me tell you about the day my father ate his own vomit like a dog.” The character hardly cares that I have no interest in this father-vomit story as sleep spreads throughout my body. She goes ahead with the details and I’m compelled to get up to the pleasure of my character, writing as I watch a father eat vomit.
Until a few weeks into the Mawazo Africa Writing Institute’s “Writing the Novel” workshop, I thought I had very little control over what my characters said and did. I would often say that my stories were written the way they were written because that’s how the characters told the story to me. Our tutor, the writer Jennifer Makumbi, however did not buy into any of that. She explained that there is a place to lose yourself in your work and there is a place to take control and be deliberate about what you are creating. This was a difficult lesson for me to take, because initially, I thought she was asking me to be mechanical about my creative process. She wasn’t really asking this but it took me a while to appreciate what she meant.
The introductory class was fun and I was excited to share my work and learn from Jennifer as well as the other five amazing writers for the twelve weeks we had together. Then week two came, demanding attentiveness and intention and hard work. The tutor and the other writers in the class raised questions that I hadn’t even bothered to ask about my own work. In the beginning, I felt lost, I thought “God, do they even know how much time and energy has gone into writing this novel? Why are these people trying to make me look stupid?” But they weren’t trying to make me look or feel stupid, I just hadn’t yet done all the work my story required. I had invited them into a world I had created and yet, I didn’t even seem to know this world well enough. The more their interest in my work grew, the more questions they had; and here I was, looking for a place to hide.
By the fourth week, I had completely gotten over myself. I understood perfectly, that this idea that my characters control me and I do not control them was not entirely true. I began to learn how to take control of my story, writing and rewriting synopses and plot outlines and chapters. I began to allow my characters to live in a space larger than my head. The Writing the Novel workshop provided a community of real people who were willing to see and interact with my characters; questioning, empathizing or disliking them, but at all times following their every word and action. Through the reading and writing assignments, discussions, critiquing sessions and laughter, my imagination was stretched. My writer’s muscles were strengthened. Today, I know my characters better, I am more aware of the world I am creating in my novel and how this world may affect the larger world around me.
There was openness, safety and a genuine sense of care in the environment Mawazo Africa Writing Institute shaped for writers to create and learn from each other. Our course tutor, Jennifer Makumbi, and of course the other writers in the workshop, were selfless in critiquing and laboring to make my work better every step of the way.
There was mutual respect and warmth from both the administrators of the program and my fellow writers. I would consistently get emails from, Rebecca just checking if I was okay whenever there seemed to be an issue at my end. At some point, I got ill and one of my colleagues, Sunny Ekhalume, sent the kindest email to check if I was recovering nicely. I’ve never met any of my colleagues in the workshop because it all happens online but I now genuinely feel that there are at least ten people in the world who want me to succeed as a writer and can’t wait to read my work. The directors of Mawazo Africa Writing Institute, Doreen Baingana and Farida Bagalaaliwo, are adamant about creating the best learning experience for participants, and I couldn’t thank them enough for pursuing this vision; it has changed my writing life.