I was in the staff room working on my pupils’ lesson notes when I realised that I hadn’t checked my email in two days. My Android tablet had had issues so I wasn’t getting email notifications. Putting away my lesson books, I switched on my laptop and looked through my mail box hoping to see what interview request had been turned down and which writer friend was sending me their piece to ‘look at’. Then I saw it. An email from Writivism; Congratulations: Your Application to the 2016 Writivism Nonfiction Workshop Was Successful. I remember my head reeling as I read through the email. I could have broken out into unrestrained laughter, but my colleagues were watching. I held it all in like a fart and excused myself.
In the rest room, I fell into hysteria. It was, finally, an opportunity to attend a writing workshop. Something I had long yearned for. I remembered the sadness I felt when in 2014, I applied for the Farafina Creative Writing workshop and was rejected. I remembered the reluctance with which I applied for the same workshop in 2015 and the satisfaction I felt at being on the shortlist, even though I didn’t make the final cut. The Writivism selection came as my redemption; evidence that I wasn’t such a horrible writer after all.
Why the workshop? Is it a wise thing to travel out of one’s country, with all the expenses involved (in these hard times) to attend a writing workshop? Doesn’t the internet teach these things?! I will say, yes, it is. And yes, it was worth it. The 2016 Writivism Nonfiction Workshop taught me so much that I may never have learnt on my own. First, there is the comfort that comes with being with people who have the same interest as yours. Secondly, there is the exposure and honesty that comes with talking about your passion and fears with people who understand because they go through the same thing; in an air-conditioned room, over coffee and biscuits.
But people don’t just wake up and leave their country for workshops. Not with the economic situation in Nigeria. After the euphoria of being selected had died down, I asked myself: do you have wings to fly to Accra, Jennifer? And will you sleep on the streets when you get there? I could hear my mother’s voice in my head: ‘Chinenye, are you all right? You don’t realise how difficult things are now abi? There is no money now o. Miss the workshop. You won’t die. Next year, when you have money, you will go’.
I didn’t have to wait till next year, though. African Women Development Fund (AWDF) came to the rescue and I was awarded a travel grant that covered my trip. Beyonce wasn’t joking when she sang Run the World (Girls).
The facilitator of the workshop, Yewande Omotoso, had said on the first day that we should all be relaxed. She was particular about each person’s need. What is it that bothered you most about your writing and what do you intend to take out of the workshop? She kept asking each participant as she took notes. I had forgotten all the nervousness I felt earlier as I looked into her eyes and explained my trouble with writing.
‘You see, Jennifer, this is a serious challenge and you have to learn to get past the fear.’
‘I know. I just find it hard to go back to what I’ve written. I loathe my work after writing it.’
‘But we all feel the same, don’t we?’ she turned to the class and they nodded and chorused ‘yes’, narrating their personal encounters.
During the masterclass on editing, she gave us an exercise to write an opening paragraph suitable for a nonfiction piece. Then she asked that we rewrite it. Which reads better? She asked me. The second, I replied. She explained the importance of working through one’s work and likened writing to architecture. It is fine to have an editor, she said, but writers should also be able to pay attention to their works, seek out errors and work through it, if they desire growth. The actual writing is in rewriting, in editing, and if one is not willing to labour through their work, then why are you writing? I took the question personally and asked myself: Why are you writing, Jennifer? Same question I ask myself now each time I get overwhelmed and try to abandon a piece I’m working on. Same question that drove me to finish a 4,500-word short story I had long abandoned because every time I tried to work on it, I felt I was horrible. But listening to Yewande that afternoon talk about writing and editing one’s own work, about ‘understanding the power you have’ as a writer, I realised fear was not an excuse. And to be a writer, I had to write.
There were other things Yewande shared with us. She showed us a TEDxvideo of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about writing and the doubts and fears that come with it and how to overcome them. She read a nonfiction piece by Ernest Hemingway. There was a discussion on structure and what exactly constitutes a nonfiction piece. Should writers bother about being vulnerable? How much truth can be revealed in nonfiction and what is the place of ethics in writing? I may not be able to capture exactly how I felt during the five-day workshop, but I do remember not wanting to leave when it ended with the International Women’s Day celebration organised by AWDF. I have great memories of the robust conversations on feminism. I read a short nonfiction piece I wrote on objectifying women and I saw from other people’s contributions how similar the ‘woman experience’ is everywhere.
I attended the 2016 Writivism Accra Non-fiction workshop with the feeling of a novice. When I heard some of the writers speak about themselves on the first day, I asked myself; ‘Jennifer, are you sure you are supposed to be here?’ but I returned to Nigeria a confident African woman. Did I become a better writer? Yes. And more importantly, I know now why I (should) write.
Bio: Jennifer Chinenye Emelife writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. In 2016, she participated in the Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop in Accra and the Short Story Day Africa Flow Workshop in Lagos. She’s co-founder and lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature.