What you need to know:
- But a writer is in danger of destroying what talent they have when they join the cult of the personality by exhorting any one writer above themselves and their work, although a nod can be given for what may have been learnt.
- I reminded him of a book we both read. The writer clearly admired a certain writer who writes her prose very poetically. And they had tried to mimic their hero with the early part of the book.
- Nairobi has a unique project that allows the type of feedback my friend asked for. It’s called the AMKA Writing Workshop and happens monthly at the Goethe Institut.
As this week started winding down, a young writer friend sent me a message wondering how he could get a writer to be his mentor.
“I thought you already had writers looking out for you and giving you pointers,” I said, knowing full well that I have been one of those writers.
The best mentoring for any writer, I told my young writer friend, is not any one writer. It is many writers. A writer is likely to cultivate their voice best when they read widely. Sometimes a writer may even have a favourite writer but one does themselves serious disservice if that is the only writer they read. There is no book that I have not learnt from. All the books that I have read have taught me something. The badly written ones have taught me how not to write and the good ones have taught me what to aspire to and between the good and the bad, I have learnt to articulate myself. Why then have one mentor when I could have a libraryful of mentors?
I reminded him of a book we both read. The writer clearly admired a certain writer who writes her prose very poetically. And they had tried to mimic their hero with the early part of the book. The writer’s voice only came in a later part of the book and when it did, apart from a couple of missteps which were more editorial than authorial, it was a decent plot captivatingly captured. But in these days of social media, one does not need to be a literary scholar to be a literary critic. This book was much maligned and its defenders have not nearly been as many as the people who abandoned it and wanted to send the author an invoice for a refund and the time they took to read those first 40 pages.
There is always then, the danger that a writer protégé will always imitate their mentor or the writer their mentor admires. And literature does not need another Arundhati Roy, Ngugi wa Thingo, Toni Morrison or Haruki Murakami. Literature demands that every writer be themselves so that, even for those who believe that every plot has already been written, when a reader picks up one’s work, there is something as unique to it as one’s fingerprint.
So my young writer friend explained himself. He told me he got my point completely. But believed it was usually better to have someone who knows something look at their work and give some feedback.
I agree totally. But I do not think that person has to be an established writer holding the hand of a younger writer and giving them direction. When that happens, the example I gave above may very likely be the result. The adverse of course is when established writers believe that good writing ended with their generation and fail to read any of the works that came after them.
This is when their work comes out as stale because they have failed to learn from what may be working stylistically for the next generation of readers. But back to the feedback request for writers who are starting out.
Nairobi has a unique project that allows the type of feedback my friend asked for. It’s called the AMKA Writing Workshop and happens monthly at the Goethe Institut. Having attended the workshops a few times, I have noticed that some of the best feedback for stories come from the participants who are peer and not necessarily Tony and Tom, as lovely as they are.
This is because although many of the participants are aspiring writers, more than that, they are readers. And they know what they would enjoy as readers.
Can upcoming writers learn from any individual established writer? Absolutely. They can learn what to give and not give away when signing a contract. They can learn the best editors to work with. They can learn the better publishing houses to deal with. They will even learn how or how not to write.
But a writer is in danger of destroying what talent they have when they join the cult of the personality by exhorting any one writer above themselves and their work, although a nod can be given for what may have been learnt. At a time when the Nobel Literature Prize has gone to a musician then, perhaps it’s fitting to give a Wanner Posthumous Award to one Whitney Houston for her immortal words exhorting us “never to walk in anyone’s shadow.” Many upcoming writers would do well to remember this. And many established writers would do well to remember this too, even if the shadow is their own.