Confessions of a Writer

Stephen king quote

Every time I post a new article, it’s like asking a woman out on a date.

The groundhog experience of writing that never has the same response. It’s an interesting world to live in: being evaluated and judged on your thoughts and views on topics.

I was recently at the Franschhoek Literary Festival – as a writer, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing other writers speak. Some of the speakers were 30 book veterans; others weekly columnists. I imagined myself up on stage talking about my books; my muses; my processes I have for writing and explaining how it is I became a writer.

And on a more introspective level:

Become honest with myself that I am one.

writer

I read a fascinating article in the Guardian on why we love books and why festivals like the one I just attended are regularly sold out.

“The answer lies in the power of stories.

Stories have been around since time began; they tell us what it is to be human, give us context for the past and insight towards the future. A narrator’s voice replaces stressed, internal monologue and takes us out of our life and into the world of the story. Paradoxically, we think we are escaping ourselves but the best stories take us back deeper into our interior worlds.”

This is a brilliant description of what a reader might experience at the hands of a writer. But what about the latter? This writer would like to let you in on a few of his secrets.

  1. Where it began

I never had any aspirations of being a writer. In fact, I only remember one of my English pieces in creative writing getting an A (ironically it was about being in Cape Town – my new found home).

My writing developed because I was a terrible communicator. Talking about my problems used to make me feel as though I was in a bad dream, where I wanted to speak but had no vocal cords. I’m still not entirely sure whether it was related to all my insecurities or if it was because I didn’t want to burden anyone else with my problems. I felt that I just needed to sort them out myself. Thankfully I’ve worked through that (mostly).

I still have the first ‘Book of Andrew’ – my tributes to, and way of recording, the beauty in my life:

  • Drawings
  • Statements (I suppose what today would be memes)
  • My observations
  • Poems
  • Songs
  • My expression of happiness

It was a way for me to take the constant chatter in my head and turn a blank page into something meaningful. For me, it was far easier than expressing myself in person – especially when I was having, what mom eloquently named, “growing days”.

It was almost as if writing gave me the opportunity to become the ‘communicator’ on paper that I wished I could be in real life.

Writing was, and is, a way I could express myself completely.

  1. My nudge to think of writing more seriously

It’s amazing how the universe works. After swearing I would never move to the UK, low and behold, I ended up there towards the end of the 2003 summer.

These were the days before communication channels like Skype, Whatsapp, Facebook et al. It was either email or phone cards – and emails were the cheaper option for weekly correspondence.

It started innocently. I’m blessed with a family that is not just involved, but invested in my life; and so I’d write an email once a week about my adventures living in London Town. With family back in Johannesburg and some over in Canada, I enjoyed sitting down to collate my experiences of the past week to share with them. And as an extra bonus, I got to relive all of it a second time!

My mom and aunt started writing back to me expressing their admiration for my writing; and even though they are avid readers, I brushed it off as family bias. (Truth be told, I still have to catch myself in awe that people actually read what I write).

Being in London provided me with the unique opportunity to get outside of my comfort zone every day and forced me to think about what was going on in my life and what I was experiencing. I started an unofficial diary but until a few months later, hadn’t dabbled in writing about anything other than my own experiences.

  1. Short stories before my first novel

I met a woman and started writing short stories over email. It never progressed more than that though – maybe because I didn’t believe I could write a full story or that it would be any good. It was almost as if I had ADHD and, after more than a handful of pages, I’d become bored and prefer to start a new story.

Enter someone else to give me a push towards writing a full novel. The deal: she’d give me the title and I’d write her a story; sending her pages once I’d completed them (probably between seven to fifteen at a time). This was the first time I was pushing myself to develop a story and characters; but writing was slow for the first eight months.  And then the universe intervened once again.

The company I was working for at the time was liquidated. I was out of work for four months. There’s only so many new job postings you can look at and apply for in a day. Thankfully I had my writing to keep me occupied – else I’d have gone nuts.

Almost a year to the day I started writing my first novel, I finished it. It is and will always no doubt remain one of my favourite experiences of all time.

What has writing taught me?

The article I mentioned above talks about readers wanting to ‘escape themselves’ only to go deeper within themselves. I think writers have to go even deeper. The evidence is in the blank pages painted with our tears, crinkled with our frustrations and illuminated with our love. Our stories take you on a journey. I consider that a gift and a privilege.

It is why I endeavour to always leave my readers (or as I like to call you – my conscience) with positives. Not JUST positives – tangible concepts that are implementable right now.

And on that note, I’d like to share with you what my writing journey has taught me to date:

  1. Don’t dismiss positive praise. Look at the source. My family had nothing to gain from embellishing their praise. Nor did they have a history of telling me what I wanted to hear. So always consider the source and patterns of where the praise is coming from.
  2. Criticism (good or bad) says more about the other person than you or your writing. I did a video on my Facebook page around ‘being wrong’ and I believe it’s a concept we should really reconsider. All our experiences and viewpoints differ. Not better or worse. Just different. I’ve become more open to creating dialogue rather than simply trying to get across my point of view. Because even though I may have something to share, I’m often the one that ends up learning something new. 99% of people have enjoyed my book but I’ve also had it compared by one person to a Mills and Boon novel. Ouch. But that was their experience and therein lies the beauty of stories – one can be written with an intention, and yet interpreted in so many other ways.
  3. Be yourself. If I try to write what I think people will like, how would I decipher what that is exactly? There are 7 billion people on this planet! People respond to authenticity. I believe it’s something we all aspire to be all the time. Authentic in the absence of judgement. I’m nervous every time I post something new, but what keeps me going is the fact that I’m being true to myself; how I want to live my life. BUT – I know I don’t know everything and I need to be open to comments on my writing which highlight gaps in my thinking or illuminate something to which I’ve never been exposed to before. Again – I never stop learning.
  4. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes you wonder ‘What the f@#k’. Those four months at home writing day after day gave me a window into what it would be like to write full time. Some days it flows as if you’re plugged into a machine and downloading information with fibre-optic speed; other days it’s a struggle to write one sentence. Isn’t that a great metaphor for life? Some days we feel in the flow; others we feel whatever we do is like wading through mud. Don’t get disheartened – the struggle days are outnumbered by the good ones; and every day you feel is a battle will be followed by one where everything works out.
  5. Value time. If you love something – set aside time to do it as often as possible. I’d even say every day – even if it’s simply ten minutes. I recently read this quote on Tim Ferris’s blog: “You can do so much in 10 minutes’ time. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into 10-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.” – Ingvar Kamprad, Founder of the furniture brand IKEA
  6. Be bold – it’s worth it. We build things up in our minds and human nature tends to lean us towards focusing on the negatives. ‘Who will read it?’; ‘He won’t want to talk to me’; ‘The world will swallow me whole if I do x’. The rewards I’ve gotten from writing (nothing monetary) have been some of the most uplifting moments of my life. Had I not listened to my family, this would never have been written; you’d be looking at a blank page. Just give whatever it is you’ve been afraid to try a go. I promise you – it’s absolutely exhilarating.
  7. Just Start. Sometimes the hardest part is opening the laptop or grabbing a pen. I can come up with uncountable reasons why now isn’t a good time to write. Most of the time, though, these blogs included, just writing the first few words is the crack in the door I need to open it wide.

Running (out of) Water

Theeuwaterskloof

I didn’t believe this would happen. Or perhaps, in all honesty, I didn’t want to believe it would happen. But the likelihood of the Western Cape running out of water is now a very real scenario.

Lack of appreciation

Theewaterskloof comparison

Rainfall has been steadily declining the past few years and dams like Theewaterskloof, the biggest supplier of water to the Cape, have dropped by 20% each year since 2014. 20% is not a small number, which ultimately begs the question why weren’t these conversations happening sooner? And if they were, why have we been so slow to react?

Nevertheless, I’m not here to harp on about that. Instead, I’d like to focus on three questions:

  1. What happens when we do in fact run out of water?
  2. What contributed to us ending up in this position?
  3. What changes in our collective attitude do we need to make?

1.Life without water

As always, the hardest hit would be the impoverished in the region who already have limited access to water. The majority of us take it for granted that we can just open a tap and, whammy, there it is.

Those of us in more privileged positions would at least be able to buy bottled water to drink. It’s the bathing and keeping clean which would no doubt affect people the most as well as sanitation.

Necessity is the mother of invention, maybe a good month or two will show us all how we can be more resourceful with our water and use it sparingly. Water is life and such a jolt to our systems to remind us might do the trick.

In my opinion this isn’t a ’recent’ problem though. I think this has been developing for quite some time.

2.Where it began

Before I go further, I’d like to mention the meat industry. They use a tremendous amount of water amongst other key problems they contribute to. You can read an informative article HERE for an in-depth look.

My focus is more on our lack of respect for the environment. It isn’t just South Africa – all around the world our cultures are ever more inwardly focused. Selfies, obsessions over more post likes, the boom in cosmetic surgery and dissociative behaviour towards any crisis not affecting people personally.

It’s no wonder our collective disregard for any water source has become normal.

Exhibit A: Just look at how few Americans (besides Native Americans) are fighting to protect the Missouri River from an oil pipeline.

Take for example any river in and around Cape Town – would you drink out of it? I definitely wouldn’t. Yet settlements all around the world that became large cities were all originally chosen for their proximity to water – Paris, London, Berlin, Baghdad, you name it. Communities need these types of water sources in order to survive.

Now think of the streams around Table Mountain that, as yet, are still so clean and tasty they put any bottled water to shame. Imagine Eerste Rivier and Black River were just as sanitary.

Everyone’s going to be affected; although I’m sure the exceptionally wealthy will come up with ways to ship in water for use. What a wonderful opportunity for us to work together on solutions going forward which will benefit everyone in our communities.  This brings me to my next point.

3.Collective changes needed

We really need to work on how we:

  1. Store more water
  2. Respect where we live and not pollute our existing water sources
  3. Maintain our reduction in water use post-drought and water restrictions
  4. Educate our children about water

As our population continues to grow and weather patterns become more and more erratic, thanks to global warming and climate change, we need to be thinking not just about this year. Or the next. Or even a decade into the future. This is a long term plan.  Thirty years down the line. Maybe even more.

What are we doing to protect our water for the next generations? Because if we know generations fifty years from now are sorted – that means we’re sitting pretty.

Global phenomenon

One down side to industrialisation is the fact our collective efforts have allowed us to become lazy. Unless you live in rural South Africa of course and are one of the c.74% who only have access to ground water (from wells, pumps etc.) But for most of us urbanites, we simply switch on a tap and voilà. If we had to walk, carry and then treat the water ourselves perhaps we’d be less inclined to litter and pollute our water sources. (It varies from country to country, but even in these cases we can see high levels of pollution). Just take a drive past Black River to get a sense of how bad we are.

WWF Journey of Water
Black River near Cape Town

Moving forward

Our biggest challenge is that this is a collective effort. It’s no good if some aren’t on board. This is where we as citizens must rise and step in when people so blatantly litter. For example, something as seemingly small as a smoker dropping their butt out of a car window. If I’m at a traffic light and I see this happen, I get out and hand it back: “Sorry – I think you dropped this”.

Obviously this is not a quick fix. We need to be realistic and understand that the majority of societies have zero regard for the environment.

At Afrikaburn, an event in the desert that has radical self-reliance as a core principle, there are 13 000 partakers and they need 4 000 volunteers. Their motto is “One burner, one shift” and it works.

Conceivably mandatory community service (whatever your social status is) will start changing attitudes? This isn’t a complete solution to the very grave issue we’re facing, but perhaps four hours a week picking up litter and trudging through our polluted rivers that smell to high heaven will start us down the right road? How long would it take to improve the environment around us?

We’ve lost touch with nature. We’ve been lost for more than a century, I think.

It’s time to start reconnecting; before it really is too late.

My favourite line in Bruce Almighty, is when Morgan Freeman (playing God) declares ‘No matter how filthy something gets, you can always clean it right up’

Our situation is no different.

Clearest Lake
The dream

Insecurity – A 20 Year Journey

IMG_5790[1]

I’m not entirely sure what I’m expecting heading back to my hometown Johannesburg for my 20 year reunion; but there’s definitely butterflies floating around in my belly.

Not everyone’s keen on returning to reunions though for various reasons, perhaps bad memories from high school – some mates have never been back to their school never mind aspirations of attending their reunions. There’s the possibility of not being as successful as others? Maybe our relationship status makes us nervous. Society creates ‘templates’ and if you’re not following it; ‘what’s wrong with you’ or ‘why’ are generally the recipient’s responses.

I’m incredibly proud that I’m a King Edwards old boy and even more so seeing that the traditions and ethos of the school haven’t just been maintained – but elevated to new levels.

Attending is also a great opportunity to put some of my beliefs into practice too. I’m grateful I did, visiting the school that shaped me into the man I am today was insightful.

We joined the assembly before a tour of the grounds; followed by golf and then what became a very entertaining dinner. My day starts at 06h30 driving to school the exact way I did back in 1997; only I’m not in the passenger seat. All the emotions and feelings of being at school come flooding back – the good and the bad. I had a mixed high school but I’m thankful for that. Life isn’t all roses.

I didn’t slot into any one specific group back then. I played a variety of sport and as such interacted with some of the more popular boys but was also in the Latin class. We were a small class that had a mix of everything. Academics, the deputy head boy and prefects; some of the best actors and debaters too. We had guys playing cricket, rugby, rowing, squash, basketball and athletics as well as some that played no sport. A mixture of boarders and day boys all from diverse backgrounds.

This all worked to shape my young mind, I was also getting the added benefit of a life education in people skills.

Twenty years evaporate in an instant

How I’ve changed since matric (thankfully, otherwise that really would’ve been a failure on my part) I’ve been blessed to live in three cities; work abroad and travel to fourteen countries. My mind’s been opened significantly through all my travels and I’m richer for it.

I’m also four inches taller and twenty kilograms heavier than my younger self; a completely different hairstyle too with less of it to boot and not as many greys as I’d like (yes, you read that correctly) Needless to say, some of the guys take a while to remember exactly who I am. But for the most part, strap on our uniforms and we may as well be in matric again.

IMG_5789[1]

Lesson #1: Self Development pays off

I was terribly insecure back then. Just walking into the school every morning was a struggle; fast forward twenty years and walking into the quadrangle seeing familiar faces is actually a great experience. Talking to guys I’d either been intimidated by or perhaps wished I could be more like was now as easy as brushing my teeth.

What I learned: How I felt back in school was completely my own doing. My insecurities about being liked or being good enough to want to be friends with was all in my head. My behaviour was created by my thoughts, making me seem aloof or distant to those around me so the cycle continued.

Greatest transition from young Andrew: learning that it’s okay not to be liked by everyone and the best you can do is be yourself. That’s how you attract and become friends with those that will matter in your life and vice versa.

Do everything required to be the person you’d most like to spend time with and be friends with.

Lesson #2: Success is different to everyone. Avoid comparisons.

One of the first questions asked is ‘Are you married’ and if you nod your head quickly followed by ‘kids’?

I’ve come close but as yet haven’t been married and currently single too. (I think my wife’s playing the world’s greatest game of hide and seek.)

What I learned: Everyone’s path is different and there’s no ‘right way’. In fact the best response from one of my classmates was ‘Are you happy’. I most certainly am. ‘Then that’s all that matters mate’

Greatest transition from young Andrew: Up until I had my first kiss at 19, I wondered if any woman would ever be interested in me romantically. Now I look back on some profound relationships with exceptional women that, just as King Edwards VII School, made me a better person. Combined with the first lesson above, I’m comfortable walking into a situation where I know I’ll be the only guy in my position – and be okay with that. Whatever traits you wish you had, you can have them it’s never too late.

Measure your progress against yourself, not anyone else.

Lesson #3: Our school years are so important

I was fortunate to go to such a great high school. In fact my Latin teacher is the one who inspired the name of my blog when he told us ‘dare to be Renaissance Men’. This meant that between school and home I was challenged to be my best; always be a gentleman and have an unwavering respect for myself and others.

It’s fascinating to hear all the stories of where everyone’s paths have taken them. It’s inspiring to see how they’ve become champions in their various fields but more importantly: life.

What I learned: It doesn’t matter who you are on this planet, we’ll all experience utter moments of bliss, death and setbacks. The sooner we realise that it’s not what happens to us that defines us – but rather how we choose to move forward that does; our lives change.

Greatest transition from young Andrew: I decided one drive back from school that what I was doing wasn’t working. I wanted my life experiences to be better. It’s taken years of trial and errors and looking back on how I’ve progressed, I’m eternally grateful for that decision. None of us are perfect; we all have hopes and dreams; all of which can be achieved.

Figure out what’s most important to you and never compromise on that.

My biggest change in those 20 years?

In Matric I was consumed with me. How will I make the first team; why am I not as popular as other boys? Whereas now, I’m more externally focussed on what I can do for others while constantly working on being the best person possible. A far better balance and focus that has allowed me to cultivate some truly incredible friendship groups that add such colour and value to my life experiences.

Bottom line: Stop worrying about what others think and make sure what you think, is partnering with where you want to go.

Your twenty year future self will thank you.