BY ANNA STROUD
I was in my fourth year at university, studying towards a Bachelors degree in Journalism and Media Studies. I chose writing and editing as my specialisation and for our final term we worked on a narrative long form piece under the mentorship of Rian Malan – the Hunter S Thompson of South Africa.
I wanted to write about my life, but I didn’t want to talk about it directly. So I decided to focus on education in South Africa, and I found a kid who was willing to say all the things I couldn’t say. He spoke about the things that hindered his education: drugs, poverty, peer pressure. How writing saved him, and got him to return to school. At the end, I threw in a section about my brother and his struggles to stay in school, and I ended off with a bit of moralising and a whole lot of BS.
Rian didn’t buy it. The only part he found interesting was the end section about my brother. He said the rest of the story – although relevant – was not the real story I was trying to tell.
I went back to my residence room, drowned my sorrows in cheap red wine, and tried again.
This time, I took his advice. I poured out all the bad stuff I’d been feeling; how I couldn’t help my brother; how he’d repeatedly dropped out of school and wasn’t open to accepting any help I tried to give him. How I couldn’t understand how the system that saved me – I, too, was a troubled child – could fail him so badly. How my teachers, the ones who taught me and lifted me out of poverty and abuse, couldn’t do the same for him. I wracked my brain – interspersing my own questions with anecdotes about the young man I interviewed who did beat the odds to go back to school. How did some kids do it; and others didn’t?
Rian loved the new piece. He said it had depth and real emotion; it touched on an issue that many people face in my country. Years later, I saw Rian again, and he still remembered my story and asked me how my brother was doing. (Not well, is the answer.)
Writing is intuitive. It’s difficult. It’s something I both yearn to do and put off doing by distracting myself with other things. I read books about writing – my favourite is Stephen King’s On Writing – I write corporate content – all in an effort to put off showing my real self to the world.
But I shouldn’t do that.
Rian’s writing advice was straightforward: keep it real. Be authentic. Don’t try to put on a voice that isn’t your own. Even in fiction, keep your characters truthful. Readers will pick up if you’re lying, and they will put the story down. Keep it simple; keep it honest. That’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received. Now, if only I would listen.
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