Writing is a tricky business particularly if you are the only writer, and possibly, the only reader in your family. It is a solitary and often lonely affair. It is one of those things, in my own life, that requires me to go inward. This retraction from my external surroundings can happen at any moment and has been the cause of much discontent and sometimes outright rebellion from those I live with.
Mom, you are not listening to me!
Yes, I mutter, eyes glazed over, the vague outline of one of my four daughters on the periphery of my vision. I don’t even know which daughter it is at this point.
MOTHER please hurry; I will be late for volleyball practice.
Yes, I state, my inner eyes watching a scene in which I kill off one of my characters in the story I am currently working on. A nice guy. What a shame.
I am off to the grocery store. What do we need?
YES! I bark impatiently. He retreats, backing away slowly. I have now lost the sentence that has taken me days to craft. My husband had to pick the exact moment I finally sit down to write it to say something. What was it again? Frustrated, I turn from my notebook and check the time on my phone.
Time to cook dinner.
Dinner is served and we sit down to eat. Family dinner is rare in our household thanks to busy schedules that make it impossible to converge at the dinner table more than three or so times a week. I place fork-fills of food into my mouth, hardly tasting it. I am but a body shoveling sustenance into that body to stay alive. My mind and my senses have wondered to hang out with my character Khethiwe as she navigates the streets of Johannesburg.
Abruptly, I am yanked back to the dinner table by my fifteen-year-old yelling MOM! Shami just asked you how your day was. She is not really into family dinner mainly because I laid down that law and also because there are no electronic devices permitted at family dinner.
You’re the one who goes on and on about the importance of eating together but you are absent-minded.
I feel terrible. Yes, mea culpa.
It is not just my immediate family that bemoans a lack of connectedness stemming from my writing.
We don’t see you anymore
You never return my calls
Did I do something wrong?
Are you Okay?
You seem rather distant.
What non writers often do not understand is that in order to be able to write, I need to create a certain distance between myself and the external world around me. Doing this allows the seeds of a potential story to germinate and brings into sharp focus the key elements I need to incorporate to shape the story into what it wants to become. This invariably means saying no to dinner invitations and baby showers and other social events where I would end up miserable and grumpy (misery loves company) because of the urge to be alone to write.
No, sorry. I need to write. In the silence over the phone I can feel the hurt and bewilderment my response has caused. But if I was to try to explain why I need to be still and to go inward, I know it would only make matters worse. Besides in many languages that I speak, particularly my mother tongues Shona and Ndebele, there are no words to adequately describe what I need to convey. I feel bad, truly I do. But I need to write like a fish needs water.
On Facebook, even after politely bidding farewell to the kindred, the inbox messages pour in daily.
Can you respond to my status please?
Sister can you edit my manuscript?
Can you submit a short story to the inaugural issue of our journal X?
No, No, no I need to write.
A writer among non- writers can feel lonely and isolated. The beauty of solitude is often transmuted and becomes loneliness particularly when I allow the awareness that need to write has caused grievance, or that my loved ones feel neglected. Then I wallow in guilt, an emotion of little use, so I do the arduous work of talking to my embattled self. I need not feel guilty for being a writer of needing to write.
Part of what has helped me get to a reasonably sane place in my life among non-writers is to increase contact with other writers. I do this over coffee or as part of a group of writers who meet regularly. There I have discovered, much to my relief (sometimes laced with a tinge of schaden freude), that I am not alone in my quest for space and time to write and that the guilt that often gnaws at my gut is also chewing at the intestines of other writers.
I have learned a few useful ways to try to get some semblance of balance in my life among non-writers, such as waking up at 4am to put in a couple of hours of work before my household becomes chaos and pandemonium around 6am. The quietness in the house- save the white noise of the air conditioner- is conducive to all the meandering my mind requires, until the story that needs to be given voice alights gently. Then I am able to pick up my pen and allow the story to be given full expression.
I have notebooks scattered all over the house. For example, I have a chlorophyll-stained notebook on windowsill above the kitchen sink. While I perform inane tasks like chopping up vegetables I often reach out with feverish fingers dripping green juice to scribble an idea, the perfect sentence or even the perfect word for my story. I have a notebook in the living room that I write in during dull laundry-folding sessions. A notebook has found its way into my car, so that when inspiration comes knocking I am not found wanting. I look forward to the age when the technology of the self- driving car is readily available.
This would be a real revolution for my life as a writer.
There is much that is sacrificed at the altar of the Muse and for me the sacrifices I make to enable me to write are well worth it. Hard as it is sometimes, writing is my obsessive compulsive behavior, so while the non- writer world in which I live battles to understand my particular OCD, I assert my writer self. And like squeezing the last dollop of toothpaste from the tube, I eek out time and space to happily indulge my compulsion. This is my writing life lived among non-writers.