Creatives Academy: Careers In Writing
One of the best experiences I had in Creatives Academy was in meeting mega bloggers Oyunga Pala, and Jackson Biko, also known as Biko Zulu.
What a day!
It started off with me being nervous. I could not wait to meet and hear from these greats. At first I chose my usual seat, to the left of the class. But this class needed a special view, so I moved forward, and to the right – just a few feet from the panel. I needed to pick all I could from these minds, so I sat down early enough, eager, a bit jittery, with all I could do to keep my back straight.
They walked in with the organizer a few minutes before the class started, and stood smack in the middle of the classroom, engaged in hushed conversation. I shrunk in my seat in intimidation. As they talked, their eyes (especially Zulu’s) moved around as if assessing the classroom. I could tell the organizer was giving them some form of orientation, a thing she does with guests in every class. In my head I could not help but imagine that they were sizing up the premises. Were they unhappy about the set-up? Was not the number of students to their liking? Were they expecting a bigger crowd? I was expecting a bigger crowd! This was Biko Zulu and Oyunga Pala!
They sat down soon enough, and so did the other panelists – Chris Lyimo and Mwalimu Andrew – who I was just getting to know. Needless to say, the classroom was packed with students, right about the time we were getting started. We should have known. Punctuality is not our forté as a nation or a race, sadly. It is expected that when one quotes an ETA, at least half an hour allowance for lateness is implied – falsely. No one likes to be kept waiting. Yet, it’s a thing we do to others diligently.
Back to the star-lit panel. The air was thick with masculinity, freshness, excitement, expectation and sheer awe. In front of the class sat those who a lot of us wanted to be when we grew up. As soon as Oyunga Pala opened his mouth, I knew I was not going out empty handed.
Pala talked of his dismal beginnings. He had noticed standard column allocations in dailies. There was the front, with the usual bold headlines, and now colored photographs of politicians, and quips from whoever said or did the boldest thing yesterday – space for the male political leader. The back pages were filled with sports reviews and pictures of athletes in action – clearly for the sports enthusiasts. The middle was mainly for business and advertising, leaving two or three pages for international news, caricature, word puzzles, media program line ups and comic strips. Many of our newspapers follow this template to date. It probably works for them, but it sticks a bigger number of readers in rigidity. Pala looked for a voice that spoke for his kind – middle class men who are finding their way through the jungle of social modernity. I picture him chanting the mantra ‘be the change you want to be’ shortly before he started writing Man Talk. He soon became the pioneer voice he longed to hear, challenging the norms of society and speaking of social taboos as they are. He subsequently faced both opposition and overwhelming support, making him a huge brand and the pacesetter for feature writers.
As I was growing up, Pala was known to talk against the grain in Man Talk. Some thought him too coarse or brazen as he spoke that which society shied away from, way before Maina Kageni was in the picture. It had never occurred to me that I would one day sit to hear him talk less than ten feet away from him, so excuse my butterflies.
I learnt several things from Pala. One: identify a need in society, and make the most of it by writing that which you long to read. Two: do not engage in senseless battles with critiques. Three: finding the right language to express a point is just as important as speaking the truth. Four: Up your game, girl. Speak as well as, if not better than you write. Mister has verbs, nouns and pronouns curling from his tongue like coiled carrot streaks. Shoot. Five: be bigger than the brand you create. When it is time to move, move. His writing has since shifted to a slightly different speak. What is even greater is that he paved the way for newer writers.
Enter Biko Zulu, a man gifted with play of words, comedy and the mind of a crazed genius. He makes lightest of every moment – from squabbles with the wife, to racist arrests in foreign international airports. He got started writing while in a stint, in between gigs, ‘just to get creative juices flowing’. Sigh. They make it sound like they just wave wands to make all the magic happen. He began his blog and then later succeeded Pala in Man Talk. He now also writes for Msafiri, among other print media.
What did I learn from Zulu? A. The drudgest of moments can be the biggest wellspring of innovation. B. Observe. Inspiration is all around you. C. The more you read, the better you write. D. Discipline. Know your brand and what it takes to build it. Note to self: careers requiring ninja-spy tact are not for selfie junkies. E. Passion. The more you grow in your love for writing, the more you are able to write, and even juggle different readerships. F. Tranquility and humility. Gifts are not forced or sold exuberantly hard. Both Pala and Zulu exude a comfortable-in-own-skin kind of coolness that works in reverse in readers and fans – thus my giddy admiration. Also, no need to hassle for Donatella’s contacts. Gym workouts and grey tees is quite sufficient branding.
Moving on swiftly…
Chris Lyimo’s was a story of redemption. I learnt how downhill trajectories become courses for change, and how, again, I am the agent for the change I want to see. I saw in him a personal battle, between the need to speak out and the need to accommodate the concerns of loved ones. He is a bold one, that one, choosing to speak out, and facing the brunt of opposition for the sake of healing for himself and others as well.
Mwalimu Andrew was the other panelist operating with ninja-spy tact. He talked of using pseudonyms and alter egos in writing. Whereas imagination is key, research is paramount where hands-on experience lacks. In his case, he has had to inquire a lot from teaching staff about the hiring and firings of the teaching labor force – a strength that has helped boost authenticity and readership.
All in all, Careers In Writing class was my favorite. It was all I needed to be reminded that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, that writing is cool, and that it really is possible to earn from writing.