I don’t fancy myself a serious writer. However, if there is one writer that has had the most profound influence on my rather facetious writing, it is Wole Soyinka. Of course, Kongi will probably be horrified at my farcical writing, but I don’t care. I love the man. We share the same birthday. And true love lasts a lifetime.
What was it about Soyinka that endeared him to me so much? I suppose it was that rebellious streak. That unapologetic lettering to a narrowly-defined audience. You either get the man or you don’t. I have been told that I am not endowed with patience myself. It is a character flaw that being a husband and a dad is tempering.
So, when I started writing, I copied Soyinka a lot. I wanted to write like the man. Wanted to be like the man.
But benefits come with burdens.
I’ll share a learning from my undergraduate days.
At the university I had befriended this great chap, ‘Slade’ Njoku. We both majored in Philosophy but had little else in common. I was a proven drunk and always reeked of cigarette with a few other personal foibles. Yea, I was probably one of those humans moms and fellowship leaders pointed to as evidence of the fall of man.
Slade Njoku, however, was easy to like. He never drank, never smoked and was not abrasive. He was easy to talk to and friends with everyone.
He was also a published author, having written a children’s book, Akula The Black Bird.
I recollect always mocking him about the book.
A children’s book! What infantile endeavour! Such literature was beneath I, Jide.
It’s amazing how people who have never done anything mock those who have.
But it was just as well that Slade and I became friends. The royalty from that ‘infantile endeavour’ often kept me fed like a bed bug.
Well now, it wasn’t that I was always broke. Damn beer prices just kept going up.
But I digress.
Slade thought I could be a decent writer if I put my mind to it. He encouraged (and hounded) me to take some electives in that regard.
I always thought those English majors were lame. Always reading yet never able to comprehend the beautiful thought of Kant, Descartes or Nietzsche.
Of course, detractors were wont to point out that Philosophy (the department) had the highest numbers of drinkers and smokers in the faculty. But that observation only manifests the depth of their unenlightenment. Grasping intellectual concepts like apriori and a posteriori required the right spirit. Usually anything from 5% ABV and above.
Again I digress.
I never wanted to be a novelist, poet, playwright or journo. I just wanted to be rich. And being that neither Achebe nor Soyinka was a billionaire, I didn’t pay much mind to Slade’s badgering.
But sensing that privation may not be far away from me again, I was imbued with a sudden common sense to please Slade. So I enrolled for the electives. Drama and Poetry and later, Creative Writing.
Oddly, I took to the courses. Even stranger, I was good at them. Stellar even, if I may be a little immodest.
It was a shock to many. How could a non-English major and a ne’er-do-well such as I was best those suckling at the breast of Shakespeare?
Well, in your face, William!
Slade was so proud of me. I suppose he took pride in ‘discovering’ me.
Over the course of many months of encouragement, he said to me:
“Jide, you are a good writer. I think you’re even a better writer than I am. But you won’t make money. You write too intelligently. Too intellectually. Me, I write what is easy for people to understand. I know you’re the sophisticated type. But it’s easier for people to buy stories they can understand and relate to. That’s how I’m able to buy you beer and cigarette now and then!”
Throttling and kiss of life in the same breath. I prefer the kiss.
But later, when I chewed over Slade’s wisdom with some nicotine, I realized that what my perceptive friend was trying to tell me was to be my own writer.
You see, I was too busy trying to be like Wole Soyinka that I had lost my own voice in my writing. I was identity-less. A Soyinka wanna-be.
And that’s the whole point of this pointless story. Finding your own voice.
You can only be you.
It is alright to begin your writing by copying someone else’s style. Alright to watch how Mama Duck floats on water. But as you develop your muscle, you have to add your own personality and identity to your writing. I suppose it is the same for all creative enterprises too.
Developing your own voice and style makes you identifiable and unique. Eminem is Eminem and Biggie Smalls is Biggie Smalls.
At any rate, you can never be as good as the person you’re copying.
No, not without your own unique flavour.
Take it from a guy who’s written squat.