Writing: challenges and reflections

When I was first approached to write a weekly column for this newspaper, my initial reaction was a negative one.

When I was first approached to write a weekly column for this newspaper, my initial reaction was a negative one.

One of my main problems was a fairly trivial one- the idea of having my picture in the paper on a weekly basis was not one that filled me with joy.

However, I had more serious reservations about the enterprise, and the three months I’ve been contributing articles for this newspaper has made me reflect on them from a more knowledgeable vantage point.

It also appears to me that I owe my readers some sort of disclosure on the mechanics and motivations that underpin this column.

After all, one of the first questions a reader might have of a columnist if: why exactly should I take you seriously?

Writing a column is a sort of opinion-making factory and needless to say, everyone has opinions.

Indeed, if there is something the world has plenty of, it is opinions. All you have to do is pop into your local bar to get a flavour of mankind’s relentless quest to express his views on everything under the sun.

Like everyone else, I am not particularly shy about engaging in this, especially after a beer or two has sufficiently improved my eloquence.

However writing a column dramatically widens your audience and it takes some adjustment to realize that the views you may have espoused to a couple of friends over a cold beer are now being digested on a National level.

Furthermore, your opinions become a matter of public record as opposed to a casual conversation which is a lot more ephemeral and virtually forgotten the next day or lost in the hazy mists of time.

The views you express in a column never go away, a fact now made concrete by our digital age.

In this context, I have to subconsciously overcome the self-censorship and over prudence that this fact could easily tempt me to fall back on. I also have to write with the clear realization that writing a column is an endeavour likely to earn you an enemy or two.

People are inevitably going to disagree with me and some of them may take such disagreements very seriously. Indeed the longer you write a column, the greater your chances of alienating not just individuals but a whole class of people.

This is not to portray myself as some kind of martyr, but simply to acknowledge that the ripple effects of any column continue long after it has been published and may return to haunt you whether through an outraged email or perhaps a chance meeting in a bar. 

Writing a column also creates a dilemma. I tend to write about what interests me and I tend to tailor my reading accordingly.

The problem is that what I find interesting and fascinating may leave readers cold. There is an inherent distance between a writer and his audience because the writer can only put himself in their position to a very limited extent.

On the other hand, tailoring my articles to suit only the most ‘fashionable’ or topically relevant topics is also a recipe for disaster.

As with any sensible writer, I would prefer to write about what I know or what interests me as there is only so far you can step out of your comfort zone.

You certainly won’t find me turning my attention to say, pig farming in Kibuye even if such a topic becomes, by some freakish turn of events, a national talking-point.

It strikes me also that there is some kind of existential question here: just what are we for exactly? What exactly is the point of a columnist in the bigger scheme of things? Does this column even matter?

Such questions become more pressing when I find myself struck down by the dreaded writer’s block. When I first started writing this column, I was virtually drowning in ideas and scribbling them feverishly into notebooks like a deranged scientist in a 1950’s film.

Inevitably, this provision of ideas dried up and in such cases, I couldn’t help becoming a bit disillusioned with the entire enterprise.

Such disillusionment only lasts until the next idea blossoms into a proper article, and then I fall in love with writing again. However like many other writers, I live in fear of the words drying up, even temporarily.

Writing is not a constant stream of highs. Dissatisfaction arises not only when writers block sinks in, but when you feel yourself unhappy with an article that’s already been published.

There is a temptation to edit your articles long after they have been published even if such editing is only mental.
At the end of the day- to use a football cliché- you need to genuinely love writing to commit yourself to a weekly column.

In that sense, writing is fundamentally a selfish activity. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as self-indulgence does not set in and you don’t churn out articles in a bubble, and cut off from wider realities.

Whether it makes any difference in the bigger scheme of things is not for me to judge, but for me it has certainly been worthwhile.


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