It’s a complicated time to be at a university in South Africa. It feels like an act of detachment to sit in an office on the fifth floor and write while men in padded riot gear accessorize the buildings. I can not be unaware of what it means to be in this space when others are protesting the price of their access to it. The careful thing to say is the cause is legitimate, the violence is not. Buildings and bodies are under threat. A militarized campus ticks with sharp menace. Writers do not exist out of the context of their time, even genre writers. World-building is about presenting alternatives to the status quo.
A month’s worth of uninterrupted writing time is Writivism’s most generous gift. At first, I am giddy at the luxury of pure writing hours set before me. Stellenbosch is wine country and it’s just as well that I do not drink, for I would celebrate every evening with abandon. After I come to terms with what it is I am to write, paralysis sets in. My story seems too big for me. It sits before me, the highest peak in the Boland mountains and I do not have the agility or the endurance to begin the ascent. These are the excuses writers make for themselves. What is failure really? Evidence of effort, at the least? Writers block is the fear of the ugly sentence. I have written and will write many bulky things. I just have to keep reminding myself that, before an edit, no one else will ever have to read them.
When I’m stuck in a writing ditch, I skim through books and go through cupboards. I open a drawer in the office assigned to me and it’s full of rolled up socks. I pull another one open and find hairdryers among other appliances. The closed storage under the bookcase contains rows of shoes and black bags filled with things I am too polite to rummage through. Does someone live in this space when I am not here? I really must ask someone. I think about how this could be the premise of a short story. When i am meant to be writing one thing, I am writing another. Like a paragraph of writing that looked like it could dress up as a poem and pass;
My brother the house you gave us
in mourning was a breathing thing
it took the grieving in
through a greedy mouth
chewed them up in the living room
where you lay. The peristalsis of the bereft
pulsed them into the guest wings
while the villi of the persian rugs
absorbed condolences for nutrition.
I settle into a writing rhythm after a eureka moment on the first Thursday of the residency. I’ve worked out a way to incorporate into a new manuscript some of the experimental writing I’ve been doing over this year and last. I don’t like wasting writing in the same way I will never throw out a jar of Nutella without scraping it clean with exacting precision.
A month is hardly any time at all. I must mine it for all it’s worth.