In the eulogized and buried light of the late evening, the only element left with the Harlequin task of illuminating the night is Carol Odero’s flaming red braids. You know Carol, right? Trained lawyer turned journalist. Editor, Drum magazine. Columnist, Sunday Nation. TV hostess, Fashion Show. Redhead. Carol, like most of us, believes in burning the candle from both ends.
She’s leaning into the table now. She listens raptly and talks softly like a falling feather, so soft I have to lean close, our noses almost touching. Carol is shrinking me. She’s prodding me, prodding and prying, like the late 80’s detective, Derrick. Most of you hecklers here in High School won’t know who Derrick is, you were still using potties. Regretful you didn’t witness the one-channel wonder of television.
Behind us, in the inky and ominous darkness somewhere, the sea moans and sighs like a lover seeking attention. We are at Hemmingways Watamu, one of those media trips. Gorgeous, this and full of personality…like Carol’s hair. I could tell you a lot about Hemmingways Watamu. I could tell you how they hauled us to deep sea to fish and we caught a long furious fish called Wahoo (not to be confused with Wahu) and how to kill it and stop it from cutting someone in half with its sharp fin and teeth, one of the guys in the boat had to bludgeon it’s head with a piece of wood, sending shudder down my toes.
I could tell you how Ferdinand Omondi of NTV posed with that slimy long fish and did a flawless Piece to Camera. Twice. In English and in startlingly eloquent Kiswahili. I could tell you how in that deep sea, as our boat bobbed in the adolescent waves, chaps lined up to pose for pictures holding the 12kg monster that later ended up on our lunch plates next to the lime and rice. And how at some point Laura Walubengo of Capital FM, holding up the fish to her bosom, as the camera whirred said to me, Hey dude, don’t you want to take a picture? And I said, No Laura, I’m Luo, we don’t pose with fish, we eat it! And she cackled and rejoined, “Aaaah, it’s like me posing with chicken, eh?” and the boat rocked with laughter. Aah, I thought to myself, when you find a funny lunje, they are funny even when they call you ‘dude’. So yeah, I could tell you about all that, about how gorgeous Hemmingways but I today I want to pound other drums.
But now, we are all at the pagoda. Saturday night. I’m on Jameson, on the rocks. Any other day whiskey makes me cocky but today it’s making me vulnerable, honest, reflective, and thoughtful. I’m supporting my chin on my hand as Carol lays it down for me, brick by brick.
Carol is telling me about creative burnouts. About her own struggles and insecurities with writing. It’s all familiar and it makes me feel better. OK, almost, the Jameson is also doing its part.
And now a story, for perspective.
In 2001, while I worked as a very miserable laboratory technologist in a small health clinic, I kept my sanity by writing. I wrote in the silence of the night, after work, after poring over numerous samples of stool, urine and blood, looking for malady and doing my small part to rid the world off diseases. Using black ink I wrote short stories on a hard-covered book, stories about escape, something I was gathering courage to do. Of course I showed nobody these literature, essentially because I didn’t think much of them. They were a vaulted narrative of my misery, of my rut but I always felt they drew me closer to redemption.
Below the bedsit where I hanged my coat, lived a hooker, or rather a chic I suspected was a hooker. I say suspected because she always left at 10pm when I was coming in from work, dressed in short shiny clothes, and pitched back at 6am dressed in short shiny clothes and tired make-up. Si that’s a hooker?
We had water problems in that block and once in a while she would come up and ask me if I would kindly go down and close her tap if water came in the middle of the night. One day she saw the notebook in my hand when I opened the door to take another please-close-my-tap instruction and asked if I was writing a diary. Standing to my full length, chin thrust defiantly in the air, I muttered that diary was for girls. She asked to see. I remember her standing there for longer than I had thought she would, raptly reading that hard covered notebook, very slowly flipping the pages like they were brittle and they would shatter. The word, engross, comes to mind. She stood patiently at my doorway, a hooker reading a random story from a notepad. Of course I was ill at ease, because I was afraid of judgment, even from a hooker.
But I waited patiently leaning on my doorway and to kill time I stared at her cleavage that stared back indignantly. When eventually she looked up – slowly – she was wearing a different look; a questioning look. “ Maybe you should just write,” is all she said before bundling down the staircase, her burgeoning and overheavy cleavage struggling to catch up with her.
“Maybe you should just write.” Those words stayed with me for a very long time. I’m certain men have been told more interesting words by hookers: “Woi, mimi siendi Mushadha,” “Ngai Mwangi! Si hiyo underwear ni mzee?” But all she said was, “Maybe you should just write.” And those words, even spoken by a hooker, is sometimes all that can stir motion. And when you start hearing them from different sources, it gets into your head the word ‘maybe’ is introduced into the equation. And when that gets in your head, it doesn’t leave; it squats there reading a newspaper until you do something about it. And I did. I look at those days with envy, because I was deranged with proving something. Now, I don’t. I don’t need to. My ass is grown.
Let me break this down to gang, very slowly. You sit in your office, crunching figures, fixing systems, balancing books, setting up communication strategies, troubleshooting IT, selling products, recording in studios or writing course works…whatever your hustle is. I don’t write poetry to feed the arty ogre in me. I don’t write part-time to balance out my life, to purposefy* it. I write for a living, to live. Writing is my dinghy in these seas we ride. It’s all I have.
Since not many people want to pay top- dollar for some tight copy, since many people imagine words come out of your ass they won’t pay
you your worth because they won’t appreciate your art (that almost rhymed, “worth and “art”…eh?). So you resort to whoring your art to the people who can pay you the most. You write your fingers out until they bleed. That’s what I have been doing the whole year; whoring.
Are we together, so far? Because I can stop here briefly and let Hardened Mama there go use the bathroom, she seems squeamish in her seat.
As I was saying, this simply means you write as much as you can, you work as twice as hard to make half what those white-shirted chubby yuppies that work for blue chip companies make. Those chaps that throw more office parties than they change the printer’s toner. You write to pay bills yes, but you also write because it’s who you are. Folk say, you shouldn’t be defined by your job, that such bollocks, those are guys who are motivated by living through to end month for their jobs to seem relevant. Take away my pen, and watch me drift off to an abyss of confusion like a hollow trunk.
When you churn out over to 10,000 words a week for a year, you will burn out. And that’s something you can put in your pipe and smoke. I knew I was burning out, hitting a plateau. That straight line. I could feel it; I took longer to write intros; I lost creative consciousness in the middle of sentences; I struggled with thought and construction, I stared at a blank word document longer. And that shit scares you.
I’m at a point where I’m having a conflict with my art, I’m insecure of it and I’m questioning it. For months now I acted like I was okay and like the proverbial ostrich I buried my head in my ass. Sorry, sand. But when one or two readers – Fra and Mufasa – raised a flag I had to be honest with myself. I had spread myself out too thin and it was showing in everything I wrote.
Two days later, on a late night, I called Clay Muganda (he writes very late in the night when the devils roam the earth), and asked him if this has happened to him before, he said all the time. When you write for a living, you don’t have the luxury of burning out, he said. You keep writing. You change the times you write, you change the desks you write from, but you don’t stop writing because stopping is a learned habit that eventually works against you.
Here is my confession. There is something I do; I never say bye to people I’m drinking with. It’s called an Irish Exit. You slip your portion of the bill under your half finished glass and you step off your stool to go to the loo. And you don’t come back. You can’t adequately say bye to folk on alcohol, they will whine and ask you to sit down for just one more. They will make fun of you, and offer to make a call home to extend your curfew. So you save yourself that drunken gibberish and you slip out unnoticed, like a dark knight.
Last week the blog wasn’t under construction. The jury was out on it. I had the half mind to shut it down. I really did. To
walk away without a word and concentrate on gigs that actually pay me because the blog takes the best of me and someone who takes the best are usually the ones to destroy you. But first I bounced this idea to my go-to-writer, Oyunga, because he walked away from writing at some point but got seduced back by the evil temptress that is words. “You’d be foolish to walk away!” he said, “Hosting me in High School gave my blog a lifeline I’m still feeding on. That’s how important I see it. That is intellectual investment you have.” Of course, he had to show off with phrases like that; intellectual investment.
It’s hard to walk out and bang a door when you are not sure you won’t knock on it again. It’s even harder to walk away from who you are.
So what I’m going to do here is, I will put my feet off the pedal of this blog and post only twice a month. First and last week. And during this time off, I will head to the Congo forest, where I will live with the pygmies and do nothing but hunt, fry and eat monkey meat, grow armpit hair and swim buck-naked in meandering forest rivers. And I will not read any form of literature save for primitive inscriptions in caves and on the backs of their women who are slightly taller than coffee plungers. And if I’m lucky, I might just be made King of the Pigmies. I’m going native.
Gang, it’s not you. It’s me.