First of all, if you are an immigrant of high school age and you are reading this welcome. As I often say, I wish this was the blog I wish I had found, or at least something similar, when I first showed up in an Australian high school so anything I can do to make you feel at home let me know.
As a lot of you know I grew up in the city in the sun, Nairobi, Kenya. All throughout my primary school days, Stnadard 1 – 8, one thing remained consistent: I was one of the best composition writers. For those who don’t know, compositions are basically short fictional stories which were assessed by the English teacher.
The Rules of Writing Compositions in Kenya
The rules to writing a composition in Kenya were quite simple really:
a) Use language that is as flowery,complex and grandiloquent (but do I say?) as possible.
b) Use metaphors, similies, proverbs and other linguistic tools that show you have read a book or two in your life more than you use regular language.
If you managed to follow the above two rules and piece together a somewhat coherent narrative, you were good to go.
The Story That Got Told Over and Over Again
Towards my final years of primary school, we used to write compositions quite a lot. When it was all said and done however, I realized that I had told the same story over and over and over again.
I was attacked by a crazy/large/robber/stupid man and I somehow had to fight to survive.
In spite of the fact that Mrs. C (who by the way called herself a very “Hot Naabaa,” not hot number, “Hot Naabaa”, much love and thanks Mrs. C if you are reading this.) read the same story so many times, each time I managed to twist it into a slightly different version of something worth giving a high mark.
As a Result
All this basically meant that I left Primary school with the medal for English around my neck and a perfect score in English once the main exams came (how that happened, I don’t know, but I don’t kick a gift horse in the mouth).
My Kenyan High School Career…….
My Kenyan high school career was somewhat different. I went from being one of the brightest minds in primary school to having the intelligence of a mutilated cinder block. I thought this had affected me in many areas, science, maths etc etc but somehow I held on to the belief that I was still a good writer.
A Plane Ride Later My World Came a Crumbling Down
Australian high schools typically don’t involve a lot of creative writing and so it wasn’t until Year 12 that I had to write a story to show to my English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher. The little ditty began like this:
I threw the stone as quick as lightning and it hit him with a blood curdling thud! As the blood leaked profusely from his eye, he let out a great big bellow like a wounded she-bear. And then he cast his gaze upon me, and as I looked into his eyes, they glowed with the malevolence of a dyeing ember (stolen expression that I used A LOT)
I galloped over to Mrs G., my ESL teacher (much love to you too, if you are reading this) and Mrs. G didn’t even bother mincing her words:
This story is terrible, it’s such a cliche!
An African Description of What Happened Next
My heart sunk lower than the Titanic. My breathing stopped and my heart began to beat at a million miles per hour.
“How could she think that was terrible,” I mused….as I perused……confused…….feeling somewhat abused
Creative Writing Class 2006
Needless to say I put a lot of writing activities on the shelf for the next few years trading creative writing for creating feasibility studies, marketing plans and business manifestos. And then in 2006 I did something I probably shouldn’t have done: I did only one subject for a whole University semester: creative writing.
I Loved It
What I realized was that, Western writing had long since passed the point of using cliched metaphors, proverbs and similies. We were literally teaching and being taught the left overs of Western thinking.
Twelve weeks of Creative writing and never did we have lessons on the proper use of a similie, or where to sprinkle in clever sounding proverbs. Instead we learned things like the lesson I’ll share with you below:
Ice Berg Writing
Whenever you write, your words should only express 10% of what’s going on with the other 90% being left beneath the surface in sub-text. In other words, the prose should only be the tip of the iceberg. An example:
The lipstick red dress continued to saunter and shimmy long after Nicole had stopped gliding across the room.
“Excuse me sir,” she purred ,” The Johnsons are here!”
“Thank you, Marta,” he barked from behind clenched cheeks.
“You are very welcome sir. Do you need anything else from me?”
” No, you may leave!”
And Sade crooned in the background as she smoothly operated her way out of that room.
He let out a sigh and prepared himself…….the Johnsons were here!
Well, I am not that good at iceberg writing but clearly there are quite a few things that one can infer from the above, including the character’s personalities and relationships to each other.
It’s more fun for one to infer these things in one’s mind than for me to blatantly say she dressed up to seduce her boss and she was making her boss very uncomfortable.
Is There a Point to All This?
The point of all this, is simple really. Realize if you are coming from Africa, that the way we were taught to write is based on a way of writing that Westerners have long since left behind.
Why This is Great for You
This is great for you because in its place Westerners now have an absolute love and appreciation for the individual voice in a piece of writing. They want to hear what you, the authentic, uncensored you has to say.
In Creative writing class, I wrote a ridiculous number of stories about sex and romance because that’s what I thought about most of the time. My writing was full of swearing, breaking of grammatical rules but I was still did pretty well in that class.
On the other end we had my buddy Raj was great at writing things in a I-just-took-a-hallucinogenic-drug-style. He could make you appreciate every moment of an experience and really pull you into a point of view.
What is Your Uncensored Voice?
So what is your uncensored voice? What does it sound and taste like? What would you say if you had no fear of failure? Express yourself below.