How To Write A Great Short-Story: Lessons From A Short-Story Day With TJ Benson.

It’s the Jos Museum Festival. It means the celebration of ancient cultures and histories to keep the future breathing. I want to roll with the massive crowd gathering at British-America Junction. I want to soak the raw banging of the local drums and the seismic blast of horns scattered everywhere.

Another thing, the popular Terminus Market is falling flat today. I want to see Chinese engineers setting demolition charges to the quiet sprawl of mossy buildings that were once the economic pride of Jos. I have also been invited to a Cast and Crew Party at the Jos Repertory Theatre. The party means Jollof rice and baked chicken and groundnut oil moi-moi, and chilled juices and evergreen high-life music. But guess where I am headed with Lardo, YoungLan and our copies of We Won’t Fade into Darkness?

 

 

*****

nHUB is all vintage lamps, impossible warmth, and brilliant graffiti. Poets move up and down, asking for the central Wi-Fi password. I feel strangely related to all of them even with their mad varieties of accents. I broach one.

“What’s your name?”

“De General.”

“Bro, I mean your real name?”

He observes a long pause as though trying to remember his birth name. “Nuel,” he says, almost with a grudge. He is a performance poet, he says. Performance poets prefer their stage names. He mourns his lack of earphones. Poets need their earphones, especially spoken word poets. Please, do I have any spare earphones to lend?

 

In the spacious lobby, Younglan and other poets find belonging in navigating the memories of a Pulitzer photographer who killed himself. Someone makes light of the tragic issue.

“Have you ever been in a deep depression?” Miriam asks the person, her voice bellicose.

 

“Depression is depression.” The person says, in a quiet shout. “Nothing like deep depression.”

 

An argument on depression follows. It flows sadly, loudly. I move away from them to a flower girl filling herself with music by a concrete balustrade. Her name is Sonia. Her lips are soft passion fruits. Like passion fruits, maybe they will produce some sweetness, maybe they will be comforting. Hello, Sonia! What genre do you mostly write? Poetry too? Okay. So, Sonia what was your last poem about? Depression too? Mo gbe! No, pleeeease don’t show me. Thank you! I leap into the hall.

 

The hall is the milk veneer tables, which strangely turn purple when the white lights trip on. The hall is also a rainbow of neatly arranged chairs and weird wall paintings. I jog my hands across the cold expanse of tinted glass windows that mute the daylight but do nothing to mute the raucous sound downstairs. I roll back one of the windows. I lower my gaze and take in the reckless movement of cars, and people in ridiculous tribal clothes dancing their way to British-America Junction for the festival. Someone, an old man with a brilliant toothy smile, waves at me. I wave back.

 

*****

 

We sit facing a whiteboard that reads, ‘WRITE IT NOW. SOMETIMES, LATER BECOMES NEVER.’ I feel attacked.

 

Rudolph, an ingenious spoken word poet and one of the organizers of the workshop, performs a poem while walking around our tables. I find it hard to catch up with his experimental style. He talks about theme, coherence, plot, rhythm and diction as if they are things from outer space. I don’t understand much of them, maybe because I am not a poet. I look at my wristwatch and scribble on my right palm: Where. Is. TJ Benson?

 

TJ Benson breezes into the hall in the cool height of a Toyota Hummer bus, in swaying ash trousers and a white T-shirt that is MALAWI, his eyes focused on everyone. He owes Jos some years of his writing life, he says. TJ’s movement is a lot like Salsa. The way his hands swim, and the way his shoulders swing back and forth when he says he has nothing against people who beer out their bellies are all endlessly fascinating. He has the soul of an intricate Tiv song, this TJ. He imagines himself as the character he is writing, and by that way, he is able to find specific things about that character. He stalks himself. Applaudissez! We clap for him.

 

T.J. Benson

 

Straight to the matter. What are your names? He asks. Tell the house something about you.

 

The first person is trying to love again. Wow. Bold of him to say that, TJ says. Isn’t writing about churning bold expressions when other art forms are reticent? Be bold. Know and say what you want. Write it. Next!

 

The second is a psychologist who doesn’t socialize.

Her character is unique, TJ points out. She is wearing a shouty blue lipstick to draw our attention. And she doesn’t like socializing, huh? An accurate irony, something writeable! “It’s green,” she says to TJ, smiling, “my lips are green.” It’s all a story, TJ says. Depictions don’t have to be factual. Just make them interesting and believable. Okay? Next!

 

Someone wants to situate deep humour inside a short story strictly on pain. More like distilling perfume from garlic. Why not! It’s possible. Everything is. There is something called Speculative Fiction, and there is Fantasy, TJ says.

 

Someone wants to write a book about life.

‘WHAT PART OF LIFE?’ TJ writes on the whiteboard. Life is too broad, he says facing us, his voice a decibel higher. Avoid blanket statements. Don’t think of life when writing. Think about specific experiences in life. Good writing thrives on specificity. But avoid the obvious, he adds. Like poverty, disease, hunger and other clichéd subject matters that are copious in most African Literature. Write something new. Write from a fresh and unique angle, he admonishes. Writing is not a tidy experience, he adds. We must avoid the urge to put the process into a small or bland space. What about urban markets? Bank Vault? About BRT buses? About the surface of the moon? About Maximum prisons? About afterlife? Research. Tell outgoing stories.

 

Someone says he is a writer who is mostly too lazy to lift a pen. But when he does, OMG happens. For example, he helped a secondary school student write an essay and the essay is taking the student to the USA.

TJ tells him to trust his lazy process as long as it gives him OMG results. He proceeds to ask a moral question: Do we think it was wrong of him to have helped the student write the essay?

An argument breaks out between two participants.

“Oh! It’s cheating.”

“EVERYONE cheats one way or the other.”

“I don’t cheat!”

“He was just helping an underprivileged kid get to the USA!”

“It was a competition for school kids.”

“And so what? What of ghostwriting?”

“What about ghostwriting!?”

“Are you not a ghostwriter?”

“That’s none of your business!”

“Why?”

“Zed.”

 

Someone says he photographs for a local newspaper.

TJ Benson asks him to give a picture of the newspaper office. The person says it’s conducive, beautiful –

Keep your opinion to yourself, TJ cuts it. Just paint a picture. Show what the place looks like then let the reader say whether it’s conducive and beautiful. Show. Don’t tell.

 

Next! Next!…

Some of the workshop Participants

 

TJ Benson’s Lessons on writing a fantastic Short Story.

The short story is a compact wonderful thing. It is supposed to make the reader feel a strange sense of wonder. There are a bunch of amazing short stories out there, but there will also be a space for yours, if you can make your reader truly feel that strange sense of wonder.

 

For a short story to be successful there has to be a profound change. Our lives are stories of changes. We are born. We die. We change senses. We change our minds. We change our clothes. We change levels. Something has to change in the story you are writing. The more major and unpredictable the change is, the better the sense of wonder.

 

 

Some Questions to Ask Yourself after the First/Second Draft of your Short Story:

  • What makes this piece different from every other piece?
  • How does it capture a specific moment or consciousness?
  • Why should people give up their precious time for it?
  • How can I cut it down?

 

A good short story should have word economy. It should be able to convey as much meaning as possible. And this must be neatly done –else, it becomes a burden to the reader.

 

A good short story should flow and show. If you spend so much time describing to your readers, you will leave them with roadblocks and no story. When you show, your readers experience and absorb your story.

 

On Representation

  • There is a certain form of erasure of groups that do not belong to the mainstreams in Nigeria and other parts of the world. There is no one-way to being human. Humanity is complex. Showing complexity and difference in your work matters. Write the marginal in with dignity. But don’t be preachy about it.
  • As a writer, assume no default identity. Rise above preconceived notions and unbridled traditional beliefs. There are no fixed restrictions as to what should be or not be. Always be on the verge of saying something new. Work against stereotypes.
  • Don’t italicize or explain Nigerian words for the West. You are not trying to beg people to like your culture. Your indigenous words aren’t exotic. Exhaust materials peculiar to your culture— folktales, songs, riddles, proverbs and so on. Enrich your works with these things.
  • Your experience is worthy of representation.

 

 

 

On Context

Context is the ecosystem of your story. Context matters. It adds believability to your piece. Always check with context.

 

Intent and Language

Your intent is the ocean wave that carries your words. It is the guiding spirit of the story. It is the energy behind each word, the feeling. If your intent is to create a love story let it be clearly felt by the reader. Be intentional.

Favour Language simplicity. Don’t rely on heavy or complicated language to tell your story. Rely on yourself as an artist. Build a confident voice (and you do this by continuous writing practices and of course, reading)

 

 Watch a video of the workshop. Learn how to write a short story.

Dialogue

Characters are different people. The way they talk should mirror their differences. Your characters shouldn’t speak like you. Study the cadence of people.

For example, assertive people talk with curt and short sentences or long rants.

Less self-assured or nervous people beat around the bush or ramble.

Never enter into a writing project without absorbing sounds of various kinds of people.

 

 

Naming Characters

Humanize your story with names, profound names. Let diversity and colour richly show in the names you give to your characters. Often times, writers make the mistake to think if we give our characters indigenous names, readers will not remember them. The irony is that such names make them more memorable Remember Ralia, the sugar girl? Ali and Simbi? Who can ever forget Ifemelu or Okonkwo or Jagua Nana?

 

Titling the Short Story

Your title may cast an informing light on the story but should not give it away. You could get a title from when a major change occurs in the story.

If the essence of your story cannot be contained in its first and second paragraphs then let it be contained in the title.

 

On Reading

To read is to think and to think clearly is to write wonderfully. It opens and renews the mind. Reading gives you more words, more ideas and consciousnesses.

When you read, you add heft to your voice. You know what is true to you. You know what is not.

Read widely. Don’t look down on any genre.

Have an acute consciousness. Read and absorb your environment. Be aware.

 

On Caring for Your Creative Health

  • Be kind to your mind.
  • Don’t let rejection letters get to you.
  • Remove market pressure from your worktable. Don’t do it for prizes or for validation. Do it for you. Write at your pace.
  • Control your work. Be in charge of the process. Be in charge of how much of yourself you put into your work.
  • Network with friends. Have a support system that will insulate you from dark moods.
  • Be deliberate about the environments you expose your mind to. Some environments will never be good for you as an artist.
  • Don’t disappear into the world you are trying to create on paper. Create time to stretch out. Remove yourself from your manuscript once in a while, and seek out psychical spaces that are new to you.
  • Traveling is very essential to the craft. Travel out of your experience and embody other consciousnesses.
  • Don’t conform. Find your own formula. Don’t let how any writer writes to be your absolute way.
  • You may experience the imposter syndrome sometimes. You may feel you are not worthy of the attention you receive. You do, and you deserve even more.

 

 

 

Lardo and Rudolph

Because TJ Benson says we deserve more, and because we do, Lardo and Rudolph skip forward bearing a pack of meat pie and frosty coke for each one of us.

 

The workshop was co-organized by Just Create, Tales Afrik and Custodians of African Literature. It held on the 18th of May, 2019, in Jos, Nigeria.

 

Tips For Starting Your Novel: 8 Lessons From The Aké Art And Book Festival Writing Workshop.

Bio: Tega Oghenechovwen has attended Short Story Day Africa workshop, Aké Festival writing Workshop, among others. He has published work with the Rumpus, Black Sun Lit, Litro Magazine, Arts and Africa, and elsewhere. He tweets @tega_chovwen

 

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