Personal Essay: On Getting Writing Advice From Chimamanda Adichie, Bonding With The Literati and Enjoying The Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop

The thing to know about acceptance letters is that they usually come when you least expect them; most people are never ready for an official endorsement of their work. Even if you send in your best, the moment the positive feedback comes is usually so euphoric that every thought flies out of your head no matter how prepared you thought you were to receive it. You forget the certainty that made you send out the application in the first place, you forget the fact that by getting this chance, you have robbed hundreds, maybe thousands of people of the opportunity. You even forget people, you forget where you are, you forget your body and you condense as you become a mixture of air and euphoria.

This feeling enveloped me at five a.m. on the seventh of November when I woke up to check my email. You must know that the day before, I had been looking up workshop attendees and checking the number of people accepted each year and sending pathetic messages to my younger brother wailing to him about how I would never get in. So in the morning I woke up to go to work, and I checked my email because Chimamanda would be sending out emails that day. When I saw the subject of the mail, my palms became clammy and my breath started to come out in puffs. Fear crawled through my body unknowing to me – the sneaky bastard – and sat firmly in my blood, planted itself on my chest. With this choking feeling acting as a witness to one of the most euphoric moments of 2018 for me (it comfortably sits in top five), I opened the mail.

“Dear Simbiat, thank you for applying to the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop,” it began. No clue of what was coming. After, “I am pleased to let you know you’ve been accepted…” and finally, “I enjoyed reading your entry…”

My body became one again and I flew up, down, up, down and the floor was shaking beneath my feet and I was vibrating with excitement and my youngest brother, who had slept in my room that night, was jarred awake by my silent screaming (I was dimly conscious of how early it was and I did try to keep it down). Unimpressed, he begged me to tone it down and then he went back to sleep. I continued to jump up and down, stopping at some points to try to let out excited tears – which never came out –and trying and failing to contain my excitement. That was probably my best day at work, after I managed to calm down long enough to get ready.

After, I told my brother, who at first couldn’t believe it and then I told my parents but they didn’t understand the gravity of what had happened. They correctly read the waves of excitement pouring from my body and extended their most hearty congratulations. For the duration of the days it took between receiving that letter and going off to the workshop, I was buzzing with excitement, making plans, making and cancelling arrangements.

Finally, the day came for me to leave home. I arrived at the hotel a day before the workshop was due to start (as did most of us, really) even though I lived in the same state. The day I got there, it was if a rush of creative juices got emptied on my head. I sat at the very comfortable writing desk, with its bright lights, and its soft perfect chair and its distracting mirror and I wrote two stories. Afterwards, I ate and slept.

The next day, the workshop kicked off. To prepare, I did nothing. It was all in the mind, I reasoned, and short of literally cracking my skull and parting it open, there was nothing I could do to fully get ready. I had attended the workshop only to learn, to do my best and hopefully not become permanently star struck.

When I got downstairs, I was greeted by a congregation of eager students clustered in pockets of small groups. There, I met H. I joined her small cluster, which consisted of herself and G. I remember that day and all the others that followed very vividly. We sat together and spoke about the things that connected us: our nervousness at meeting Chimamanda, our uncertainty about being at the workshop, random things, mundane things.

Soon, it was time to eat and we proceeded to the dining room; I still miss the food. After, I quickly went to the room where we were to have classes. Chairs were arranged in a U formation, with sweets, a bottle of water and a jotter and a biro. I walked in and I sat. Less than five minutes later, I walked out again and went back to the dining room. The room was too cold and I had been the only one there, everybody else was too busy learning the patterns of other people’s minds.

Many minutes later, we were ushered back into the room, into the freezing cold. It felt like stepping through the doorway from the summer into the winter. Somehow, in the minutes I had been away, it had become even colder. We sat there in the cold, waiting.

When Chimamanda finally walked into the room, I can only speak for myself and say that it felt like the sun had just risen. She had a large smile on her face, and she was gorgeous and she looked genuinely happy to meet us. I didn’t notice when but eventually, I felt the strain in my cheeks that told me I was smiling widely. She came in and sat beside me, to my immediate right. Here was a woman whose books I had read back to back and who I had loved for so many years and she was sitting so close that if I stretched my hand, I would have been able to touch her. She smiled at us many times and then she introduced herself to raucous, disbelieving laughter.

“We already know you!” Many of us wanted to shout. “We know everything there is to know about you.”

She told us bits about herself, declared the room a safe space and invited us to share pieces of ourselves. It was like we were transported out of that freezing space by the sea to the safest place everyone could be (for me, it was an island away from civilization) and told that we could be our deepest truest selves. Some of us poked the change with sticks, and others embraced it wholeheartedly. What is important is that one after the other, we shared pieces of ourselves. And in that room, we started to form bonds that I believe will endure.

After our brief introduction, we began the business of the day. She told us why she had selected the stories she did. She didn’t pick perfect stories, she said. She added that it had been particularly hard that year, to select the stories she did. And then she began to critique our entry stories one after the other. During the course of this session, which stretched into the next day, she shared a few gems. I’ll share a few of them:

  • When writing, don’t think about the audience, think about the story.

  • When writing out of your box (gender, nationality, etc.), it is important to come to it with humility.

  • When editing, look at the first and last few sentences.

  • Use more detail so that your story is more believable.

  • Allow your characters some vulnerability.

  • Be specific but don’t overdo it in order to write a more believable story.

Finally, she got to me. And she told me something I will remember forever, and I will not share it with you. We spent the first three days with Chimamanda. We wrote more stories; one using only dialogue, a story about what we like and dislike about ourselves. These exercises opened us up and forced us to confront parts of our selves we had never dared to open up. For many of us (myself included), we had never been able to write anything so personal. For many of us, it was like opening a can of worms. The stories were so hard to write but eventually, the worms grew into butterflies. We found that we were better for the sleepless nights we had to endure to complete our assignments. So yes, the first three days were hard, but absolutely worth it. Above all, they were fun as we had started to develop stronger relationships over fried fish, and chicken curry sauce, and salads, with sugary drinks to wash it all down.

The fourth day saw us paired with Lola Shoneyin and brought what would become a fun, poetry session. I definitely did not know before I met her that she had published at least three poetry collections before releasing her critically-acclaimed novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Lola taught us about brevity and subtlety in writing, how to use writing as therapy, and foreshadowing. Some golden tips she shared with us are:

  • There should always be layers in everything you write.

  • To be able to tell overly personal experiences, learn to detach yourself.

  • The more you translate someone’s work into your language, the better your description will be.

  • Use symbolism to show how people are different.

She also discussed how to write from many perspectives when writing a novel. To make it all easier, here are some things to note when writing different voices:

  • Draw very clear lines.

  • Get to know each character intimately.

  • Write down a character bible.

To practice, we took a poem which Lola chose and after she separated us into groups of four, we translated it into pidgin. The exercise was an illustration of how description can be more vivid when translated into your language and how that can aid the writer in painting a clearer picture in a story.

After Lola was Tash Aw with whom we learnt to write about people who are close to us. Tash had us pair up and for his assignment, we had to discuss parts of ourselves with our partners. From what we had learned of the other person, we had to write a story about them, something they could relate to. On the second day, my roommate, D, finally arrived and it was with her that I completed this assignment. This was particularly hard for me, and I ended up doing a fairly decent job only on my second try. For writers who want to try this, some things which I noted from Tash’s class are:

  • Write about things you’re more emotionally drawn to.

  • Be able to say the things that they said, didn’t say, and could have said.

  • Stories can be used to antagonize the subject.

  • Writing is about going into their emotional space, about invading their personal lives.

  • Colour narratives of people with what you know about them.

Next, we enjoyed a visit from Eghosa Imaseun. Before he showed up, he sent us stories to read. Short stories and articles that taught us a lot about the proper way to submit stories and how to maintain voices while we write. We also got an assignment to re-write a chapter of a popular book and the winner took home the complete set of Chimamanda Adichie’s books (I’m still jealous, T).

Some things to note from Eghosa’s class when submitting a book to a publisher are:

  • Write a letter of approach requesting publication. This should have three parts: why you write, what you write, who you are.

  • Summarize what you’ve written in two sentences. Include why you’re the best person to tell the story.

  • Submit three chapters or 50 pages or 10,000 words of your novel, whichever is longer.

  • Follow up your submission after two months.

  • The safest thing is to go to their submissions page and check if they have a preferred format; it’s usually best to send a traditional format.

Eghosa was hard surfaces with soft tips. He asked questions and actually expected an answer. He was self-critical and magnanimous and he said things that shocked you but at the same time did not, because you knew he meant them. He shared some tips about points of views with us and their specific differences. An important thing I learnt during Eghosa’s session is that the best way to transport yourself to the time where you’re writing is to use music and things that are relevant to that place.

Dave Eggers was last to see us but in no way the least. With Dave, we discussed how to humanize a character, for writing about people we don’t particularly like. Some of the ways a writer can humanize a character are:

  • Show vulnerability in the character.

  • Show the character with someone or something they love.

  • Present their weakness in relatable ways.

  • Reveal their doubts, their internal struggles.

  • Show what they are like when they fail.

  • Show their inner justification for evil. In most cases, people who do evil think they have good reasons for their actions. Take readers into the character’s head.

Dave took us through an invaluable editing class that is worth more than I can ever say. Gold, maybe? With Dave, we discussed experimental stories, stories that are told not from the typical points of views but strange ones. We had to think about possibly writing from the point of view of a house fly, of a dead woman, using different structures, and we did, with many of us producing stellar work. For our assignment, Dave told us to pick a newspaper story and write a fictional story out of it. It was particularly boring as none of the stories seemingly had good material. We spun gold out of the ordinary thread after which we took the practical road to editing. Some editing gifts Dave shared are:

  • Never use so/then.

  • Never put a semi colon in dialogue.

  • Analyze your story sentence by sentence and remove words that don’t do anything for the sentence.

  • Don’t overdo the dialogue tags.

  • Show more than you tell.

We were encouraged to share our work and until today, a quote rings in my head every time I think of holding back: “You miss hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” The quote may be overused but it is no less important.

It is crucial to note that we were not just props sitting in class, and trudging back to our rooms at the end of the day. In the middle of the unending work, we found time to watch movies together in J’s room, have a dance party, go on long walks as a group during which I had a soul-moving talk with T. We took our time to grow as writers as well as individuals as well as Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Trust Students. We spent nights staring at the sky, sitting in the bar downstairs discussing ourselves, peeling open wounds that had been long forgotten, and left buried under a bandage. We talked and laughed and selfied among ourselves. Each day of those ten days is well documented.

All too soon, it was the tenth day. We would spend the day getting ready, making ourselves up and stuffing beautiful outfits, shoes and gorgeous makeup into the gaping holes our oncoming departure would leave within us.

At the oriental hotel, I floated through the day. It was finally the day we would have our long-awaited selfies with Chimamanda who had to travel and couldn’t make it on our previously scheduled date. One by one, Chimamanda, with our certificates in hand, called our names and one after the other we climbed onto the stage, to hear her say the things about us that she had liked best, things we had thought she would have forgotten. Not Chimamanda; She had a sharp memory and remembered the most important things about each one of us, gave us words we each held to our chests, and as we went back to our hotel, one sentence played over in my mind which she had said at a point during the workshop, “I can’t wait to read your books.”

 

Simbiat Haroun lives in her head and when she is not writing, she is silently watching, thinking about what next she will turn into a story. She is a graduate of Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Trust Workshop.

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