Open Book Fest

How to make a writer

Poetica: Schooling Your Voice – The Creative Writing MA, 7 September 2013, Fugard Annexe 2. Sindiwe Magona, Melt Myburgh and David Tyfield in conversation with Karin Schimke.


There is a general consensus among the members of the panel that writing, although it requires talent, is also enhanced by the structure of training. Schimke starts the discussion by asking whether the poets were ever closet writers and they all have a similar response. They reveal an initial fear of showing their own work and the difficulty in dealing with the process of first “coming out” as a writer. Myburgh articulates an anxiety linked to this which many writers battle with, the fear of acknowledging “I am a writer” or even worse “a poet”. When they finally have the courage to show their work to someone whom they think will be able to give it some credence it is often devastating. In Myburgh’s case he relates how he battled to call himself a poet for twenty years and when he finally showed his work to a lecturer at Stellenbosch University, her response put him off writing for several more years. In retrospect, however, he appreciates that, and credits her for having done him a favour as it made him better at his writing. Tyfield explains how traumatic it was to submit piles of work which he was very proud of and have his supervisor select only one, but that the one which he selected would help to keep him going.

Sindiwe Magona in her usual engaging honesty admits that she never thought “people like [her] could write, and [write] strings of books,” and that she was not prepared to show her work to anyone for a long time. It was only once she was published that she started to pursue everyone for their stories. She acknowledges that even at the time when she was published she still was not confident until she felt quite strongly about something. She explains how her very real fear for South Africans in the run up to the 1994 elections spurred her into writing “Fear of Change” as she knew that “political change did not mean social change” and her fear inspired this “coming out poem.”

On the issue of voice and “Schooling Your Voice” they are in agreement that the best advice to aspirant writers would be to be true to one’s own voice. Myburgh says “write what you feel not someone else’s stuff, because it’s not you,” and Tyfield and Magona concur. Tyfield says one’s own voice is what gives authenticity to the writing. The issue of writing in one’s own voice is best expressed by Magona, who explains: “When I write with my head, it’s not writing. When I write with my heart, it comes out true.” Myburgh says a writer may be born with a talent to write but it is something which must be worked at as everyone has a voice but that does not mean everyone can write.

Schimke asks whether courses in creative writing are not exploitative of those with a desire to write, and Magona concedes that many who attend these courses with the idea of becoming a writer will not succeed. However, she points out that these course have the advantage of schooling potential writers in the basics of, for example, the publishing industry and what publishers want. Myburgh adds that he found the workshop setup useful in terms of having a soundboard and a community of writers. The structure of a creative writing course is also helpful in that the participant is under an obligation to write and submit. This forces them to be disciplined about writing and the result is feedback from the facilitator and sometimes other participants. They also agree that talent is the basis from which all writing starts and that talent is not something which can be taught, but it can and has to be nurtured. Tyfield suggests this need to shape the talent is important in ensuring that “naivety” does not remain “ignorance” as it could result in “flat” writing.

It is evident that there are many writers who have never attended a creative writing course and some have been more successful in being published than others, but the same goes for those who have been through the training. It is thus up to the individual to decide whether they see the need to pursue a structured course to hone their own writing skills. Besides the creative writing courses offered by universities in South Africa, there are also many community and online courses available.

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