To Manasseh Azure: ‘Writing is A Process, Not A Profession’
Fortunately, Azure is in the process. He would find that as affordable as this process seems, not many of his GIJ colleagues can afford it. He would also find that most of the accomplished journalists and writers he mentioned in his very engaging December 20 article on the writing profession, would confess that they are still in the process. Unlike other professionals, we are always in the process of continuous professionalization, learning how to write what we have always been writing. People are quick to notice bland writing but they want to see a portfolio of excellent work complied over time before they give us a pass mark. That is why it takes long for writers to be discovered. Some very good ones do not get discovered at all. A lot more have been buried with their scripts.
The process sucks. It involves a lot of charity work and free-freelancing. I started with an obituary for my boss's mother. The feedback was good: “The writing is so tasteful it doesn't make death look painful anymore”, a mourner said. Another submitted: “She would be happy to read this if she were alive.” So I got more requests to write about the dead, who didn't pay me anything. Maybe they would have paid a token if they were alive. When I realised that it wasn't much fun doing business with the dead, I decided to write for the living, many of whom also proved just as disappointing as the dead. So, very early in my writing experience, I would learn about the 'living-dead', a phrase that would later mean a lot for my own writing life: I have in effect been a living-dead writer. That is what it means to be a freelance journalist these days. And it is not only in Ghana and Africa that freelance writing is actually free. Even in many advanced economies, where the media is vibrant and ably kept alive by an informed and very literate reading public, freelancing is sometimes a free joke. So, writers just write for free, just for free, really.
You write for free, hoping that one day somebody would notice you and pay you to write. But that takes a long time, especially in our part of the Jordan. Well, if you are lucky and can 'afford the audacity', it could be very quick and profitable, even from a very early age. That is how Jon Favreau, Barack Obama's speech writer, was discovered. He had done some charity writing for candidate John Kerry's campaign team. He had graduated from Holy Cross University in Massachusetts not long ago. Mind you, Holy Cross is not Ivy League at all. It may be just as good as Azure's KRASEC. But Jon knew his stuff. He had the audacity to interrupt Barack Obama during his mock presentation of the speech that introduced Kerry in the course of the latter's presidential appearances. Barack, it is said, took notice of the lad's audacity and made amends. He was 22. Today, Jon leads a team of very young speech writers, the oldest not quite 33. Jon is about 27 years.
For some of us, however, it would take more than Jon's audacity and luck to write for a district chief executive. We have been in the process for a very long time, buying time to process unprocessed thoughts and opportunities. I am contemplating PhD studies in professional communication in a popular Canadian university. The admission process requires a portfolio of my writings. And they don't want crap, they have stated. Where would I get the portfolio from if I hadn't been writing before? This is where the charity work becomes useful. But my wife wonders: “A PhD in Professional Communication? Does that mean all that you have been writing over the years were unprofessional?”
“Not exactly, darling, I would submit. You see, a lot goes into writing. You always need to learn new ways of writing.” She is also aware that I am at the same time submitting proposals for Harvard's new programme in Narrative Journalism. Sometimes she gets concerned that I have to share the few times that we spend together with peoples' PhD thesis and Masters Degree dissertations that I am always proofreading. At any point, I have at least two of them. It is like the job of a pastor: You can't say no to a prayer request. But even they are better off, because there is no evidence that they didn't pray. Editing involves nosing out redundancies, checking grammar and tightening sentences.
How much do the best writers get paid, anyway? Every letter to Jomo is priceless. It doesn't follow the usual routine in diagnosing stomach ache or quoting popular articles of the law. These professionals have professions: They only do what they have been trained to do. Writers, however, are trained to do what they do in addition to what others do and do not do. Of course, we have gone past the elementary debate of whose job is the most important. We think like people in the theatre: There are no small roles; only small parts. Writers do not care what part they play; they know their role in that all important function of news production, public information, awareness creation and entertainment. Like Azure, I love George Abugri. I used to see his column in the Graphic when I was a young man. Then one day, I said to myself: “Okay this man with a bushy hair, make I see what he dey write for here.” Suddenly, I started thinking of the number of Fridays that I have had to miss such quality writing and the humour. In fact, I tried to copy his writing style but I realised what men of letters have put down on style: The style is the man.
Azure was spot-on: There are writers and there are writers. He mentions Kwaku Sakyi-Addo, Kofi Akordor, Merari Alomele, and a few others. Well, Kwaku is different. He is pure gold in triplicate. One of my readers once advised me to learn his transitions and fluid presentation of fact and opinion. Then I wrote back: “I am in the process of learning how to write. I cannot write like those who have perfected the process.” Five years on, I am still in the process, writing a book that is taking too long to end, commenting on news in opinion columns and generally writing anything that jumps into my head, in the hope that it would make sense. Sometimes it does, mostly it doesn't. That hasn't stopped me. I have the same sickness as Azure: A cock crows. A child cries. A dog farts. You necessarily think of how you can paint a picture with words and write a script through a painting. It is a calling, not a profession. Otherwise, consider accounting, or even law.
That is why Azure writes. And I must hasten to add that he writes very well. Beyond his now very noticeable by-line, he merits attention – from accomplished columnists like I.K Gyasi and the not-so accomplished ones like me. At least, now we know that he attended KRASEC. We also know his potential. That means he has already been discovered. He is in deep in the process. Maybe soon somebody would fish him out like Jon Favreau and get him to write for the Nokofio Party. When he ever gets a job like that, he should be mindful of the word NOT when writing press statements. Whoever wrote the NPP's Christmas message did NOT do a good job at proofreading and copy-tasting. For now, Azure would make good his 'employment' in the process, hoping that a much better job would come along. It is still a good feeling writing (even it means not getting read) and having to write again because somebody wrote something about what you wrote.
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin is a journalist who writes stress-busters and opinion columns. He lives in Ottawa, Canada. His book: Between Sickness and The Cure: Africa's Naughtiest Professor, is still in the works.
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