The question of writer’s block is one that most writers face, discuss and just make a million excuses of. Several people have given their reasons for why it is there, explaining in scientific and ordinary terms but on January 16th, 2019 at Nick Makoha’s workshop in Oxford – which I attended – we got another view to it.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves… A little genesis to the workshop and we will right there with you. You can actually skip a few paragraphs if you want to get there already…
I might soon start calling myself an Oxford man after the good work the guys at Torch have done for me. So, I got into Oxford from Brighton via London for my second poetry workshop in less than two months. The first had been with the African leader of poetry and promoter extraordinaire, Kwame Dawes (you can read on the experience HERE) and now, it was with the famed Nick Makoha – actor and poet, who won the 2015 Brunel African Poetry Prize. The event was hosted by the Torch Centre of Oxford University in collaboration with the North Wall Arts Centre.
I arrived Oxford in the rain and I had to take shelter in the fine church where an elderly man was cross with me for daring to wear a head warmer in the house of God. No excuses. I took it off and walked around, admiring the history of the fine place.
Well, a lot happened else but let’s not bore you. I will summarize it saying, the cold got far worse and I was forced to pick a winter jacket from GAP to add on to the sweater I had on. I tried to find St. Luke’s Chapel and imagined it would be behind the Radcliffe Building but after having my phone switch off on me, I found my way back to the Building and discovered our venue was right by the gate.
I got in and met the workshop in session. The joys of missing your way, right? Well, it seems I had not missed much. However, the other participants were searching for something in Nick’s bag. They eventually took their seats. Nick gave us a copy of his twenty-three multi-colored paged chapbook, Resurrection Man, consisting of ten poems. Nick explained that what he had noticed in his poems is that there was always a sense of rhythm in his work which might be because he has always listened to music. He called a page number and asked for a volunteer to read. Well, more like he asked a question or said something I didn’t hear and when I asked for clarification, I became the ‘sacrificial lamb.’ Grrrr! I read ‘Stone’ for us but I was unable to get it to the rhythm he desired so he read it again and we nodded.
My issue with his reading was simple: Nick has a British accent but the poem felt very African. I read it again in my mind. Then, listened to his voice more carefully and found out he wasn’t as British accented as I thought. Well, yes, our mind has a way of playing those games on us and I believe that in the end we can make ourselves hear what we want to. Wait, wasn’t it Madonna who said: you only see what your eyes want to see.
But back to the workshop… We spoke on the poem and a few other things. Nick explained that most writers try to be two totally different people at the same time: the creators and the editors. Thus, there is that obstruction in the art of creation.
If you try to write and edit at the same time, you will get an automatic writer’s block.
He let us into his creative process, noting that he often has to let of prejudices when he is writing. He also has to give himself permission.
Writing is permission. Sometimes you have writer’s block because you have not given yourself permission.
Getting permission, as he explained, is letting yourself flow without restrictions, not letting any obstacle – physical or metaphysical or mental – be an obstruction.
It is like a being on a date, you talk to the girl and act natural. You don’t know what will happen but you just go on and hope it ends well.
We had a brief exercise which involved writing a poem based on a place, any space at all. We were timed and Nick put music to play in the background. Our instructions were to simply write on without pausing to strike any word out, to think if we were doing right or anything of the sort. So, we wrote and wrote on for about three minutes. In my mind, I went back to a river in my maternal village and conjured it to life. I soon lost my person and found a person, transitioning from boyhood and sonship to adulthood and fatherhood, while the river flowed on by, the sun dancing on its stomach in a million glitters sometimes and the moon just smiling at night. The river flowers all year long and whispers…
We were in pairs and had to feedback. So, I listened to Jack Parlett (who was my mate) and gave him my thoughts on his poem. He listened to me and gave me his thoughts too, which were really helpful. We all spoke on our processes and what we had created, then moved on.
Our next exercise was think of an idea we would want to work on. Nick mentioned, for example, of the process that led to his The Dark, a play which takes place in one day. He mentioned his influences too. So, we wrote our thoughts and presented. I thought of a couple of things: what tale can Oxford put or give? The tale of a church that became grounds for atheist meetings… In the end, at feedback, I spoke of my thoughts of the experiences of blacks in different cities in the world. Short stories. It was an idea that had been with me for some time, even before the workshop. Nick asked that I consider the cities that mean the most to me and investigate my tale from there. There were other ideas too. Jack spoke of squares and he was asked to think of his favourite square, its story and how it affects people. Someone else spoke of lost things. We investigated her idea through the scope of the most important things she had lost and she mentioned them. When she was through, mentioning those things – which felt really personal – from inspiration to innocence and the like, I thought of myself and those things which I had lost too which I might never gain. Made me realise how many things we don’t really think of. Of how we change without even knowing and how these changes are a firm part of our lives’ tales, which we ignore.
After all our feedback, our facilitator – Nick, of course – reminded us that we had to read the Masters always, to commune with each other and importantly, write. He encouraged us to start projects, set tasks for ourselves and just ensure we see it through.
Art is communal. If you don’t give yourself a project, then you will try to run your way out of it. If you keep waiting for the perfect stuff, you will not be able to do more.
Next, someone read ‘How a city vanishes’, which Nick called a love poem to his mom. Nick had to re-read the poem, then asked us to close our eyes. We gave feedback. Mine was that, well, something like my first issue. So, I had to close my eyes again and regain the poem. It was an African experience told in a British tongue. And at that point, I began to think more of most of what the workshop was meant to be about: a metic experience. As Nick explained elsewhere:
The term ‘Metic’ means a foreigner whose allegiances are split between their homeland and their new country. Metic is a Greek word, which we might usefully read as a cognate of today’s bureaucratic term “resident alien”. It comes from the word metá, indicating change, and oîkos meaning dwelling. In ancient Greek city-states, Metics held a lower position in society. Being a citizen was a matter of inheritance. Metics did not become citizens unless citizenship was bestowed upon them as a gift, which rarely happened.
Nick, a Ugandan turned British was a good example and he explained his experiences and his writing in this light. Of how, he had to learn to give himself permission to be of all the worlds – Ugandan and African, and black and British. He spoke of T. S. Eliot, the American who was more British than many Brits.
They say, you don’t introduce new ideas at the end of any work [get an overview of metic experience in writing by Nick HERE] so I will not go into that. I will only say, we spoke a bit more and shared on our works, then it was time to go as Nick had a presentation of The Dark to do later in the evening.
I made my way to a church to feel Oxford’s religion and met a Catholic Mass in Latin… Soon after it was done, I made my way to the coach station, to London and home to Brighton, pen in hand as I jotted new experiences of a Nigerian man transitioning to the country of creativity more and more.