On writing

I love writing short stories, and plan to publish another collection from stories I’ve written over the years.

But first I have to write a historical novel that begs my attention. I’ve done some of the research and look forward to writing it. At the same time I’m nervous, it will be the first time I venture into historical fiction.

It’s a story that needs to be told. I’ll give you a hint: a novel that was labelled ‘the great South African novel’ was about it.

My plan is to just dive in. I have no idea where the story is going, or how to get there. I hope this will be revealed in the process of writing.

I’ve had experience where something just happens to help a story along. Serendipity, I think it’s called. Well, I’m calling on the gods of serendipity to visit me and guide me in writing this novel.



My journey


I’d been submitting to traditional publishers for a long time. Some would respond with encouraging letters to soften the rejection, other along the lines of ‘it doesn’t fit into our prestigious list’.

My writing life was in stasis. I filled it with freelance jobs in nursing, medical research, a stint as an editor for a primary health care magazine. Writing scripts for television, writing for children. But what I really wanted to do was write literary fiction.

That seemed so presumptuous that I never confided this dream to anyone. For years I followed advice that I should earn a living with my writing. This wind blew my here and there but brought no recognition, and no satisfaction. Only exploitation, I was a never-ending source of story ideas.

At a mature age, with work drying up and in a deep depression, a friend told me about the MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University. I did my usual thing with excuses of why I couldn’t do it. However, three days before the deadline, I applied and was accepted.  At last I was following my dream.

That was the best decision I had made in thirty years. Caught on the treadmill of putting others’ interest before my own — which I had done automatically, without thinking, because thinking brought me in contact with myself —I embarked on this course with trepidation. Was my brain cells too atrophied for such a work-out? How would I fare competing with younger students? My fears kept me awake.

But soon I realised that I was a natural. I had accumulated a lifetime of writing advice and blossomed.

I submitted the collection of short stories I had worked on, with a recommendation and high hopes, to a local publisher. Still the same response: of the ‘fitting into our beautiful list’, variety.

Then calamity struck. I had a severe reaction to an antibiotic and went into anaphylaxis. My tongue swelled up, I couldn’t breathe. After almost dying I decided to self-publish.

My lecturers and some of my fellow writers were uneasy but I felt good about this choice. It was right for ME. It pulled me back to life.



Excerpt Eye of a needle


Below the first story in my collection:

The beggar

Hi. I’m a homeless writer. I stand at the corner of William Nicol Drive and Sloane Street in Bryanston, South Africa. How did I get here? Well, that’s a long story. I had big dreams while growing up; I wanted to be an architect, maybe even a doctor. But that’s kinda difficult without money, or parents.

I wear a girl’s tartan coat, frayed at the edges. If you see me I’m always bare feet. My big feet hang from my spindly legs in khaki shorts. They have hard calluses for outdoor walking.

My home is under a bridge. I can’t tell you where, because you will want to call the police to report it, and then they will come and tear it down.

Don’t feel sorry for me. On a good day I make close to R200, which I spend on food, cold-drink and provisions for our survival. Provisions, that’s a big word, a word you wouldn’t expect me to use when you drive by in your fancy car. But there is a lot about me you don’t know.

I don’t speak when I beg. I just bring my hand to my mouth in a repetitive motion to show I need food. Some things can be said without words. I hide my accent (I went to a Model C school), but also once you speak you leave yourself open to a reply.

I carry a plastic bag for drivers to place their rubbish in; a walking dustbin.

My stories are about what I have seen. I detest people who write themselves into a story all the time as if they are the most important thing in the world. You aren’t, you know?

I make up stories about the people I meet every day. You’d be surprised at what you can observe standing at a robot. People-watching is my favourite pastime. How many people do what they love each day?

I only work during peak hours; in the morning when people go to work and in the evening when they come home. That is my busy period. Every other time is a waste of energy; irritable housewives shouting at fidgety children, cheating husbands with their secretaries, surly teenagers. Besides, there is something in the frank stare of a child that makes me uncomfortable, even ashamed, to stand here: a man who doesn’t work.

I became tired of looking for work. Trying and being disappointed. There are a lot of young people like me on the streets. Some turned to crime; I turned to begging. That happens when you don’t finish school, but also when you do.

You see people with degrees here. They are the sad-looking ones, trying to advertise their learning on a cardboard poster. Initially they brag about their education – this course at that university, distinctions – then after a while their placard just says ‘Looking for work, any work’. Then they progress to silent begging, like me. It’s hilarious.

Friends are hard to come by. I saw it written on the back window of a minibus taxi: ‘When days are dark, friends are few’. My only friend is a rat that comes to the dustbin on the corner to root through the trash. He doesn’t know he is my friend, dumb thing. Sometimes I call to him and he scurries away.

“Hello, Irvin.”

Who’s that? Don’t look. Don’t look. Obviously, it’s someone who knows me.

“Irvin? You remember me?”

No, I don’t remember anything about my past life, and less about my future life. It’s too—

“We were together at varsity.”

Oh shit, I have to get out of here.

“You did so well at school. What happened to you? Why are you here?”

Damn. She’s going to cry. That’s all I need, false people blubbering.

“Your parents are looking for you. Hey, where are you running to? Irvin!”

Who does she think she is, giving herself the right to speak to me? My parents… I’m not interested. And don’t you dare think that I’ll tell you everything about me. I’ve learned not to trust.

You see the underbelly of society when you beg for a living. Some people are just angry for no reason. Some are polite, while others are plain dodgy. They invite you into their cars and you think that they’re gonna be nice…

They think I’m odd. Usually I steal their pens and paper. Once, I copied something from the encyclopaedia. But mostly my head is my notebook. The writing beggar, that’s what they call me.

Here’s a challenge for you. They say people tell their lives through their stories. See if you can find mine. Heh-heh-heh. After that, you can help me find my parents, and my dreadlocks. Someone stole them.

I once had a friend for twenty-four hours, a young woman who was sitting next to the road. She was afraid, hiding from someone. I took her in, looked after her. The next morning she left without saying goodbye. That’s people for you: rude, grasping.

At the end of the day, around nine in the evening, you’ll find me sitting under a floodlight on the bridge, reading the newspaper. Next to me will be my housemate, with his blanket around him. Usually he is swaying, a flower in a breeze, or one of those L-shaped robots with arms stretched across the road, shaking in the wind. The survival provisions are for him; a plastic bottle and glue. He sucks on it, a baby who can’t get enough. Without this milk he doesn’t know how to be in the world.

I can’t face the world alone.

He isn’t really my friend, sometimes he steals from me. But no relationship is perfect.


Model C school – multiracial school with better facilities.