Mary Oliver: The Artist’s Task

Wonderful essay on creativity

Vox Populi

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses…

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Reviewed by Christian Sia for Readers’ Favorite


Eye of a Needle: And Other Stories by Cornelia Fick is a gorgeous
collection of short and long stories, each suffused with unique
literary elements to entertain readers. The author captures the
reality of South Africa in vivid detail, in a voice that is clear and
absorbing. In “The Beggar,” the reader meets the “homeless writer”
and the circumstances that led him to miss his big dreams and set
up a home under the bridge. “Opposites Attract” features great
storytelling skills. There are stories of varying lengths, each looking
at a fragment of life through the narrator’s eyes, and at times the
reader can feel the indictment of the powers that be for the poverty
and injustice, or a celebration of love.
This collection features an exciting and delightful blend of flash
fiction and longer stories. The shorter ones are tightly written, and
the reader feels teased and wanting more once they complete
reading each story. The writing itself has many elements of
seduction woven into its fabric. The longer stories feature
compelling characters, great plots, and well-developed themes.
Some of the themes — love, social issues, poverty — are recurrent
in several stories. The characters that animate the plot lines are
well-imagined, most of them are plucked from ordinary life, and are
well-sculpted. What was most fascinating for me was the beautiful
and elegant writing. It is clean and polished, laden with vivid and
beautiful descriptions. Eye of a Needle: And Other Stories is a
gorgeous treat for fans of flash fiction and the short story, and
Cornelia Fick comes across as a mistress of the genre.

Being lost

I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, A field guide to getting lost*, and I’m reminded of the recurring dreams I used to have not so long ago. That of being lost in a strange country or place, threatened by unknown ghosts, and out of my mind with panic and fear.

When I look back, at the time, there was a bloody conflict and somehow I’d found my place in the family hierarchy gone or mislaid. Relationships with other relatives had disappeared or become strained.

Due to my anger at being in this space, my primary relationship faltered. The dream appeared like tragic music to accompany my life. After or during the dream I would wake up in a cold sweat, my heart pounding. A mysterious chest pain appeared. I was experiencing being lost and I did not know how to be lost.

Solnit says in the first chapter ‘Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself come from, and where you will go.’

She suggests that children find it easier to be lost, citing the incident of a deaf boy who blew his whistle and when nobody came and night fell, he sensibly found a sheltered place to sleep.

When I was a teenager we regularly went to Johannesburg to visit my aunt. The distance from the bus stop in Bree Street to Bezvalley was intimidating for a thirteen-year-old, yet I never seemed to feel it. And making a wrong turn wasn’t disastrous because as long as you walked in the right direction you were fine. I wasn’t afraid.

Obviously I’d been better at getting lost then, assured of finding my way;  so what had changed? Why had I become fearful of the world and lost trust in myself and my ability to find my way in it? What was there in my life that had stripped away my confidence? These and other questions plagued me.

I sank into a depression. I have a picture with childhood friends at Gold Reef City, dressed in the clothes worn by women during the gold rush, to celebrate a birthday. My eyes are lifeless. I’m there but I’m not there. I had disappeared into a wall of misery from which I managed to function perfunctorily to enact the duties expected from me.

It was during this time that a writer friend suggested a course in creative writing. She had just completed it and couldn’t praise it enough.

I applied, was accepted and slowly wrote my way out of the dead-end my life had become.

I’m in Cape Town to do research for a historical novel and I have never been better. Yesterday I went to Bloubergstrand 45 kilometres away to interview a man who had traced 400 years of his ancestors, unusual in South Africa. Normally I would panic. But I was calm and made a wonderful friend.

When I started reading Solnit’s book I had one of those ‘a-ha’ moments people talk about. I don’t yet know how to be lost without fear overwhelming me but, inspired by this book, I’m working on it.

*A field guide to being lost, Viking, Penguin Group (USA) INC 375 Hudson Street, New York, 2005.

On personal essays



I’m a fiction writer. I prefer to clothe my deepest thoughts and concerns by inventing a character and giving him/her my views and problems. Cowardly I know, but I cringe at people who can write about their innermost being, even if it makes them look bad. I cringe on their behalf, but also on my own. I would never wash my thoughts in public, I think, while admiring their honesty and foolhardiness.

But then I start thinking, what would it take for me to do that?  Rinse my thoughts in public, that is.

I’m a private person, schooled on the idea ‘we don’t talk about that.’ I remember when I was about fifteen asking my grandmother about the sound in her hip when she walks. Every step would be accompanied by a loud click. In my young mind I had visions of her removing her underwear to show me the affected hip. Did it have a dent, what on earth caused that noise? It never affected her walk though, just accompanied it like drum sticks conjured up by her body. Click-clack-click.

Needless to say she told my mother and I got a hiding. I learned you don’t talk about grandmother’s click. I also acquired the reputation for being too curious, a bad thing. A child like that could stumble on family secrets.

I need the protection of anonymity. Then you’ll get the most honest feelings and deepest insights I can muster. But talk to me one on one, ask me to speak in front of a crowd, and I go dumb. That is why we are writers, I suppose. We can put on a coat of many colours and try to wow with our words.

But there’s always the possibility of growth: growing side-ways because of too many puddings, and growing intellectually and emotionally. I tried both. I joined this workshop on ‘what is a mind’. For the first time in my existence my brain actually grew painful with thinking.

People don’t tell you that, that thinking can be painful. That is why all those clever people start becoming weird. Their brains ache and they have to do something wack to find relief. (I’m trying to think if I know any clever people who are weird and I don’t. Eish. A personal essay is supposed to have facts so scratch that.)

While flirting with the idea of writing a ‘personal essay’ (just the name gives me the shivers) I stumbled on the quote: ‘At some point, all writers should attempt this form. It is at once a challenge of your talent but also a bearing of soul that is much more difficult to get right than novels or scripts or poems. I would challenge any writer to try it at least once.’ (

Uh-huh. Now who can resist such a challenge? This woman, Taylor Houston – oh dear it may very well be a man – this man or woman, issues a direct challenge and I’m stepping up to the plate, or is it stepping off, because I’m out of my depth here.

People (this is me on my soap box) generally interpret themselves. Their honesty may therefore display who they think they are. And isn’t that fiction too? Everyone has a face that they present to the world. I haven’t discovered mine yet, so as soon as I know I’ll jump in and write my inner ear.

Welcoming the muse

fairy-1964203_1280In writing a poem I usually know what I want to say and how to say it, before I start. This involves thinking, planning, editing. During the past week, however, I had a different experience.

I started writing a poem to present at our monthly poetry group, Jozi House of Poetry, with the theme ‘new beginnings’. Pressure to produce something made me sit down to work. I wrote the first line, stolen from a random list in my diary, ‘God, mythology, creed’. I chewed the back of my pen, then another line popped into my head. Dutifully I wrote it down.

This happened for the entire poem, not being conscious of direction or theme, just writing what came to me, regardless.

After the last line I had no idea what the poem was about. But on reading it, I liked it.  It turned out to be one of my better poems.

That made me think that creative control isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. We are so steeped in writing advice and technique that it can stifle the process. Sometimes you just have to let go and welcome the muse.

How do you write poetry? What is your process? I would love to hear from you.

Book launch April 2017



Wow, what a good start to the new year. The proof copy of my book arrived this morning and it is looking good. I’m looking forward to the launch in South Africa in April.

In the meantime I have to make a list of everything I want to do. First should be building the characters and story of my next novel. I’ve done some research (enough to get started) and will continue researching and writing with the goal to finish the first draft by September.

I’ve been reading up on what other writers have achieved in 2016 and their plans for this year. One writer said that she published five books last year. Five! I’m envious but at the same time I know that I won’t be able to do that. I need to think and read while I’m writing, a slow process.

I also want to look for an illustrator for my children’s book.

Next will be a workshop with Lydia Yuknavitch in May. I’m excited and scared. She is such a great writer and putting myself in the company of great writers awakens my chronic insecurity.

This year I want to submit more to literary magazines and competitions. Hopefully I can draw up a schedule and write new content. Yuknavitch’s workshop should produce good stories (I hope).

What are your plans for 2017?




Your tool box

All of us use our minds to write. Have you ever wondered what it is, this mind that we employ with such abandon in our stories?

I recently did a six-week MOOC course on ‘What is a mind’ by Prof Mark Solms from the University of Cape Town on FutureLearn. It was the most thought-provoking exercise I had ever done. It not only interrogated the question, what is a mind, but what it is for, and provided insight into depression and mental disorders.

Although it was an extremely difficult topic, merging neuroscience and psychoanalysis (neuropsychoanalysis) to answer the question, what is a mind, the professor made it accessible to the students, ranging from neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, general practitioners, to ordinary people like me.

What I came away with was the newfound knowledge that the mind has four ‘defining properties’: subjectivity, consciousness, intentionality and agency. Each of these is situated in a specific area of the brain.

That locates the mind firmly in the body. Without these structures in the brain, the mind ceases to exist. Prof Solms cited brain injury. If that part is damaged, you disappear into a coma. And those who emerge from a coma, when asked what it was like, said it felt like nothing. They were not there and suddenly they were.

However, this is disputed by others in the field, making it not only a challenging subject but also one riven with disagreements and counter arguments.

An interesting idea for me was that we share seven basic emotions with mammals, fear, anger, panic, seeking, lust, care and play. It made me look at animals in a different way.

My mother used to tell this story about a snake that chased her big brother. They grew up in the Free State and the chase took place in terrain where the grass was shoulder high. Every few metres the snake would lift its head out of the grass to look for its quarry.

Fortunately, his half-brother was with him and he warned, “It’s there!”, pointing to the right and my uncle would swerve to the left. Again a warning, “The snake is there!” which prompted a move to the other side. Aside from scaring the hell out of me, this story made me wonder about the determination of the snake. Now I’m thinking that he had probably activated its rage!

An excerpt: ‘The defining feature of the basic emotions is that they are inborn responses to situations of universal biological significance. They are, in a sense, inherited memories of how to respond in such situations, crucial for survival and reproductive success. Those of our ancestors who did not possess the genetic sequences that pre-programme these responses therefore tended not to survive and reproduce — which is why we do not resemble them. Take FEAR, for example, one of the seven basic emotions. If we had to learn what happens when we walk off cliffs, that would be the only thing that we ever learnt. Instead we are born with an instinctual aversion to heights, and several other such things (which reappear in most of the well-known phobias, which are over-sensitivities of this system). Rats, for this reason, freeze when exposed to a single cat hair, even on the first day of life. The FEAR system, though, like all basic emotion systems, is also open to learning. That is how things that evolution had no knowledge of, like electric sockets, come to be associated with fear.’

This course enriched my understanding of my place in the world, as well as driving home the importance of feelings as an indication of how well a person is doing in the world – which I will use in future when creating my characters.

For more information please visit the website

‘Imagine ourselves into being’

dscn0919This slogan of the first Abantu literary festival ignited my imagination into thinking, what would that entail? Here we can take a leaf out of recent events in America. Concerned about Donald Trump becoming president, most literary magazines set a challenge to their writers – write, explore the implications.

An example, PenSA currently has on its website a competition by Junot Diaz to write dystopian fiction. Lydia Yuknavitch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Toni Morrison, Lance Olsen, and Rebecca Solnit, are all dealing with the political landscape in interviews, on social media and in their writing.

I feel that in South Africa we can do more. In order to move forward you need to know where you come from. That place, where we come from, our history, has not been interrogated enough. The deep pain in the black communities hasn’t been addressed as much as it should be.

There is the belief that you should show the enemy strength by hiding how he has broken you. That is commendable. But then it means that that pain is buried so deep that it’s only expression can be anger (and violence).

I don’t pretend to know how to do it. We have a wonderful sense of humour in South Africa. After every calamity, such as the Gupta saga, there are memes to make fun of it. Maybe this is one way to address it? If you look carefully at Trevor Noah’s humour, it is based on not fitting in. Humour can be used in various ways to address serious topics.

In our communities there is knowledge about the recent past of the ANC and the struggle but not about our history since Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape. The history we learnt at school, at least during my generation, history with a purpose, cannot be trusted.

The goal was to present the Afrikaner as a hero. Think of the story of Rageltjie De Beer freezing to death, protecting her brother (because that is what we women are supposed to do); Paul Kruger killing a lion with his bare hands, and our own Paul Revere story about someone on his horse riding through difficulty to warn of the approaching enemy.

Because it was purpose driven, it left out certain things or presented them as mild. Like slavery. That beautiful picture of the attractive Van Riebeeck looking like a star is misleading. As soon as he set foot on the continent he petitioned the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for slaves.

We have to reclaim that history. Unlike in the American South where the north arranged for people to record the experiences of the slaves, we have nothing. Only Katie Jacobs who was interviewed in her nineties and told a story about being set free but the madam said how can you leave, the children need you. And like a good servant she stayed for another four years. (It would be interesting to know how the madam compensated her for that).

The true face of slavery was hidden and because it was hidden many of the apartheid laws sprouted from it, like carrying a pass. The slaves had to have a letter from their employer when they were out and about.

This hidden history has severely affected the brown people. All I know about the Khoena, which form a large part of my ancestry, is that they wore animal skins and rubbed themselves with animal fat. And, appropriately, everyone in my class said ‘ewe’.

As writers we know that the way you present information is to create a certain effect, a certain response. The presentation of the Khoena in our history books was to evoke shame (and contempt?) and it did. We know nothing about them inventing the original braai, about making shoes from animal skin, about their contribution, together with the slaves, to the creation of the Afrikaans language, about their religion based on Heitse Eibib.

The most potent weapon of war is the mind of the oppressed. Steve Biko. How has your mind been oppressed? We should interrogate the processes. Slowly, carefully, thoroughly. Analyse, think. Do you know what ‘total onslaught’ during apartheid really meant? I also don’t, so we have to learn – read and learn.