Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo’s Note on Craft
As part of the Notes On Craft series, I (Olakunle Ologunro) reached out to a number of writers and asked them to share a piece of work that is most significant to them, and what they think other writers can learn from it.
Here’s Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo’s pick: “The Writer and His Community” from the collection of essays, Hopes and Impediments by Chinua Achebe.
There is something I like to call the writer’s darkness. It is that moment when a writer, hungry for literary prowess, shaken by utter humiliation at the artlessness of their work, descends, for days and weeks, into the darkness, looking for secrets. The precipitating event is different for everyone: a reader gives haunting feedback, or the writer stumbles on a perfectly executed short story of a colleague, which heightens the lack of skill in theirs, or the writer receives, in a space of four months, sixteen rejections from sixteen different literary magazines. The plunge into the darkness is similar: racing thoughts about failure, an inability to look people in the eye, want for too much or too little food, and long moments spent in a state of stillness thinking about the precipitating event, dissecting the minute details, what was said and how it was said, everything so thoroughly painful. And then come the moments of slight clarity, when the writer asks, what must I do to stop feeling this way, and the answer, for writers for whom writing is a calling, is simply to write better.
At this point, the writing darkness becomes a personal song, pieced together by the writer’s own instincts and eccentricities. Some writers bathe in craft books, interviews of renowned writers, lectures and talks, anything which might hold the possibility of an elixir guaranteed to unlock the dormant literary genius in them. Some read fiction, copy out whole paragraphs and chapters from admired books, attempting to figure out tricks and patterns. Some go straight to the desk and implement trial and error until they emerge with peculiar writing rituals.
The writing darkness is necessary, but like many harrowing experiences, it wounds you. You come out brutalized and blistered. And what I fear the most is that sometimes you come out having lost your chaotic, glowingly weird self.
Mine happened in my first year in an MFA program. I had been sick with imposter syndrome before then, certain that my work was subpar, and in my first workshop had submitted a story from my application packet because at least it had been blessed by an MFA acceptance. For my second workshop though, I had to turn in a new story, one anxiously strung together. The workshop was immensely kind, but I could feel the lack of enthusiasm as they spoke. The story did not stir or inspire. It was not a good story. I knew it.
After the agonizing and self-pity associated with the darkness, I began to read and write in a way that I’d never before, carefully, rigorously, and with aim. I began to read like a writer. I got better. I learnt the dos and don’ts. I learnt to write better sentences, to construct a cohesive short story, balancing scene and narration, quickening the pace when necessary, zooming into moments, wrenching from a scene every drop of emotion it can afford me. This was enough for a while until it wasn’t. I wanted more. But I did not know what more was. Then I read Chinua Achebe’s collection of essays titled Hopes and Impediments, specifically the essay titled “The Writer and His Community.”
In the essay, Achebe makes an argument for writing as spiritual congruence with the other, and writers as being responsible to a community. He contrasts Western individualism with Igbo communality and smartly evades dichotomies by adding that none of these societies hold a monopoly on either. But the difference, he states, is in how individualism is balanced out in these societies. He argues that the Igbos have balanced “this extraordinary specialness, this unsurpassed individuality, by setting limits to its expression.”
The argument solidifies into one about craft when Achebe inserts a quote from a letter he received from John Updike about Arrow of God.
Here is what Updike had to say:
“The final developments of Arrow of God proved unexpected and, as I think about them, beautifully resonant, tragic and theological. That Ezeulu, whom we had seen stand so invincibly to both Nwaka and Clarke, should be so suddenly vanquished by his own god Ulu and by something harsh and vengeful within himself, and his defeat in a page or two be the fulcrum of a Christian lever upon his people, is an ending few Western novelists would have contrived; having created a hero they would not let him crumble, nor are they, by and large, as truthful as you in their witness to the cruel reality of process.”
Achebe responds, with delicious sarcasm:
“Of course a Westerner would be most reluctant to destroy “in a page or two” the very angel and paragon of creation—the individual hero. If indeed he has to be destroyed, it must be done expansively with detailed explanations and justifications, not to talk of lamentations. And he must be given the final limelight in which to speak a grand valedictory soliloquy.”
After reading this, I began to wonder about the many other possibilities of craft creation. If societies influence craft decisions, and how much of what we think of craft, of the structure of fiction, is inherited from Western literature, and in turn, the arrangement of Western societies, what about my own society and its rules can make my fiction truer?
What I bathed in while in the darkness were craft books written by White people, and the novels I read were, you guessed right, novels written by White people, and the people I looked to for constructive criticism were writers fluent only in Western literature. I came out of the darkness, armed with these tools, anxious in my implementation of them, and I fear, a tad bit soulless, having lost my own way of seeing the world.
And I did have my own way of seeing the world. I have always written. For as long as I can remember, I have strung words together in my imagination, on paper, and whether I knew it then or not, these stories were shaped by my immediate intimacies, what I was seeing around me, how that was absorbed and defined by the bewildering chemicals in my brain. It was, and I hope can still someday be, me, my soul, and what I was seeing, my world—nature and nurture.
So while you go through your own darkness, if you haven’t already, I want you to fiercely hold on to your own nature and nurture, and when you come out to the other side, I want you to still be as chaotic, as fearless, as raw (this word gets a bad rap and I would never understand why) as you were when you were free, unencumbered by the rules of the craft. I want you to see that, too, as craft, those decisions that come to you naturally. Maybe you don’t want to use dialogue in your stories because it messes with the natural flow of the world you are trying to create. Maybe like Achebe, you want to say f**k you to the idea of an individual hero because it doesn’t read true to your sensibility, to the world as you know it. Maybe you want the middle of the story at the beginning and the beginning at the end. Do what feels true to you. Then come tell us about it. Show us other ways of seeing the world.