By BRUCE DENNILL
“To be properly committed to the writing process, you need to be sufficiently obsessed with the project” – Damon Galgut
The Franschhoek Literary Festival 2014 was held from 16 to 18 May. It was superb experience, three days of brain food and soul salve. But that impact has less to do with the mechanics of the thing than what is suggested by the people who are involved.
Many of the talks are about obscure topics, but that doesn’t seem to hurt ticket sales, with a good deal of the weekend’s debates and discussions being played out in front of hundreds of rapt listeners. The title of one of the talks – it was about having a strong voice as a poet, as it happens – sums up the least marketed but arguably most crucial part of the festival.
It’s called No Apologies.
In the day-to-day life of the average person, rushing is an unwelcome but ubiquitous part of every schedule. Our multifaceted collective existence includes work deadlines; school and sport timetables for children; and largely abandoned hobbies that are indulged in the gaps between everything else.
The Franschhoek Literary Festival (and others like it) showcase a mindset. Seated in slightly awkward rows behind identical tables on stages in venues scattered around the village, authors push their agendas, discuss their methodologies, attempt to find a compromise on a point of principle or offer insight into or criticism of various themes.
What they all share, though – the good ones, at least – is a commitment to what they do that is impressive, inspiring and, in some ways, intimidating. They say things like, “When I started this book eight years ago” and “My whole house was knee-deep in research materials”, things that sound romantic and sensitively superhuman simultaneously.
From those statements and similar utterances, it is possible to infer two things: doing something because you’re passionate about it is not an outdated notion, and being smart is nothing to be ashamed of.
Both of these statements sound like common sense, but neither are practised to the degree to which they should be. Financial pressures mean that people stay in jobs they loathe (or which simply don’t satisfy them – it doesn’t have to involve making voodoo dolls of your superiors) for years longer than they should if they were being careful about their emotional and mental wellbeing. Staying in those jobs sometimes means downplaying potential – not because you don’t understand complex issues or have creative perspectives on various aspects of the business, but because your superiors are hierarchy-fixated and are not willing to concede that there may be more than one correct or viable way to run an enterprise. They see Ricky Gervais’s The Office as badly edited documentary footage, not as parody with all the subtlety of a bouncer’s cosh.
Many of the authors who spent the weekend in Franschhoek are modelling the road to intellectual consummation that members of their audiences covet but haven’t the courage or discipline to reach out and grasp.
It’s not easy. Sarah Lotz (whose latest solo work is The III), in one of the first talks on the schedule, said, “I’ve published 16 books and it’s only now that I can afford to write full time.” Commendable. Terrifying.
Professor Njabulo Ndebele (who wrote The Cry Of Winnie Mandela) spoke of enjoying making the most of gaps in crises as he gets on with his day job, which is running universities. Yes, plural…
Almost every writer at the festival spoke of sacrifice – incredibly long days and nights of work; temporary forced removal from any context (including their family homes) where distraction is a problem; the chewing up of resources by a hobby, experiment or calling that won’t let them rest. And yet the more productive authors, poets, playwrights and essayists were considering and conceptualising their next projects, if not committing to them already.
Book festivals sometimes get a bad rap, written off (punny irony, look!) as elitist unrealities laden with artifice and high-falutin’ fantasy that doesn’t take the challenges of modern life into account, and which offer charms entirely unavailable to anyone but trust-fund kids.
Peruse and agonise over your stats if you must, naysayers, but that sense of discomfort you feel likely has less to do with what the festival hasn’t done than with what it has – proved, practically and in the person of someone who has the same basic life-structuring challenges as you do and is sitting in the same room and in the same sort of mid-range jeans and old jersey as you have in your cupboard, that great things can be done with the same resources you have access to.
As per the Damon Galgut quote at the beginning of this article, you need to hatch an obsession with achieving a target you can be proud of, and then develop it. His use of the word “sufficient” indicates that there is a scale here. You don’t decide today that you want to be a writer (or whatever – for the purposes of this Franschhoek Literary Festival-related piece; fill in the gap as appropriate) and then expect success – a finished draft; a deadline met; a publishing deal; salary-level sales or anything in between – by tomorrow.
Developing your obsession will take time and sweat. Judging by the bulk of the male authors on the Franschhoek panels, it may exacerbate male pattern baldness. But so be it. Passion is powerful (synonyms include “craving”, “ache”, ”fever”, “storm”, “wrath”, “fervour” and “delight” – all words that incite in some way, rather than deflate). And intelligence is a gift, not a flaw.
Here’s to sufficient obsession with a project of significant value. Choose your focus wisely, as it may cause friction with those who don’t understand it. But realise that eschewing such an endeavour on the grounds of feeling that you don’t currently having adequate energy to complete it or, worse, that really smart people have struggled and so you believe your efforts won’t merit any attention won’t cut the mustard. Events like the Franschhoek Literary Festival prove that suspicion three or four times a session, as individuals share about how discipline, faith and ideals have delivered dreams. There’s no magic, corporate strategy or cerebral match-fixing.
Believe in yourself and your vision. And get the hell on with it.