There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either. Robert Graves
Yesterday I attended a workshop with an amazing musician, actor and personality, Idris Ackamoor. With a 40-year career, with lots of ups and downs, the first thing he told the assembled artistic hopefuls was: take yourself seriously as an artist. What does that mean? Get your chops. Inform yourself (that’s why I, a poet, was at a workshop at Samro courtesy of Urban Voices). Meet the right people. Register with the right organisations. Make work, and keep making work. Well, it’s a bit different for writers, some would say it’s harder. Some would say it’s the hardest work in the world! But maybe it’s just a question of breaking it down….
Last Jozi House of Poetry session attempted the impossible: to get poets to talk about money. Our panel, who all make a living from writing, read their poetry and talked about how they got where they are. After long hours of reading and writing, focussing on the job you want, working for nothing and schmoozing the right people, Thabiso Afurakan Mohare, Arja Salafranca and Tereska Muishond shared the details of their journeys.
“I write what I like,” said Salafranca, “but it wasn’t always like that. I worked long and hard to get into the position I am in now. The biggest compromise is that I’d like to give my own writing the same amount of energy that I give to my for-money writing, but that’s a universal problem for writers.”
I think of Naguib Mahfouz, Franz Kafka, Chris Abani and all the other writers who have won huge awards, whose work has and will outlive them, and think of all the dedication they have shown – because they all had day jobs. Mahfouz worked in government, Kafka was a clerk, and Abani teaches at university – a home that many people have found for their physical financial needs, setting their spirits free to create. Our poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile worked as a journalist, taught at university and currently serves as the special adviser to the Minister of Arts and Culture to pay his rent. There’s no shame in working! But you have to stay focussed on what you want. A writer who wants to be read, must read.
“You can see that many people who want to be journalists or reporters don’t read,” says Salafranca, who is the editor of the lifestyle section of the Sunday Independent. That’s one way that you can improve your chances to get employment: join the library and join the movement to read South African books, Read SA. The way that words miraculously translate into numbers in your bank account is not only dependent on luck or knowing the right people. Your own ability plays a major role. Remembering that jobs in the arts are among the most competitive (i.e. there more people who want to work as writers, actors, directors, etc. than jobs available) Qhakaza Mthembu, co-host of Word ‘n Sound asked what other advice Arja could give to young people who want to work as journalists. “Work for free,” said Salafranca. “Be very clear about who you want to work for, then bug them for opportunities to show your ability. Don’t be a stalker, but call them regularly, and then when you get the chance, do a great job.”
“Be open to learning,” says Tereska Muishond, who started as a scheduler on Scandal. Sometimes scripts would be submitted missing a couple of scenes, and she would write the scenes. Her head writer recognised her talent, and then started training her as a writer. She is now the resident writer on the series, and gets to write scripts and brainstorm storylines in workshops with other writers. TV writing is highly collaborative, so you can’t be too precious about your ideas. It’s about sharing and letting go, and doing what’s best for the story. “Sometimes you have to fight because you can’t believe that the character would do that.”
It’s all in the spirit of keeping the job, which is where Afurakan has found himself, working as a copywriter after pounding the pavements as a poet for years and years. “I learnt writing on the street and through practising with Flo Mokale. By following my passion, I did the 10 000 hours that proved to them that I’m good enough for the job. But the challenge is still working with some of the prejudices of the client, like when they day “a black person would never say that” and you’re a black person, and you’re saying it!” Copywriting, like TV writing, involves lots of rewriting – “the client knows what’s best for them, so you go back and redo it. Pick up your self-esteem and deliver!”
Notes that you’re given on your writing in the workplace are not personal. Thabiso grins: “as long as my name is on the finished product, I don’t care!”
Ways that you can tell yourself that you’re getting along with your goal to earn as a writer:
– if money is not there, accept whatever is offered – soccer tickets, books, whatever. Just get the piece out, with your name attached to it!
– volunteer at different places, get as many experiences as you can. Community newspapers, newsletters for organisations, school newspapers, etc.
– read. offer to read at the library. Read to old people, children, anyone.
– get into a writing group, try to publish something with them.
– Start a blog, write on facebook. Use the internet wisely.
And then the poetry! Our minds were expanded with Salafranca’s rich, personal poetry while Mohare and Muishond got our feet tapping. A rich diversity of voices as Tereska brought her whole family onto stage for her final piece, Ghetto Girl. Mohare’s paen to the security guard who abandons his family to protect yours was beautiful and moving, and Salafranca took us on a journey of the soul reading from her various publications. Being together, then single, then in love again, and always the quest to tell the story, reflect the shape of the heart.