I first saw Gcina Mhlope, well-known South African poet, playwright; performer and author of children's books, tell a story over 15 years ago. She was a guest of the Mmabana Cultural Centre in Mafikeng, presenting at a writing workshop.
I was just out of university, eager to learn the craft of writing so I could become a rich and famous author and not have to follow a career in the sciences. [Clearly, lessons related to that goal didn’t stick, but I live in hope.]
I don’t even remember the story she told at the beginning of her session, or what advice she gave about the writing craft. But I do remember her powerful voice and the easy confidence with which she paced in front of her audience. I also remember thinking: “I’ll never be able to tell a story like that.”
Isn’t it strange how you can remember a seemingly useless piece of information rather that the stuff that really matters?
Anyway, I recently watched her perform at the launch of Tata Consultancy Services’s South Africa operations in Johannesburg.
TCS is a global, multi-billion dollar ICT consulting company originating from India. They’ve operated in SA for twelve years now, but with a local partner. For the first time they’ll have direct presence in SA, and many of the people at the launch were happy about the collaboration possibilities.
Gcina’s story was about communities becoming stronger when they collaborate. As usual, her performance was powerful, with one speaker commending her for bringing images of Africa to life. Predictably, I sat there thinking: “I’ll never be able to tell a story like that.”
The difference now is that I know I don’t have to tell a story like that. Becoming a writer is not about mimicking those who have come before us.
It’s about learning from them and using those lessons to bring out our own creativity and originality.
Sometimes that's hard to remember, especially when the writing is not going well/your stories are not as popular as you'd like.
But imagine if we all sang the same song, to the same tune, in soprano. No variation, no difference in tone. Wouldn't that be boring?