Praxis Magazine is publishing a series of short essays from African writers on their experiences and opinions on writing workshops. Here is a feature from Gloria Mwaniga Minage, a young Kenyan writer.
I am seated at the study table in Iseyin, where I am attending the Ebedi writing residency when I receive the email inviting me to the Miles Morland writing workshop in Uganda. I excitedly inform my housemates that finally, I’ve gotten an opportunity to attend a ‘real’ writing workshop. I don’t tell them that for the weeks we have been rooming together, I have longed for someone to critique the short stories I have written (they both write poetry and I, prose.) I silently hope that the workshop will give me a chance to discourse my stories at length.
We are on a boat from Entebbe to One Minute South Island. Anxiety weighs me down. My mind is filled up with endless possibilities. I am looking at the workshop schedule that Mathilda, the workshop coordinator, sent us via email. I then download the stories of the other workshop attendees and start to read them one by one.
I immensely enjoy the theory classes. We read the excerpts Giles Foden provides and then examine them for language, style, voice and point of view. We also look at character, place and time. We will refer to this when we start workshopping our own stories on Monday.
‘‘‘When your story is being discoursed, you are not to take part in the discussion, just listen. And this is the order, first we will read Henna…’’ I am listening to Giles read out the story titles and it occurs to me that I will not have to wait too long to get feedback, for mine is the first of the four stories to be discussed on day one.
The next morning, I listen keenly and take notes. I am surprised at how some things that seemed obvious to me as I wrote do not resonate in the same way with my peers, the readers. When the hour is over, I have time to respond to questions and seek clarification. I like the feedback. I am learning to disengage and look at the work outside of my emotions. To criticize a work I am too attached to. Later, I will be mostly quiet as we discuss my peers’ work because for me, reading is, has always been a very private experience. I only discuss books and stories on paper, as I write reviews and critiques. But I learn, I have to learn to verbalize my thoughts. I do learn.
This is how I taught myself to write. I took up a teaching job in Baringo, a rural area away from the pulsating city life. I then spent about five hours every week day and all my weekends locked up in my wood cabin with copies of the American high school literature books Prentice Hall Literature. I met Baldwin and Neale-Hurston and Cisneros and Kincaid and hundreds of other writers whom I can’t possibly speak of here. But it was my workshop peers, Alexis, Alice, Abuh, Regina, Joe, Timothy, Maggie, Acan and Troy, who demonstrated to me the importance of peer reviews when editing one’s work. It was Giles, the patient and concerned teacher who taught me how to, even while believing in my own work, remember to ask for and listen to other people’s views. He also warned me about writing workshops. ‘‘Just remember to gauge whatever you learn so that you take in only what will work for you.’’ He warned. From Michela who, in a true journalistic manner, always shot straight from the hip- I learnt the importance of honest feedback at workshops, and lessons on writing non-fiction.
Oh, and there were lessons on becoming a professional writer, and how to look for an agent. But that is a story for another day.
Gloria Mwaniga Minage teaches Geography and Business Studies in a high school in Baringo county, Kenya. She is a certified scriptwriter and adjudicator for the Kenya National Drama Festival as well as freelance writer of arts and culture articles for two newspapers, The East African and the Saturday Nation. Minage has worked as national coordinator of AMKA, a women writer’s monthly workshop in Nairobi. In April 2017, she was one of the three resident writers of the Ebedi residency in Oyo State, Nigeria. She is halfway through a collection of short stories which she hopes will be ready by December 2017. Her stories and poems have been published by AMKA Space, Moran Publishers and Writivism.