By NICOLE BURROWS
Q: How long have you been a journalist?
A: I am not a journalist; I am a writer. I think there’s a slight, but important difference. A journalist can be a writer, but a writer doesn’t have to be a journalist. Journalists write news. I don’t write news; I write about news. To me, that’s more exciting. As for an official date, I started writing for a pay cheque ten years ago, but it’s been about three decades since my first poem/love letter to my mom; that might more accurately mark the beginning of my writing.
Q: If you don’t write news, what do you write?
A: I write narrative non-fiction and poetry, mostly. I write this column – that’s opinion. I’m now writing short film scripts and biographies. Sometimes I write speeches, TV and radio ads, lyrics, voiceover scripts. Once I wrote news - feature news, specifically; that was my official start in writing, with The Tribune. I wrote a column eight years ago called ‘What Shapes Us’. I’ve also written a column for The Nassau Guardian. I’ve always preferred writing pieces that have real life application, words that exemplify and challenge our humanity, hence the features and the opinion writing … and now the screenwriting.
To be honest, I was never too ecstatic about the rushed schedule of a journalist. I admire journalists’ tenacity, and I have a lot of respect for those who are exceptional at it, but I like to take my time and cogitate and philosophise. And I don’t like chasing after people for interviews and such. I don’t go in search of the next wonderful quote; I create it.
Q: Don’t you think it’s important to write about factual things?
A: Absolutely; I appreciate the facts. And someone has to get them. In my writing, I often need the facts to illustrate certain concepts. But finding the facts is someone else’s job; mine is to take the facts and make them mean something … make them more useful to more people, help people to make decisions, better decisions, about the facts. When you want to influence people, you can’t do it effectively unless you tap into their emotions. People don’t act unless they feel strongly enough to act.
To feel strongly enough about something you have to be moved enough by it. That’s where I come in. Because my aim is not to inform like a journalist, but to change like a creative artist. For me, writing is art in words. Words are my craft. I feel I have an obligation to use my craft to motivate my readers, my people into action. The journalist finds out what we need to know – hopefully. Sometimes I may do that if it’s imperative to my subject. But, for the most part, I’m the person who says, well, now that we know this, how does this make us feel? And because of what we feel, what can/will we do about it?
Q: Can you give pointers on how to be a good/better writer?
A: Several things can help to make a good or better writer. Well, more than several, if I really think about it. Obviously good writing can be very different from one genre to the next, from one opinion to the next, but there are some things that make writing easier, better, and more appreciated or impactful. And I think, above all else, you will know good writing by its lasting – as opposed to immediate – effect(s) on people.
Firstly, you have to be very clear about what type of writer you are or are not. What are you writing for, if you don’t know the answer to this? Writers often explore new realms, and that’s fine, but to know at least approximately where you prefer to stand helps keep things clearer for you as the writer and for your readers. Writing is challenging enough without knowing what or who you’re writing for.
Also, you have to be curious enough about what people think about something … anything … so as to know what to write about, but not so curious that you care too much what people think and it takes away your individual voice. I care just enough about what others think to make writing useful but not to the extent that it strips me of my voice and opinion.
Another thing is you should be expressive, be “feeling”. If you’re not a natural “feeler”, and you want to write convincingly, you should try to get in touch with that part of yourself, reawaken or awaken it. That may not be such an easy thing for a lot of people. Being a feeling person is something that is most often inculcated in the very early stages of life and of childhood. But I think certain things can help it along. Watching movies or being in relationships always does the trick. In fact, that’s probably how I started writing … journaling about all my crappy romances and hurt feelings. [Laughs].
You know what else helps to make a good writer? You have to be obsessed with details. Details make everything more colourful. Think of what the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings series would be like without details – awfully boring and a colossal waste of time and text. In fact, they might not even exist. Good writers have great imaginations, one way or the other, and they tend to see things in constant animation and vivid imagery. They notice things others won’t. They remember things others don’t. It might get in the way of “regular’ living, because you spend a lot of time noticing and collecting details, but damned if it don’t make you a better writer!
And that reminds me of another thing: to write well or better, you need to be particular about and well-versed in good grammar and spelling. I can’t emphasise this enough. I guess it’s a pet peeve of mine, too. A lot of writers have great editors who compensate for their deficiencies in this area; I’m not one of those. I like to come out with the best possible end product before it even reaches my editor. In reality, many writers aren’t really writers at all – they have terrific people who modify their thoughts so that they make sense and read well and coherently.
That said, I wasn’t an A-student in English Language. In fact, I recall getting a nice, shapely ‘C’ in the English Language GCE and in one or two classes at the College of The Bahamas (COB). But I aced English Literature, because of the expressionist, analytical nature of it in comparison to English Language. And although I wasn’t perfect in English Language, I became obsessed with making sure there were no structural mistakes in my writing. People think I just write and what comes out the first time is what goes to print. Not so. If I don’t edit my writing 50 times, I don’t edit it once. I know my editor is happy about that, but it gives you some insight, doesn’t it, into the complexity of the writer’s personality? And maybe that’s part of the reason why so many writers, people who write for a living, are so eccentric.
Be passionate about your subject. If you aren’t passionate about what you’re writing about, it makes it harder to write something good and something sincere. You know, after I started in news and features, which I confess was short-lived, I went on to public relations. Yeah, I “sold my soul” for a little while. I know public relations writing is purposeful when it does what it should and I get why it’s necessary, and I was quite good at it (maybe because it was like putting on a performance), but for a creative person it really is akin to selling your soul. The lack of authenticity that can occur in PR writing just eats away slowly at a creative mind and the writing stops being a labour of love and becomes just a labour.
This one’s a little personal, but, really, you have to be interesting enough to attract your audience and not lose them once you have their attention. I’ve read some poetry that has literally put me to sleep; I am not kidding. About a month ago I bought a book of poems by an internationally-acclaimed poet and her writing made me take a spontaneous nap. It was the dullest thing I ever read. Writing should not be so solely self-oriented that it doesn’t, cannot resonate with a wider cross-section of readers. A writer can’t afford to make her or his writing so complex and erratic because reading shouldn’t be a chore.
A big one – you should learn to understand the psychology of people, how they think, what triggers their emotions, if you want your writing to be worthwhile. Most people who give unsolicited opinions think very highly of themselves and/or are looking for two minutes of spotlight. They are detractors. Write with these people in mind; in actuality, write around them, and you end up with a better product.
You should understand what people want to know about, what’s important to them. This is a big part of making your writing useful. This means you have to listen to what other people are saying around you. When I go out on errands, and I’m standing on the BEC line for example, I’m overhearing two or three conversations at a time, and all of it is potential material. People talk about what is important to them and they are happy for you to hear about it, especially our Bahamian people. And it’s fun to hear the stories of strangers, you know, minus the “effin” this and the “effin” that.
Two big things, and these probably go hand in hand: be able to analyse, be able to interpret. I studied economics, not journalism. And the way your mind works after you’ve been trained to think analytically means you constantly dissect things … sentences, words, syllables … you break things down all the time into smaller, more digestible portions so you can manage them better. And once you can manage them better you can interpret them more appropriately for your cause.
Finally, I suppose you just have to be exceedingly willing and prepared to insert a lot of yourself, your own life and experiences into whatever story you tell, be it fiction or non-fiction. You’ll find that your words have greater impact when people can relate to them. Even if they don’t understand, even if they don’t agree, they take interest in the human experience. It’s why we have novels, television, film … all these forms of media provide an avenue for humans to relate to other humans. That’s really why we read and why we write: to relate, to be relatable, to be understood, to understand.
Q: In short why do you write?
A: I write to make sense of my world, the world around me, and to help others to make sense of the world they live in. I don’t believe writing should be impossible to understand or require a code to decipher. Half of getting the meaning of creative writing especially, and poetry writing particularly, is understanding a message through emotion … and this begins with you as the writer making your readers feel your words and allowing them or inviting them to use their imaginations and to share in yours.
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