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Telling Stories, Imagining Futures

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on October 27, 2022 12:50

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Perhaps the only uniquely human activity is to tell stories. Animals communicate, birds make tools, and chimpanzees make war. But only humans tell stories - I think. And yet society often seems to think storytelling is frivolous, a waste of time.

It was on a group for wannabe writers. All sixteen were from a minority ethnic community and a working-class background. A plaintive question: "My father says I'm wasting my time, I should be studying, but I want to write!" And there are probably hundreds of youngsters who feel the urge and do not know where to go or how to do it. 

A young friend has been trying, for years now, to break into writing as a career. He has worked ceaselessly to write serious stuff while I keep urging him to complete a rollicking, light-hearted story about a young man from a deeply rural community who arrives at College, gets taken on a wild ride by some wild companions, spends his first night in a police cell... I am still waiting to hear what happened then. At least his persistence has landed him a few jobs writing web content and putting economic data into article form, all dreadfully boring and paying a pittance. 

A while back, a group of high school students cornered me to ask about writing based on a few of my articles on TheLatest. I referred them to one of the most successful businessmen in South Africa, who told graduates of a business school that they would be best served by studying poetry, as communication was the major challenge for any business leader is effective communication. 

One of them is writing a novel but is too shy to share it. Another wanted to know if one can become rich by writing. I pointed to bestselling authors who run private jets but admitted that I had never been paid by a number of American websites and e-magazines I had written for, and the books published electronically had been delisted after earning me all of $10. 

Why do we write? Acclaimed Science Fiction author Ursula Leguin warned of hard times coming and called on writers who can remember freedom, poets, and visionaries who can imagine a larger reality. The Dalai Lama emphasized the need for storytellers. Yet it is not easy to get into the rapidly changing world of publishing. An archaeologist friend recently released a novel about a woman who rose from slavery to become Sultan of Egypt as a challenge to her daughter being bullied. 

Getting published is not easy. I tell aspiring authors to read Martin Eden by Jack London, a depressing story closely mirroring London's own journey. The chances of being taken on by a publishing house is vanishingly small since the publishing industry, in the era of electronic media, is in the doldrums. The answer is to self-publish, which is made easier by all sorts of 'helpers' but who deprive you of an agency. And you end up marketing instead of writing. 

But the joy of expressing yourself is clear in the reaction of Sebastian (8) to Dr. Seuss' Cat in a Hat. 

The Cow Cat, by Sebastian Bootsma.
Coen Van Wyk

Posted on October 27, 2022 12:50

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