Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Building a better person

Can becoming a better person make you a better writer? I sincerely hope so.

Building character takes patience, discipline, introspection and independence of thought. I believe that these same behaviours and attitudes are also required to move a writer beyond mere talent.

Patience is the ability to wait for results that can only be had after a long difficult period of effort, and it is required if one wants to be a good writer and an effective person. Patience is essential to the craft of writing. It can take a long time for a character to emerge, for plotlines to come together and for a setting to take firm shape in one’s head. It also takes a lot of time to refine and polish a work to its highest quality. And it may take a long time – sometimes a lifetime – to find the right audience for one’s work. If a writer does not acquire the ability to absorb a great deal of trouble without losing self-control, when things cock up – as they inevitably will – they can easily give in to despair. The most successful people understand patience, they don’t lose hope or blow up or cave in, when things didn’t go according to plan.

Discipline is the acquired habit of expending energy, of forgoing lesser pleasures of the now for the greater good of the future. It is required to move forward in any endeavour. Studies show that children who can delay gratification, who can keep from eating the sweet in front of them if they know that by waiting they can get two more, are more successful. They get better grades in school, have more successful careers and healthier relationships. Discipline is also the bedrock of the craft of writing. It’s not easy to sit down in front of a blank screen every day, but if you don’t write, you can’t call yourself a writer. It’s really that simple.

Introspection is the ability to look inside oneself in order to understand one’s purpose and values. This is not easy, that is why most of us avoid it when we can. The risks of finding things we do not like are too great. However, the most well-rounded people are those who understand and accept themselves; those who are comfortable in their own skin. They know who they are and what they stand for, and it makes them stronger. The craft of writing also requires introspection. One has to be able to accurately map out one’s inner terrain so that it can be mined for stories and characters. Introspection taken too far can lead to brooding melancholia, but understanding one’s impulses is essential if one is to write good characters. Because how can you write others when you cannot write yourself?

Independence of thought, letting go of the fear of what others will think, is both the trickiest and the most important part of building character. It is the beginning of freedom. In Nigeria, our culture assigns an inordinate amount of value to material success -- even over ethical integrity. In many ways, it is less important how you made your money, only that you have it. But character requires that you put your values above the vagaries of other’s expectations. That you take the time to do your own thinking and come up with your own standards. There will be no shortage of people who will try to tell you what to do, what is important and who to be. The challenge of a successful character is blocking out those voices to find what is important to you, then marshalling the courage to do what you feel is right. Because the craft of writing is so rarely commercially successful, those who choose it as their primary profession, have to be prepared to walk against the tide of public opinion – especially in a culture as materialistic as our own. But every writer at some point, made the conscious decision to dedicate themselves to their craft. There is no other way.

I haven’t had internet access at home for the last month, and it gave me time to do a lot of thinking, though perhaps not a great deal of sustained thinking. Now, the rains have started and the world has been washed of its layers of dry season dust, and I’ve come to realize that seeking to develop good character will give me the perspective I need to put my craft at the forefront of my life. No more procrastinating on the important things. Understanding my values can come learning from the wisdom of the ancients, which means reading what they have passed down. More reading can only make one a better writer. Finally, freeing myself of the anxiety of other’s perceptions will allow me to submit my stories to journals and readers more often. I will now be able to hear the constructive feedback without the sound of my worrisome inner voice.

But it all begins with the willingness to do the hard work in the here and now. And while I don’t believe I will ever be able to wake up and declare my work is over, I do hope that as I get older, I will have given myself the tools to become a better, more competent person. Because having a good character is more important than anything else and is the ultimate arbiter of one’s success.
When I go, I want to be able to say that I made a difference in the lives of others. It’s really all that matters, in the end.