The Writing Process: Does journalism help you write creatively?

Innocence of Roast Chicken Jo-Anne Richards“You want to be a what? Don’t be silly. Do something sensible… A writer indeed.”

My mother was not a fan of knowledge for its own sake. She believed in studying towards something with a name. And preferably a name that began with an L or a D, as in: “my son the ‘L’, my other son the ‘D’, my daughter the…”

That’s how I came to study journalism. Slightly less satisfactory than a solid L or D, but at least it wasn’t some airy-fairy W thing that wouldn’t keep an anorexic in groceries.

It’s something I’ve never regretted. I’ve worked as a journalist and a writer, and still regard myself as both. (I’m of the old school that believes journalism to be something you are, rather than merely do.)

I have a friend who is fond of saying: “It’s great being a journalist. You meet so many interesting people – and all of them are journalists.”

It’s half true. Journalists are interesting because they never have the same day twice. And they’re inquisitive.

Next time you’re at a dinner party, notice how it’s the journalist  who asks his fellow guest: “You’re a lawnmower salesman? How did you get into that? How’s the market? Has the trend for cluster housing affected…?”

Does the lawnmower salesman ask what the journalist does? Not on your nelly. It doesn’t cross his mind.

That’s what made me the writer that I am, for better or worse. The two are inextricably linked. I am a writer – this kind of writer -  because I’m a journalist, and vice versa.

I was a journalist in dramatic times, when the stories you wrote felt like they might just change the world – or at least a mind or two. So for a good few years, I didn’t make the cross over. There’s something very satisfying about the process of writing to deadline: Procrastination, panic, writing machine, euphoria, drink.

The euphoria that follows longer-form writing is softer; slower to develop. It’s hard to delay your gratification once you’re hooked on the daily deadline. And besides, what if I couldn’t hack it. What if I looked at the first few words I’d written and reached an awful realisation: Oh my God, I’ve got no talent.

Journalism doesn’t foster quite the same angst. Imagine telling your news editor on deadline: “Can’t do it. Sorry, I’m blocked,” and he replies: “Perhaps it’s your chakras. Have you tried meditation?” Yeah right.

Once I crossed the floor, I discovered one of life’s great truths: you can’t write a novel in under 2000 words. Yet writing more than that still felt vaguely wanton.

If I think about it, my greatest hindrance probably lay in granting myself that permission to be self-indulgent. (Interestingly, I still write in bursts of 2000 words.)

In a larger sense, Newsroom Gospel helped create the kind of writer I became. And I believe it’s the reason my first book, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, made something of a splash.

It came out in the first flush of our freedom, when we believed there was no longer a struggle to be fought – in life or literature.

I wasn’t interested in planting subliminal flags between the lines to point out the “Good guy”, or “Bad, bad person”. Because that’s what journalism taught me.  We have no answers more valid than anyone else’s. Our job is to explore, to rummage around in people’s lives and hope an answer might emerge.

I don’t begin with a theme, then fashion a set of cut-out dolls from the answers I’ve already settled on. It’s opposed to everything I was taught – don’t start with a preconceived notion; allow the evidence to lead you.

My starting point is always with the characters – ordinary, flawed humans. I ignore what they “should” be doing, in favour of what I’ve observed people do and say. If you are seeking to understand, with integrity, I do believe a theme will intuitively appear. It works for me.

My attitude to “truth” has also been influenced by my years in journalistm.  We live in an age that reveres non-fiction because it’s supposed to be “true” and therefore more “improving”. Novels are “made up” and therefore frivolous.

In fact, the two are closer than you might think. Non-fiction contains verifiable facts – unless you get rumbled shortly after appearing on Oprah. Yet, as writer David Peace points out: “There is no such thing as non-fiction – you cannot write every single moment in a person’s life. Therefore you must select the bits to tell. Because you are being selective, it becomes a subjective telling.”

On the other side of the great divide,  Hilary Mantel says her Booker prize-winning novel of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall gives a truer picture of the times than most non-fiction accounts.

I agree with her. It’s what I love about fiction – not that it’s “untrue”, but that it gives an added dimension to what you can do as a journalist. It can say the unsayable.

It allows you to focus in more tightly than if you were constrained by what you could verify, or what people would happily admit to.

When I set out to write about a man who had studied to be a priest, spent time in the political underground and been jailed, I read a number of memoirs (published and unpublished) about similar experiences. I learned many facts, but not much about depths of loneliness, fear, or the humanity of facing down one’s own cowardice.

Only when I plied these same memoirists with wine and assurances of  “fiction”, did they relax enough to expose their deepest, darkest. When the novel appeared, one of my interviewees found it too “unsettling” to read. I took that as a compliment.

I never approach a setting or a character without research. I have walked the route my characters took to a Bedford café in in 1968, and learned to make a pamphlet bomb. I’ve read Habermas and Baum because they were formative texts in my character’s youth.

I stand by the fact that everything in my novels is “true”, even if it didn’t happen. Or to me. Nothing I write is “made up”.

Apart from the fundamentals, journalism fed my fiction in a very practical way.  I’m sorry to disillusion all those who assumed my first book to be autobiographical, but its shockingly violent climax was stolen from a court case I covered as a young reporter on the Cape Times.

And attending the Oscar Mpetha trial for 18 months in the ‘80s, I got to know the 18 young men accused of murder. I used that strange, unbalanced friendship, including the letters they wrote me, in my second book.

Journalism took me into worlds I might never have experienced. It introduced me to people I would never have met and could never have made up.

So yes, journalism made me a better writer. But it cuts both ways. Writing creatively makes you a better journalist. You learn to care about the narrative. Tell a story, hold your readers with suspense, use the people to highlight the issues.

You also learn to manipulate quite technical skills – writing in scenes, using dialogue, moving beyond the “fly on the wall” perspective of traditional journalism into the more complex literary points of view.

Above all though, journalism took me out of my comfort zone and taught me empathy. You can’t get people to talk if you don’t show compassion for the human condition.

I have a writer friend who has a theory that some novelists present their characters with the warmth and attachment of love, others with the coldness and detachment of hatred. Both can work. There’s no right or wrong about it. It’s a matter of approach.

But from journalism, I believe I learned to write from love.

2 thoughts on “The Writing Process: Does journalism help you write creatively?

  1. I like it that, by being so candid about your own feelings, you are making any weakness become a strength. Looking at oneself honestly but gently and without being judgemental, that is what we should all do!
    Go girl!

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