When budding writers ask me how one can become a good writer I always tell them, “You have to be unafraid to start a sentence with “and.” People don’t like starting sentences with conjunctions because teacher Lucy of Class Five Blue said it’s bad to do so way back in 1987. In 1987 nobody thought the word kiosk or panga would end up in the English vocabulary. Now you can say kiosk at the UN convention and no befuddled delegate would turn to the other in a whisper, “Is this the Congolese guy you were talking about?” Kiosk made its bones, learnt how to wash its hands and now it eats with elders.
And that’s the thing. (See how “and” effortlessly finds its place at the beginning of a sentence as if it is its birthright?) Nobody wants to take time to learn to wash their hands anymore. They want to walk into a room and demand to sit at the table. We all want to sit at some table.. I want to sit at the next table but I have to ; for now keep washing my hands and sitting at this table here.
Which begs the age old question; how does one become great at anything? How do you become, not a good or great but excellent chef? Or a politician? Or a cyclist? Or a professional mourner? Because even a professional mourner wants to be invited to the biggest funeral in the village, but if his lungs are weak, if he hasn’t built the air for it, that invitation will never come. We could say we want excellence with our mouths because apparently what we utter with our tongues eventually comes to pass. Or we could think it and wish it because the universe eventually hands you what you wish for in your bones. But all this will come to naught if we don’t bend to wash our hands. Daily. Even when the water is cold. Or in a trickle. And that act of washing hands is not the enjoyable part;.
There is no romance to writing. Not for me. It’s a beautiful torment. It’s abusive – And torturous. But its highs are worth all its lows. I’m in love with the beast of writing, stuck with her because she’s the only one who knows what my soul eats. My three-day Writing Masterclass will not make you a great writer if you haven’t surrendered your heart to the femme fatale of writing. To write is to let go passionately. Like everything else, some have the heart for it while others approach it with romance. Unfortunately, romance ends. Eventually. Or it changes into something we don’t recognise. So it ends.
I’m not one to say who can be a good writer and who can’t be a good writer because I’m also washing my hands. But I can always see the ones that have given their hearts. I see it in in their brave – sometimes boisterous – paragraphs. But even heart isn’t enough. You need to spread a layer of grit on it. Here is an analogy. I think of writing as a three-stone hearth in the morning. It’s smouldering, there is a little weak fire in there. We all have some type of fire in us. Some don’t bother with it and it dies eventually, covered in burnt soot. Unfortunately, most folk don’t have the heart to kneel there and blow that fire day in day in day out. But a few have the heart for it, so they fan it. They blow that little dying fire, they stay on their knees, cheeks puffed out, blowing until their eyes are red, until that little fire crackles and bursts into beautiful tongues of flames. But even when that fire is going you have to feed it, because fire doesn’t burn on in a vacuum. So in the writing masterclass you bring your fire to the class, we only show you how to blow it.
One of those students who hasn’t gotten off her knees is Purity Wanjiru, an alumnus of Writing Masterclass 10. She’s this week’s Guest Writer because I’m green around the gills and can’t write a proper sentence to unblock my nose.
Gang, this is Purity Wanjiru. Purity, the Gang. http://hootingowl.co/
Note: Registration for the class is now closed until May. Don’t send any more emails please, Bett is frustrated.
I didn’t even like him when I first met him. I was in that post-break up sweet spot of persuading myself that my newfound freedom was a good thing, and I was failing. We met under the cloak of self-indulgent pursuits. It was one of those nights that begin with a table of three, and then you blink and seven more people have joined you.
He was offhand with the wait staff. I thought he was brash and struck him off my mind. When it was time to go home, it turned out that we lived in the same neighborhood. Without much debate, we shared a cab home. I took one lungful of him and knew I was in trouble. A latch unfastened noisily in my internal world.
We talked like old friends. Our rousing conversations were tempered with cracking sexual undercurrents. Being with him was like hurtling down a slippery slope. A cocktail of thrill and fear warmed my blood. I ran on adrenalin and when it ran out, I ran on fumes. He was not bogged down by rules. Because I was spontaneous I thought we were kindred spirits. When he wasn’t mirroring me, I was reverse projecting onto him. I never had a chance. I thought he was special. I didn’t know that he too thought he was special and that nobody thought I was special.
It wasn’t immediately apparent what we were doing until one day he came to pick me up for a date outside my folks’ home. He said he could use some tea. I joked that there was tea in the house but that he’d have to meet my mom. He said, “Okay, let’s go inside.”
My previous and longest relationship had only been eleven months so when we crossed that threshold, I knew ah, this is it.
The wedding was his idea. I wanted something small and intimate but he made it an over-the-top, garish affair. It felt like a large party he’d thrown for his boys. I might as well have been a mannequin in a wedding dress, but everybody said a princess wedding is the dream.
“Oh my gosh Liza, you’re so lucky! You and Cliff are goals,” my friends cooed.
I went along with it. I mean, it could’ve been worse; it could’ve been a situationship.
I used to work for a car dealership on Ngong road, and he at a bank in town. I was driving this stick shift Carina I’d had for three years. In the mornings he’d hitch a ride to my workplace and then grab a bus to town.
One time I was driving on a narrow road in shags. He had his window rolled down and was accidentally slapped by a thorny branch that nicked his shirt. He started telling jokes amongst our friends about what a terrible driver I was. We’d all have a good laugh about it. A little jousting is good for the soul. He started insisting on driving, his argument pegged on the same insidious jokes. “Let me drive today. See, I’m wearing my good shirt.”
Sometimes he coaxed and sometimes he coerced. One morning I sat in the car, hands shaking, unsure of myself at the wheel. Somehow he had wrung the confidence out of me. I let him drive that day and every day after that. Then he started to take the car for himself so that I had to find other ways to get around. That’s what a dutiful wife does, no? Every other week, I’d notice an unexplained bump on the car.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he’d say. “That bodaboda guy came out of nowhere.”
Other people saw it before I did. He was always rubbing people the wrong way. When he was fired from his first job he said his boss was out to get him. I rustled out my contacts and got him a job with an old colleague. Six months later, he left. I couldn’t get a straight answer out of him. I ran into my colleague at the mall later and hounded her for details. At first she was dodgy. Then she admitted that he was constantly talking over her at meetings, and taking credit for group ideas even though she was his supervisor.
“He was making me look bad on purpose,” she said. “I did what I had to do.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose. He’s just an ambitious person,” I said, even though I didn’t believe the words ambling out of my mouth.
I did catch that he was a bit mean-spirited. I could never tell when he was angry with me. He never just came out and said so. He’d find a way to get even with me by some underhanded maneuver. If it was about the car, he’d ‘forget’ to turn off the headlights so that it wouldn’t start in the morning. When I had my guard down, he’d say something to throw me off. When he spoke, there was malice at the edge of his words slicing the air in an unsettling way.
We’d be lounging in the house on a lazy weekend afternoon and he’d say, “By the way, I ran into your friend juzi. What was her name? Ivy? She looked great. It’s hard to tell you guys are the same age.”
“We’re not. Ivy is seven years older than me and she has two kids!”
Friends would send me screenshots of him on Instagram. “Isn’t that your hubby at Kiza?”
I’d have to pretend that I knew all about it, even though we hadn’t spoken in months. Silence was his weapon of choice because he’d figured out early on that I couldn’t stand it. He’d drag it out as long as he didn’t need anything from me. At first, it would knock me off balance. It worked me up and then some. Out of exhaustion, I’d decide to be the bigger person and compromise. Of course, compromise for us meant that I was the one who made all the concessions.
The marriage was no longer an emotionally safe space to be in. I withered under his spotlight. People could smell the defeat on me. They could see it in my slouch.
For months, I had wanted to bounce ideas off him for an online boutique I wanted to start. He’d sit there flipping channels, giving perfunctory grunts. I could see the color draining from his face, but I told myself that maybe he was tired. Perhaps it was not a good time. This is what my life had become – tweaking, contorting, and chipping away parts of myself until I became a jigsaw piece that fit into his needs. Was that ever enough? Would I be telling you this story if it were?
I came home from work one day and started to tell him about my bonehead of a boss yelling at me. He perked up.
“In front of everyone, oh, you poor thing,” he said, voice thick with pseudo-concern, but he couldn’t keep his eyes from beaming.
I could tell he was relishing it. I came out of it feeling worse than I did before. I didn’t understand that he was feasting on the chaos in my world. My brain just couldn’t process such incongruity. The more chaotic my world was, the more energized he seemed to become. For months after that, he kept circling that story like a vulture.
“So how’s it going with your boss?”
After that, it was like my third eye opened and the slumber of unawareness lifted. I started to wise up. I detached. I learnt how to be unfazed.
If he caught even a whiff of my happiness, he’d slither back; acting like everything was all right. The voice in me just kept getting louder and louder saying, “Ai, Elizabeth. You tell people you have a husband?”
One afternoon I ran into an old college friend and we got to talking. I was sitting alone at a café, clinging onto the last moments of peace in the day before I had to go home. I hadn’t spoken to her in a long time, but I was so drained at that point, I couldn’t summon a fake smile. I started to tell her everything – even the parts I was most embarrassed about. Like the time he wrenched my neck wiping lipstick off my lips because a male friend had complimented the color. “I think it makes you look cheap,” he said.
“I don’t know Liza, he sounds like a narcissist,” Jane told me. “I think it’ll only get worse. You should start thinking about you and what you need.”
Still, I was afraid. It had only been three years. Some of the wedding gifts were still stacked up in the room I hoped to turn into a nursery. When my aunties asked not so subtly about a baby, I’d have to tell them that my marriage had failed. That the grand wedding had been mere theatre.
“I’ll become the woman who couldn’t keep a husband.”
“Aaaah, kwani?” she said. “Listen, bad marriages belong in the past, so get on with it. Pull yourself out of this wreckage.”
It took months to gather myself. Every time I tried, he’d make some gesture to dupe me into believing he would change. Weekend getaways. A few weeks of good behavior. Long talks lathered with flattery and empty promises. It diluted my resolve, but even he couldn’t keep up with his own lies. As soon as I started to get comfortable, he went back to his old ways.
By then, my Carina was sitting on stones in the driveway, overrun by weeds. For the first time in months, I allowed myself to look at it. He’d long stopped driving it and was now selling it for parts. It had lost all its shine. I thought that if I could get it up and running, I’d get a good price for it. Then I popped the hood and saw that the engine was missing. It was the image of how weathered and empty I felt. I looked at myself on its milky windows and a haggard woman looked back at me. The realization was like walking into a quiet, dark room. I knew with clarity that if I didn’t leave this time he would destroy me irreversibly.
One Friday I left work and the thought of going back home overwhelmed me with dread. So I went to my folks place and told them, “I’ve left my husband and no one try to persuade me otherwise. I need everyone to get on board with it.”
My folks – bless their hearts – asked, “That’s what you’ve decided?”
“Well, all right then. You always have a home here.”
My ex-husband was the last one to catch that train. I called him up and told him I was going to pick up my things. He said, “Ah, you you’re always threatening to leave. I can’t wait to see you leave this time.”
When goading didn’t work, he tried charm. I had expected splitting our things would be ugly, but it was far from it. The day I went to pick up my things he wore the cologne he used to wear when we met. He had discarded it with little thought for my opinion when some chick from work gifted him another one.
He followed me around the house the entire time, lifting boxes and imposing himself into my space. Then he offered me wine. “For old time’s sake,” he said.
We started to reminisce about an old painting we’d bought on our honeymoon. It was as if he’d flipped a switch and the man with whom I’d talk for hours was back. He looked at me all wide-eyed and earnest and said, “You know, if you need time away, you don’t have to carry all this stuff. It’ll all be here when you come back.”
I think he honestly wanted me to stay, and I turned it over in my mind just as I had many times before. “If I stay I will lose myself. You will consume me. It’s the only way you know how to love.”
He said, “I’ll try not to. I’ll do better this time. Give me another chance. Give me time; I’ll prove it to you.”
“I’ve given you so much time already.”
“What do you want me to say? I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry doesn’t do anything for me.”
“This is who I am, you knew this when you married me.”
“I didn’t know this.”
“What can I do? What can I do?”
“Nothing. Just let me go.”
In the end, when all pretenses had fallen away and it became apparent that I had made up my mind, he said, “You’ll never find another man like me.”
I told him, “I will be blessed if I don’t.”
The weekends were the hardest. I’d ended my marriage during wedding season. People tiptoed around me as if I might spontaneously combust. Invitations to weddings were passed around me in hushed tones. No one knew what the rules were. I was the elephant in the room. When I stepped out, I was a cautionary tale.
Well-meaning friends had tried to prepare me for the divorce. They’d told me we’d have to split friends too, and the places we used to go together. That part was easy. Cliff had a multitude of friends that I couldn’t keep up with.
A few months later, I met this guy who swore he was in my wedding party. I had to go through the wedding pictures to believe him. The whole thing was so bizarre I couldn’t help but laugh. Then I realized it was the first time I’d had a genuine, hearty laugh and after that, I knew I was going to be just fine.