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10 May Written by  Ladi Opaluwa

Workshop Calling

In 2007, I applied for, and was invited to the Chimamanda Adichie Creative Writing Workshop. My priority, going from Kano to Lagos, was to meet Chimamanda, and not to learn writing. My writing was perfect, I believed, a conviction born of amateur conceit.

I also believed that writing could not be taught. One had heard so many famous writers dismiss writing workshops and MFA programmes as a waste of time and money. How can a subject with neither rules nor formulas be taught? My heroine at the time, Zadie Smith, never attended a writing class, yet she wrote 'White Teeth.'

On arriving at the venue of the workshop, I received a warm hug from Chimamanda: mission accomplished. Everything else that followed was a bonus, and as it turned out, a bonus that became even more fulfilling than the bargain. A class was in session and immediately, I settled in and listened to the ongoing discussion on the works of select, established writers, a pattern that would continue for days.

We were given the license to hold and voice any opinion about any given work. Completing minor writing assignments, expressing highly opinionated views about works under review, and arguing off base was how a typical day went by. To be in a position to publicly criticise Ernest Hemingway was a humbling experience.

In all of these, the facilitators were present to guide the discussions and to offer a few tips on improving our craft. There for the first time I heard the admonition, ‘show, do not tell’. I learned of the danger of indiscriminate use of adverbs and adjectives, and also learned of the need to constantly prune flowery language because they are not as beautiful as they seem to the author.

By the time we came round to criticising the work of each participant, I had learned enough to make me ashamed of my entry. At this time, there were comments like: ‘I could not suspend my disbelief long enough to finish your story’; ‘the plot twist was jarring’; ‘transition is not smooth’; ‘chronology is unclear’; ‘it just didn’t work for me’.

It wasn’t all about brutal peer reviews. If the work was deemed a masterpiece, the writer was rewarded with applause, a much needed validation of his/her talent. There were some entries so good they made me wish to deny authorship of my piece. And there were some so bad you knew you shouldn’t quit writing yet.

The truth is, one did not come out of the workshop with the complete set of skills to become a writer, nor a certificate that permits one to write. At the least, I left with a clearer, more objective perception of my ability. What more is education than enlightenment and self-awareness?

I have since become a workshop junkie. I seem to be unable to stop responding to suitable calls for application. Not all that I have attended since then have been as satisfying but I have always contrived to leave with something new, at any rate, a new friend with whom I could share drafts of new writing. Besides, being in the company of fellow aspiring writers and book buffs is always inspiring.

It is that time of the year when Farafina Trust puts out a call for submission to its annual workshop. To the skeptics, what harm could ten days of intense reading and writing exercises possibly do to your work? And to you whose friends on Facebook ‘like’ all your posts and gush about your epic poems and lyrical prose, it would be nice to try out. You will meet Chimamanda Adichie and Binyavanga Wanaina, but more importantly, you will learn the truth about your writing.

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