Inside The Writers Life

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In this, the second in a series of guest posts from other writers, South African novelist Jo-Anne Richards shares her interior world of writing and being published.

On Being a Writer

“Now, boys and girls, I want you to meet a real, live novelist – Jo-Anne has written four whole books …”

Silence. A few solemn nods.

We were at the Jozi Bookfair,  being introduced to a group of children who were keen to learnto write.Richard, who teaches writing skills with me, felt moved to add (show-off that he is): “I bet you all know my work: I write for Rhythm City.”

The solemn group became a screaming mob. They rushed him, touching  his hands, clutching for his clothing. Young girls hyperventilated and gazed up at him swooningly. Richard has never before had such an effect on women. (Pity they were all under 12).

If ever I wanted a lesson in humility, that was it.The days when a consumptive writer could slip from her garrett to face rapturous acclaim for a slim volume of poetry are, I’m sorry to say,well and truly over.

I read in The Guardian recently that an astonishingly small number of novelists worldwide can live off their books alone. Never mind JK Rowling, there are apparently only 300 or so out there (And we hate them).

The rest of us live on spin-off day jobs. We write articles, we teach writing, we become academics, the fortunate among us become temporary writers-in-residence …

And in South Africa, with our exceptionally small reading public? Well let’s just say that I’m still waiting for that wealthy patron who will pay me vast sums for the sake of Art. My mother’s been praying for his appearance  for years.

You can imagine how she felt when I was 18 and knew everything. I pooh-poohed all her sensible suggestions for solid professions by saying (with dramatic wrist to brow): “But I want to be a writer.”

In her day, educated women were given three options: nursing, teaching or social work. She chose social work, but hankered all her life for a Fine Arts degree.

“Follow your heart,” she would say in her whimsical moments. But those moments were closely dogged by the re-emergence of her practical self. “You want to be a what? Don’t be silly. Do something sensible.”

Funny that I never quite heard her more practical exhortations.

In those days, genteel literary poverty drew approval from our peers. We sneered at displays of affluence. In fact, I remember waiting with trepidation for my first date after university. If he appeared ina fancy German car, I couldn’t possibly date the man. Fortunately,he had a rust bucket with a paddle-ski strapped to the roof.

Just a little older, I married a poverty-stricken poet for no more solid reason than he left excquisite verses on my desk and spirited me up Signal Hill at sunset to recite poetry. I did have to divorce him later … did  I mention that he was a particularly drunken poet? Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard. But who would have missed the experience? It was so romantic at the time.

My mother would hate to take responsibility for that. In fact, she’d probably hate the fact that I’ve spent my life following her advice(the advice I heard, that is) – avoiding being sensible in favour of what I love.

I spend years of my life writing, rewriting and re-rewriting novels in the hope that they’ll see the light of day at the end of it all.

Richard and I teach creative writing to people who seem to love it – which makes us love it, of course. So many people seem starved for creative outlet and desperately need to stretch their creative limbs. It’s just not encouraged in their working lives. It’s not sensible.

My university students, on the other hand, are often more concerned with salaries than with a passion for writing or journalism. They want their dates to own fancy German cars.

It’s a different generation. I read recently that generationY is both entitled and needy. They don’t do things for free. They revere “celebrities” who earn vast sums for providing little of value or lasting worth.

Like the children at the Jozi bookfair, my students are completely unimpressed by my books, or by any of the trappings that I’m quite proud of: London launches, translations, foreign speaking engagements.But when those children mobbed Richard, I realised how little I care.

Writers are not celebrity superstars. Yet sometimes individuals stop me in the street to tell me that a book meant something to them and, sometimes, that it changed their lives. Those moments make it all worthwhile.

I have tried to use my abilities with integrity. I give everything I’ve got to my writing. And when I teach, I reveal my vulnerabilities and all my own failures in order to share what’s most precious to me.

I’m unlikely ever to be a superstar, or a millionaire. But I’ve had a thrilling life, full of exciting adventures and fascinating characters. I have lived with passion.

And in my very small way, I hope I’ve used the talents I have to make a difference in the world, through my writing and my teaching. And that – not fame and certainly not fortune – is the recipe for happiness.

•    Jo-Anne’s has written four novels, including  the best-selling The Innocence of Roast Chicken (Headline UK),recently re-issued by Rebel-e

Her most recent, My Brother’s Book(Picador Africa)

She has just signed a contract with Picador to release her fifth novel in early 2013. She teaches journalism at Wits University. Her range of writing courses can be found on

Jo-anne Richards

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