When the late Hugh Masekela wrote about how Stimela, his most requested song, came into being, he wrote: “I didn’t write it. It’s coming in now.” This was in response to friends who were listening to him play the song for the first time on his piano.
The legendary musician and anti-apartheid activist goes on to write, in his autobiography, Still Grazing The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela , “For me songs come like a tidal wave, and if I don’t get to a piano there and then, they’re lost forever.”
It was these comments that got me thinking about the mechanics, if you will, of the writing process. Why is it, for example, that if an idea comes to me I have to record it there and then? In the past I have had great ideas, sometimes at the most inconvenient time, and just because I failed to act on the thought there and then, when I later tried to put it down, it has simply not worked. It’s as if when the idea was first conceived it came with a secret ingredient that demands that I act on it now, before its expiry date. As a result, some of my best writing has come almost out of the blue, as if from a higher power. Such works often require the least editing and I almost always get them down in one sitting. In this piece I will explore and share my own writing process in the hope that it may help or inspire another writer.
How are the concepts that I write about conceived?
In the past I have picked up a pen and paper and decided that I would like to write about a particular subject. There have also been instances where I have set time aside to write, in the hope that when I sit down ideas would just start flowing. In both instances I walked away both frustrated and unfulfilled.
However, when I wrote The Stimela That Knew No Borders in June 2018, a tributary poem to the late Bra Hugh Masekela, I had just finished reading his autobiography and it had only been a few months since we had learnt of his passing. I had always been a fan of the legendary musician and had the privilege to watch him perform live in 2016. As I went about my daily chores that day, listening to one of his albums and just reflecting on the incredible impact that this man had had on this country, something said to me “It’s time.” Up until then, I knew that I wanted to write something to celebrate his life and help comfort and inspire others, but I understood that such a tribute could not be forced, and I had to be patient. While Magic, from the album Time, played repeatedly in the background, I sat at my laptop and there and then I started writing the poem from start to finish.
While writing I was overwhelmed by emotions and images of what it must have been like to be forced to leave the country of your birth, the sacrifices made, the challenges faced, and the music. This incredible music that had formed the soundtrack for generations of South Africans. When the poem was complete, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude and fulfilment. It felt a bit like when you withhold crying after a tragic incident or loss, and one day you find yourself in a safe space that allows you to just cry. – The poem When I am gone: A Tribute to Madiba was written under similar circumstances.
When I wrote I Marched Alone In A Crowd in 2017 the process was different. The country was tense and people from all walks of life had taken to the streets against the then government. Days before a national day of protest, I thought to myself: If we don’t speak out against those things that will eventually destroy the country… if we do nothing but complain on social media, what will we say to future generations when they ask “Where were you when the country was going up in flames, and its key institutions were being systematically dismantled?”
With those thoughts in mind, I too took to the streets for the very first time in my life, alongside thousands of fellow South Africans. What made this experience so profound was that leading up to 7 April 2017 the discourse amongst South Africans was quite divided, and yet we were in agreement that something had to be done. I remember telling myself that as long as I was clear on why I was marching; I would be out there voicing my anger. It was the emotions and the sense of having done something concrete, which would ultimately bring about positive change that resulted in me recording this event.
To me the autobiographical piece I wrote was also about preserving a piece of history for future generations. It is always easier to write about lived experiences, and this was a case in point.
Tell us: Do you have any similar experiences when having to write?