The crow’s nest stood about 30 feet tall. It could have been 100 feet for all I cared, strafing the skyline like a giant metallic deadly daddy long legs. To its left a dusty path, an artery of a road, with the beginnings of homes dotted over the ensuing landscape.
It went on as long as the eye could see. Some people were milling around a white van, others going about their way, as I rubber necked. Jaysus! An armoured truck just slid into our path and very slowly the soldier in the turret looked down the telescope of his firearm straight at me. I stared him out; no sudden movement.
He couldn’t. Really? In the passenger seat my driver was playing it cool. No worries! The optics, if you imagine a movie camera swinging swiftly from me, Black wearing a t-shirt with insignia in bold “BBC”, my driver a white female, to the soldier trigger ready, may seem innocuous. But then, as if the car had come to a thudding halt I heard the words.
“We’re now in Soweto?”
‘What!’, I said. ‘When?’
“See that Tower, that’s the mouth”. That’s how they controlled who came in and who got out. For a moment my concentration was pulled elsewhere. Some barbed wire cordoned around bungalows had caught my attention. Camps! Was this to keep people out; what could be going on here? I would find out in the weeks to come. This is 1990, South Africa, where Apartheid ( legal racism) is crumbling. The next few months and years before the election of all elections is going to be tough.
S**t what had I done.
If you ask me how I became a top writer on Medium. Truthfully, I haven’t the foggiest. I’ve not interviewed anyone who could tell me. Am I grateful? Hell! Yes. I’m humbled, gobsmacked, even find myself wallowing in the vat of imposter syndrome.
This account comes from a journey experienced thirty years ago as a previous Applied Chemistry graduate, who couldn’t write for toffee, but decided madly to emigrate to one of the then world’s trouble spots, South Africa (audio report above).
I wanted to become a reporter; I’d done a journalism postgrad, but the world of journalism was still as alien as studying rare metals in inorganic chemistry. I wasn’t a fan of inorganic chemistry. Here though is the kernel of an idea, how I came to write, and write, and write some more. Years later, I can look at the alchemy and share with you some of my thoughts
To start then, nope. I’m no genius and I write like bat sh*t. At least that’s what I think when I read an array of texts and writers who string words together like precious pearls. Occasionally, I’ll get someone write to me; “Hey man, I hate your writing. And what’s with this style?” There are more positives than negs by the way.
I don’t know these persons, but I think of the late Sunday Times food critic A A Gil, who I just love to read. In his last months, he wrote about how truly bad he was at grammar, punctuation and the rest, but his assistant tidied everything up for him. Er wow! Permission to be myself then, I said.
From an early age; here clutching my art pad, I was told I had an active mind. It got me into trouble. That seems to have persisted, from reading one documentary author’s take on me in The Documentary Handbook. “Gyimah has a fertile mind”, he said, as I mused on television journalism’s creaking formula for truth telling. Help please!
I try to write cinematically. Metaphors are my get out of jail card. Literary essays found in places like London Review of Books my Charlie Brown blanket. My leaning to cinema in part comes from a lecturer telling me I was dyslexic, but, actually I see words and hear pictures. Don’t we all? Drew Westen’s The Political Brain explains how politicians mine our irrationalism through politics. I see how the popularity of fictional cinema provides a reality for many to understand the world, but also cinema, as a way of life, provides a lens to see the world that can be deeply engaging, as I wrote about in Westworld’s future sees beyond VR and 360.
I take great comfort and wisdom from writer/ filmmakers such as Mark Cousins, Robert Drew and Walter Mosley, George Alagiah, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Afua Hirsch et al.
The idea is to take the reader into your world and if possible start off in media res. That’s dropping them into a scene, which is already in development, and the reader has a puzzle to solve by default. The start to this post is typical
This style of writing can appear elliptical moving forward and sometimes backwards and tries its hand at what Tarantino said about his films, “I want the audience to chase my movie”, or what Nolan majestically pulls off in his films, I call clarity from confused controlled chaos. These pieces are examples.
I write because it’s cathartic. I write into black holes not expecting anything in return, but amazed when there’s a response, positive likely! When blogging took off in 2004, for me, I wrote on my platform Viewmag.blogspot.com as a way of sharing when few, if any commissions were successful. In 2008 I wrote 501 posts !!!
My themes then as now are journalism as cinema storytelling, tech and diversity and inclusion. And by diversity I mean as much as culture as I do the canvas of different ideas that come my way.
My best time for writing is early mornings having cogitated on an idea the night before. I write with a rhythm in mind, depending on the story. Hence that time when I dived with British and Turkish forces in Gallipoli to find a wreck and ran out of air was the stuff of thrillers.
When I switched to @medium in 2016 the story that really got traction was Trump’s victory. The responses I tried to answer were like playing Chess. Words matter. Sentences Matter and meaning is formed. There are choices made at every step and I try to do no harm in writing.
A feature of my writing is how I insert myself into narratives. This can be tricky sometimes, as it may come across as hubris when it’s meant to signify how again a Brit-Ghanaian passionate about something wants to share a connecting experience.
My mothers passing was my most personal. She bought me my first camera in the 80s and my tribute to her was to capture her before we would physically see her no more.
This morning listening to BBC Radio, the All Blacks rugby star Dan Carter was interviewed about taking up a position in leadership at Oxford Uni. It’s not about talent but application and mindset he stated. I nodded. It can be difficult and new memories, environments assist in the process of writing.
Keep humble, I say. Because I rarely get into journals or the rest. When I email an idea to an editor, I’m not surprised at the rejections. Ideas are idea; they float until they find a resting space.
So why have I at the time of writing earned the label top writer? Sorry I couldn’t tell you as a matter of fact, but here’s a 10 pointer of what I try and do
- Try and write cinematically.
- Try and make the writing accessible.
- Try and insert myself in the texts where I think it will bring value, or otherwise find someone who’s a fit.
- Add external context, knowledge that may have value for the reader. For me this often comes in the shape of historical texts. Take Charles Mackay’s wonderful book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions, which shows for instance populism and people’s irrational behaviour has a long tail
- Keep it simple following the rules of Jakob Nielsen; sometimes I get carried away.
- Keep writing, and writing, and writing…and editing and re-editing.
- Read and enjoy others.
- Claim a time when you’re at your most active as a writer.
- Never lose sight that whilst application and mindset are important, you can only be who you are, until you collide with new ideas that may influence your new self.
- Be honest, truthful and authentic. It’s never finished