Ben Okri ran a masterclass on writing for my MCW last week. Ben, in case you don’t know, won the Booker prize for his novel, the Famished road, back in 1991. He’s one of the most well-known and respected writers around and I can see why.
He was here, in Auckland, for the writers festival and Paula Morris was lucky enough to collar him and twist his arm so he would come and lend us some of his genius.
He cuts a fine figure, does Ben Okri. Dabber black beret, black suit, crisp white shirt, a glint in his eye. He was filled to bursting with energy, wit and charm.
He came armed with an agenda. He wanted to talk about suggestiveness—in other words, to say without saying, to imply and give the reader scope to invest his words with more meaning than even he anticipated. Chekhovian, I guess. Ben's been influenced by Anton Chekhov, of course. (On a side note, I love Chekhov's famous quote: "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress." That could apply to me, replacing medicine with teaching or education)
I found it fascinating.
The gist of what Ben was saying is that less can be more. As writers, he wants us to stretch ourselves and to use words that we wouldn’t normally use, to avoid direct words and use more indirect language. By doing so, he said, you will send the mind of the reader off on an unexpected journey. Much like Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit, I suspect (my words, not his).
Ben also taught me an important lesson in grace. I had to hurry off afterwards to pick up my son from daycare so I sidled up to him and presented one of his books (Arcadia) to sign. He took the time to ask me what I wrote, what I was interested in (historical/mythological YA, theology) and then used it to write a personalised inscription.
This incident reminded me that it doesn’t matter how successful or famous a writer is, what matters most is that they connect with their readers. That they show an interest in their readers. Without readers, writers may as well not bother. The purpose of writing is to be read. To be read and (hopefully) enjoyed.
I found it quite humbling that this great writer actually took the time to get to know me a little and find out what interested me. One day, perhaps, I might be a semi-famous author and I hope I remember this lesson.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Ben that so enamoured me that I underlined it three times.
‘The world is rich with possibilities’
Phillip W. Simpson
Phillip W. Simpson is an author of YA and children's books.