A reader WhatsApp’d me this message:
I have a question. Apart from consistently writing and reading books, is there a specific thing or things you do to improve your craft?
Even the reading, is there a given writer or books you find yourself consuming for the purpose of purely improving your craft?
When you wrote your book, what did you mostly read or research on?
Right off the bat, a special mention and truckloads of gratitude to Valentine.
I met Valentine years ago – in 2018, first week of March, to be precise – when she attended the 14th edition of our Creative Writing Masterclass with Bikozulu. (If you haven’t read my book already, get it so you read the story about how I came up with the idea for our Masterclass then pitched it to Jackson Biko, the writer and author, my pal. Aka Bikozulu. The title of my book is, ‘Should I?’)
We held that edition of the Masterclass at Dusit, back when Dusit was still Dusit, a five-star establishment, the kitchens of its restaurants ran by chefs who had sniffed the African-equivalent of Michelin stars, before it became a mausoleum of memories for the brave civilians fallen from terrorists’ bullets.
We had the class in one of the conference rooms on the first floor. I don’t recall the name of that room, not that it is important. It was a claustrophobic room though, low ceilings and walls that seemed to be inching closer to us by the day. Stay there a week and we may as well have been in a shoe box.
I can still see Valentine sitting in the class. I recall what she looked like, what her writing read like. I recall that she worked in insurance. Later, I would learn that she had become a mum, like me.
We had the class – three full working days, Wednesday to Friday – then Valentine fell off the radar, as these things are wont to happen.
I didn’t hear from her again until she wrote to me: first on Instagram, in my DMs, before I had understood how effective a tool it is for connecting so intimately with your online community; her messages went unread for weeks but she carried on with the soliloquy. She is a persistent one, this one. Then she emailed me a money question through the Editorial desk at Nation.Africa, the website for Daily Nation newspaper.
Then later, much later, she would email me directly about something I wrote in my Culture column in the Saturday Nation print. That column one that is constantly moving about, the one they squeeze to the corner of the page with no stock photo, just words, the one that you have to squint to read – you will probably pop a painkiller after because of the migraine from squinting.
Valentine wasn’t just writing in ceaselessly.
She was also reading what I was writing.
And she was reading everything.
And she read. And read. And kept reading.
Valentine has been rooting for me even before I even acknowledged that I needed someone to root for me.
Valentine believes in me and my abilities as a writer.
Everyone needs someone to believe in them. Everyone needs a Valentine in their life.
Chic, I know you are reading this, thank you from the bottom of my big ol’ heart.
I am feeling needy right this moment so can you please just send me a hug from wherever you are right now.
There we go.
Bring it all in.
Another thing. Valentine WhatsApp’d me these questions months ago, after she bought my book. (She was one of the first people to buy my book, breaking the Paybill in while it was still new.) (Should I? Your questions about money. By Florence Bett.) (Buy the book.)
It is me who has been writing the response in my head but never committing it to the page.
Here goes, Valentine. This one is for you:
Q: Apart from consistently writing and reading books, is there a specific thing or things you do to improve your craft?
Yes, I indulge in other creative arts.
TV wears me out, I don’t catch a lot of it. I only allow myself to catch it on Sundays, when GB and I watch movies back to back. Movie marathons. We also liked to watch movies at the cinema, for our date night. I catch TV mostly for entertainment, rarely for edification, sometimes for education.
TV does little – to nothing – for me but listening to music does me a whole lot of good.
I prefer listening to albums than to singles. It is only an in album, I believe, where you get acquainted with the creative in three dimensions.
I have an eccentric taste in music. Indie folk is where my ear has been in the last few years, it is easy to listen to while working.
Another thing I do is indulge in home styling and décor. I discovered right before the pandemic that I care a great deal what the furniture in our home looks like, what fabric it is crafted from, how cohesive it is to the rest of the pieces in that space. I care about beddings and pillows and rugs and styling accessories and lighting pendants and all that jazz that leans towards function and aesthetics.
I have spent an unhealthy number of hours in TACC and Mr Price Homes and Odds & Ends and in fundis workshops along Ngong Road. There is a particular one called Authenteak, on your way to Lenana School, where I would sometimes nip in without reason.
Watching styling and décor content on YouTube also awakens my muse.
Lastly, piano. Learning to play the piano is both a pathway and destination to creativity. (Read about it here.)
Oh, and high fashion. Something about it warms my feet and makes me want to dance. Story for another day.
Q: Even the reading, is there a given writer or books you find yourself consuming for the purpose of purely improving your craft?
Yes, there are two writers I read and reread and will keep reading until the day I no longer can.
I read them on my Kindle, which means that the books are not getting worn out. If they were paperbacks, they would be as tattered as the pieces from Kanye West’s clothing line. He-he.
Nora was a humourist and contributing columnist in magazine. She died in 2012 from pneumonia.
She was mostly known for her screenwriting, though. She wrote the scripts for two romantic movies – ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ – and a couple of other box office movies that did relatively well, some tanked.
I read Nora for her humour and her jest for life. (Her brand of humour is acquired though, it is very high-brow, very New York. And it is not laugh-out-loud funny, you will mostly chuckle or sometimes crack a smile.)
Nora also embraced everything about womanhood, which is something I too am doing in this second half of my 30s.
And I must mention that Nora Ephron was introduced to me by my pal and mentor, Biko. I am not just saying this to say it, I must mention him – Biko will catch a fit if I don’t. I never even want to mention her in his presence because he has to point out that he introduced her to me. All. The. Time.
What good writers have you introduced me to, Bett?
I pause. ‘I reintroduced you to yourself.’
Gillian Flynn is the author of ‘Gone Girl’.
You must have heard of ‘Gone Girl’, Valentine, the novel? It was a psychological thriller that was adopted for the big screen. Starring Rosamund Pike as the twisted Amy Elliot Dunne and Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne. I looooove Amy Elliot as a character and Ben Affleck as an actor.
Gillian Flynn had written two other long form novels before ‘Gone Girl’. I have read one, I will read the other soon. Granted, they are not as nail-it-on-the-head as ‘Gone Girl’ is but you can see where she started from and grew as a writer, her thought process as she writes, how she charts her plotlines.
What I love about Gillian Flynn is that she is not a lazy writer or lazy thinker. She writes and writes and writes. If she is describing a scene or writing dialogue, she will take the time to write as lengthy, as creative a description as is necessary and she won’t write some half-assed first-level sentences, she thinks really really hard about what goes to the page.
I remember when I was rewriting my book and I was getting physically exhausted balancing all those words. There were chapters where I wanted to skimp on the details but I would stop to ask myself, ‘What would Gillian Flynn do?’ Or, ‘This is not how Gillian Flynn would write that. Write it again and this time, write it well.’
Away from being writers, I also connect with Nora and Gillian because they are urban wives and mums like me, they source their material from the minutiae of domesticity: laundry, child care, cooking, personal care, fashion, sex, periods, birth control, relationships with lovers and friends and pets and house plants and whatnot.
They alchemize the mundane into magical.
These women married (Nora divorced and remarried a couple of times), had kids, struggled to find that elusive career-motherhood-self balance. I like to read their behind-the-scenes interviews because I catch swathes of myself in there.
We speak the same language, Valentine.
We are tainted in the same undertones.
We are sipping the same cocktails of our sisterhood.
Q: When you wrote your book, what did you mostly read or research on?
‘Should I? Your questions about money.’ (Buy the book!)
Most of the book was written from my personal experiences and what I was uncertain of, I spoke to local experts and did some extensive research on Google. GB was also a reliable sounding board for ideas. He was also my Reader Number One, even though he did a lousy job of it, ha-ha.
The section of the book that gave me the biggest headache was section three, the one on Saving and Investing: How and where to grow your money.
Crunching those numbers and simplifying them so the reader would not jump over them was a tall order.
Anyway. Life has been giving me the experience on what to write, Valentine. First-hand experience.
Being a financial auditor with PwC in those first five years of my career helped me translate numbers to money, money into accounting, and accounting into real life.
Being a contributor with Nation newspaper and other magazines gave me the muscle to write against numerous deadlines and master the technique of nailing the angle of a story. This included researching for stories, refining ideas – trashing the terrible ones and giving legs to the ones that have the potential to walk the miles.
I also learned how to write simple and clear sentences, because we were writing for a very diverse, very unindexed national audience. Write for the mwananchi, the editors kept telling us.
Being a personal finance columnist – first with Nation Online, under my nascent column ‘Money Talks’, then with Saturday Magazine, in the money column that Waceke Nduati used to write – was where it all came beautifully together.
“The humourlessness of crunching numbers collided with the art of storytelling.”
I was fired from that column a year into writing it – ha-ha, poor me, poor Bett! – but that kick was the kick I needed to write my book.
I swear to you, Valentine, I would not have written my book if I was still writing that column. Why? Because I would still have been making enough money to finance my lifestyle. Because I had that exclusive space to express my ideas. Because you cannot serve two masters.
Now I cherish my ideas more, they are currency I don’t give away too easily.
That transition from auditor to writer was also the hardest but most invaluable period of my life, money wise. Making a lot of money then losing it all in the pursuit of purpose and happiness truly put things in a different perspective for me.
My readers also taught me a lot. Hell, they gave me the idea for my book. I owe them that.
As more and more readers wrote in to me – as you did, Valentine, with your financial conundrum – I began to get a wholesome people-centred view of money. Especially to the middle-class mwananchi who lives on a shoestring budget. Or those who have just started making money and don’t know what to do with it.
Let me give you an example using debt: I used to view debt simply as good debt and bad debt. But I rubbished this perception and matured my approach to it, not just as an individual but also as an expert on personal finance. Now I am more nuanced as I talk about debt: it is either manageable or unmanageable.
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