The Creatives’ Dilemma

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Writing is work. The likes of Achebe and Soyinka proved it, and explicitly too, when they wrote books and poems and stories. With the rise of the internet and social media, there is increased visibility and exposure, as someone who is hundreds of miles away can see your written thoughts on any particular subject with one click of a link and the punching of a few buttons. It is also true that same can be copied and posted anywhere else, without acknowledging the original owner. The thought is annoying, but I guess it is one of the prices we have to pay for the globalization, and the proliferation of the internet. The good part is that it also makes it easy for people to be able to get published in parts of the world they would ordinarily not have access to, due to distance and other geographical restrictions. The best part of all is that it makes it possible for someone to sit in his room in Abeokuta, write a story, essay, or article, and get it published in a foreign journal, or better yet, win a prize, award, or a grant from a place he has never been to, never seen, and maybe will never see. It has broadened the scopes and worldviews of many people, and opened vistas of opportunity for writers the world over to connect with readers on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Social media has been a wonderful tool to connect with people of all races, ages, faiths and creeds, and for sharing opinions and popularizing ideologies. Nowhere is this more evident than on Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook platform.

Since the advent of Facebook, people from all walks of life can now connect and share information, ideas, opinions and ideologies, as well as discuss problems and seek solutions to  perceived challenges and issues.

But let’s not get carried away, we were on the subject of writing, and social media as it affects writers, and how writers can use social media to broaden their reach. Writers can connect with wider audiences through Facebook, and it is not unusual to find several artists who would ordinarily be strangers connected via Facebook, and even doing collaborations and joint projects, opening new vistas of opportunity for others who they connected with via Facebook. Same holds true for writers. And with the rise of Facebook flash fiction contests, writing is slowly being transformed from a boring and time consuming hobby to a lucrative side hustle, and even a main hustle for those daring and committed enough to give it their all. And this is where the problem starts.

Facebook flash fiction contests have taken the popularity of writing to an all time high, and one of the biggest problems the creatives and writers face is what story or stories to write. Now, African writing is growing, and coming of age, but a lot of the so-called brightest and best, the leading lights of African writing, are dependent on some kind of validation from the West. Why this is so is perhaps a story for another day, but … it is what it is.

Day after day, during these flash fiction contests, we see stories that could be so much more, seemingly wasted on mere contests that merely earn the writers likes and comments, and maybe a friend request or two. Some stories are so heartbreakingly beautiful that you wonder, on reading them, why the writer doesn’t have two or three books crowding the New York Times bestseller lists. The stories of Hymar David, Hannu Afere and Emem Alexandra Akpan-Nya spring readily to mind. These guys can really write. As in, no jokes. And the really sad part is that these stories have an urgency to them that is all but gone after being written the first time. That urgency, that sheer force can never be replicated, and too many times to mention, a story that is edgy, new, daring and so boldly out of the box is wasted on a contest that has no real way of growing the writer’s career, beyond reinforcing the conviction people already have, that he or she can write.

Let me make a case of myself. While applying to film school last year, I sent, along with my application, as a sample of my work, a short story titled “Anna”, which won me a scholarship, and the endless admiration of my instructors and classmates. My instructors have never forgiven me for not writing a screenplay based on that story as my project.  To them, it was endlessly fascinating, while for me, it had lost its urgency. Someone approached me to expand the story to four thousand words and apply for the Caine, but too my shame, I haven’t, and I’m not sure I will. The story has simply lost its urgency. There are a lot of potential Caine or other Prize winners being bandied about on Facebook in the name of flash fiction, and it can sometimes feel like casting pearls before swine. We see short stories that should have been poems, poems that should have been stories, and occasionally, a dialogue or dialogues that should have been an essay. But creatives these days are all about the ideas, and how they can be compressed to less than five hundred words so as to fit in a flash story. Nigerian Writing can not only grow on the pages of blogs and social media. We need to set our sights higher, on the Caine, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and other prizes. Facebook does not give prizes. You know how an idea sits in your head, burning a hole in your brain, but once written, ceases to bother you, its place being taken by the next big idea burning your skull?  One can hardly be blamed for that, the head is chock full. As a writer who writes for different media, there is only so much time one can spend before moving on to the next one.

So there. A lot of people say a writer can cough up spectacular stories anyday, but I think differently. A writer’s career can be made, he/she  can “blow”, so to speak, from one well executed idea for a short story that wins an award. Most times, it is the idea, and once that idea has been tackled in one form, using the idea in another form is usually very difficult, if not impossible. The month of February is here, and Facebook’s hottest literary showdown, the Flash Challenge, is around the corner. This year’s contest is themed “Lockdown”, and while on one hand I am excited because of the intense reading and writing that the contest will bring, I’m grieved on the other hand, at the brilliant ideas in the stories that will be wasted in garnering mere votes, likes, and comments, when they could be doing so much more for the writers.   Agree, or better yet, disagree, and tell me why. The comments section.

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