A 23 minute journey

Note: This post was written as a response to the final exam essay question for the writing and editing course I am currently completing. Each of us had to reflect on the work we had completed this semester. 

In 1903, the Wright brothers did the world a solid by inventing the first successful airplane. Orville and Wilbur took the thrill of travelling across countries, continents and seas and transcended it into a different zone altogether. 11 years later, the first commercial flight took place. It was a short 23 minute long flight between Tampa and St Petersburg in the United States with the plane flying only 15 meters above about 30 kilometres of bay waters. It was short, but this 23 minute journey completely changed the face of travel.

That 23 minute journey meant that people across the globe could visit different continents without having to spend weeks on a ship and run the risk of an icy adventure in the Atlantic Ocean ala The Titanic.

That 23 minute journey meant faster, easier access between cities and hurtled the world towards existing as the criss cross of global networks that it is today.

Those 23 minutes gave me and countless other travellers the opportunity to easily experience the cultures, characters and conventions of countries across the earth.

Nowadays, all people need is money, and they can buy a ticket, go through a few pat downs and security checks, shuffle onto a metal tube with wings along with the rest of the (hopefully not) unwashed masses and jet off to pretty much any desired destination.

That 23 minute journey has made my future endeavours a lot easier to achieve. The existence of commercial flight has given me the opportunity to already have experienced a smidgeon of what the world has to offer.

My favourite cities on this blue and green blob floating in space are New York and Beijing.

The two are incredibly different but both are uniquely beautiful and terrifying in their own ways. New York is the city of possibility. It’s the gritty city full of dreamers. Beijing is the twisty city. It’s a city of innovation that juxtaposes the old and the new with the ancient Forbidden City sitting two ring roads away from the headquarters of companies such as Amazon.

My first visit to New York was greatly anticipated. I had spent years gorging myself on books and TV shows set in the city. I had imagined elbowing my way through the throngs of tourists in Times Square and taking photos of the buzzing neon signs advertising Broadway shows that you must must MUST see along with the hooded street vendors selling keyrings and corndogs. I could picture myself meandering through Central park at Christmas time surrounded by snow and well-dressed New Yorkers walking their well-dressed dogs. I had a mental image of New York; a constructed illusion of what the city would be like and when I arrived it was everything I had imagined and more.

Beijing was different. I had not anticipated Beijing. I had no idea what the city would be like apart from the images of the Great Wall sprawling its way through the countryside. There were no TV shows or books to reference from. The city was unexpected.

My feelings on New York and Beijing are comparable to my feelings on the first and second semesters of the 2014 Third Year Writing and Editing course.

The first semester was New York, albeit less exciting. It was anticipated. I knew more or less what to expect; that we would be producing journalism from week to week; pitching story ideas; dealing with sources. It was the straight forward writing and editing course I had expected.

Semester two was Beijing. This past semester was not simple straight forward journalism. It was unexpected.

Semester one’s work was like taking the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of              Liberty. Lady Liberty is one of the most iconic symbols of the Big Apple.  It’s featured on almost every post card, brochure or piece of tourist memorabilia. I expected the tall, green woman standing stoically at the southernmost tip of the island of Manhattan, holding her flame proudly. Seeing her for the first time was something new but my previous experiences with images of the statue meant I had predicted what it might feel like to see it in person. My experience of the first semester of writing and editing was similar to this. I had experienced journalism before- not that particular course or those particular assignments- but as I keep on repeating, it was expected.

Semester two, on the other hand, was like arriving at the Beijing Capital International Airport. I travelled to China earlier this year to take part in an Envision Global International Relations and Diplomacy Forum. According to the “Pre-Trip Planning Pack” email that popped up in my inbox just before I left South Africa, a team of Envision Global representatives would be waiting at arrivals to welcome me to the country.  After the seven hour flight and half an hour wait to make it through passport control, all I wanted was to move through the arrivals gate and get to the hotel ASAP.

Walking into the arrivals hall was like surfacing from a pool after being submerged for a few minutes. The sliding doors opened and a barrage of sounds and sights pounded at my senses. Hundreds of Chinese people crowded around the arrivals gate, shouting for friends and relatives in words that my ears couldn’t understand and enthusiastically gesturing to signs containing characters that my eyes couldn’t comprehend. I walked slowly down the line of people and squinted at the pieces of cardboard looking for my name or the Envision logo. My search became more frantic as I realised I couldn’t see either of the things I needed to. A deep, dark pulse of anxiety started to throb in the centre of my chest as I realised I was lost in the middle of China and I had only been in the country for little over 30 minutes.

After fretting for a good few minutes I decided to take action and find myself a taxi to the hotel. I quickly removed my jacket which was only aiding in flaming my anxiety and moved off to find an information desk. A few moments later I noticed that my left arm felt significantly lighter. Confused, I looked down only to realise I had put down my laptop bag containing my tickets, money, passport, cell phone and more or less my entire life when I had taken my jacket off. The pulse of anxiety exploded in my chest and a wave of despair washed over my entire body like a hot, electric current. I turned and bolted back to the spot where I had been. By some Chinese miracle an airport security worker was running towards me waving his left arm yelling “Miss! Miss!” while signalling wildly to my laptop bag in his right hand. My exclaimed thank you and eyes full of teary relief elicited a smile and nod from the security guard. While hugging my laptop bag to my body and vowing to never let it out of my sight again I glanced to my right and saw a blue flag with a golden ‘E’ emblazoned on it. The series of unfortunate events resulting in me almost losing my bag and my livelihood had led me right to the people I needed. The pressure in my chest eased as I made my way over to the blue clad forum representatives.

At the beginning of term three, when the Writing and Editing class arrived at the Writing Labs in the Africa Media Matrix the second semester’s course lecturer Gill Rennie asked us to take out a piece of paper and pen and ‘free-write’ for five minutes. Free-writing is a stream of conscious type act. I sat there with a crease in my brow feeling perplexed. Free writing? What is free writing? Would we be marked on this? “No.” she said. It was simply an exercise designed to kick start our creativity. The second activity was to write an introduction that could be posted on a blog which used “Writing is the most important thing in the world.” as the jump off point. Both of these exercises were unfamiliar. The deep, dark pulse of anxiety that had last surfaced in China began to throb again; brought on by the unfamiliarity of the work.

What followed was a myriad of odd activities such as writing with our non-dominant hand and using crayons to draw out memories.  All very weird and interesting but where was the journalism? Where were the assignments and deadlines?

The seemingly odd assignments were Gill’s way of making us delve into what our writing. Realising this at the beginning of the semester made the pulse of anxiety in my chest erupt and beat ceaselessly like a fish trying to swim away from the line and hook it had been caught on. Before this semester, I was uncomfortable with writing about my own identity as a writer. “Can you tell me something interesting about yourself?” is the worst question anyone could ask me as for a few frantic seconds my brain desperately searches for something worthwhile to share but to no avail. That was why I used to enjoy writing about other people and things that seemed far more interesting than me.

However, assignments such as “Why I write” and “Me and Reading” forced me to sit down, search inside myself and ask the questions of why I do what I do and where I want to go with it.

The main thing that this course did was change how I identify as a writer. In the past I did journalism for the sake of it. Now, I have a niche; travel writing. The assignments and personal blog helped develop this identity.

I felt this way before and I feel this way now: being a writer and being a journalist are two different things.  As a journalist you relay the stories of others but produce them in a way that is unique to you. As a journalist you produce copy for a publication and people depend on you.  As a writer, you write for and from yourself. Inspiration comes from within you. Being a writer is not a forgiving job. In The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard says “Your manuscript … has no needs or wishes.” No one but you is dependent on your work as a writer. Writing is difficult because people largely prefer life to the written word, “The written word is weak … [Writing] appeals only to the subtlest senses… and the moral senses and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle.” Dillard explains.

Being a writer means writing for and from your soul.

A huge lesson that this semester taught me, which also applies to journalistic work, was that being a writer also means being able to edit yourself or ‘Kill your darlings’. Forrest Wickman (2013) explained how the phrase has been attributed to a number of great writers such as Faulkner and Oscar Wilde. In actuality, the earliest known use was by Arthur Quiller-Couch who said: “‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly…Murder your darlings.” Dillard (1989) expands on this notion, “Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay or everything else will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appals you, but there it is. Knock it out.”

At first I never saw the point of editing my work multiple times. After putting my energy into it once, I felt like everything within the pieces I wrote absolutely needed to be there. However, the “Editing a blog post” assignment showed me the error of my ways. Now, each time I go back to posts from months ago I find something unnecessary or something that needs changing. As much as it hurts, you always need to kill your darlings.

The personal blog helped leaps and bounds in shaping my identity as a travel writer. However, I found myself slightly stuck when trying to combine the identity of my personal blog with the work I did for the Embizweni beat blog.

The beat work this semester was also a huge change from semester one. We developed our beats as online blogs. Embizweni started off shaky and only seemed to begin finding its feet towards the end of term four. The beat group spent majority of our time discussing the direction and aims of Embizweni as opposed to expending energy producing content for it. This was imperative because as Public Life, we needed to know exactly how to frame the content we produced. So while the first semester felt more productive with regards to producing content, this semester was more valuable in developing Embizweni as a platform.

Working on the beat blog was the portion of this course that best fulfilled the course outlines. Having a list of compulsory assignments ranging from profiles and news features to curations and live tweeting, meant I was able to produce an array of story forms.

Eventually, I found I could combine my personal blog identity with the beat blog by writing stories for the beat blog in a tone similar to my personal blog. This meant writing stories in a less ‘hard news’, more fun manner. There were people producing the serious stories so I saw a space for me to produce some light hearted content. “You suck at parking!” is an example.

The ability of crafting meaning for the reader was an important outcome of this semester and I feel that this was addressed by both blogs. Spending so much time discussing what Embizweni was and who it was for (the active citizens of Makana) meant we knew what kind of stories we had to produce and for whom.

I had to work harder on understanding crafting meaning for readers of my personal blog because the process of understanding my identity as a writer took up most of the third term. Once I understood my identity, it was easier to write for the reader.

In these months of self-exploration I have found that I write to indulge in my three favourite things; writing, travel and making people laugh. I write to brighten my day and the days of others; my personal blog aims to be testimony to this.

The course lived itself out in a way that was different to the first semester and which deeply affected my identity as a writer. It allowed me to find my niche and gave me a clearer vision of what I want to do with my future. It is a ‘writing and editing’ course and it taught me to do both of those things in interesting and sometimes weird ways.

This course showed me that I still have a long road to travel in developing as a writer. I still seek the experience of writing what Susan Minot(2003) described as words that make the reader feel “…the earth move as if a huge safe were being swivelled open and afterwards felt flushed and stunned as you are after sex.” Somewhere down the road I hope to write something that truly moves people the way that the words of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and JK Rowling have moved me.

Looking back, I can compare this course to the Olympic Green in Beijing which is home to the Water Cube and the Birdcage Stadiums built for use during the 2008 Olympics.

The forum visited the Green after a long day of walking the Great Wall of China. We arrived dusty, sweaty and exhausted but excited to take in the wonders of the site. Upon arrival it was clear that the Green was odd. It was full of strange noises, colours and people. The claustrophobic crowds were a personification of the thick, moggy air pressing down onto us and made movement uncomfortable. There were weird and wonderful things lined along the promenade between the two stadiums.  Street vendors selling deep fried centipedes, men painted gold dancing for money, karaoke singing dwarves and hundreds of hawkers selling long strings of kites which were floating through the Beijing smog despite the lack of wind. It was a peculiar amalgamation but it culminated into something whimsically beautiful.

That was what this course was like. Strange at first, full of aspects that brought on my anxious chest pulse, but as I experienced the course for what it was the anxiety slowly faded. As I discovered my identity as a writer, the true crazy beauty of the course revealed itself to me.

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