By Madiba Ebubedike

The cavernous hall reverberated with his deep rich voice. In the prevailing silence, you could almost hear a pin drop. Twenty curious faces, full of great expectations, stared back at him as he slowly imposed himself on the scene. His close friend, Mike Jimoh of Sun Newspapers had told me that he had a jazzy voice. Mike was right. Helon Habila’s jazzy voice held us captive with his opening sentence that dewy morning at the serene Grace Point Resort Hotel venue of the 3rd International Creative Writing Workshop organized by Fidelity Bank Plc.

The multi-prize winning novelist and poet was welcoming us to the opening session and setting what would become the dominant tone of the one-week-long workshop.

We had gathered in Abuja the previous day; twenty of us from Maiduguri, Owerri, Port Harcourt, Shiroro, Jos, Benin, Abuja and Lagos in pursuit of a dream – a writing dream. Most of us had read some of Habila’s books but a few had read newspaper stories on him. But perhaps only one or two had met him in the past. None of us, however, had ever read anything on the two other teachers of the workshop – Madeleine Thien (Canada) and Tsitsi Dangaremgba (Zimbabwe).

All we knew was that the writers were some of the best writers around today and Fidelity Bank had gone to a great length to bring them to Nigeria to help nurture our writing dreams. We were also acutely aware of how lucky or gifted we were for our works to have been chosen from an illustrious list of about one thousand entries. Naturally, our expectations were high.

So, when we read our first story of the workshop that morning, we knew that our expectations were not misplaced. It was a heart-rending short story entitled My Daughter, The Fox, written by British born Jackie Kay whose father is Nigerian. This fully realized story was to serve as the compass with which we would navigate the intricate pathways of the entire workshop.

Through Jackie Kay’s amazing vision and haunting clarity, we learnt the importance of a good opening, the relevance of seamless transitions, and the overarching need for a lyrical language and of course the sort of ending that leaves the reader in a pool of emotion. We also learnt how to relate with our teachers with greater ease and before long, Helon Habila had become simply “Helon”, Madeleine Thien became “Maddie” and Titsi Dangaremgba became just “Tsitsi”. With that, the workshop was stripped of all the formalities and the strictures that came with them, leaving plenty of room for freer conversations between us and our teachers that made for more impact.

Needless to say, our teachers proved our expectations right. Although we had no previous experience to anchor our judgment, it was all too evident to us that we were learning at the feet of the masters. And as we went from learning the basics of “scene building” to the technicalities of choosing a “point of view”, we felt increasingly drawn into a layered tunnel through which great writings are born. Through it all, Helon was the affable now-serious, now-engaging avuncular figure to whom everyone rallied. Tsitsi was the straight-talking matriarch with a firm voice and a firm hand on how writing should be done and Maddie won everyone over with her delicate touch, her ceaseless struggle not to discourage and her willingness to lend a hand. We had a perfect blend of talents and personalities that made our experience rich. Diverse as these personal touches seemed, our teachers all agreed on one thing – good writing should speak for itself. They strove to make us see how this should be done through out the workshop.

We soon realized how easy or difficult this could be from the first day of the workshop when we did a short exercise on “Beginnings” with six sentences. I was astonished by what my fellow students were able to craft in just five minutes. Each student was asked to read what he had written and it offered us an insight into the creative ability of everyone. But we were even going to be more astonished at how bad our previous writings seemed after we had had just a few days at the workshop.

This became clearer when we began working on what would become our first fully developed short story at the workshop. Each student was asked to write a short story, using all the devices that we were taught on the first day of workshop. The story was to serve as the all-important tool with which we negotiated through all the tricks that our teachers wanted to teach us. After submission, the class was split into three groups with each group headed by one of the teachers. It was within these small groups that we settled down to the brass task. We dissected our stories with candour, critiquing and enriching the narratives, applauding and poking jabs at the efforts of one another while listening to the wise counsels of our teachers on how to improve our stories and the telling itself.

Little did we know that gradually, we were evolving into a small, close knit family of thirsty would-be story-tellers. Our teachers detected our peculiar appetite for knowledge and swiftly rose to meet it; classes lasted late into the evening and most of my colleagues stayed back late into the night imbuing their on-going stories with the new tricks they had learnt during the day. The most dominant lesson however seemed to be our sudden realization that good writing is extremely painful and difficult.

A most amazing aspect of the workshop would probably have to be the one-on-one sessions we had with the teachers. This gave us the rare opportunity of sitting close to any of the teachers to discuss our stories, the difficulties we faced in writing them and ways of overcoming them, our self doubts as well as possibilities of getting our voices heard out there. It made it a lot easier for some of my colleagues who could not openly share their problems in the general class discussions to share them with the teachers they thought might offer them the best solutions.

It was not all work at the workshop, though. It was almost comical to see the workshop coordinator, James Eze of Fidelity Bank running up and down to ensure that meals were served on time and that the bus that took us to and from class every day was standing by, waiting for us. Halfway into the one-week long programme, Dr. Emman Shehu, President of the Abuja Writers Forum dropped by with a guitar to serenade us in the twilight.

He came with a budding performance poet known as ‘Captain’ whose angry chants rent the evening air and lent a rather arty air to our experience. We also went on sight seeing that saw us visiting important tourist spots in Abuja.
As expected, our last day in class was an emotional one. While we practiced for the reading of our works at the closing ceremony scheduled for the next day, our hearts ached from the impending goodbyes.

In emotionally charged voices, Maddie and Tsitsi bade us farewell and reminded us to put what we had learnt to good use. They told us that they were waiting for us at the top and that we should never forget when we finally arrive, that the real journey began with Fidelity Bank. Of course I don’t know about the new friends I had made at the workshop but I know that I will never forget Fidelity Bank, writer or not.


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