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The doctor who became a writer

Maria

 

MariaMaria Phalima, author of Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away is one of five authors who made it on to the 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton. The award is given annually for a book that demonstrates “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

You’ve just been nominated for the Sunday Times Alan Paton award and your second book was recently published. Both are, to some degree, memoir. Tell us about them.

Postmortem – The Doctor Who Walked Away is about my journey through medicine – why I chose to study medicine in the first place, my experiences of working in the public health system, and the reasons I chose to walk away from the profession. I wrote this book because I wanted to fully understand the reasons behind my life-changing decision. I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision; throughwriting the book I wanted to interrogate that decision and to finally put that chapter of my life behind me.

My second book, Second Chances, is a novel for teens. It isn’t intended as a memoir, but of course it does draw on my life experiences to a certain degree. It’s about a young girl from Soweto who wants to be a doctor, but finds many obstacles in her way – poverty, peer pressure, HIV, sugar daddies. She has to navigate these obstacles and keep her eye on the prize. I wrote the novel because I wanted young people from difficult circumstances to know that their immediate environment needn’t limit their dreams. (Second Chances was the English category winner of the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award in 2013).

The theme running through both books is one of overcoming challenges and trying again. I strongly believe that life always gives us a second chance, as long as we are willing to grasp it and make the most of the opportunity.

You identify now as a writer, rather than as a doctor. It’s a middle class parent’s nightmare: “If you want to get ahead in the world, become a doctor or a lawyer. If you want to be an actor or a writer you’re never going to get anywhere.” How do you interpret that fear, how did your parents react to your career change and what will you tell your children when they start thinking about what they want to be one day?

We all want the best for our children; I understand that clearly now that I’m a parent. I imagine my mother was concerned about my decision, though she never expressed it. She was very supportive; she wanted me to do well in whatever field I chose.

Through my drastic career change I see that our work is not so much about the pieces of paper we acquire; it’s more about the gifts we express and how these gifts can positively impact other people. So my children are free to choose whatever career they feel will best enable them to serve others and live a fulfilling life. And I think it’s also important for them to realise that their careers will evolve as they grow and mature. What works in their 20s and 30s may not serve them as well in their 40s.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival recently you told Grade 11 learners that you’d been a reader as a child and that it made you realise what the possibilities were for you in the world. How did you become a reader?

I read to escape the reality of my home environment, and in so doing I found out that the world was far bigger than what I was seeing around me. I was fortunate that I attended a private school with a well-stocked library, so I had plenty of choice. Also my mother worked in education and she often brought home books from the African Writers Series.

Reading is vital for young people – for people of all ages, actually. It’s a form of personal development. I think young people should read whatever they find interesting and relevant to their lives. We as adults can do a lot to encourage them by reading to them when they are little, and by setting an example by also being avid readers. When children realise that there is a whole universe inside the pages of their books, they will want to explore it.

Do you think enough books are being published in South Africa that reflect a reality children and teenagers can relate to?

The majority of young people in this country face huge challenges in their communities, and often they have no way of processing what is going on around them. I think books which speak to these challenges in a way that is accessible to them – and enjoyable to read – can do a lot, to not only encourage them to read but also to impart knowledge and empowering perspectives. Young people need to be able to see themselves in what they read, so I think it’s vitally important that more books are written and published which black youths can identify with.

Medicine is about healing. Can books and literature be about healing?

Absolutely. Writing Postmortem was a cathartic experience for me, and I know from the feedback I’ve had from many doctors that it has helped them to see that they are not alone in their struggles within our health system.

I went into medicine because I wanted to heal others. I realise now that, through my writing, I am continuing on my path as a healer.

  • This Q & A first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2015

Can happy make you money?

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Andrew Bradley

Andrew Bradley knows money. His long career in the wealth and investment industry proves that. But in How Much Is Enough? he and his co-authors reveal the side of money that seldom gets discussed: the emotional side. Karin Schimke interviewed him.

Hearing you speak and reading your book, I got the impression that you became interested in psychology only after many years as a financial adviser. Is this correct, or had you always had an interest in psychology?

I was always a people watcher and was fascinated with how people behaved and conducted themselves – even as a young boy. However, only much later, after many years of being a financial adviser and then working with and guiding other financial advisers, did I realise that all this behaviour had a psychological basis. This has led me to informally study and read extensively in the field.

Psychology and emotions are often taboo subjects in the corporate and financial worlds. I suppose I remain under the impression that in certain sectors of society talking about how things make you feel is a sign of weakness. Is that erroneous? And if not, do you think there’s a chance this is changing any time soon?

I agree. Psychology and emotions have always been viewed as something to avoid at work. However, things are changing fast in corporates as organisations grapple to compete in the market place for quality employees. Today’s employees want to be engaged and inspired so they can connect with the company’s purpose and link this with their purpose. If they do not connect they will move to where they get this. We all have ‘life issues’ and behavioural biases and we cannot ignore them.

They are not weaknesses but strengths – if we can understand them and harness them.

What we are talking about in the book is more about understanding these dynamics in our consumer/client base. In my opinion if organisations do not get in tune with this and connect with their clients they will not thrive. In fact they will struggle to survive – certainly in the financial services segment. This is a challenge in this segment as we are not naturally endowed with skills.

Our clients are not looking for a transaction. They are looking for a relationship. So a focus on these dynamics is critical – not taboo.

This book is clearly the product of a journey of research. What were the absolute “a-ha” moments for you? What really struck you about the research you were doing? And did any of your a-ha moments resonate on a personal level?

There were a number of a-ha moments that resonated with me. These include:

 Investment markets perform well but most investors fail over time

 Behavioural biases are the primary cause of wealth-destroying behaviour

 Money does not bring happiness. Happiness generally brings money

 Happy people are better investors than unhappy people

 It is possible to significantly enhance your happiness with conscious awareness and behaviour. Based on these learning I have made a number of changes to my approach, with good results – not least of these is a happier relationship with my wife.

 It is possible to prevent wealth-destroying behaviour, just like it is possible to change behaviour regarding exercise and eating habits. Yes, this takes effort but the results are significant.

 We can help our children improve their happiness and set them up to live a happy and meaningful life. We can also help them to understand how to create wealth for themselves. Personally, I was trying to teach my kids about money, but I realised that I was going about it the wrong way. The result was that it was having the opposite effect. I have now changed my behaviour.

You embarked on this research because you were puzzled by something that you’d been seeing in your business for years – something that wasn’t clear to you. What was this puzzle?

Investment markets were performing well over time. All the information to capture this in investment portfolios was available. Only some investment managers and investors were making use of this. Many were taking bets against the market to try and beat it rather than optimise it. Those that take bets against the market generally do not beat the system. This results in unnecessary losses.

In addition to this, most of the investors we came across in these portfolios were also trying to second guess what was happening and trying to outsmart the investment managers – and failing.

For our clients we discovered that our biggest challenge was for them to stick to their plans after we helped them put them in place. This specifically occurred when investment markets were either performing very well or going through a slump – these were the times when they felt the need to second guess their decisions.

Why was this all happening? Our conclusion – bad human behaviour. Our hard wiring from generations of survival behaviour means that we try and follow the crowd. In investments the opposite is usually required.

You and your fellow writers show very clearly that money is not a “neutral” tender, but a highly emotional one. What, in your experience, are the most common emotions around money and which of these are most destructive?

Yes, it is emotional. In our society money is largely and unfortunately seen as a reflection of self worth – when it should not be. Money is also the means to live the life we desire to live.

The most common behaviours that can and do destroy wealth are:

 Getting the short-term and long-term trade-offs wrong

 Not coming to terms with the trade-off of the tangible versus the intangible

 Uncertainty and lack of control

 Using price as a proxy for quality

 Living for the day

 Peer pressure and status

 Loss aversion and particularly myopic loss aversion

 Rules of thumb, saliency, and over-confidence

What do you think is an appropriate and useful emotion towards or response to the concept of “money”?

Money is not the end itself, but a means to an end. Knowing the life you want to live that will bring you happiness is the most important start. How can you achieve that in the most efficient manner? This includes trying to win the hedonic arbitrage war – how to you get more happiness for the same money (or same happiness for less money). As an example if you have R100 to spend what will bring you the most happiness? Spending the day on the beach with your family or going to the mall to buy something. Understanding the difference between a need and a want is a helpful guide as well.

And finally, is it that achievable? Can people really change their attitudes towards money in time increase their wealth?

Yes. Absolutely. Just like many people have successfully changed their health and fitness habits/behaviours, you can do that with your wealth behaviours. We have seen many examples of where clients have made very meaningful changes that have had positive results.

FEATURE: Big on books in a tiny Karoo town

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BookBedonnerd in Richmond

Dawn Garisch visits Richmond for the BookBedonnerd Festival and comes away enchanted.

Richmond? A Book Town?

You might well ask. We’re talking Great Karoo. We’re talking about the kind of town that boasts many second-hand book shops and literary events. The most famous book town is Hay-on-Wye in Wales, but they exist all over the world – there are 27 listed on Wikipaedia.

Peter Baker and Darryl Davids

A few months ago a man called Darryl David contacted me and asked me to participate in one of the book festivals. I was vaguely aware of a town in SA called Richmond (there are two), but I was oblivious as to what is happening there. I agreed, and have just returned from a fascinating adventure.

Darryl describes himself as a threatened species – an Afrikaans lecturer at a university. We all have our passions outside work, but Darryl’s vision to start a book town in SA evolved from his doctoral thesis on literary tourism in the Karoo. Many of our most famous writers were either born in the Karoo, or lived there, and the landscape forms a backdrop to many works of fiction and non-fiction.

It took Darryl 6 years to find the right town. Many municipalities that he approached turned the idea down, saying they already had an identity built around wine or star-gazing or heritage. But Richmond is a place no-one had a reason to stop, unless they wanted to pee or to visit one of the many sites of battle in the Anglo-Boer war.

Book town Richmond has been going for eight years, against all odds. Although it is fairly central, it is also a whole day’s journey to get there from most major cities. The location is attractive, nestling as the town does between hills, but much of the town needs maintenance and the river is canalised.

To address the run-down aspects of the town, Darryl has come up with the idea of a picture book town, and has persuaded several artists to travel to the town to paint impressive murals which lend a further quirky edge to the experience of visiting.

The Bookbedonnerd festival itself is unlike any other festival I have been to. It is not supported by publishers. There are no parallel sessions, and the printed programme is very rudimentary, with little information about either the speakers, or what they are going to talk about. Set menu, rather than à la carte. Only about 50 to 70 people are packed into an air-conditioned library venue for each talk. Yet I met visitors who had been coming back to the festival every year because they enjoy it so much. Despite its location and small size, the festival has attracted some big names: Patrick Mynhardt, Ahmed Kathrada, David Kramer, Deon Meyer, Antjie Krog, Etienne van Heerden, Mongane Wally Serote, Albie Sachs, Eben Venter, Jonty Driver.

I arrived thinking that I would skip many items on the agenda, yet found myself staying for most, intrigued and stimulated by the diversity. One of the things that impressed me was that several of the speakers had gone the independent publishing route, because mainstream publishers had rejected their manuscripts on the grounds that the subject matter was too niche. As Darryl himself has co-authored two important volumes on the churches of SA with Philippe Menache, he is not snobbish about self-publishing. He hunts out authors who have put their passions down onto the page, and we are the richer for this.

I listened to talks as diverse as the stone bridges of the Eastern Cape, memoirs of a vet, the letters of Olive Schreiner, motivational texts on how to live more generously and less fearfully, and poetry of exile, and of belonging.

Art exhibitions were running concurrently, which included works by prominent SA artists, and there was a musical event each evening.

I sold my own books, and bought a pile of both new publications from my fellow speakers, and second-hand books from the six shops on main road for my already overloaded shelves back home. I met the most interesting and eccentric people on the stoep of the local restaurant and pub, and participated in an experiment that has proved its staying power as a destination for bibliophiles.

If you are travelling on the N1, I highly recommend stopping off at Richmond to browse through the well-stocked second hand book shops. I found volumes there that I have not been able to locate in Cape Town.

Even better, treat yourself to one of SA’s richest offerings for literary tourists, and book yourself into Richmond for one of the festivals.

Dawn Garisch is the author of many books, including Eloquent Body (Modjaji, 2012), and Dance With Suitcase (Tiber Tree Press, 2013).

Learning to read comics

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All I know about comics is why I’ve never liked them. They’re so full of visual information  they make my eyes judder in their sockets. Complete overload. Until recently, I felt so overwhelmed by them that I couldn’t muster the energy required for the combination of verbal and visual decoding they require.

I asked Willem Samuel, author of Mengelmoes, to help me understand that allure of comics.mengelmoescover

Is “graphic novel” just a fancy way to say “comic” – is it intended to edify the concept beyond the perhaps “trashy” throw-away idea conjured by the word “comics”?

The use of the term graphic novel is an attempt to defuse the prevailing idea that comics are, like you said, trashy, cheap and only for children.  Heading into the 80’s, comics with much more serious and adult content emerged, and they demanded recognition. Comics like Maus, The Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns forced people to rethink their ideas about what comics were and what kind of stories and subjects the medium was able to handle.

I personally sometimes shy away from using the word graphic novel, because it has a bit of a highbrow whiff to it. To tell people I am a graphic novelist sounds very pompous to me. But then again, people at least understand what I mean. When I say I am comic artist people either assume that I am a cartoonist (like Zapiro, and yes, there is a difference between what he does and what I do) or worse, that I am a stand up comedian. The word comic intrinsically implies that something is funny  and that it should be taken lightly. You can understand why people seek different terminology. “Comics” are simply an inadequate name for sequential art and is descriptive of only a very small part of the whole, yet it seems to have stuck for now.

Lately, I just tell people that I’m a writer, so that I don’t get weird requests like, “Tell me a joke,” but rather, “What do you write about?” The fact that I use visuals to tell my stories is only a matter of style, really.

Do you have to be “trained” into graphic novels – as I clearly was not – and be exposed from a young age to “get” them?

You need to know what is out there and to discover what suits you as a reader. Comics are just like books in that there are certain genres, styles and writers, and some appeal to you and others don’t. There are comics for kids and some for grownups. Some artists and writers you have to “get into” and others you learn to appreciate over time, and the more you read the better – exactly the same with books. So yes, in a way you have to be trained – but there’s nothing you have to “get.” If someone tells you they don’t “get” books, you would simply think that this person needs some help getting introduced, and not because there is an intrinsic problem to books.

Can graphic novels be considered literature?

MausSince Maus won the Pulitzer prize, I think the debate has been settled, for those who want to still argue that point. For me that question implies that comics have to prove themselves as a serious literary medium and that comics are inherently inferior. It’s the same as when people ask whether comics are art.

Those questions are irrelevant. Comics have to be considered seriously, without having to attach themselves to some higher, more elevated medium. The problem is not that people don’t consider comics to be literature, but that they don’t consider comics at all.

(Willem opted to answer the next two questions together.)

Apart from the obvious, how are graphic novels different to novels without pictures? My judgment  has always been that they must, of necessity, be more superficial in theme, because there are  fewer words. But I realise that this probably has to do with my preference for the verbal over the visual.

What, in a graphic novel, is more important: the words or the pictures? I don’t really understand how they’re supposed to work together. Please explain the relationship as best you can.

Comparing comics to movies would be a lot more constructive than trying to compare comics to novels. As with movies, comics mix a combination of many disciplines into one. You need relatable characters, a good plot and a story line. You need engaging visuals and special effects. You have to set the mood and pick your angles. As a comic writer, you are the director, the set builder, the writer and the camera operator. Any decent comic is not just pictures with words added – it’s a visual journey where art, script, speech bubbles and frames all work together to form a singular experience.

And as with movies, not all comics are action films. There are documentaries, comedy, satire, noir, horror, and yes, even philosophy.

With regards to letters vs pictures: Remember, that letters are essentially pictures, and that when you read, you are deriving meaning from these pictures, or symbols – depending on how they are ordered. Reading a comic page is no different, as you would read each picture after another and, in your mind, start to combine them to form a story. The idea of words vs. pictures becomes arbitrary in comics, because just as you would read the number nine, for instance, you would “read” a happy face, or “read” a character’s body language. There are plenty of comics with no text, but that does not mean the reader is simply “looking” at the pictures one by one: the reader is reading the frames in order, which reveals a story.

How do you know if graphic novel can be considered good? Let’s imagine I’m in a book shop and I see one and I have no external points of reference, no reviews, no Google on hand to guide me. What should I be looking at?

Again…treat it like you would a book. How would you buy a book in a store? If you truly knew nothing about books, I guess you would have a tough time… and probably go to the comics section. That’s what I do.

A mistake I frequently make is to buy a comic book on the basis of the artwork – because great art means nothing if the story is trite and, in the end, the art also loses it’s appeal. But I have started reading comics where I thought the art was okay, and then the art really grew on me because the story was so awesome. So, comics are all about reader experience. Does it flow? Does in engage you? Would you like to know more? So, read page one. If you feel like reading page two, then read that also, and when you feel like you don’t want to stop, then you can buy it. The end is no guarantee, but that’s the way with all books.

There is no  hidden secret to finding good comics – although comic shops are notoriously unfriendly and having everything wrapped in plastic makes for a very frustrating browsing experience – so I’m not sure if the industry is helping itself. But mostly I discover the best comics via friends.

I doubt I’m going to make up for the holes in my graphic novel education by reading Astrix and Tintin (frankly – though I know that you and a host of other people will probably want to beat me over the head with a handful of comics when I say this –  I find them a bit silly). Where do you recommend I go next with my newly awakened hunger?

Yes, you will get beaten over the head, just like people who say that classical music is boring or that they can draw better than Picasso.

I think you expect Tintin to be something that it isn’t. Just because a comic is considered great, will not mean that you will get the same thrills from it as when you read a novel. Comics provide a different experience, and that is also why I’m trying to undermine the comparison to literature, because you cannot trade your books for comics. Comics need their own special time and place, and hopefully a bookshelf too.

Will Eisner (one of the earliest cartoonists to work in the American comic book industry) said that he preferrred his comics in black and white, because they read much more like text. Colours, for him, were just distracting. So, I would suggest you start with comics that are simply drawn, with good stories. But first, in order to educate yourself, you must read:

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Jerusalem by Guy Delisle

Blankets by Craig Thompson

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman 

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (This one was taxing, but it’s fantastically illustrated and very, very sad.) 

TOP TEN SOUTH AFRICAN BOOKS 2013

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TOP TEN BOOKS 2013

By Karin Schimke

There are a great many contenders each year, but here’s my pick for The Star’s Top Ten Books of 2013. Sheesh, what challenge to narrow it down.

 

 

Categories of Persons: Rethinking Ourselves and Others

Edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini

Picador Africa

These nine engrossing essays grasp way beyond stereotype towards richer understandings of what it means to be South African. In lucid prose, each essay reveals the intimate politics of body, language or role. Outstanding writing and exciting slant-wise thought on the absurdity and inefficiency of simple identity markers.

Endings and Beginnings

Redi Tlhabi

Jacana

The rigorous and unflinching story Tlhabi’s childhood and of her friend Mabegzo – who started well but went down in flames – is driven by truth not ego. It’s savagely intense and moral without being preachy.

The Spiral House

Claire Robertson

Umuzi

Archaic language makes it difficult to get into this book with its two intertwined narratives in across two centuries, but the rewards are manifold. Complex and rich with experience and sensation.

Wolf Wolf

Eben Venter

Tafelberg

A harrowing book with a shocking sting in the tail, Wolf Wolf tells the story of a young gay man looking after his dying father. Masterful tale about people losing control.

From Quantum to Cosmos: The Universe Within

Neil Turok

Faber and Faber

This SA-trained scientist weaves personal experiences and thinking into a wide-ranging tour through science’s history and philosophy, presenting thrilling ideas plainly but lucidly.

Zebra Crossing

Meg Vandermerwe

Umuzi

An albino teenaged orphan and her brother flee Zimbabwe for Cape Town. There are no clichés in this kaledeiscopic debut about the life of immigrants on the fringes of society.

False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

This story of lefty Afrikaans farm kids making their troubled way into adulthood is lyrical and memorable. Poignant, funny and richly poetic, it’s not just another South African farm story.

My children have faces

Carol Campbell

Umuzi

The Karoo gypsies – known as karretjiemense – are given faces in this debut novel full of intrigue and drama. Fast-paced and filled with romance, tenderness, jealousy and revenge.

The Imagined Child

Jo-Anne Richards

Picador Africa

A jaded city woman seeks a fresh start in a small town in this gently humorous story, which explores parenthood, secrets, guilt and fear. Increasing suspense makes it absorbing.

Penumbra

Songeziwe Mahlangu

Kwela

This astonishing debut explores modern urban life and its attendant dangers for a young graduate with a cushy first job. It calls to mind the work of K. Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe.

LAST YEAR: 1.The Big Stick 2. The Garden of Evening Mists 3. My Father, My Monster 4. The Hungry Season 5. The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods 6. The Long Way Home 7. This Book Betrays My Father 8. Eloquent Body 9. Biko 10. Absent Tongues

 

COLUMN: The elastic essay

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By Karin Schimke

No doubt, the first time you heard the word “essay” it was at school and, to varying degrees of discomfort, it was a part of the arsenal required for you to pass high school.

Learning a word at school often augurs badly for the concept it shorthands. Although I didn’t have a horror of writing essays – my fears were confined to things mathematical – I didn’t realise until very late in life, that essays are deeply satisfying way to spend reading time, on top of being an amusing way to learn new ways of looking. For the essay – though many things – has very special powers of observation, afforded it by its elastic form, and its tolerance of both heart and head in its discursions.

An essay is nothing at all like the things you had to do at school. And if you haven’t read Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Christopher Hichens, David Sedaris, Siri Hustvedt, David Wallace Foster, Joan Didion and Dave Eggers, then you won’t know just how different the two types of “essay” are.sarah-bakewell

Oh, and Montaigne, of course. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. Not, I admit, that I have read Montaigne’s essays, but I am currently reading a book by Sarah Bakewell called How To Live. It is a biography of Montaigne, but approached by looking at the questions he asked and the answers he explored.

“Explored” – not “found”. Because an essay exists to discover, not to decree. Bakewell says Montaigne’s essays “have no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you: you can do as you please with it.” Though some might find this too inconclusive, too fuzzy, his essays were a bestseller in his time and continue to be read 400 years later.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne is considered the father of the essay because that’s what he called his work – a kind of writing that had not been seen before. The word “essay” means “to try”. He was trying a new kind of writing – and the writing was trying to find answers.

He and the talented, amusing, engaging writers I mentioned above, are able to move from the particular to the universal, and from the personal to the political, with fluidity and panache. They are able to “look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description”, as one observer put it. What I like is how they hook into the world from a purely personal point of view, but manage – mostly – to avoid solipsism. They are a part of the world, but engage a third eye, a way of linking the self to the political, social and historical Zeitgeist. They make no pretense of it either – they do not try to hide behind a mask of objectivity. They often place themselves centrally and, from there, wander questioningly over much wider ground.

I like that essays are often inconclusive, ambivalent and tentative. They steer away from the absolutism that pervades public discourse. They give body to the poet Walt Whitman’s words: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes)”.

The paeditrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said that tolerating ambivalence was a sign of emotional maturity. Essays require the reader to get comfortable with ambivalence.

In return they inform through close observation, and close observation very often has the effect of exposing the humour or absurdity in things. Essays do not alienate by doling out wisdom from lofty positions, but engage the reader in observing peculiarity, particularity and in, ultimately, discovering personal meaning.

Essays show us “how to live”: inquisitively, questioningly – and tolerant of life’s infinite shades of being. – Schimke is a poet, a journalist and a the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2013
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

Against the fading of handwriting

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The writing on the wall is cursive

There are states in the US that are abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting.

Never mind that learning cursive writing in Grade 3 is a rite of passage, something that turns us from “little kids” into those who can decipher scrawled notes in adult hand.

IMG_2595Never mind that in order to learn to make your pen glide smoothly over the page, you have to develop fine motor skills that print writing does not develop – the very motor skills that are needed by surgeons, scientists and computer technicians.

Never mind that cursive writing develops spatial skills which cannot be replicated by those you learn in computer games.

Never mind that hand, pen and paper work in an alchemy which has proven to increase your ability to recall information.

Cursive handwriting was invented so that we can write faster. We need to write fast because of the speed at which thoughts form. Poor handwriting slows you down and you can’t keep up with your mind’s attempt to have a thought, form it into a sentence and remember it long enough to write it down.

But never mind that children are being denied the complexity of thought that cannot be simulated by the mechanical tapping of fingers on keys.

Never mind the loss of the aesthetics of beautiful handwriting.

Future generations will lose the ability to write in cursive, cursive will become arcane, the territory of specialist ability, but it is none of those other things about the loss of cursive that I mourn. It is the loss of individuality.

What, I beg of you, is more conformist than type? Than Calibri, Verdana and Times New Roman, Arial and Helvetica? Indeed, they make our lives easier, make teachers’ lives easier, that’s for sure. But they can never replace the exclusive, exceptional beauty of the unique individuality of ink that loops across a page written in the style of a single incomparable human being.

Apart from your fingerprint, or your DNA – both of which must attest to your individuality as a human quietly and behind the scenes – your handwriting is the only real mark you can leave on your every day that proves to you that you are not like the rest.

In these states in the US where they are abandoning the teaching of cursive, they are doing so in order to concentrate on keyboarding.

I spent five years in total at university and in all that time the skill I am most aware of daily, the one that makes my practical life so much easier, is the ability to touch type. I am all for the skill of keyboarding. It’s essential. In fact, when I see people bent over the keyboards with their eyes on their fingers, which are pecking away laboriously only as fast as their eyes can locate individual letters and numbers, the inefficiency of their work method pains me. Keyboarding is an essential skill.

But to learn it instead of cursive writing? Isn’t that retrogression? Isn’t the point of life going forwards, learning more, being cleverer than our parents and twice as clever as our great-great grandparents? Isn’t that evolution? Is it not then counter-intuitive to decide to learn less? To trade one necessary skill – and I have already made the point that cursive is necessary – for another?

Society needs its intellectuals, thinkers, planners, designers as much as it needs its road builders and plumbers, its merchandisers and receptionists, its managers, accountants and dentists.

The hallmarks of intellectualism and creativity are a refusal to accept mainstream thought. What does cursive writing have to do with that? It has to do with an assertion of your very simple “own-ness”.

On top of which, if you want to be a writer, your hand, a good pen, and that Egyptian gift that keeps on giving – paper – are going to be your anchors, your roots, your steering wheels, your gears and your GPS whenever you paint yourself into intellectual corners, reach what feels like the end of your creative and emotional tether, or want to scream in frustration and rage at the world without anyone hearing. Writing is a life mapped, a font – and I use the word in both senses of its meaning – of thought.

The world wants good communicators, clear thinkers, idea makers. Nothing puts you in a better position to be all of those things – across any career you can possibly think of – than the ability to express yourself clearly in writing. Being a good writer does not mean that your career is limited to writing. Good writing is an indication that there is a sharp, enquiring mind behind the printed words. That even though the writers do not have the answers, they know the questions to ask.

That they are able to work out problems using words. Not just the not insignificant problems of plotting, style, rhythm, word choice, but how to imagine the lives of other people or other beings. The ability to see through the small dramas of daily life to what the emotional drivers are that set events in motion. To be able to express the universal longing or the bonds we human animals form with the natural world.Or to bravely question the very nature of god.

Writers have the gift of being able to spread the threads of humanity between us, to think about the problems that face our society and write new blueprints.

Separate letters on a page might form a picture, even meaning, but cursive joins the letters in new and interesting and beautiful ways. Humans are linked in a sort of cursive of universality by the ability to communicate authentically, clearly and empathically.

Writers are not soldiers of conformity. We should resist pressure to make life easier by reading abridged versions, or summaries – or by learning to type instead of writing cursive.

Schimke is a freelance writer, poet and columnist and the editor of the Cape Times books pages. This is an extract from a speech delivered at the launch of English Alive, the literary magazine for South African school students.

This piece first appeared in the Cape Times. Read the full piece here