April 5, 2010

In My Own Words: Garfield Ellis

I Shall Write

In January 1984 I wrote my future with the following entry in my diary:

I think I have come to an important decision in my life--I am going to write. I always thought of my engineering career as a stepping-stone and a foundation to fall back on – writing is now the horizon to which I march.

Looking at this now, after nearly twenty years, I am amazed that I could have been so bold.

It is a very difficult thing to want to be a writer in Jamaica; especially if you want to be great. It seems pretentious and ridiculously vain, a head-in the-air, pie-in-the-sky type of folly. Writing is not for poor people. It is for those of a lighter cast, white people, rich people, foreign people, but not people like me--ordinary people--for whom just growing up is a struggle. Besides, it is not something that you share with your friends. I knew no writers. There was no one to discuss it with. There was no precedent in my community, not for writing, not for any kind of success. Those who succeed, leave.

And yet it confirms to me that as melodramatic as it may sound, we write our own destiny. The moment I wrote that down and convinced myself of what I wanted to be and how I was going to do it, events were set in motion that would get me to where I wanted to go irrespective of the poverty in which I lived.

So I have taken it upon myself to be a writer, not a popular love or sex-on-the-beach writer, but a serious writer. Not obtrusively academic, but popularizing the archives of the Caribbean people with quality work. I longed to read stories about me and my people. No one was writing them, so I would. That was that. These stories must be told and Jamaicans will read them if they can identify with them. And whether or not they read them, still, the stories must be told and that is my calling.

And every story I write--no matter how short or how long it is--every story I write, I stop halfway through and question my sanity and whether anyone will want to read it. Or I ask myself why should anyone want to read it, or who do I think I am to assume this mighty role. Whatever…it consumes me and I cannot but do it.

Apart from my sense of mission, it is the writing that I love--the putting down of the words on the page--the shaping of thoughts to make them sing. I remember once writing a good line and leaving it to run around my housing scheme, jumping up and down as if I had won the lottery. And secondly I love to read it. Sometimes I write conscious of the rhythms of delivery--of the words resonating and dancing through my head. But still there is nothing to me like putting my heart on the page. It is this love, this passion that drives me.

Sometimes making a living gets so intense I have to leave the writing for a while. To get back to routine takes days of solitude. I used to feel guilty about these binges of empty days when I would go home from Thursday and not surface till Monday--sending my son to his mother and not taking any phone calls or talking to a soul.

But as I have grown, I have learned that these days of doing nothing are the most critical stage to my writing. They are the days when my mind is being prepared. When it is being emptied, like a field being cleared. By day two there is nothing on it and the soil is being tilled. By day three I am entering a stage, almost trance-like, when everything I see seems to be related to the story I am working on: a line from a movie; a headline in the daily papers or something flashing through my mind while walking or driving. (Long walks and movies are also acceptable during this time--but alone--no dates, no friends, just me.) By the night of day three or mid-day four, I am there and things start to emerge and flower and I am at the place and the story is before me refreshed. The ideas are clear and there is new life.

I start Thursday and I usually begin writing around Saturday night. By Sunday I am in full flow and in the place where I can begin the daily routine again. Now when people call me, I am not afraid to say I am writing, even though technically, I am doing nothing. But doing nothing is sometimes the most critical element of my process of getting back to the place where the words flow.

It is hard to keep going when every stage of the writing has its challenges. Before I was published, rejection slips and the feeling of worthlessness--no money—were my main demotivators. Now that I’m published, it is lack of marketing by the publisher, the booksellers not keeping my books on the shelves or not displaying them well. The fact that I have another profession helps because at the very least, it acts as a source of other rewards.

Sometimes when my writing gets me in the dumps, there have been moments when an incident at work picked me up. But I have to admit, I hate the fact that I have to work because I know if I could write full-time, I would be much more productive and would be much further along in my work.

Every now and then writing smiles on me by sending an award my way. Every now and then a book or story is published and I may get a great write-up.

Fame and riches may come. I don’t know and I don’t dwell on it.

Most of all what keeps me going is the fact that other writers go through the same thing. I have a little book that helps, For Writers Only by Sophy Burnham. It is like a little book of meditation. It has all these gems and anecdotes about some of our greatest writers. And I realize that my sufferings are not as great as some whose names we now mention with reverence. And what I am going through others have gone through, are going through, and will continue to go through as long as there are those who continue to take on this order of the word.

One of my favorite quotes by some great writer from somewhere that I cannot remember is:

I could not have written if I had not lived

And I could not live if I had not written.

As for me, I write because there is nothing else.

About the author:

Garfield Ellis grew up in Jamaica, the eldest of nine children. He studied marine engineering, management and public relations in Jamaica and completed his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Miami, on full scholarship as a James Michener Fellow.

He is a two-time winner of the Una Marson prize for adult literature; in the first instance for his first collection of short stories, Flaming Hearts (pub. 1997), and later for the still unpublished novel, Till I’m Laid To Rest. He has twice won the Canute A. Brodhurst prize for fiction (The Caribbean Writer, University of Virgin Islands) 2000 & 2005 and the 1990 Heinemann/Lifestyle short story competition.

Garfield is the author of four published books: Flaming Hearts , Wake Rasta, Such As I Have, and For Nothing at All. His work has appeared in several international journals, including; Callaloo, Calabash, The Caribbean Writer, and Obsidian III. A fifth book, Till I’m Laid To Rest is due in Spring 2010.



Rockaway Girl said...

Mr. Ellis I could not have articulated so well what you have written so bodly. Thank you! I am also trying my hand at writing nothing as deep or academically challenging as yet, (short stories for now) but I have the same fears and wonder at times if anyone would want to read what I've written, would they feel the same passion I have for the words I put down on paper? At other times, I cannot write a word and have this fear that probably I never will again...but it comes back, sometimes in such abundance I can hardly hide the excitement. I also know the feeling of writing an original line or phrase that fits perfectly and how exciting that can make you feel, except I just keep repeating it my head and smiling, like it's an illicit thought... It's crazy, the life of a writer. I had one or two written articles published on the internet on a J'can site and a friend of mine and a cousin wanted to know if I was getting paid and somehow until they asked, I had never thought about it because, (maybe I am/was being naive)that at the time was not the definition of success for me where writing is concerned and they thought I was being crazy...maybe, and the money would certainly be nice but right now just getting my work out there and testing the waters is much more important. My thanks and gratitude also to Geoffrey Philp's Blog Spot for showcasing this article.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Rockaway Girl,

Give thanks for the comment. I am sure that Garfield will respond.

This is an important topic and I must say again how pleased I am that Garfield wrote this for all of us...

Unknown said...

Rockaway girl, you sound like one who is well on her way. I sense passion and love for the word in your comments. A lot of writing is suffering; as is any act of bringing new life into this world. So the true reward then is in the product; in the offspring; bringing it forth unspoiled and true to itself. As long as you work hard at it, writing will eventually take care of you. The most important thing is that you keep the faith - that you keep on writing. Continuous writing also prepares you for the “anything else question.” Sometimes you have a manuscript and a publisher may like the writing but not the story. Then they will ask and they always do; “Do you have anything else?” the answer to this question may decide your future as a writer. So keep on writing . . . Love Garfield

Joanne C. Hillhouse said...

Well said. You speak the truth about this journey we're on; and, yes, it's nice to be reminded that solitary as it is, we are not alone.