Conflict and Form: Giving Shape to Your Writing
Part 1: Giving Shape to One’s Universe
I wrote most of my first novel, Waiting for an Angel, in Lagos, Nigeria, and if you have been to Lagos the fractured, discontinuous style of the narration would make sense to you immediately. Lagos in the 1990s, under the military dictatorship, was a large, sprawling suburb of hell – this is not an exaggeration. There were dead bodies lying for days by the roadside; there were traffic jams that went on for hours trapping you in old, overcrowded molue buses, pinned between sweaty bodies as you hung on to the top railing for balance with one hand and with the other hand you held on tightly to your wallet. Do I need to mention that when you finally got home from work, sometimes around 9 pm, it was guaranteed that there would be no electricity? In my particular neighbourhood of Ketu we had had no power for months, at exactly the time I was writing my novel. Chinua Achebe, asked at a reading to say something about Lagos, said that his only advice to anyone who found himself in Lagos was to get out as soon as he could.
Lagos is a much saner, better organized place now, but this is now and that was then. Living in Lagos then, I found it hopeless to try to write my novel in a linear, continuous way - I just couldn’t see that far into the future. Every day had to be lived fully, to be brought to a closure because there was no guarantee it wouldn’t be the last day. So I wrote my book as a series of autonomous but structurally and thematically linked short stories; each story was also a chapter in the novel. Writing mostly at night by candle light, I wrote each self-contained chapter as quickly as I could, putting yet one more day and one more chapter to bed, and going to bed myself at three or four in the morning with a sense of achievement, a sense of closure. At least for that day. I am not saying that each story in the book took exactly a day to write, but each took a bearably shorter time to write than a novel would. Years later, after my book was published, reviewers and critics would often comment about my deliberate use of fragmented narrative style as a tool for capturing the urban chaos that was Lagos, and Nigeria, in the 1990s. A style described as ‘typically postcolonial’ or ‘postmodern’. As if I had sat down in a state of Wordsworthian tranquility or visited an arty coffee house and decided to structure my book like I did. All I wanted was to finish my book as painlessly as possible.
Form, which at a basic level can be described as the structuring of narrative, or, as Edith Wharton puts it in her succinct style in The Writing of Fiction, ‘the order in time and importance, in which the incidents of the narrative are grouped’, can be circumstantial, dependent on the time, place, or situation the author happens to be in when he or she is writing the book. If I had written my novel in Bauchi, where I used to live before moving to Lagos, and where life is more tranquil and more predictable, it is doubtful whether the book would have ended up in the form it is in now. Certainly Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and her other Stream of Consciousness novels couldn’t have been written before World War I, or set anywhere else but in post WW I London. A modernist novel can’t be written before the advent of modernity. Art, and most especially the novel, is always a product of its time and place. The omniscient, minutely detailed and linear style of the Victorians was a reflection of their worldview, their simple, agrarian life style. I call these the external or even accidental influences that do sometimes determine the form or shape of a novel. They are presences hovering by the writing table, guiding your hand, and most of the time you are powerless against them.
This is especially true with earlier works, when the writer isn’t yet skilled enough to be intentional, to force his design on his work regardless of the situation. Often, sitting in my room, writing, I felt as if only the circumference described by my candle light existed, while the real world, everything outside that was shadows. There was a feeling of blind terror, for I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I wrote by instinct, without thinking too much. A lot of writing coaches do encourage this kind of writing, especially for the first draft. Write, they tell you, just get everything down on paper. Don’t think. This is good advice, especially with longer pieces, like a novel. I felt my way through my characters and my instinct for conflict; I let character interact with character, always making sure not to resolve conflicts too soon, delaying, always delaying the payoff moment. But gradually the circumference of light expanded as each character developed. Perhaps it helped that I didn’t sit down to write with a lot of answers, but with questions. In a way writing a novel is about articulating for oneself what one already senses through experience and instinct, but the truth of which one is still not sure about. In giving shape to a novel one is also giving shape to one’s universe.
But, as much as I acknowledge how much circumstance and the accident of my being in Lagos helped me to get a form for my novel, it is not always that chance and serendipity work to give a book the desired shape. A well written story is an artificial thing, a made thing. Talent and instinct and empathy can only take you so far, and no more. The beauty of the novel is that it gives you the space, within a single story, to evolve and grow, from ignorance to awareness, especially since some novels take years to write. After a few drafts, I knew which chapter had to follow which, and I decided on arranging the stories in reverse chronological order because it strengthened the theme of confusion and uncertainty I was aiming for. The silences and spaces between chapters also worked out well for me as each silent space that surrounds each story seemed to mirror the gaps felt in a country on its knees, a country where information is limited and repressed, where people are beaten for knowing things, where people simply disappear for knowing things. The dead bodies I saw every day by the roadside, well, one of them could be the youth I depict running from a mob and who is bludgeoned and set on fire. Without a history, he appears and dies. We know nothing more. Nabokov said somewhere, there is no reading a book, only re-reading it, in the same way I believe there is no writing a story, only re-writing it. In revision everything becomes clearer.
This is an extract from a longer essay forthcoming in Writing a First Novel edited by Karen Stevens (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
This article was first published in The Star.
Helon Habila is the internationally renowned author of Waiting for an Angel, which won both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. His second novel, Measuring Time, was published in 2007, it won the Virginia Library Foundation Fiction Award, 2008, and was shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, 2008. His third novel, Oil on Water was published in 2010 and was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Orion Book Award.