Literary Discourse: The importance of time and solitude in matters literary

A pace of writerly solitude in Venice, Italy. [PHOTOS: SHARON ONTITA]

By Tony Mochama

On a cold Tuesday in Venice, on a street called the Fondamenta Ponte de la Crea, (the fundamental point of creation), I sat with the laptop doing this piece.

The sky was gunmetal grey, the wind brisk (the type that nibbles one’s bones with brittle little teeth), and the colour of the canal water a rich green, thanks to algae. To warm the fingers, I drank a glass of Prosecco wine, which made me think of ineffectual ICC prosecutors like Fatou Bensouda, as I watched folks crisscross the carpet of little bridges at the end of the street.

Parked gondolas bobbed, then galloped on the spot, in the water.

unbridgable chasm

Trasportos (river boats) transporting things over this city on water, passing Aligulae boats and vaporettos (water buses) ferrying excited tourists made their rounds.

And my mind moved away from Kenyan politics, in which we are now at an unbridgeable chasm, as an urge to write naturalistic poetry gripped me.

I have always scorned the naturalists as “rustic romantics”, artists better suited to the palette and canvas than to the dark and philosophical art of true poetry. My triggers are seldom naturalistic.

Often, they are mechanical (I rise to the occasion), or else organic — I read poetry and enter ‘The Zone’ ( Yes, there really is such a demoni)!

More creativity

But alone in Venezia, at least for the first and last week of my month-long stay, I have come to forgive naturalists, and embrace the poets and writers given to solitude, being a rather ebullient if eccentric figure myself (or so I have been told)!

“Far from the madding crowds ignoble strife,” quote the poet, and far from noisy Nairobi, it is true that poetry flowed from the pen like a raging flood in Budalangi. So, I asked myself, why more creativity here than there?

First, far from Nairobi, there are no buddies calling one up for Budweisers (okay, Tuskers). Looking back a month ago, on April 5, a couple of days after checking into Venice, my journal read like this: “ Got up at dawn, had a pizza and Heineken, broke in my new writing desk at my new part-time residence, put reading lamp on, read the last half of my book, Venice is a fish (that I fell asleep reading last night) ... Then I got into the meat of adapting my short story, August First, into a film script, until noon.

“Went out, bought cheeseburgers and a bottle of cheap wine at the supermarket, did more adaptation writing until 5pm, then went out for a long two-hour walk in the island town of Venezia. At 7pm, returned to my residence, had a sandwich, and soda water vodka. There is no TV, so I read lit stuff until I drifted off to sleep at about 10pm...”

Create time

Now picture one in Nairobi, waking up, preparing the children for school, being at the office from 8am to 5pm, pub, home, children’s homework, watching TV news to see if someone killed Mutula Kilonzo, X, Y, Z. When will that writer ever get down to the actual writing?

The trick, methinks, is to wake up an hour or two earlier, say 4am, and steal an hour or two. As an early bird, it has worked for this writer. But, hey, if you are a night owl like Obama, who used to write The Audacity of Hope between 11 pm and 1am, after campaigning all day, be my guest.

My point is that the time and solitude have to be somehow carved and cut out of the great fabric of Einstein’s space-time.

Otherwise, there is little use whispering to friends of the ‘great ideas in the head’, or waiting to ‘write after retirement’. (Psst: It seldom happens, most folk then just reminisce on the ‘good ole days’ and then die, leaving journalists to write obituaries along the lines of ‘he took his secrets with him to the grave’.

Tony Mochama was the writer-in-residence for the month of April at the Ca Foscari University of Venice, Italy.