ON BECOMING A SOPHISTICATED WRITER
My Dear Enwerem Chukwuka:
You are obviously a born writer, an artist. I am not a writer and am not an artist, yet I enjoy reading professionally written books. Your books are professionally written, and I am sure that most people enjoy reading them. People like you who are naturally good at the art of writing, I think, need to expand their base of knowledge so that that knowledge comes across in their writing.
Books that tend to last over centuries, such as William Shakespeare’s Plays (tragedies, comedies and poems), and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in addition to been works of art tend to also portray the level of philosophy extant during the time they were written; in fact, they describe the whole range of human emotions so that the reader feels that the writer not only is a maestro in writing, as you obviously are, but is well informed on human nature, and philosophy in general.
If one reads Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or his Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Merchant of Venice, and his other immortal works one gets the impression that the writer is not only a world class artist but also a thinker, a philosopher; he conveys through his writing knowledge of the state of western philosophy at the time he wrote, Elizabethan era (late 1500s and early 1600s).
Knowledge of philosophy is acquired through studying and reading philosophy. My feeling is that if somehow your books, in addition to their artistry, also tell the reader that you have a good understanding of human nature, philosophy and emotions that folks would cherish them more, and they would last over time.
You do not want to experience Chinua Achebe’s fate. Achebe was a wonderful storyteller; he wrote straight forward narratives, but the reader of his books senses his limited education; he was not trained in philosophy or any rigorous discipline, really. He lacked understanding of psychology; two critical disciplines that help writers put sophisticated ideas into the mouths of their dramatic personae. In Things Fall Apart he made Okonkwo kill the child entrusted to his care, Ikemefuna, thus, telling the world that his people are savages! If he had any kind of psychological understanding, he would have not written that; for one thing, it was not factual, it was mere fiction, for Christ’s sake, and could have been presented differently.
(Achebe had a bachelor’s degree in English from University of Ibadan, and authored his semi-autobiographical novel, Things fall apart at age 28, a great accomplishment for an African of his generation! However, if truth is told, Cyprian Ekwensi was a better writer than Achebe; Achebe’s books had anthropological value, not literary merit! See my reviews of some Ekwensi’s books, especially Jaqua Nana.)
When one reads Hamlet, for example, one appreciates that Shakespeare understood philosophy; when one reads Macbeth one appreciates that the writer understood human nature, especially the fickle nature of ambition; ambition makes us aim very high and do crazy things to gratify our goals, but if our behaviors are amoral we often fail, as Macbeth ultimately fell; his vaulting ambition is the stuff of Greek tragic heroes; such persons have character traits, flaws, that make them work hard and aim at the top and work towards it but the same traits have built into them traits/foibles that would destroy them when they get to the top, as happened to Macbeth.
Hamlet’s indecisiveness is the story of the gifted intellectual who reads and thinks too much and knows too much and, as a result, cannot make up his mind on what to do, and do simple things, act, until events force him to act, often unprepared hence fell.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims (there were twenty-nine of them, I believe) represent distinctive human character types that Chaucer saw in his world, so that the reader sees himself in one of the pilgrims, his character type, that is, and sees where it is leading him to.
The point is that great writers, while not formally psychologists and or philosophers, tend to give the reader the impression that they are wise folks who understand human beings and their complex behavior patterns.
They say that giving advice is free and cheap and that what matters is doing what one advises folks to do; in the USA, they say that those who can do and those who cannot do teach.
Well, I am not a writer, I am a social scientist, and really cannot give you, a writer, advice on writing; nevertheless, I suggest that you should study some philosophy.
Go to any public library and borrow Will Durant’s book, The Story of Western Philosophy, and Bertrand Russel’s book, History of Western philosophy. Read both books; they give summaries of what the various western philosophers and major writers wrote: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Plotinus, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Dante, Espinoza, Leibnitz, David Hume, George Berkely, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean Jacque Rousseau, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Henri Bergson, William James, Schilling, Novalis, Goethe, and others; after reading those summaries you can then read the detailed works of any of them that grabs your attention.
In the world of psychology, you do not have to be a trained psychologist, but you can pick up any introductory textbook on psychology and read the summaries of what the great psychologists said: Emil, Kraepelin, Eugene Bleuler, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Erich Fromm, Erick Erickson, Abraham Maslow, B.F. Skinner, James Watson (behaviorism), and grapple with what some brain scientists, aka neuroscientists said about why people do what they do.
Such reading will give you a fair understanding of the complex nature of human psychology, human personalities, and behaviors. With these readings, you glean ideas that you can then work into the characters in your books and thus enrich what they say so that the reader of your books says that the writer is sophisticated.
As you may have heard, most people who read Achebe considered him not sophisticated, and, in fact, some see him as a simpleton, a mere storyteller, not really a writer (I did book reviews of all his books, including Things Fall Apart, No longer at ease, Arrow of God, Man of the People, Anthill of the Savana, the education of a British colonial child, There was a country, and so on). You could see that he was not well educated, and you have pity for him!
On the other hand, if you read Wole Soyinka you get the impression that he is sophisticated, he showed thorough understanding of human nature in his book, the Man died and other books. I once attended three hours lecture that he gave; he reviewed the Greek and Roman world and why they produced the type of astonishing thinkers that they did; what produced the environment that generated sophists, epicures, stoics in Athens in the fifth century BC, a phenomenon that had not happened elsewhere in the world! The man talked like a world class scholar. I took my hat off for him!
Folks used to wonder why Achebe did not get the Nobel Prize; well, now you know. You can make your writing the type that folks who read them not only appreciate your great writing skills but your erudition and sophistication.
This afternoon, for some reason, you entered my mind, and I felt the need to share the above ideas with you. I love reading your excellent writings. I am immensely proud of you. Keep up the excellent work; do not ever let the “nay Sayers” dissuade you from your calling.
Ozodi Osuji, PhD
May 21, 2022