Deborah Yewande Bankole Apprenticeship Diary #1

Being a writer can often feel like I’m waiting for a calling; a voice that cuts through clean as a cleaved bone leading me benevolently towards my vocation. I’m in fact both romanced and horrified by the idea of it all; is the reaction to a voice booming from the sky really a clarifying experience or a panic-inducing one? Will I be too busy scrolling through twitter to notice the celestial trumpets of destiny buzzing in my face?

Western literary tradition is beguiled by the idea of the calling. After all, it raises the stakes, marks out the crafter and the craft as a thing of divinity. This doesn’t invalidate their truth for those lucky enough to have had them but without it, it can introduce a series of questions and doubts about one’s place in the writing world.

My journey to the page isn’t exactly marked by a calling. I came to writing only in the past year with no formal training. Writing began simply as a way for me to satisfy my appetite for literature beyond being a reader. In the months over lockdown, I slowly returned to my younger self, one who devoured books, who sat and savoured a good phrase, who processed the world first on the page, only now, I felt compelled to go beyond reading and create. I’ve come to think that instead of a calling, I’ve been softly nudged forwards by the communities around me, each of whom have nurtured in different ways my instinct to create.

A Nudge Towards Writing Short Stories

One of these communities was a church. I was raised in a church that could have easily doubled as an art house. It was a tight-knit community of spectacular singers and rousing orators and storytellers. Everything was couched in story, from the scandal and saintliness of characters in the Bible, to the songs we sang. As a child, story was a way to ground things that felt nebulous and otherworldly in something far more understandable. It was my first foray into character and plot — the Bible not being short of murders, sacrifices and beheadings. While the practice of religion hasn’t stayed with me, it’s a strong theme throughout my work and I have a particular interest in creating new worlds centred around religious practices.

Another of these communities is my online group chats with friends. These spaces are the stuff of screenwriters rooms: high drama, villains, heroes, cliff hangers, unexpected twists, delicately woven narrative threads. Without knowing it, my friends are masters of storytelling, able to whip up intrigue and comedy into a tight all-consuming tornado. There’s also a strong insistence for us to all share our stories in this special, curated digital space, and provide each other with fierce support and fair critique. This has been invaluable in helping me shed the self-consciousness that comes with sharing work as well as overcome the gut-wrenching dread of leaving my work open to public opinion. There’s a lot shared between what I consider to be special about the short story form and this space: both license me to be adventurous and playful. They push me to tell stories in varied ways, narrated by voices often unheard and to rebel against traditional ideas of literary quality in relation to the language and dialect stories are written in.

Finding My Pace

Frustratingly, I sometimes find myself forgetting my own journey to the page. I forget it has taken a slow gentle nudge over two decades and can feel the heat of my frustration when words don’t pour out of me uninterrupted. In these moments, scarce of words or unsure of what’s coming next for my characters, I look to distance myself from writing by pursuing a healthy dose of “boredom”.

On speaking to our shared experience over lockdown, Anne Enright wrote in an online article: “Boredom is a productive state, so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.” I find my best exit strategy out of mental fogginess comes when I choose to do everyday chores like laundry or the washing up or even binge watch tv (read: trash tv). There’s a sort of meditation in boredom that provides me with clarity or gives birth to new ideas. Like many writers, a lot of time is then spent trying to recall the things I failed to scribble down!

Winning the Word Factory Apprentice Award

Since being awarded the Word Factory Apprentice Award, I’ve been working with my mentor — the brilliant Toby Litt — to give more shape and structure to my writing. I’m keen to remember to pace myself; that coming out of this process with refined, sharpened tools to create quality stories is just as valuable as coming out with a finished short story collection. I’m relishing the process of having such incisive guidance and I’m so incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to be held as I develop as a writer. I hope in time to have my stories in journals and shortlisted for prizes and hope that when it gets into the hands of readers, it sparks just as much curiosity and joy as the friends, orators and storytellers in my life have done for me.