Some years back, when I had half the number of children I do now and half the ache in my heart, I found my first writing community. It was at the Centre for the Book, a historically solid structure in the middle of Cape Town, close to the austere buildings which housed the Supreme Court and Advocates Chambers. It was a place where I felt at ease.
I took a course that lasted six weeks, meeting once a week and run by the warm and empathetic Anne Schuster who made me understand that it was indeed what I needed to do. I had to embrace that ounce of instinct that I must write. There I sat, sometimes staring out of the heavy, dark-wooded sash windows at the world outside, a little embarrassed tear escaping down my cheek when I started to write what I was really feeling. It took every nerve in my body to read my first piece to the group after we’d done our assignment, but that was the beginning.
Everything has a beginning.
By the end of the course, I had dispelled – for myself at least – the notion that you needed grey hair and a life of intrigue to tell your story. The women who shared and spoke and revealed some of themselves in their writing helped me to grasp that. The feeling that I am a fraud, an imposter, that no-one cares, that no-one will read what I write is the thing that plagues me the most. It is the fear of offending others, and the acknowledgement that sometimes even memory is fiction, which makes writing such an arduous process. ‘Write as though they were dead’ is the common refrain, but my imagination doesn’t often stretch that far, and I’d rather be grateful that they’re not. But even during my nervous start as a writer, the community of women writers there helped me to feel that my particular story had value.
Since those early days, I have sought out several other writing communities – through online writers’ groups, online writing courses, writing workshops and among like-minded friends who are interested in words and books. Without doubt, these are the pillars that hold me up when the feeling is one of fruitlessness.
Dominique Malherbe has been writing since she was a young girl, documenting her life in various little journals since she was a teenager, trying to understand the significance of it all. As expected of her from a family of lawyers, she studied law and practiced for some years, specializing in tax and corporate law. Married life and four children threw her slightly off course, and she spent the last decade lecturing law as a way of trying to find the elusive work/life balance. In 2014, she published her first non-fiction narrative, entitled From Courtrooms to Cupcakes, and is in the process of publishing her next book, Somewhere In Between. She lives in beautiful Cape Town with her husband, four children and three boisterous hounds.
I recall being particularly enthralled by the sense of ‘real authors’ at my first writer’s group meetings, by the strong and successful writers like Deon Meyer, Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens. Like a sponge, I soaked up their stories as ‘beginner’ writers. I felt that perhaps through a process similar to osmosis with plants, if I was just in their company and sitting close to them, I would be infused with the essential characteristics that make up becoming a writer. It mattered not that these mentors of the craft told mostly crime fiction or other fiction stories, and that what I wanted to write was real and about women, for women. I listened intently to how they did it and to what mattered most, and I believed I was learning.
I wanted to learn fast, for I am impatient and a little impossible. That urgency is greater now that I’m aware that the gift of time is no longer on my side (I am already past half way, for heaven’s sake). I know that there are probably not enough years to read what I need to learn in the writing craft, let alone write the stories that swirl around my head. But I recently read something profound and beautifully poignant – something that calmed my haste – in Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton:
“You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You only have one.”
Writing communities, whether they are the perceived ‘real authors’ – those who have written extensively and published often – or the equally talented and valuable fledglings – just starting out on their journeys in words – will provide you with your wings to write your one tale.
They have for me.
Like my number of children, my writing community has doubled since my first course nearly two decades ago. And in understanding that my one story has many versions, I will continue to rely on the writing community, because writing – though often a lonely pursuit – is infinitely lonelier without community. And it is infinitely more rewarding with one.