Notes In The Margin And Minor Key Write and play on wisely.

In Writing
Scroll this

This is fact: as soon as you find out you want to be a writer you will encounter any number of cautions that dissuade you from the path. The arduousness of the craft. The scarcity of readers. Distance from the centre or broadcasting from Pluto. The roof over your head. Putting food on the table.


This is truth: when you do start writing an array of obstacles will work overtime to keep you from the craft. A taxing or unrewarding day job. Stress and its siblings—anxiety, doubt, panic, lethargy, fatigue. Drinks with friends—today, tomorrow, together, all the time. The new season of that thing. That book that is just too good (Why—you ask—are you even trying to write?). Your noisy city or dead-end town. The cost of living. The price of loving. The chat group. The feed. Loss. Rejection. Other writers. Jealousy. Yourself.

And yet.

This is reality: writing does not always play out in the crescendo—sometimes it is composed in the minor key. There is no sustainably pleasurable high note; you need the mid and low tones too. But even in the pauses, the silences, and the confusion, one is—as Devon Walker-Figueroa is always reminding me—still taking part in the writing process. Time, distance, reflection, and understanding will eventually pull seemingly disparate thoughts, emotions, and experiences together in a meaningful way.


Even when you are unable to fill a page you can always make notes in the margin.

These are some of mine.


What are butterflies without their wings?

Who are we without each other?

Who are you when you aren’t yourself?

What is life without love?

For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings, Avis Dam, Windhoek, Namibia. © Rémy Ngamije.

Troy Onyango’s work asks the deepest questions of being in the gentlest and most eloquent ways in his debut collection of short stories. I had to travel all the way to Nairobi, Kenya to get a copy of his work because our stories don’t keep up with our imagination and hearts. Coming back with it in my suitcase felt like I was smuggling something contraband—methinks the truths Troy is dealing are anyway.


Matemwe, Zanzibar, Tanzania. © Rémy Ngamije.

“The Atlantic might take you away, but the Indian Ocean will always bring you back.”
—Kiprop Kimutai, on the Matemwe shores in Zanzibar where the sun, sea, and Swahili sigh and whisper of stories told and not told.


“The future of African literary magazines is secure—there will always be plenty of dreamers and fools willing to endure pain and hardship in order to start and run them. Thank goodness for fools. Thank god for dreamers.”
—My answer to a question at the Alliance-Francaise’s NYrobi Book Festival in Nairobi, Kenya.


“An empty well serves no one.”
—Chiké Frankie Edozien, author of The Lives of Great Men, in a conversation after the splendour of being surrounded by storytellers at the NYU Literary Symposium in Accra, Ghana. The idea of constantly giving when there is nothing to give is maths for the self-crippling.


Now Now. Windhoek, Namibia. © Rémy Ngamije.

“We’ll be there now now.”
—From my editor’s note in Now Now: The 2023 Doek Anthology, a collection of stories from Namibia, Eswatini, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.


“And now we write.”
—Mubanga Kalimamukwento, the award-winning author of The Mourning Bird, with whom I get to share in the honour of being a 2023 Miles Morland Foundation Writing Scholar.


I think all praise and criticism should be relegated to a writer’s past as quickly as possible because neither aids in the creation of the next work.”
—A thought on praise and criticism in a conversation with Camilla MacPherson about judging the 2024 Plaza Prizes.


This is revelation: success can be as crippling as failure—you are never told this, of course. It is something you discover on your own. The onus is on you to find your way back to the page.

But remember: “That which you do most becomes that which you do best.” The longer you do not write, the better you become at not writing.

The best time to give up is not on the last day but the very last.

Nothing is made until you make it.

So it has been. Thus it will ever be.

POSTSCRIPT: Every system of oppression creates the necessary conditions for its resistance. There is no vacuum, no present without a past, and no history without hidden truths. There is— before and around everything—some sort of context. Find it. Read it. Understand it.

READ—Books, collections, and anthologies: Not On Last Day But The Very Last by Justin Boening • For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings by Troy Onyango • Maths For The Self-Crippling by Ursula Villareal-Moura • Philomath by Devon Walker-Figueroa | Long-form nonfiction:We Are More Ghosts Than People” by Hanif Abdurraqib (The Paris Review) • “My Time Machine” by Arthur Asseraf (Granta) • “A Book Is Never Late To The Party”, “Write For The Future”, “The Immigrant Dreams Every Dream But Their Own” by Junot Diaz (Storyworlds) • A Writer’s Diary: Leaving Nairobi For Iten by Kiprop Kimutai (Debunk) | Poetry:For The Young Who Want To” by Maggy Piercy (Poetry Foundation) • “And Because You Were Born Here” by Raquel Salinas Rivera (Poetry Foundation) | WATCH—Documentary: The Story Of: Afroman’s “Because I Got High”, The Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out”, Papa Roach’s “Last Resort”, Sean Paul’s “Get Busy”, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”, Sisqó’s “Thong Song”, Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”, Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag” (2022-2023) • Every Cocktail Glass Explained By A Bartender (2023) | Film: Entergalactic (2022) • Three Ways (2022) | Series and miniseries: Ahsoka, season 1 (2023) • What We Do In The Shadows, season 4 (2023) | LISTEN—Music:Rush” and “Rhythm & Blues” by Arya Star • “Steal A Dime” by Cruel Santino • “Stop Draggin’ Your Boots” by Danielle Bradberry • “I Did It” by DJ Khaled featuring Post Malone, Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Baby, and DaBaby • “High Heels” by Flo Rida featuring Walker Hayes • “Only” by Imagine Dragons • “Doin’ It To Death” by The J.B.s • “The Blood Of Cu Chulainn” by Jeff and Mychael Danna • “Duel Of The Fates” by John Williams and The London Symphony Orchestra • “Silver Tongue Devil” by Masego featuring Shenseea • “Kolo Kolo” by Patoranking featuring Diamond Platnumz • “Runnin’” and “Passin’ Me By” by The Pharcyde • “Soy” by Santa Fe Klan • “No Woman No Cry” by Tems • “Before And After Faith” by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross • “Elevator Eyes” by Tove Lo • “Legendary” by Welshly Arms • “Begging” by Yemi Alade • “The Way” by Zak Hemsey | PLAY: Power Quest (1989) | TRY: a little tenderness