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Eden College Prize Giving Speech

By November 20, 2008One Comment

I am by no means a wise man or best-selling writer, in fact if you ask me what of my dreams I have achieved thus far, I would have to say none. By this, I mean I have not yet come close to being the writer or story- teller I long to be. That is of course a lifetime’s work. So in many senses I am just beginning. Sadly this evening, I can’t necessarily share with you the secrets of success but I can talk about the journey, the journey I am currently on. The journey that leads one on that often long and relentless but never dull road, the road we must all travel to discover and fulfil our true purpose.

So what then you might wonder makes a great writer? Personally, I believe the same attributes that make any person of any profession an extraordinary human being. Years ago I attended a screenwriting workshop in London with the legendary American teacher Robert Mackee and it was from him, that I gleaned these pearls of invaluable wisdom. A good writer, says Mackee, has to possess….

The love of story ”“ the belief that your vision can be expressed only through story, that characters can be more real than people, that the fictional world is more profound than the concrete. The love of the dramatic- a fascination with the sudden surprises and revelations that bring sea changes in life. The love of truth””the belief that that lies cripple the artist, that every truth in life must be questioned , down to ones secret motives. The love of humanity””a willingness to empathise with the suffering souls, to crawl inside their skins and see the world through their eyes. The love of sensation””the desire to indulge not only the physical but the inner senses. The love of dreaming””the pleasure in taking leisurely rides on your imagination just to see where it leads. The love of humour ”“a joy in the saving grace that restores the balance to life. The love of language- the delight in sound and sense, syntax and semantics. The love of duality””a feel for life’s hidden contradictions, a healthy suspicion that things are not what they seem. The love of perfection””the passion to write and rewrite in the pursuit of the perfect moment. The love of uniqueness””the thrill of audacity and stone faced calm when it is met by ridicule. The love of beauty””an innate sense that treasures good writing, hates bad writing and knows the difference. The love of self- a strength that doesn’t need to be constantly reassured, that never doubts that you are indeed a writer. You must love to write and bear the loneliness.It’s with these attributes in mind that I will be sharing with you all some of the helpful things I have taken away from my reading. Phrases and quotes I have kept scrawled in my note books, and frequently turned to when the world, as is often the case, no longer seems to make any sense. These writers I will refer to are all masters of their craft, women and men whose inquiring minds can help us better understand what it means to be a human being existing and dreaming in the world today.In an Anthropology course I took a few years ago, I came across a passage that has remained with me. It reads….

“If you consider that we came into the world as an incomplete species, we were not developed like animals who have in them the inborn ability to adapt to their natural environments. As a counter balance to these deficiencies however mankind was given rare gifts of intelligence and spirit, which enable them to adapt to their environment in a creative manner. The creative process you see enables people to be complete beings by supplementing their biological imperfections by a means of culture.”

Creativity then is at the core of our existence, without it we would still be running around grunting like a bunch of Neanderthals for we would not have a language to share, naked cause god forbid the mega mall would not be standing to service our every need and in the dark cause Eskom might not exist- well in this country that might as well be the case.So every aspect of our lives, of our thinking is done through one form of creativity or another, so don’t let me ever catch anyone saying I’m not a creative person .I don’t care if you’re Vincent Van Gough or a house wife who decoupages bread bins as a hobby, we are all a creative species, it’s of course how we use this creativity to benefit and better understand the world around us that of course makes all the difference.

This is where I believe literature (in fact all the great art forms dance, music, theatre, film , music) can come in handy and why I’m going to encourage you (call me old fashioned)Can I ask, what I think is a very valid question–Who are those people on the television and tabloids? Those aren’t real people guys and they aren’t necessarily very talented people, so why on earth are we so obsessed with them? I’m not talking morals here, I’m talking intellect, I’m talking about celebrating people whose brains happen to be larger than that of an emaciated pea. Why do we waste so many good valuable hours, watching and reading about stupid people and their addictions, their bank accounts, fashion crimes, bo-tox and boozing habits. Let’s not aspire to these morons, let’s not live in their diminishing anorexic shadows. When you cut through all the plastic, the razz ma tazz and money– they are ultimately sad, lonely and very lost souls. Instead of adoration we should be offering them sympathy.

How often do we step outside ourselves? See things from another vantage point? A different perspective or light. A great novel can allow us to do this. Can allow us empathise through another’s eyes.

“Writers” Lessing goes on to claim, “ comment on the human condition, talk about it continually. It is their subject . Literature is one of the most useful ways of achieving this ”˜other eye’, this detached manner of seeing ourselves, history is another. Yet literature and history increasingly are not seen like this by the young- as indispensible tools for living.”

I like this phrase “indispensible tools for living’. What Lessing makes a point of in her essay, is how with technology as it is, with all the access we have to information, why is that we never seem to learn from it? Why are we not using it to better ourselves?Shakespeare is of course an excellent starting point. Don’t waste money on therapy or self help, just read Shakespeare to truly understand the human condition in all its complexity, horror, beauty, humour and tragedy. Mbeki’s recent tumbling from the presidential throne is classic King Lear stuff and perhaps had he had dipped into his complete works a little earlier on in his presidency he might have avoided been cast out into the wilderness as a doddering So I encourage you guys today as leaders, citizens, students, parents of the future to enjoy this explosion of information, of stories and knowledge that you have at your disposal, to take an interest in history, learn which leaders are worth following and those to avoid. Learn how others have lived, succeeded and thrived and from this create your own ideals, philosophies, life style. Borrow from the best. There is no reason why your life should be nothing short of excellent. Good books, film, theatre, in my opinion provide the blue-print to ensuring this.

I think criticality is a very important attribute to hone at this stage in your lives and one that should not be confused with being cynical.”˜Know thyself’ warned the blind prophet Theiresius to Oedipus in Sophocles tragedy ”˜Oedipus Rex’ and I think this is one of the most important things we each must achieve in our life time, an intimate understanding of ourselves.

Over the last five years I have travelled extensively on my own, with a back pack crammed with more literature then it contains clothing. I’ve spent several months in India, Madagascar, Africa and South America. Instead of using the ”˜lonely planet’ as my travel guide, I prefer to be guided by the literature from each region I happen to be visiting. This has allowed me to see India through the eyes of Salman Rushdies ”˜Midnights Children’ or more recently, follow in the footsteps of the characters or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ”˜One hundred years of solitude’ It is when I’m thrown out of my comfort zone, thrust into a foreign city without the language or a clue that I feel the most challenged, the most alive. I can’t call home, or turn to a friend of loved one and so I have to turn to myself, which is a bit scary considering I’m probably the “It’s tragic” says Oscar Wilde “how few people ever possess their souls before they die. Nothing is more rare in any man ”“says Emerson””then the act of his own. Most people are other people’s thoughts are someone else’s opinion, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

The suburbs, god bless them, over extended periods tend to make us apathetic and complacent ,lock us into routine, bind us to all that bad news that thuds on the driveway with the daily newspaper. We need to break out of these cycles. Use our precious time to traverse this planet of ours, find solitude, peace and a place within it.

Of course by travel I’m not talking about contiki and pre-packaged student drinking tours, but rather encouraging you to make your own way. Don’t brush through experiences in life, don’t follow in the footsteps of the photo snappy tourist herds, don’t live through a lens but rather your own two eyes.

And lastly love whatever it is you do, whatever profession or career you now create for yourself- Love it. Your work becomes you, will consume a majority of your time here on earth. Do not be afraid to try new things and to take your time in doing so. I’ve dabbled in many things, settled for the moment on writing but it doesn’t mean I won’t keep exploring. So look hard for what is your calling, your true passion””use it to contribute to the world and those around you. This is your one chance, don’t settle for the ordinary but make every effort to be utterly extraordinary.

 I’d like to thank you for having me today, and I wish you the best on the next phase of your journeys out into the world.

One Comment

  • Hi Neal,
    First of all I want to thank you for your words. English is not my first language and I am sure I will not reach or find the words as if I was writing in Spanish. I am so glad to hear what you say about creativity. When I say I am photographer usually people assume I am creative person. And it is because of a lack of integrity in our life style. We understand the world too much from Headlines. Photographer, Architect, Plumber, Business Man,…. As we hear the professions we define the persons. Big mistake made by the cowards. Creativity can be developed in any aspect of our lives including eating an apple. Our own movement, the way we walk is an expression of ourselves. Find your own movement and you will be offering to whoever sees it a joy. The joy of identity.
    Thank you again

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