When I went to Kenya early in October I thought we were going to be a larger group. I’ve taught writing workshops of ten to twelve people in Nairobi before. The first two were sponsored by local publishers. A third, a few months after the violence of the last elections, was at the invitation of former students. A couple of those students contacted me recently and asked, “When are you coming back?” It so happened that I needed to be in Kenya anyway, so we made plans.
Unfortunately, most of the planned participants, were unable to get off work. In the end three of us met in the garden of Africa Inland Mission’s Mayfield Guesthouse instead of a fancy conference center.
Both the other women had done writing courses with me before, so they had an idea of where we were going. Both came with story ideas. One actually had guidelines from a local publisher, impressed with her work, who wanted her to write a romance set in Kenya for a Kenyan audience.
Shaleen is no more a romance writer than I am, but when a publisher approaches YOU . . . Well, it’s not something to be turned lightly away, and she is a gifted writer. The publisher’s guidelines were very specific as to target audience, who the main character should be, etc. They want at least one dress-up occasion in the story. It so happens that Shaleen will be attending a work-related, black-tie, masquerade ball next month—the perfect setting for her characters to confront the issues that keep them apart. For some strange reason, Shaleen doesn’t want to follow my suggestion of taking notes during the ball.
Anna runs her own small publishing company. She does activity books for children and has produced a number of small books for schools at the request of government projects or NGOs (non-governmental organizations such as World Vision). Word searches of key terms, mazes or “find the differences” in two pictures are interspersed with information about drought management or children’s rights. She recently did a short non-fiction book about the causes and prevention of child sex abuse. “This could be effective as a story,” friends told her. So Anna worked on a story of a fourteen-year-old abused by her step-father who now sees his eyes turning toward the younger sister she wants to protect. The old exercise of thinking of what is in your character’s pockets led to a deeper understanding of the evil step-father’s own hopes and dreams that will be dashed if the truth comes out.
In a larger group I present a writing concept, we discuss what it looks like in practice and I give students an exercise that they later share in a small group. Part of the idea is to get them accustomed to a critique group that can continue when I am gone. Since we were only three, we could skip the large group steps and work intensely on their specific projects. And of course we talked books and reading in Kenya (which has increased greatly in the past decade.) Shaleen downloaded my two e-books for her daughter’s Kindle before I left.
The final afternoon (Saturday) one of the would-be participants was able to drop by. James produces children’s television programs, but his passion is books, not TV. In fact, his boss has allowed him to produce a popular program on children’s books and reading that is seen all over East Africa. He has often done work-for-hire, writing texts for Anna’s activity books. She lost no time recruiting him to write for the children’s magazine she wants to start. On the side, James has begun going into the juvenile prison to promote reading and literacy among 12- to 17-year-old boys awaiting trial—some of them for years. He is passionate about God, books and at-risk kids. With his lively sense of humor, I encouraged him to think about writing books for the boys he works with.
“Some writers I know put up pictures of real children over their desks,” I told him. “They tell themselves, ‘That’s who I’m writing for’.”
His eyes got big. “Yes! I can do that!”
This workshop wasn’t like the others. It wasn’t what I planned when I weighed down my suitcase with heavy sample books and materials. But I had a delightful time, and look forward to the real products I expect to come from a handful of days in the garden at Mayfield.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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