THE CHAMBER OF MY BRAIN The following quote was whispered to me nine years ago by the wisdom of the ages, but the memory is as fresh in my mind as if I heard it yesterday. “The poorest man on earth isn’t the one without money, but the one with nothing to aim for.” I suppose the voice of the woman who brought me into the world plays a role in my story. Before I tell you my tale, as food for your mind and your soul, before you allow your mind to travel eternal miles, please allow your spirit to enter the zone my mind offered me just before my fingers started wrestling with every letter on my keyboard. You see, my brain told me that the future has several names. For the weak, it is impossible. For the fainthearted, it is unknown and for the thoughtful and valiant, it is ideal. Then what is yours? But let me introduce myself. I am from the Free State, a land of open farms and mines. My readers believe that I am one of the most prolific and eclectic writers in Africa, whereas I consider myself to be a mystic, naturalist, and ethnologist. They call me a high-profile, glamorous celebrity, but as far as I am concerned, I am Skeelo Khumalo, a young and handsome, so I am told, African man. Actually I am the cream in the most delicious possible flavour you could think of to have on your dessert. For me, writing is an evolving dream. I view story writing as a celebration of the many sides to my nature, or perhaps it is the evolution of my multiple personalities; existing everywhere, yet without substance. The collective opinion is that you have to be a little mad to be a writer, and if a level of insanity is a prerequisite to writing, then I am well within the safe boundaries for the profession. Perhaps you think that writing is only for those who live a boring life, who don’t go to parties or have any time for socialising. You may have something to tell the world but think it’s not your style to hold a pen or punch a keyboard. But I will tell you something – you don’t know how it feels like to be a writer, nor do you know what you’re missing. I once overheard my elder sister, Aliyaah, and the girl next door, Candy talking about me. I don’t know if ‘Candy’ is her real name, or a nick-name. “Skeelo is too young to live in a sealed container,” announced Candy one day. “Why don’t you tell him to get out and test the waters, get himself a hot young chick?” After gulping a mouthful of fresh fruit juice, Aliyaah managed a reply. “I told him that writing might be just a waste of time for him, but he believes the best way to predict the future is to create it.” “Well, the proof of a man’s intelligence is his freedom of choice. But that doesn’t mean that I am not concerned about him.” My sister looked at her friend as if puzzled by her sudden concern. “Are you…?” “No. It’s not the way you think.” “Oh! Well, I thought that maybe you were falling for him.” Instead of replying to my sister’s comment, Candy continued to express her concern for me. “I wish that whatever he vividly imagines, ardently desires, sincerely believes and enthusiastically acts upon will inevitably come to pass. I’ll be glad for his sake.” These words glittered in the same way I have always viewed my career in writing. But I loved the final words my sister said: “Positive things happen to positive people.” Well… as a writer I do not underestimate any person’s ideas, thoughts, suggestions or comments. But I’ll never swallow any negativity that might trap my innovative mind inside a dark container of confusion. I’ll never pay attention to the poisonous voices that might put my entire writing career in jeopardy. Not that I don’t take criticism from my readers, I do, whereas I only listen to those who believe in me, who build rather than destroying. I am not saying my life or my world is completely different compared to those of the people who view me from a distance. I am just like everybody else. I do socialise and, although I’m not into the whole party scene, I do go out. I date girls, I seek love, I find love and sometimes ‘it hurts so bad’ as the saying goes. So, I too am also a human with a fragile heart. And for me to have something to say on paper, I need to explore new territories, all the flavours that this world has to offer, both sweet and sharp, because if I lock myself in my closet, my ink will obviously get dry and my pen will then refuse to write my tales. You may wonder why I chose to write this genuine, rule-breaking short story that looks similar to a biography. I chose to write this after two dozen apparently unrelated stories, both short and not so short, emerged from that mysterious and innovative part of me that I call the chamber of my brain. I don’t sit down and write stories; I sit down and they sometimes appear. Some, like a summer breeze, slip gently through a diaphanous curtain, while others race through my very being like passionate love rolling from the heart, claiming some of my hidden thoughts and qualities. At this point, I am not sure if I should even call myself a writer. What is a writer? Is it someone who will, without any hesitation, bare his soul to a group of strangers? Is it someone who needs to find some inner truth and believes that if he writes for long enough, it will perhaps emerge? Will I even recognise a truth if it rips through my head like a bullet drilling a hole in my spine? Perhaps I simply enjoy telling stories and playing with words, like chess players challenging each other’s skill. But I must admit that I love to feel and inhale the sound of words and textures as they escape from the screen of my computer. I never wrote anything of consequence prior to the mass availability of computers. I admit to profound laziness when it came to editing and rewriting. I began my writing with voluminous letters to friends. Some of them took days to write and, I am certain, courage beyond the call of duty, to read! In hindsight, perhaps I should have used the computer as a large paperweight. That might have saved the world from an explosion of my words without which it was surviving well. My excuse was gone. Rewriting using a typewriter was more than I could handle. Rewriting meant recopying every word and the inclusion of one wrong word meant a page or perhaps a chapter had to be rewritten. The computer became my magic window, through which I could erase, replace, realign and re-size, without losing all the parts that had been completed to my satisfaction. I developed a new mindset, which led me to write two book-length projects in less than a year. As I am typing, would you like to know what I remember? I once had a short talk with one of the professors at the University of Witwatersrand, Professor J.D. Lewis-Williams. He was one of my inspirations. He once said, “If you nurture patience within yourself, the things you desire will come more quickly and with less effort.” To tell you the truth, at that stage I didn’t agree with him. I didn’t think he was right – all I believed was that there is nothing much you can achieve with less effort. I really disagreed with him. But then he said, “We sometimes feel that what we do is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Never underestimate those words; they made me who I am today. To be honest, my best early writing became fictionalised versions of people I knew – friends in particular. Although my real life was and is sacrosanct, when I sat down to write, I was especially vulnerable to fantasies about women I had had the pleasure of meeting in my journey through life. My friends were mostly women and men, of course, who had been abused and their stories constantly played out in my mind. Writing allowed me to exorcise them and at the same time, give them a life of their own that could benefit others who read about them. I wrote the first as a therapist and a textbook of therapeutic stories emerged. I wrote one as a philosopher and fables emerged. My best writing shared the stories of friends who had been subjected to various forms of abuse in their lives. I seemed to be able to speak in their voices when I wrote, thus writing as their surrogate self, rather than as a detached narrator. I wrote to share my own feelings and a bloody catastrophe of a play tore through me and was quickly given a proper burial, damned with faint praise. A screenplay, written with more discipline followed, and that fared much better. Then the short stories began happening one evening as I was writing a letter to a new and special friend in my life. I was joking in the letter to her and said that maybe I should write short stories. Then an idea flashed through my mind. This is what emerged, which I attached to the letter: After making the mistake of loving someone so passionately, who didn’t give her heart back to him, he reached a conclusion. The way his mind worked, all of his decisions developed as alternatives. His decision was that he would either end his life that same night, or live the rest of his life as a slave in chains. He believed that it is better to break a man’s leg than his heart. The next day, I looked at what I had written, and laughed at the way this person, whoever he may be, had locked himself into a corner with no escape. Who was he? Was he me? Not me? What were the forces that had brought him to this sad, yet comic conclusion? I began at the top and wrote towards what I had by then decided would be an ending. I had no plan as to the nature of the character or the story. The result was a short story I chose to call ‘Learning to love again’. I had a new toy, and whatever happened, I intended to play with it. The next few stories were about particles of life peeled from the walls of my own existence, and made for interesting observations on the human condition – or perhaps just my condition. It seems strange. I am working full-time as an office administrator, although I’ve decided to take on extra duties like designing logos, business cards, invitation cards and so on, which makes me a parttime author, but even during my office hours, I find that my pattern of thinking is changing. My ideas seem to skip across chasms like a stone skipping across water; at times barely seeming to skim the surface. When my characters choose me to relate their stories, I am as surprised by their development and outcome as the reader. I write stories in a state of mind which I hope adds to the enjoyment readers may derive from reading them. I begin with factual situations, but always manage to wander off the main road into mysterious and darker paths. It is as if two separate parts of my being are intertwined, and each pulls the journey in its own direction. I don’t look for the unexpected twists but they seem to emerge; they produce unanticipated consequences. I am aware that life’s twists are often predetermined by existing mindsets. Sometimes when I start writing I get confused as to whose mind I am in when I’m writing. Is it mine, or is it something I have absorbed from nature, a member of my extended family or a friend? In one story, ‘The cinema of a man’s mind’, I wrote about an encounter with someone I had only met once. If it makes the journey worthwhile, I suppose it doesn’t matter that the heroes of the story entered stage left and exited stage right within a two-hour space of time. Using the integrity of the real person to create the substance of the character allowed the character to do the opposite of what the reader had been led to expect. The title of my first book, ‘Life is not the dance floor’, explains or illustrates the development of my paradoxical view of mankind. Some may say that this is the dance floor. If you agree with them, then, you should certainly believe that God is a DJ. I view life as an unexpected twist, with half of it experienced in a dream state. Sometimes you wake up in the morning full of energy, and plans of the day, but end up lying in hospital, or disappointed by failed plans. But each twist of fate leads us inexorably closer to the realisation that we spend most of our time simply playing out a game, the rules of which are unknown to us. Even the players seem to emerge unexpectedly from dark corners. Perhaps life is a cosmic joke in which tegwar, (the endless game without any rules) is the only game in town. Three days before coming up with the title of my book, ‘Life is not the dance floor,’ an unknown person sent me this e-mail: ‘I saw your details on the website. After realising that you’ve won so many writing contests, I thought you might also be able to help me. I am a writer who’s willing to work his way to the top, but I haven’t achieved anything yet. I guess I’m not good enough. Every time I submit my scripts they get rejected.’ I responded as follows: ‘It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is stained by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows great enthusiasm and great devotion, who immerses himself in a worthy cause, who at best, ultimately experiences the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, fails. But even if he does, at least he knows that he failed while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.’ I included my cell phone number with my reply, just in case he or she wanted to have a chat to me. The next day he called and said, “Thank you for your words of courage. I almost gave up, but that would have been a mistake, wouldn’t it?” All I said was, “Only those who do nothing at all make no mistakes... but that would also be a mistake.” I will tell you that whatever he asked or said formed an unwritten chapter in my mind. To me, chatting with that stranger had more worth than research. “I never thought it would be so difficult to be successful, especially if you are impatient,” said the stranger. “Well, my friend, try not to become a man of success but rather become a man of value.” He asked me more and more questions, and I tried my best to answer them, hoping that by so doing that I would be able to redeem his faith. But finally he laughed, and said, “I guess authors have all the answers.” Wanting to correct what he had said I replied, “He who knows all the answers has not yet been asked all the questions.” So with me, life is full of maybes, hopes and doubts. But adventure is worthwhile. And hope is the only thing that pushes us to move ahead. My stories glitter but have no intrinsic value. Much of what we pursue in life glitters as well, but like my stories too, deceives the pursuer into believing that he or she will attain something of worth. It is often as ephemeral as the dream which causes us to move in a given direction. My heroes and heroines have flaws in their characters which prevent them from finding direct paths to happy endings. Sometimes, they eat the tiger and sometimes the tiger eats them. Once I had located and pieced together the fragments of myself, and worked them into a central character, I moved on to develop more complex stories based on fictional characters, and not on any living person – in other words, anyone I knew or had read about. They arose out of dreams and fantasies and once they had come into existence, they shared some of their adventures with me. Some ended with sweetness and hope; others ended with pain and loss. In one, ‘The hands of time’, the character loses what he never really appreciated in the beginning but grew to like. And you, the reader, can judge for yourself if the ending was for the better or worse. The fun isn’t in the conclusion, dear reader, but in the quest. My protagonists do not expect to end their journeys with better answers; they seem content with more refined questions. Perhaps my style of story construction is the product of the fact that they emerge from the mind of a young philosopher who became an author by accident. I’m the one who asserts that there are no coincidences in the world. Well, perhaps the paradox of paradoxes is that there is no way to know if something occurs by accident. All is conjecture, the rest surely, comedy! My tales have no villains. Life takes place in the blue zone where relativity trumps absolutism. Comedy and tragedy, in the formal structural sense, are determined only as the story progresses. I write no outlines, nor do I pre-determine the fate of my protagonists. I learn together with the reader what becomes of my creations. The stories, once written, are no longer mine. They are yours, to reject or consume, to move to laughter or tears, or utter boredom. They are written to provoke thought and disagreement. Some are written with honey, others with blood, but all with the intent that you will find something of value in each. The characters have their quirks and are not afraid to reveal them to you. I hope my readers enjoy their brief existence as much as I do. But enough of my personal meanderings. I want you to know that the glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile nor the joy of companionship. It is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one, when they discover that someone else believes in them, and is willing to trust them. I believe in all my readers, I really do. So, if you wish to pursue whatever it is, please go for it, no matter how hard you think it will be or how little you think you can do, just do it. Accept challenges, so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory. Remember, the ocean will be less with a missing droplet. To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe. And of course, the man who persists in knocking will succeed in entering. So, now, it’s up to you whether you learn from this short story or just choose to keep your mind locked away in a place of the silent souls.