The first story I remember writing was about children who had spent all their lives in a castle, hemmed in not by the walls, but by the terrible knowledge that on the other side waited a deadly dragon.
The story was my first serious attempt at writing and it only took me until my first year in university. It was, of course, a thinly-veiled metaphor for my longstanding fear of writing: something I’d wanted to do since starting secondary school. A couple other friends and I had got caught up in the idea of working on a novel together, but we never got as far as planning out a story.
But I always thought about it.
Two years, later, midway through secondary and inspired by the few Marvel titles I could get my hands on as a kid in Nigeria with limited access to imported titles, I tried my hand at a comic—I still drew then. I wrote one issue of ten or so pages and quit. For years after, though, a few of my friends from back would occasionally gently tease me about the character I created, Barricade. (Look, I knew the name didn’t really slap but names are hard, man.)
Like the kids in the story, I was afraid to venture out.
My senior years in secondary, two things happened. I became friends with a couple other guys who were heavy into reading and had the connections I didn’t to other readers. We used our reading speed as leverage: it’s a lot easier to borrow a book on Monday afternoon when you can promise to return it by Friday morning. My main man was L, who would then read the books in half to two-thirds the time and give it to me for the remainder. I pulled a lot of late nights.
But the second thing that happened in those last three years of secondary was that I got a hold of a few writing books. Maybe about 2 or 3 a year, but it was enough to keep the fire aflame. I would devour everything I could. Someday soon, I’d tell myself. Someday soon.
And yet the entire time I’d carried with me the wisdom of Whoopi Goldberg. In Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit her character says to Lauryn Hill’s when the latter was questioning if she was good enough to be a singer: “If you wake up in the morning and all you can think about is singing, then you’re a singer.”
I first saw the film just as I was turning a teenager, but the words stuck with me. They reminded me that the question “Are you good enough?” is irrelevant if you haven’t yet answered, “Do you want it enough?” Desire precedes skill, because it is what keeps you going as you build it.
If Whoopi was right, then I was a writer: because I certainly couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Now I just needed to, you know, write—right?
The story about the children in the castle ended with a few of them finally working up the courage to venture out, only for them to find that the dragon was dead—had long been. But I was still afraid when I wrote it. I hadn’t ventured out. Like the children in the story (and I hadn’t even realised this when I wrote it) I needed the help of others.
As I would later find, it takes a community to become fully individual. We need each other to become fully ourselves.
For me the first those others were a few wonderful friends in uni. There was A and N, both of who helped rekindle my faith and encouraged me to write, the first people ever to tell me that I actually had some skill in it. There was S, who first brought my writing to a public when she asked me to ghostwrite some stuff for her school fellowship Bible studies—the anonymity helped me actually write, but it was exciting to hear the feedback after. And finally along came Facebook and (then) Blogger to share my words with even more people on the then-new Internet.
I was finally actually writing.
And yet, after those initial friends, the next two decades found me writing mostly alone again, if perhaps a little less afraid. I had friends who encouraged me off and on, and I slowly grew an audience for all my varied writing. But it wasn’t until 2020, of all years, that for the first time ever I found myself regularly using a new term, “fellow writers”. Right in the middle of entire medical world figuring out how to deliver healthcare during a pandemic of unprecedented proportions, I started connecting with other writers, writing together with them and getting feedback.
It started with a course and community, Write of Passage, and after taking two cohorts, I signed up—twice now—to mentor other writers, and help them find the kind of identity-refining (and for some, defining) community I did.
I couldn’t have known when I wrote that first story all those years ago how prescient I was being when I included the detail about the kids coming out as a group. And as it turned out, the dragon was indeed dead: the fear I had of penning my words and sharing them proved unfounded.
It didn’t go away though. I don’t even know if it ever does. Maybe when you’ve lived all your life in fear of a dragon, it’s not enough to find it’s been long dead. Maybe you have to live with the fear all your life too. I don’t know.
I know this, though: working up the courage to face the dragon when you thought it was alive—that’s the real battle. That, in a sense, was when the dragon died. And even if the fear remains unchanged, you’re not: you’re a different person, a person who is willing to take on dragons even if they might die trying, and finds community in the process.
So yeah, even writing this is scary, but I can do scary now. And so can you.
Whoopi would agree, I think.