Home Writers Creative Essays How Stories Stay Alive | Collins Undelikwo

How Stories Stay Alive | Collins Undelikwo

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The smile on my mother’s face when she read my first story was priceless. It was a story about a king who sat on a golden throne; and whenever he got up from it, his kingdom was rendered defenseless—because somehow, the magic shielding the outer walls depended on the frequency with which his butt was balanced on the seat of power. I must’ve been ten at the time. But my mother read it, my scanty hundred words of folklore, and told me she loved it.

That was all I needed. I believed from that moment that I could write. My mother, this beautiful woman that was the anchor of my entire world—this woman that must’ve also known what she was talking about because she was an English teacher—told me she loved my little story. I never finished it, though, but from that day, the idea that I could, and that I should create stories resided at the back of my mind.

The horrors of high school made me forget about it entirely. I was swarmed with Mathematics formulae and bullies and gruesome French and English essays that threatened to strip away the beauty of writing. So I wrote about it all. I started a journal. I wrote about my struggles in school, about my struggles at home, about the crushes I had, about my hopes and dreams. And it was amazing. I poured out my heart into that 40 leaves exercise book. I inked those white pages with feelings that I couldn’t share with anybody else. Words I never uttered were screamed or sobbed or sung to my journal with my pen. However, I was frightened by the possibility that someone might find my journal/diary one day, and dive into all my secrets and the imaginary worlds I had built. And someone did.

I don’t know how my mother got her hands on it. All I know is that we were on holiday at an aunt’s house in Abuja. A new domain. So, my usual hiding spot for the journal wasn’t there. I remember trembling a bit when she called me into her room, she sat on her bed, surrounded by my little sisters. The book in which I’d written all my frustrations with the frequency of her little errands and her ‘disturbances’ and her haranguing and her ‘talk talk’, was in her hand. When I got in, she looked at me and smiled. That smile again.

“You know you’re really good at this, she said. I’ve laughed throughout.” I wondered what part made her laugh.

“Well done, and don’t stop writing,” I think she said. I smiled, and collected my journal/diary, a little embarrassed.

“Thank you,” I said, still unsure how to feel about my mother perusing through my secrets. I thought that was it, but then she looked at me and asked, jokingly.

“So you think I talk too much eh?” My sisters and I laughed.

“Ah. Yes mummy,” we all quipped. My mother laughed. Then, she initiated some sort of conversation/explanation about her need to ‘talk’ and how we’ll see its importance when we grew older. She talked for what felt like an hour.

Conversations. I’ve never known how to start talking to people, especially strangers. An unsocial boy with social anxiety getting into the University at 19 might not have been such a good idea. I struggled, yet again, to find my voice. But somehow, the little stories and poems I had written before helped me connect with people—weirdos like me. I took a break from writing stories. The only writing I did was during tests and examinations. Then in June 2019, I was forced to sit down and write. It was the first time in a while that I had written anything. And I wrote from the deepest part of my heart; from a place of pain, a place where tears are born. It was a tribute. My mother had passed away.

I trudged through the rest of that year. I had most of my journal in a laptop now and I didn’t stop writing. I told myself it was what she would’ve wanted. I filled the ‘e-journal’ with useless details of my drab life. In December, I got robbed and my laptop was taken. I lost my journal, I lost memories, I lost stories, stories that made my mother smile. I stopped writing again.

Then 2020 came. The year of COVID 19 and incessant lockdowns and protests and deaths. Like most people, I battled depression and a anxiety. My heart was filled with a lot of pain. My mind, ideas and fear. I should’ve written then but I didn’t. I told myself that I couldn’t write because I didn’t have a laptop anymore. I sunk deeper and deeper into despair. I lost a four month relationship with the first girl I liked that actually liked me back. I remember that I had sent her a piece I had written, at a time when I still wrote beautiful stories and poems. She said that she loved it; that I was talented; that I should write more. I didn’t write more. I did the opposite. I wrote less. I texted less. I disappeared.

I never thought of it as ghosting, but I learnt that that may have been what I did. A fitting description, because at that point, I felt dead inside and I couldn’t tell anyone. Then I wrote again. Again, from the deepest parts of my heart; from a place of regret, a place where memories were anchored, refusing to be buried. It was an apology letter. I didn’t ask her for a second chance because I felt like I didn’t deserve one. But I got one. Not in the relationship, that ended amicably. I got what was a second chance at living, at existing without dread and depression. In 2021, I wrote again.

This was the year I started to take my writing a bit more seriously. This was the year that I started earning from it. It was little money, but it was something. Despite having little knowledge about those areas, I wrote some articles on business, marketing, and sales for a friend’s brother. We had agreed on a certain fee per article and I wrote as many as I could so I could earn more. He looked at them and said they were good. When it was time for the first payment, he said that he’d get back to me, he gave me five days. Five days came and went and I wasn’t paid. I reached out to him. He said that the review of the articles I wrote were still ongoing. I was confused. He explained that he had a pool of freelance writers that wrote for him; that he himself wrote for a number of clients, so he had to spread the work. Division of labour. Each person got a cut of the money he was paid by those clients, while he kept a small share. He told me to be patient and that it usually takes time. I reached out to my friend, his sister, the one who told him about me. I trusted her, so all I asked for was certainty. She assured me that I would be paid. I wasn’t. But I trusted her, I trusted her brother’s word.

A week or so later, he reached out to apologize. He was severely ill. He sent me pictures. His sister, my friend had told me about his illness. He later said that he felt bad about the fact that I hadn’t received any money and that was why he never came forward with more work. My mind wasn’t on my money then, my reasoning was “If I did more work, it’ll pile up and when I eventually get paid that’ll be a lot of money.” He sounded honest and I trusted him, so I asked for any work he had available. I got something, a task to write a bit about podcasts. I set to work on my phone, yes, I still hadn’t made enough money to get myself a good PC. I was paid for that work. He said, this time, it was a different client that’s why; that I would be paid for the other articles. I wasn’t. I had to disturb him until he finally gave me half my payment. That was it.

2022 came, and I vowed to take my writing more seriously. I set up my Upwork account. I cleaned up my Indeed account. I was ready to take on the year. I applied for every writing gig opportunity I saw, every job post that required a writer. I wrote the best cover letters and proposals, I saw the perfect template for creating a freelancer CV, and I used it in creating mine. Still no job, no positive response. I fell back to my little social circle. I told people that I wrote and I told them to tell other people. Then, I started to get small gigs here and there. I wrote a cryptocurrency article for a family friend and got paid. I wrote some sort of marketing piece for a business and got paid. I survived on the little gigs. I added to my writing portfolio each day, editing, and re-writing, and re-editing the articles I had put there. But somehow, it was never good enough, at least to me. My anxiety never let me put myself out there, I never published any of my pieces on Medium or anything. I struggled with self-doubt again. I wanted to stop, but writing was actually all I knew how to do. And I knew, deep down, that I was good at it, I was just worried that not landing the big opportunities meant that I wasn’t good enough yet. Eventually, I got an opportunity that, at first glance, looked like it was going to be a big one.

A startup company was looking for writers and a friend had sent the flier to me. I applied immediately, with a cover letter and a sample of my work. They got back to me almost immediately. Their startup was focused on helping freelancers write proposals and get jobs, so they needed me to be one of their proposal writers. They interviewed me, it was a video call with one of their founders, Jemima, a bright, passionate wunderkind who asked me some questions about myself and my work. It was all smiles during the interview. The next day, I got an email with their Notion and Slack Channel details. I got the job.

I started the job, excited to be working with young people like me. I attended our first few meetings with gusto and purpose. When our orientation was done and we got assigned to our clients, we went straight to work. The job was to write at least two Upwork proposals for our clients, each day. I did that judiciously, following all that Jemima had taught us. But I didn’t get any positive feedback. That gusto and purpose and excitement dwindled day by day. Others were recording successes, only I hadn’t. With each proposal I sent, I felt more disgruntled. I was frustrated with myself, frustrated with the level of my client’s expertise, frustrated with the world of freelancing. I told Jemima about these difficulties, I shared the proposals I wrote with her. She gave me tips on what to change; on what to do better. She encouraged me, told me to keep writing; that I was on the right track. I continued, positive that I would get a favourable response one way or the other. But it didn’t come. Instead, I and the company got hit with heartbreaking news: after years of battling an illness, and days of continuous deterioration, Jemima had passed away.

I barely knew her but she was an inspiration. She had such an impact on me and so did her death. It was just two months before her passing that we were laughing and talking about writing on that video call, and before I knew it, she was gone. I quit the company a month later. When we resumed work after we took a break to mourn her, it just didn’t feel the same. Again, I had lost one of the most important believers in my writing. Why did this look like a pattern?

Endings. They’ve always been tough for me. There’s nothing I dread more than the end of a thing that I love. At least with movies and books, you can watch or read them again—even though they probably won’t feel the same. What about stories? One can’t write a story again once they’re done. Of course, you can read it as many times as you want and share it with as many people. But the unique thrill of the process, the challenges that you encounter, the emotions you feel while creating characters for that story can’t be gotten again. In a way, that’s how a life is. Once a life ends, others would remember it, admire it, talk on and on about it. But the person whose life it was cannot live it again. When I thought about this, I realized a weird similarity between writing and Life itself.

Why do we have franchises and trilogies and stories that exist in series? It’s simply because of the potential that one story has to create more. Even stories that aren’t related at all have given birth to others. The story Americanah might have ended for Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie when she was done writing it, Things Fall Apart might have ended for Chinua Achebe, but these stories birthed generations of other stories like them.

It is sad when a life ends. But just as the words and characters from one writer’s story can inspire the words and characters in another’s, the words and character of the people that once lived can inspire the words and character of those still living, continuing life on a larger scale. This realization helped me to keep going.

I took the words of the people I lost, the ones that believed in my writing the most, and I let them inspire me, even in death. I didn’t stop writing like I initially wanted to. I wrote a lot more instead, and started sharing some of my works too. A friend sent me a flier of a cmonionline writing competition, but at that time, I hadn’t written a story in two years. I wrote one regardless. I vowed again to get better and I sought to learn as much as I could. I watched and re-watched lessons on the Oxford Online English Youtube channel. I picked up an interest in screenwriting, so I read Syd Field’s book Screenplay. I attended playwriting classes taught by Dr. Siphiwo Mahala. I read more books and twitter threads from established writers. I attended a cmonionline writing retreat. I wrote a lot more. There were times when I couldn’t stay consistent, they were times when my confidence took a hit. But at the back of my mind, I knew I couldn’t stop.

These days, I still journal; I remind myself to write from time to time, especially when life gets too busy. I still have a lot of ideas and experiences that I need to share. I still have a lot of stories in my head that haven’t been told yet. I want my work to spark up certain conversations, to build bridges. There are still people that I want to inspire, lives that I want to change, stories that I want my stories to birth. No matter where I go or who I become, I want to keep writing. I believe I won’t stop until the very end.

 

About the Writer

Collins Undelikwo is a student of the University of Calabar. He writes poems, short stories, mostly recently, plays. A movie aficionado, he hopes to become a screenwriter and tell stories unlike the world has ever seen.

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