Author Photo: Helon Habila © Jide Alakija
Ten Breaths of Inspiration for the Writing Life
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST CORINNA BARSAN
Helon Habila is the author of three novels, including the latest, Oil on Water, about environmental degradation and the violence that accompanies oil exploration in his native Nigeria. His first novel, Waiting for an Angel, won a Commonwealth Writers Prize; his second, Measuring Time, won the Virginia Library Foundation’s Fiction Prize, 2008.
Habila teaches creative writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and kids.
Author website www.helonhabila.com
The Magazine of Yoga On The Lit Mat Interview
Who or what was your greatest influence in picking up the pen?
My father. He introduced me to reading seriously when I was 8 or 9. He gave me a box of novels and I locked myself in my room for days, coming out only when it was necessary. After finishing the books, there was no going back. I knew I was going to be a writer.
In what ways do you make room for the creative process in your
I make sure I go to bed by 9 pm every night, when I am working on a book, or on something else. I think best in bed, I write best in bed. I can lie in bed for hours just thinking, even when I am not writing. The bedroom is the one space in the house where the kids never come in without at least knocking.
I also carry about a diary, a notepad, in my car, at the office, for when I have unexpected inspiration attacks. I have friends who use recorders to record sudden ideas. I think I am headed that way too, as life gets busier and more complicated.
Which one word, image, sound, feeling, or memory defines the act of writing for you?
“Story.” I grew up listening to folktales, and then I graduated to reading and then to writing. What keeps me hooked is the storyline, the logic of the story, the magnetism of it.
Earlier in life stories made me realize that the world is not as random and formless as it may seem, there is always a story, a logic, if you care to look for it. When I sit down to write I am trying to find for myself, and for the reader, the story of how my characters got to where they ended up. The logic behind their choices, as crazy as some of the choices might appear at first glance.
To narrativize is to explain, to understand, to forgive, to include.
Where do you find inspiration when the well runs dry?
In books, mostly. Writing is such an incestuous business. We write to inspire and we are in turn inspired by writing. I read the review pages, I read interviews, I read new books, and by the time I am done, I return to my desk (meaning my bed) with fresh vigor.
Is there a tidbit of writing advice that has stayed with you over the years?
Yes. No matter how many books you have written, writing never gets easier. The next one, at the beginning, is going to be as difficult and as unsightly as the very first one you did. This is what makes writing so interesting, and also so challenging.
It teaches one to hope, to believe in perfectibility – all one has to do is to trust in the revision process. Just like in life itself.
What is something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you were just starting out?
That getting published doesn’t necessarily mean getting rich and famous.
Whether you do yoga or another form of physical or spiritual practice, how does it affect your work?
I run, and I walk. They do help – things have a way of coming into better perspective. I could start out with the most weighty problem on my mind, my mind full of chaos and darkness, but by the end of my walk, invariably, I’d be smiling and thinking, why did I think this was so unsolvable?
Things just resolve themselves, all I have to do is to use my legs.
What is your most favorite guilty pleasure?
I’ll say watching movies when I should be doing more serious stuff, like reading, or helping around the house.
If you had to pick one book to recommend as a must-read,
which would it be?
That’s the toughest question so far. But right now I am in a Yvonne Vera moment. I’ve been teaching her this semester and it was a revelation to see the joy on my students’ faces just discussing Vera. So, I’ll say Butterfly Burning by the late Zimbabwean author, Yvonne Vera.
What is on your nightstand now?
Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. It works wonders for my sporadic insomnia.
The pause that refreshes! You can find Corinna Barsan’s musings and discoveries on her blog at Shiny White Page.
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Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.