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Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo


Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

Okonkwo is an MFA student at Western Connecticut State University. He has a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the Federal University of Technology in Akure, Ondo State, Nigeria. He worked as a reporter for many years in Africa, Europe, and North America. His first book, Children of a Retired God was published in 2006. He is the founder of Iroko Productions LLC and the Olaudah Equiano Prize for Fiction. He lives in Rosedale, New York City

For one week, Okonkwo was in residence at Western Connecticut State University on his MFA programme. Here is his diary.


 Diary of an MFA Student in Residence

Day 1; Publishing and Yesterday’s Business
August 4, 2008; I woke up at 5.00am and rushed into the bathroom to get ready for the day. The trip from Queens, New York, to Danbury, Connecticut, was a 90-minute drive. Our first workshop on The Publishing Process would start at 9.00am. My calculation was to leave at 6.00am and get to Danbury latest 8.Am. I wanted to give myself an hour for contingencies. 
While going through my writing notebooks, searching for what to recycle, I came across a quote that answered a question that had stumped me for a long time. In these residencies, when I submitted stories for peer review, one of the recurring questions I faced was why my stories were always dark and unhappy. Because most of my stories were set in Africa, I often get asked if good things never happened there. I had battled with an appropriate answer. While I did not want to help perpetuate stereotypes, I’d want to be true to myself. So this quote from Aminata Sow Fall gave me a great answer:

An African writer cannot and must not take pen in hand merely to offer pretty expressions and phrases. As the product of a society that has its problems, he can and must help in their presentation so that each person becomes completely aware of them, so that people think of them and look for their solution. If that is what it means to be a committed writer, then that is what I am.

On the same page where I found the quote above, I also found this by the godfather of African literature, Chinua Achebe. He was talking about stereotypes and here is what he said:

Stereotypes are not necessarily malicious. They may be well meaning and even friendly. But in every case, they show a carelessness or laziness or indifference of attitude that implies that the object of your categorization is not worth the trouble of individual assessment

I said yeah to the quote.
Soon I was ready to head out as scheduled. The roads were pretty clear. I got to Danbury at 7.23 am. I stopped at Stop & Shop to buy few items I would need in my hall of residence, items I forgot to pick up from home. 
The Publishing Process Workshop was what it ought to be. There were two manuscripts of short stories that were given to us for peer review and possible recommendation for publication. We stimulated the University Press publishing process. In my contribution, I found the first manuscript wanting and I gave the second one a glowing recommendation. Even though the first manuscript was not up to par in my eyes, there were some lines in it that I found interesting.
One was when the narrator said that for Catholics, “worse than having premarital sex was using birth control.” I did not know that.
The other line was when the child narrator gave her perspective of Mary, the mother of Jesus in this way: “Not to mention that it did God the world of good to have Mary in the picture, just from a PR point of view.”
On the second manuscript, I simply said that I was sure it was on its way to a bookstore near you. It was that good and a joy to read. A twist in one particular story was a delight. It made me wonder why I didn’t come up with stuff like that. When that happened, I knew I was reading great stuff. 
Other participants seemed to agree with my assessment.
7.00 PM Eastern: Ok. I've got few minutes so I will round up the day so far. There is a literary event up at a beautiful mansion up in the hills. Reading will be one of my mentors who encouraged me last semester to bring out the 'story' in my short story.
First of all, let me get a conflict out of the way: I was scared of coming here today. In an online class last semester, I wrote an unsympathetic critique of a colleague’s work that caused an uproar. I did not mean to do that and I had to apologize.
Because I could not place the face of this colleague, I was worried that it might be one of my friends. (I should probably mention that I am no good at names or faces.) Anyway, he happened to be in the Publishing Workshop and when he eventually introduced himself to the class, I was taken aback. He could have crushed me if we had opted to settle things physically.
Anyway, at first I did not know how to approach him. For the first four hours we did not greet each other;  we had opportunities to approach one another and shake hands but we didn’t.
Well, just before dinner I was man enough to go up to him. He said he had forgiven me and forgotten the incident. We smiled. Reading his response to my critique I did not know that he could smile. He had been so bombastic and defiant in his rebuttal.
Other important things that happened: I met one of my mentors for the semester. He was an accomplished writer who was very enthusiastic about the ideas I had for the semester. He had published many books and had written the screenplay for a movie. He knew the people that mattered in the New York publishing industry. He told me it was no longer enough to write a good story or even a great one. He said my work must be stunning to have a chance. He wanted me to give him a stunning work and he would give me the best agent in New York.
I felt like the ball was now in my court.
He reinforced in me the feeling that I must give voice to the stories of people who were incapable of telling their stories.
Earlier, I checked into my dorm room. Now, that was a story on its own. It was first time in about 15 years that I had entered a college dorm. When I was told I would have three roommates I thought I would be sharing bunk beds.  I had three roommates alright, but we each had our bedrooms. –
And the beds were  twin-size, with queen-size beddings. This night would be interesting.


Day Two: Screenplays and Smoke Screens
I am paying thousands of dollars to learn how to write professionally. But I will give you the core knowledge here – for free.
Yes. I have a mentor who knows everything. When he opens his mouth, the wisdom acquired over the years gush out. At one point today, I asked him why he had not written a book on writing. He had written many successful books, but none on how to write. He did not answer me. I guess he has no interest in such a book. I have read many of such books; none gave me cause to take notes the way I did, listening to him.
I started this morning in his workshop on screenplay. I pitched my idea of a screenplay and the class helped me refine it. It turned out that the screenplay I wrote and called A Diary of a Wasted Poet was three screenplays in one. No wonder I could never explain it in one sentence.
I later met with him in-between lunch and a screenplay discussion with Hollywood writers and Television executives. I pitched a story to a Television executive which he found interesting. He told me the idea could easily be stolen so I ain’t gonna mention it here! He asked me to work on it.
A prominent newspaper columnist also spoke in the afternoon. He said the newspaper industry was dying and he had no advice for those trying to get in. I said they should try blogging.
So I will present below some wonderful things I learnt from my mentor.

  • Without conflict there is no motor to turn the story.
  • In a story, the main character has to change and the change has to be external.
  • When you are a writer, people will always come to you and tell you to write about them because they have interesting stories to tell. We know their stories are not interesting and cannot be written without significant modifications that will make them mad at the end.
  • All plots that are not emanating from character are melodramas.
  • Until you can state in one declared sentence what your screenplay is, you are not ready to start.
  • The idea to write what you know is trash.
  • You must know the controlling idea of your story.
  • In all you tell, go for the heart. Reach the reader’s heart.
  • Writing itself is an act of discovery.
  • We have to be an incredible rejecter of our own ideas.
  • As writers, we have taken our vow of poverty.
  • Always, always go deeper.

A grandma was reading a story to her grandson in a Laundromat. Each time she stopped and looked up to check on her laundry spinning in the washer, the grand son would say to her, “And what happened?”
You have to make your readers always say, “And what happened?”
Well, it is about 2AM. I have been up reading stories for workshops coming up tomorrow and next tomorrow and next next tomorrow… My head is full of characters. Maybe tomorrow, I will have the time to tell you about some of the characters here. Yes. When writers gather, the world is missing many of its weird souls.
Until tomorrow, “Hope and hope removed makes it a sick heart.”

Day Three: Attack of the Pretty Girls
Just as I caught my breath after presenting my screenplay pitch, she passed to me a hand-written note. Her gesture catapulted me back to my days as a fifteen-year-old freshman in college.
It was my first week and I had gone to the cafeteria to eat. Akure was a strange land for me and I was still standing on one foot like a fowl in an alien field.
I got my plate of rice and stew and scanned for an unoccupied table where I would eat alone, for I only knew one student in the whole college. As I made my way to a table in the corner, this pretty girl walked up to me. I sneaked a quick glance at her; she was the one that won the Miss Campus competition the weekend I arrived.
I had no experience talking to girls. I was a timid boys’ high school product. A nerd, you might say. But if I were to suddenly develop the courage to talk to girls, it would never in this world be a girl like this. She was out of my league. She was not just beautiful, she knew it.
I froze on the spot as she approached. I was sure the heavens would fall on the cafeteria roof and together they would all land on my head.
“Can I taste your food?” she asked, a few inches away from me.
In my head rang a violent, “What? Taste my food?”
I could not look at her face. I just handed her my plate of rice. I would buy another one, I told myself.
She took my plate of food and held it in her hands for a few seconds. Then she said, “Thank you,” and placed it back in my hands, which were still stretched out towards her.
As she walked away to join the queue for food, I heard boys whistling.


I glanced at the note this pretty girl passed to me this morning. At the top she had written Rudolf with a ‘ph’. I stopped myself from reading further. I tried to listen to the science fiction pitch the other student was presenting. But half of my mind was on that note. What could it be about?
Last semester, there were two pretty girls in the program, just two. I knew because I got to eat sushi with them at a Japanese Restaurant (That is a story for another day). This semester, there were two more. And these two were different. They were everywhere. And they were flaunting it. Skimpy shorts, tank top, high heels, I mean, it was impossible to avoid them.
The one that passed me a note also talked a lot. She expressed herself quite unlike most fresh year students.
Last semester, I wondered what pretty girls were doing in a writing class. Then I read Nadia Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, and Chimamanda Adichie. I looked at their pictures on the back cover and I understood.
Residencies like this are just an aggregate of weird people. Some talk to themselves. With some you will never hear their voices… but when you read their works you’ll panic. Some seem to me to be retired serial killers. Some wear a pair of jeans and T-shirt for a week. Some carry a backpack with all they owned. It is all full of eccentrics.
…and then the pretty girls.
These girls seem out of place. In fact, what makes them more foreign is any attempt to flaunt their endowments. Flaunt for whom? Men who had not combed their hair in weeks? Or the ones who wear sleeveless shirts, exposing armpits that had not been shaved in years? There were very few who looked like they had gone out on a date in years. Why then, pretty girls? Why?
In fact, reading the stories that these men pass around, you could see that when they wanted a pretty girl, they went to their writing table and created one.
Anyway, most of the writers in this residency lived like normal people outside. Some are waiters, some work in casinos, some write for small newspapers, some work in construction, some teach in schools, some work for non-profit organizations, some just left the military (those ones often write about killing everyone to save the world), some are hostesses and some are dancers.
The motivation to write varies a lot. Some have seen things. Some have people who have no voice they want to speak for. Some hear voices.
The pretty girl in this story wants revenge. And that is a legitimate reason to write.
Fifteen or so years ago, as I sat down to finally eat the food I had handed to Miss Campus, I thought about what she asked me, “Can I taste your food?” It occurred to me that she meant was, “Can I feel your food?” She wanted to know if it was hot enough for her, before she placed her order.
As I sat down in a panel discussion that followed, I finally read her note. It did not say “Meet me in Room 419.” It simply outlined the ideas for my screenplay that workshop participants had suggested.
By the time movie and literary agents come, I will really tell you why they pay special attention to pretty girls who have launched a fierce attack on the literary landscape. 
For now, my guess is that if you want to write in this TV age, you should either have the talent or the TV face. If you have the two, you are on your way to the Oprah Winfrey Show.
OK. I got to run. It is time to get ready for Day Four.


Day Four: Elements of Fiction
Graduates of the University of Iowa Writing Program are arguably the best there are. But when they teach at other writing programs, they try not to brag about Iowa. But they never fail to mention it. They often give instances of workshops in Iowa where professors made writers throw up when their stories were critiqued.
Well, we have had a few of the Iowa products here. They did not make anyone cry. But they did impart their wisdom.
Prior to this workshop, we participants were asked to turn in stories for consideration. Out of about twelve stories turned in, only two were selected. We read the two stories and came in prepared with our observations. The names of the writers were not on the stories. One of the stories was about a killer from a mob family. It was horrifying. The main character’s way of killing with the knife was shocking.
Sitting on my right in the workshop was this student whose voice I had never heard . He never spoke in my presence. For some reason, it was the first time I was in the same workshop with him. At the beginning of the workshop, the professor identified the writers of the stories. It happened that the student on my right was the author of the mob story. I whispered to the student on my left, “Do you think I am safe sitting beside him?”
Here are elements of fiction that I gathered in a short story workshop

  •  There are limited pools of mistakes people make in writing. You can find them, avoid them and have your writing improve.
  • Try to avoid topic sentences. It does the work of the reader.
  •  Be mindful of adverbs. They add flop to a sentence. An adverb is a sign of a lazy verb. Use adverbs as the last resort.
  • ‘Walk’ is a painful word. You can overuse it.
  • One word you can use all the time is ‘said’. It is an invisible tag. Don’t work too hard to come up with dialogue tag other than ‘said’.
  • Never name a character unless he is important to the story. If you give a character a name people will want to know more about the character.
  • In magical realism, the first line has to show the premise of the story.
  • If a story is working, you will not notice the point of view.
  •  If you cannot do the hard work involved in writing, go and do something else that is easier.
  • Avoid point of view violations.
  •  Mind the word ‘was’. There is a ‘was’ disease in fiction. You can easily replace the passive voice.
  • Words like “lugubrious’ are not reader-friendly.
  •  Anything can happen at the end of a story. But the ending should be surprising but inevitable. So avoid ‘either or’ ending. If you face the ‘either or’ situation, throw in the curve ball.
  • Dictum about the gun - don’t put it on the wall if you are not going to use it.
  • Start your story where it happened – close to the conflict.

“Success in writing is not rare,” so said the professor. “You can be an instant success. It doesn’t happen everyday. But it happens often enough.”
He should know – his novel made it big.
Now that I have gotten the fiction out of the way, I will talk about non-fiction next.


Day Five: Writing is Hard
In high school, the often-heard expression as we prepared for our General Certificate of Education examination was that English as a subject did not need any studying. These were people whose primary language of communication was Igbo. In two sessions of non-fiction workshops, I walked out feeling like someone who had approached non-fiction writing with that kind of attitude.
While I was sleeping, nonfiction grew wings and flew away. And there I was still stretching my hands in search of it, while it was kiting high in the sky.
Creative non-fiction is the term used for non-fiction writing that made the cut. It requires the use of fictional techniques like character-development, plot, suspense, dialogue, sensory description, personal reflection and self-exploration. If you are writing literary journalism, it will require the narrative arc. If you are writing memoir, it will require a character arc. And if you are writing essay, it will require a  thematic arc.
The reader wants the writer to bring the story to life. After all, all literature is longing- someone will always want something they cannot have. The events that conspire to get in the way of what they want make the plot.
It is critical to identify where the reader enters your story. That is why it is important to identify the conflict and set it up first. Readers often enter the story at the point where the character is most vulnerable.
Also important to the story is the structure – which means the way you arrange the story for the reader –flashbacks, flash-forwards, scenes, and other literary techniques.
In writing a memoir, it is important to handle well the double perspective – this stands for what you thought at the time and what you know now.
Metaphors should be used if they serve the story and not the reverse. Too many metaphors are a smoke screen. Metaphors should work on a sensory as well as emotional level.
Writers must be able to identify the scenes that should be well-defined. And for the rest, writers should do what Hemingway called “murder your darling.”
Avoid tension that seems artificial.
Whatever you do, remember that the reader must care about your character to invest in him or her. As for the writer, he or she must believe in the story to be able to deliver it.
“In a really great story, the words disappear.”
Writing is hard. It took me six days of intensive workshops and lectures to come to that, often forgotten, conclusion. Those who are lucky to have found a way to write things others can feel, in the writing world, are blessed.
Of course, the first step in all these is to keep writing. After so much debate, internal and external, often intense and retrogressive, I agreed to keep writing in spite of everything. The one and only reason for that is that I believe I have a story of people who have no voice, that only I can tell. I must now work hard and find a way to tell that story so well that you, my reader, will care. 

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