How I felt after reading the Hunger Games

During the month of March, as part of a reading challenge this year, I manage to devour the Hunger Games trilogy.

I am not familiar with Suzanne Collins’ work, but her writing was so captivating, for lack of a better adjective.

I had never watched the movies. I made a deal with myself to read the books first, and I was not disappointed! I can’t remember the last book that made me obsess so much. I was really pulled into a different world and I finally get what everyone else was raving about it, even though it’s almost 10 years later.

I loved the way Suzanne Collins used practical descriptions in her book to create the images of the districts I saw in my head. She really made it relatable.

She wrote from Katniss’ perspective, and I really felt like I was in Katniss’ head. Taking things in as she was. So I think it’s fair to say Suzanne Collins is one of my new favorite writers, up there next to John Green and J.K Rowling.

It’s so great that she had a female protagonist in this story- especially because our world is still unlearning to put women in boxes. In a way, I think Katniss was still battling to believe she was a hero. People placed high expectations on her, and I don’t think she realised what she was capable of until the very end.

In many ways, I think a lot of women are like Katniss. We don’t realise our potential and it take something great to call that out of us.

So there was a lot of moments of personal reflection I had throughout reading this series, and writing this post counts as one of them.

I realised that the Hunger Games was ironically a book about food.

After reading book one, I realised that the Hunger Games was ironically a book about food. Man, I got really hungry every time Katniss described the food she was eating, even the lamb stew with the prunes, and I’m a vegetarian!

It also made Katniss seem like a real girl who gets hungry, like me. Again, that’s another example of how Suzanne Collins just shattered the limiting perceptions we have of women. Yey for women who get hungry and then eat with their hands!

Of the characters I will say that I was #TeamPeeta after the story about the bread. (See, they mention food a lot in this book). I always liked Gale. I thought he was great a friend to Katniss, but I knew there would have to be a twist in the story so I was vying for Peeta.

I will admit the love triangle situation was probably unnecessary, and it reminded me briefly about Twilight. But this book’s saving grace is that the love triangle was only a subplot and there’s a bigger story about a revolution going on here.

Haymitch was one of my favourites, I didn’t like him in the beginning but he really did that thing where he grows on you. Also, I think Suzanne Collins just gave him great lines. His like that family screw up, who’s not afraid to drop the truth even when it hurts. We need more people like Haymitch, except the part where he’s an alcoholic; no one should suffer like that.

I never had strong feelings about Effie Trinkett. I can’t say I liked her nor that I disliked her.

I liked who Prim becomes. So in the beginning, all we know is that she’s Katniss’ younger sister and that Katniss would give her life for her. But she’s not as helpless as Katniss makes her seem. I was disappointed at the end when Suzanne Collins killed her off anyway. I was like: “Whaaaaaaat?! Isn’t the point of Katniss volunteering to go into the arena to save Prim’s life the whole point of this story?” Anyway, so that sucked. Especially when Katniss had to return home, with no one. It’s like when the thing you try your best to stop from happening, actually happens.

So I guess that was an unexpected twist. At that point I thought Prim was safe, so well done to Suzanne Collins for making that happen. Honestly I was expecting her to kill off Gale. I was preparing myself for that.

So when Prim died, I was gutted. I’m still replaying exploding parachutes in my head.

Finnick – I like Finnick, because of his story. At first he seems really hardcore and like those annoying goodlooking people who have it easy. But he’s suffered and I kind of respect him for all his endured. It gives him some sort of humanity.

He’s also an example of many of the other loveable characters that died in this book. So after food, this book has a lot of death in it.

I was particularly fond of Cinna, Katniss’ stylist. I liked that they kept his presence in the book, even after his death.

I cried reading about Rue’s death. It was a strange experience for me. I’m used to books making me laugh out loud, so this was a different.

GOODBYE RUE: I finally get what everyone else was on about, and I am disappointed that I had to figure it out 10 years later.

I liked Pollux, even though he didn’t talk. I like that he plays a really important role in the end and that he gets along with Katniss. He even gets her to sing the Hanging Tree.

The Hanging Tree

I love this song. I found an hour-long version of it on YouTube and kept listening to it. I had first heard it a few years ago when Mockingjay part one came out. I liked the tune of the song then, but remember I hadn’t watched the movies. So when I actually read the words in the book, I was like: “Woah! This is a really dark song. But I love it!”

I think the part on the book where Katniss explains how she felt about the song, was funny. Even though it was probably a serious point in the book, but she was really just unpacking her thoughts as a teenager. Still a beautiful song. I kept singing it myself.

I wrote out the lyrics on a notepad just so I could stop thinking about it! I know, it’s kind of strange to get excited about a song about death.

If I have a choice, I don’t usually do war stories. It takes a lot of convincing for me to watch a movie about a war, usually because they’re so long. The Hunger Games, although it culminates in a war at the end, didn’t feel laborious to read, I didn’t zone out in the action scenes, either. Again, that’s a testament to Suzanne Collins’ great writing.

It felt like a journey. This was a journey of Katniss’ transformation from the girl who hunted in the meadow at District 12 to a soldier.

Who is Katniss?

I like that Katniss changes. Who she changes into isn’t really great. She loses a lot of herself because of the terror she’s faced. Then again, she was always a bit depressed. I imagined the beating her body took and I don’t think mentally you’re alright after that. I liked the reality of that. Suzanne Collins didn’t try to brush over that with a happy ending.

At the same time, Katniss discovers she’s a survivalist. She’s a strong woman, looked death in the face a number of times. Killed a few people too. So yes, I’m okay with her brokenness. She has good reason to be.

She never really listens to orders but in the end there’s more conviction to her actions. So she’s always been a rebel. She’s definitely not presidential material.

Surprisingly she is someone who loves. Although she has a very strange way of showing that love. Near the end I thought she would end up alone and I was willing to accept that given everything else that happened. I was sketching out a future for her where she ends up like Haymitch, I know not the best but definitely plausible.

But I guess Suzanne Collins probably rescued that train of thought and brings us back to the beginning.

Katniss always loved the boy who threw her that bread, even if she didn’t recognise it in the beginning. I guess she’s the kind of person who had to go through this very treacherous journey which practically tore her soul apart to realise that she needs someone like Peeta to make her feel whole again.

Barf! I know that’s so cheesy, but that’s what happens, he’s the hope she needs to carry on living. If he had died, she surely would have died. Think about it, he was in the arena with her, he understood everything she had been through and somehow he still came out of it with a shred of hope. He’s Katniss’ sliver of light.

Besides, if she ended up with Gale, I think they would have killed each other, or they would have lived miserably, never getting past the war.

Where is Gale?

I know Gale gets a fancy job in District two. But seriously were is Gale? What is this fancy job? Is he still constructing bombs or was he so eaten with the guilt of building the bomb that killed Prim that he stopped doing it altogether?

Also he really loved Katniss. So does he fall in love again? Does he meet someone who loves him back. I thought his other option would be Madge, the mayor’s daughter, but that whole family died.

Then I remember, Suzanne Collins doesn’t have to tell us what happens to Gale. The story is not about Gale. The story is about Katniss. She is the hero. Again, as a reader I am being challenged to accept the completion of a story about a woman.

Also – I’m totally having a Hunger Games movie marathon before the year is over. #Mockingjay

And just because these words are equivalent to a Shakespearean soliloquy:

 

What I learnt from writing a novel

I recently finished writing a 50 000 word novel, in less than 28 days. Why would I do such a crazy thing? That’s simple, as a member of the human race I have come to believe that we are all inherently crazy. Politics is enough proof of that.

Me, after writing a 50k word novel in less than a month.

Me, after writing a 50k word novel in less than a month.

But seriously, working as a journalist I felt that I had hit a wall in terms of my creative writing. I have been trained to write as a reporter. That means I need to restrain my flair, keep my writing concise and lose the parts that don’t add value to a hard hitting news story.

Also, it’s been a few years since I have written simply for the pleasure of writing. There was a time, when I used to write poetry, plays, songs and short stories that were never published. As a teenager writing helped me express what I was feeling. I kept some of these written pieces in a note book, no one else has read them.

As a journalist I got used to my work being published, all the time. Essentially, I haven’t written work that is not meant to be read by anyone else in four years!

In a way the act of writing became a machine that fed my ego. As the late writer Sylvia Plath once said: “I think writers are the most narcissistic people. Well, I mustn’t say this, I like many of them, a great many of my friends are writers.” Those words could not be more true (I’m referring to the part where she calls writers narcissists). One of the guest lecturers in journalism school said something similar, alluding to the idea that the only reason we write is so others can read our work.

Before this exercise turns into another measure of my self-importance let me explain why I took on this personal challenge. I borrowed the idea from National Novel Writing Month which takes place in November. I started writing my novel in December in a bid to do something “proactive” before the end of the year.

The plan was to write up 1667 words per chapter. I had written out a blueprint for the story, complete with characters. It was meant to be complete in 30 chapters, one for each day.

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Blueprint, well half of it.

Over time my story evolved. I didn’t stick to the plan. I changed the word count to 2000 words, I introduced a completely new character and changed other details. The story was completed in 27 chapters.

There were no restrictions on the way the novel would be written. I write mostly in the first person. There are some aspects of time travel and differing perspectives for the same event.

This experience has been like opening the sluices of a dam and then watching endless water run through. I say that because I have an idea for another novel that I want to write. The challenge this time was the volume of words and the time limit. I hope the next novel will create room to explore each character in more detail and more plot development.

I recommend the challenge to anyone, even if you don’t write. It’s an awesome opportunity for introspection.

There are four main lessons I take away from this experience:

1. Writing is pain

Throughout this process I have come face to face with my poor vocabulary, countless grammar mistakes and the general butchering of the English language. One of the things that helped me continue writing was the idea that no one would read this material. As writers we already put pressure on ourselves through the way we scrutinize our own work. Not having to worry about the judgement by readers helped keep the writing going.

It also came with a lot of sacrifice, which mainly cut into my hours of sleep. I would only really get a chance to write in the evenings. I would start after 8 pm and finish around 12 pm every night. I think it took me that long because the process involved a lot of pacing, drinking of Rooibos tea and the rehashing of conversations, out loud.

But after every chapter there was just so much relief! It really is like eating an entire elephant, one bite at a time.

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#Mood, after finishing each chapter.

2. Life happens when you’re writing

During this process, I still had other commitments which I had to fulfill, such as work for example. People don’t care that you’re writing a novel. When your friends come over, they come over. When you tell them you’re writing a novel they say: “Great, I want to read it.” And then they proceed to talk about their lives.

Once I even chose between washing my hair and writing another chapter. I did both and just slept five hours that night (I don’t recommend that). When Rogue One was showing in theatres, I had to complete two chapters in one day because I knew I would be too tired to type out another chapter after going to see the movie. I had to compensate like that a few more times for the “writing days” I missed.

It’s not just the “tiny” day to day events to consider either, there was a death in the family, something serious. I had to write through all of that too.

3. Writer’s read

The thing is, 50 000 words is a lot and I really did not think I would be able to colour those blank pages. I think that I drew influences from novels I had read throughout the year, especially in terms of writing styles.

In one example, I used the method to move between scenes from the current novel I am reading. I also used similar methods when dealing with dialogue between characters, which becomes really tricky in the first person. I took a conversational approach because I found that was easier to read.

In a way reading gave me confidence to sit down and write my own story. It’s kind of a – if they can do it, so can I – conclusion.

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Author Zadie Smith, reading.

4. Writing is intimate

Readers don’t realise that writing is an intimate experience. Apart from the personal reflection, it’s an invitation to the reader to step into the world the writer has created. The writer puts herself or himself in a vulnerable position by exposing their inner most thoughts, on record. No one writes without leaving a piece of themselves in their writing.

I found that even though this was a work of fiction, I wove in truths from my reality into the story. It also exposed some of my own thoughts and feelings on certain topics.

I have also created an ideal world where every character in my novel is completely honest. That’s probably unrealistic, but I have seen that it’s a reflection of the world I want to live in. So I’ve learnt a lot about myself in that regard.

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Final word count

Some of my friends have asked to read the novel, but I believe it defeats the purpose of this project. This was a chance for me to get back onto the horse, as a creative writer.

At the same time, having others read it will open my work to criticism, and I need to hear that if I’m going to improve my writing.

I found that, when you make promises to people, you have to keep them. However, it’s much easier to default on promises you make to yourself.  I once started writing a novel in high school and I never completed that novel. It’s haunted me ever since, especially whenever I think about writing long pieces. It’s probably why I have stuck to shorter pieces. Writing this novel has been daunting, finishing it meant that I kept a promise to myself.

What I do envision for this novel is to turn it into an audio project. I don’t know where I will find the time, but I have some idea of how. I think it will provide the perfect platform for my next creative endeavour.

 

Feeling Jack Keruoac

It was my first day on the new job. I was stuck in a minibus in Sunnyside, Pretoria. The bus was leading a crowd of people in a march, so naturally it was moving at a snail’s pace. However, my fingers were typing away at lightning speed.

I was racing against a mobile device that was losing power by the minute, and an internet connection that kept breaking at random. All the while I was thinking: “What did I get myself into?”

I was not supposed to be on that bus. The other journalists had left an hour earlier. They got all their pictures and quotes and promptly headed back to their respective newsrooms to file their stories.  But I chose to hang around to get the video footage I needed.

Waiting a few minutes longer meant that I would have to find my way back to the starting line, by foot. Being in unfamiliar territory, I was not confident that I would navigate back safely. I decided to complete the march, all 15km of it.

But it was after the second uphill when I told myself: “You’re a journalist. You’re not supposed to be marching. Your editor is waiting for the story. You can’t tell her you didn’t file it because you were marching.” Survival mode kicked in, I hitched a ride on the minibus and I filed the crap out of that story, frankly speaking.

In the past few weeks, I feel like I’ve been turning water into wine. Seriously, I have been doing impossible things or rather what I figured was impossible until I tried it. Working in a digital newsroom requires you to work at a faster pace than in print. I’ve gone from writing two stories a week, to four in one day. It reminds me a lot about my time at Wits Vuvuzela.

The Wits Vuvuzela newsroom taught me everything I know about journalism. It was characterized by its controlled chaos. I was constantly exhausted but I kept living off boosts from the adrenaline rush that came whenever I was on a story. I am in that space again.

I like to think that I make safe decisions when it comes to my personal life.

Someone asked me once if I have an addictive personality. I was not sure at the time. But after I covered a wage protest it became clear to me why I loved the job. It’s the adrenaline. I like to think that I make safe decisions when it comes to my personal life. But when it comes to my job, I am fearless. I take risks, all the time, without hesitation.

Once I was heading to a story, in the Johannesburg CBD, at night. I took an Uber, but on the way I wondered what my parents would say if they heard what I was doing. “Be safe,” I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. And then I heard: “You have to do the story. What are you going to tell the editor if you don’t do it?”

And that’s what happens in my head most days. One voice signals caution and the other eggs me on to push the boundaries. The only reason I do take the leap is because I know there’s a figurative safety net to fall back on. “It’s my job. I have to do it,” I coax myself.

And the adrenaline, it’s almost incapacitating. “Almost” because if it was entirely debilitating, I wouldn’t be able to report the stories.

Find the words

Reflecting on my job, I feel like Jack Kerouac. Except for the drugs and promiscuity. But equally burnt out. Like him, I am doing what I love. But I wonder, whenever he created a piece, was it painful, or did it give him joy? Did it come from a place of hidden melancholy? Or was he perfectly fine, and he just happened to write these great pieces in passing?

I write constantly. There is not a day that I don’t. If I don’t write then it means I didn’t work. I’ve been writing so much for work purposes that I have not had the time to do so creatively. I used to write from a place of pain. Now it just comes from a place of skill. I don’t know if it’s natural. And I cannot measure whether it was better as a hobby, than as a job.

I used to write to unwind and reflect on life. After a day’s work the last thing I want to do is write. So I have been challenging myself to find a new hobby. But writing always wins.

I come back to it, even when I don’t want to. There is a release of some chemical in my brain, perhaps dopamine, whenever I write. Whether I’m reporting at a protest, or sitting in my lounge at home, typing at leisure, I feel that rush. I feel that pleasure. I am addicted.

Source: Writersatwork.pfauth.com

Source: Writersatwork.pfauth.com

I still feel there’s so much to learn about writing. So much I have to master. I still haven’t found my voice as a writer. That thing that marks that a piece was written by me. I think part of finding your voice, is understanding the space in which you are most creative. For me that space has evolved from sadness to thrill. And I am concerned about whether my pieces are still good, if the place from where they are coming is happy?

One of my writing mentors at varsity once explained spontaneous writing. He went on to add: “But you have to use punctuation. You’re not Jack Kerouac.”

So I think it is just fitting to end with words by Jack Kerouac in his book, The Dharma Bums: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”

A most unfortunate name

“Hi Lameez

Ramadan Mubarak!

Hope you well.”

This is a greeting I received via email recently, during the month of Ramadan.

From an outsider’s perspective, there is nothing wrong with that greeting. It’s polite and considerate, if the recipient is Muslim.

This always comes as a shock to most people who meet me for the first time, but I am not Muslim. My given name is obviously very Arabic. And I can forgive someone mistaking me for a Muslim just by looking at my name.

It also doesn’t help that I “look” Indian. Between me and my brother, I think I inherited the lion’s share of my grandfather’s Indian genes. So as a result, I’ve been going through life correcting people for thinking that I’m an Indian Muslim.

It’s not a big deal. It’s just annoying. I’ve been retelling my family tree to complete strangers since I was eight years old. You can imagine disclosing one’s genealogy can be quite invasive and cumbersome after the 35th time.

I was talking to my father about it one day, he’s had similar experiences and has managed to take it in his stride (I don’t have that stride). In fact, it’s an inside joke between us. I have considered making it the topic of my monologue for when I try stand-up comedy.

Sometimes I think I would have to answer fewer questions if my name wasn’t Arabic. I kind of blame my dad for that – he was the one who decided that I shouldn’t be given a Western name. Conversely, sometimes when I consider how Westernised the world is becoming and how much people are fighting to preserve their cultures – then I’m grateful that my dad sort of “stuck it to the man” and gave me and my brother Arabic names.

My name is sort of the thing that confirms the assumption that I am Indian. For example: Someone sees me for the first time, assumes that I am Indian by the pigmentation of my skin and the texture of my hair (very stereotypical by the way). I mention my “Indian-sounding” name, and there’s the confirmation – what they see matches what they assume.

In fact I don’t do anything that’s haram (forbidden) by Muslim standards

One of my colleagues also highlighted that I have very Muslim-habits, that don’t bode well to diffuse the situation either. For example, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, I don’t eat pork (that’s just a preference) and I don’t date (I haven’t had the opportunity)… In fact I don’t do anything that’s haram (forbidden) by Muslim standards. It’s ironic because when you’re trying to be like Jesus, you don’t expect your actions to come across as those of Prophet Muhammad.

Essentially, I’m being stereotyped based on what people see on the surface. I can live with that, if I never have to see these people again. But it’s the “subsequent-stereotyping” I’m worried about. That’s the kind of stuff that gets me into awkward, if not embarrassing situations. Here’s a rundown:

  1. When my Muslim classmate asked me to ask our lecturer to reschedule a test because it was the night of Eid.
  2. When my colleagues assumed that I was Muslim because of my name… and then found out that I wasn’t Muslim, six months later.
  3. Apart from the countless emails I received wishing me well for Ramadan, there have also been messages to wish me well as I celebrate Eid.
  4. When the guy at the cafeteria didn’t want to make me a sandwich because he didn’t have halaal ingredients.
  5. When the guy at the cafeteria asked the lady in the kitchen to look at me to confirm that I wasn’t Indian.
  6. That guy from the hardware store who called me, but greeted me with “Salaam Alaikum,” and I just said… “Hello” back.
  7. My driving instructor who kept showing me lovely Mosques as we drove past them.
  8. My driving instructor who asked me how I handle fasting.
  9. My driving instructor who couldn’t understand why all my names were Muslim, even the middle one.
  10. That person who wanted to reschedule a meeting for when my prayers were done.
  11. That guy who asked me how the fast was going.
  12. My friend’s sister who wanted to find a halaal restaurant for me. (Okay that wasn’t embarrassing. That was sweet.)

I don’t hate my name, but it does create a lot of inconvenient situations for me. Once I was hanging out with Christians, and cringed at having to explain what my name means. Sometimes I wish I had a Christian name. One guy who was surprised (they’re always surprised) to learn the truth about me asked what I would name my children. I responded with an aggressive and probably not like Jesus: “Very Christian names!”

I have learnt a lesson from this – and that’s not to judge people, especially when it comes to matters of identity/ ethnicity/ religion. And I have also seen the kindness of people, stereotyping aside, people are really considerate and respecting of others and their beliefs. It’s nice to see that there is still good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for (Yep, I totally stole that from Samwise Gamgee #TeamLOTR).

But I guess the silver lining in all of this is that your name doesn’t define who you are. You are not your name, but you are the sum of your choices. Who we become is up to us. There is always redemption.

A year without Facebook – A social experiment

Aim: Spend a year without using Facebook (in my personal capacity).

Hypothesis: I will successfully complete the year and reach personal enlightenment and recover from the need to broadcast my life on social media.

OR

Find a loophole to keep using Facebook, thus remaining a narcissist by the end of the trial.

Apparatus: The internet.

Method: Use the internet, but not Facebook. This means no posting updates, pictures or videos. No viewing or sharing posts and liking or commenting on posts from my personal account. In fact, deactivate my account and delete the app on my smartphone.

Results: I found a loophole.

Discussion of findings: My reason for abstaining from Facebook for a year was primarily to save data costs. I was also social media fatigued (I think). I was a slave to my smartphone. I would constantly glance down to see new updates on my timeline, only to find that the last person to send out an update was me.

That’s right, I was the most exciting person on my timeline. I knew that couldn’t be true, because my life isn’t that eventful. And that’s when I realized I was a cooler person online than in real life.

I embarked on a personal intervention and deactivated my account, without any warning. There was no: “This is my last status update for a long time,” to inform friends. There was no clean-up operation to “unlike” pages, exit groups or “un-share” posts. I imagine this must be what it feels like to join a witness protection programme.

This was not my first attempt at quitting Facebook. I’ve done it twice before. The last time I deactivated my account, I spent a solid six months Facebook-free. The purge was good… Until I caved.

I felt like my behavior was worse when I came back. It happened incrementally. At first I would share posts instead of constructing my own updates. That would happen once every few days. Eventually I was posting once a day.

The egotistical monster got a hold on me again, there I was, constantly viewing screens for updates. These updates weren’t necessarily posts by others, but rather, how many new notifications I received. How many people liked my post? Who commented? Who isn’t, and why not? Not looking at my timeline for an hour was an achievement.

My updates weren’t about me… but they were. Sure, it wasn’t always about the food I was eating, the places I was going to or who I was with. These were carefully constructed thoughts to reflect my wit. These “clever” observations of the world were just disguised self-glorification.

You might think that I’m being dramatic. But I would save unpublished statuses on my notepad which I had scheduled to post at a later stage. (This is the part in group therapy where I admit that I have a problem).

I was so far gone, I wasn’t only seeking validation and self- worth in Facebook, but my very existence hinged on it.

Not getting Facebook likes made me feel unloved. My train of thought would diverge into two extremes. If my post didn’t get likes, then the post wasn’t as funny as I thought it was, which means my sense of humour must be broken. Or, there was nothing wrong with me, but there was something wrong with everyone else. They’re all stupid and I need new friends.

So not having Facebook, was refreshing. During the first week I found myself glancing at my smartphone, without having anything to look at besides my wallpaper. That’s when I realized I was too dependent on it. I wasn’t living in reality, I was living online. I was so far gone, I wasn’t only seeking validation and self- worth in Facebook, but my very existence hinged on it.

My fears of replacing Facebook with another form of social media came true. I replaced it with Twitter. But fortunately, with Twitter no one can feed into your vanity, unless you have plenty followers who engage with you. Also, you’re competing with bigger names on Twitter. So I gave up on Twitter and latched onto Instagram. (I know, so much for curbing my data spending).

Once again, I was feeding off likes which served as an assessment of my photography skills. It wasn’t long before I discovered the power of captions. They were another way to share my thoughts. The caption became my status update, and the picture was a bonus. Now people could see what I was seeing. And I had a cool filter to make my feat look even cooler than it really was. (I need to find another adjective for “cooler”).

There was also WhatsApp. I found myself texting friends during the day. I would share BuzzFeed posts, screenshots of tweets and Instagram posts via WhatsApp and email. But people didn’t respond too well to that, I texted them more often than they texted me. Again, I went down that spiral of feeling unloved.

Then there’s work, the very undoing of my social experiment. I manage the social media accounts for work. So I hadn’t distanced myself from Facebook as far as I would’ve liked. In defence of maintaining whatever shred of integrity is left in this flawed experiment, posting for a company is different to posting from your personal account.

Companies use their social media strategically, to build networks and reach specific audiences. It’s more purposeful than running your own account where you just keep up with news about your buddies. And there was a lot of things I missed out on; engagement announcements, job promotions, graduations and birthdays. (A heck of a lot of birthdays). That’s when I noticed my friends were also dependent on Facebook to stay social.

There were a few useful things I learnt. When used correctly, social media can help build your brand, especially if you’re a young professional who’s trying to network and promote a purposeful message. However, my message was a loud clanging noise that screamed out “ME!”

I hate that I used Facebook as an outlet to promote a false reality of life. Real life is nothing like Facebook. We are not meant to exist on digital platforms.

To cure myself of boredom, I found a few “old school” activities to keep busy. I started reading more, paperback too. I also started listening to podcasts. (I’d recommend that – you can learn so much about the world and people). I also developed new hobbies like running. Not documenting the parts of the world I was discovering was refreshing. It granted me some degree of anonymity.

Life was simpler, like when I was younger. Where memories were made and saved in my head, not the internet.

I made more effort with my friendships. Instead of keeping in touch online, I would visit my friends more. Physically hanging out with people is more constructive than just following posts. That’s where the real relationship building happens. I even started phoning my friends again. Hearing their voices and not just reading their texts was pretty awesome. (That fellow Alexander Graham Bell was really onto something).

Life was simpler, like when I was younger. Where memories were made and saved in my head, not the internet. They became awesome stories to share with people, using words from my mouth! Just sitting and waiting, with nothing to occupy my hands or my mind was so freeing.

On the flipside of this free time I had to myself, I noticed how others were so glued to their phones. People don’t just sit around and enjoy each other’s company anymore. Their heads are bowed, eyes staring squarely at screens. They’re social with people online, when there are people right in front of them. It made me think of all the awesome people I never met because I was so closed off to the real world.

Conclusion: The real challenge begins. Do I return to Facebook? Frankly speaking, if I had to reactivate my Facebook account, then I suspect it would be similar to an ex-junkie relapsing into addiction.

I know I shouldn’t go back, for the sake of my mental health. Seriously, being on a site that’s all about me will end up killing my brain cells prematurely. Self-worship will be my undoing.

It would be ideal if I could quit all social media permanently.

But I can’t. Firstly, for professional reasons, as journalists we use Twitter as a tool to source and broadcast stories. Instagram is also hopping onto that wagon.

Secondly, I will never be truly free of social media. Instant messaging is social media, and to an extant email is too. I use these mediums to communicate and keep in touch with people. So I’ll be lying if I said I quit social media, because I’d still be using it in some way, maybe not as explicitly as using Facebook.

There are two things of which I am certain:

  1. I should not return to Facebook.
  2. I am still the self- loving person I was before I quit Facebook.

There is one thing of which I am uncertain. And that is whether I will be successful in avoiding Facebook for the rest of my life.

Every now and then I read a post online about the dangers of social media, with fraud and identity theft rising. Also, watching people destroy their careers on social media through their thoughtless posts is also keeping me off Facebook. But I don’t know if these reasons are sustainable.

There is a strong possibility that I will cave, again. I almost gave in for the last two weeks of this challenge.

Was my social experiment a success? In many ways it was conflicted. I found loopholes but there were some wins.

For one, it feels great to have some part of my life remain a mystery. Whenever I meet new people, they can’t find my Facebook profile online, so they can’t suss me out from my updates or pictures. I have enjoyed this short-term anonymity, but it isn’t a long term option for me.

I could join Facebook again and be consumed by my self-love. Or I can continue using other forms of social media, taking a more disciplined approach for professional purposes.

Leaving one question … Is it too late to get a pseudonym?

The great pretenders

I’ve been working for a financial magazine for the past five months, and so far I have had lunch with CEOs, attended seminars with political figures and mingled with investors. (Yes, I used finance speak the whole time… and when doubtful, nodded my head and dropped an “Oh really?” at appropriate pauses).

In two days I will be attending an event and the key note speaker, President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will talk about business opportunities in her country. Two years ago I didn’t know who she was and on Thursday I will be “hanging out” with the first elected female head of state in Africa. This is my life.

Conversations at the Saxon

The other day I was at the Saxon Hotel, learning about what SA needs to rescue its manufacturing sector and the implications of not exporting enough finished goods. The Saxon is apparently where Oprah stays over, I didn’t know that but my colleague kindly informed me. I (clumsy rookie) dropped my spoon and before I could even bend over to reach it, a waiter rushed to pick it up from the floor. “You don’t pick up your own spoon at the Saxon,” quipped my colleague.

Meanwhile, still at the Saxon, I spoke to another journalist, a veteran of sorts. I remember being 10 years old, eating breakfast before heading to school and watching her on the news channel. Sharing a sofa with her at the Saxon was probably one of the versions of the childhood dreams I had about meeting my immortal heroes, I mean news anchors. I played it cool (well, in my head I did- keeping calm on the outside and remaining desperate on the inside).

You can’t put a price on “chances in a lifetime”.

This journalist who I looked up to, was telling me how she can’t afford to spend one night at the Saxon, but wouldn’t trade her job as a journalist for anything else in the world. “At the time I was starting out it was rare to find black, female journalists. It was hard to convince my parents of my career choice,” she told me. Could this be? The woman I watched read the news on TV, while I was growing up, shares my story? She pioneered the way forward for female journalists in my generation. And I was sitting there, thinking to myself: “When you open your mouth again, don’t say anything embarrassing”… and: “Well, I’m never going to make money out of this profession, am I?”

Looking at the experiences I’ve had on the job in the past five months, and then comparing it to my salary… gee, you can’t put a price on “chances in a lifetime”. These memories, these experiences, they are invaluable. But it’s hard to try and reconcile this with the ideas of wealth and success we were raised to achieve.

Just pretending

We had a farewell get together for one of my colleagues and my editor started a speech with: “Congratulations on finally getting a real job.” In that statement my editor summed up the consequences of a career in journalism.

This isn’t the kind of job you take if you have plans to settle down. You know, get a bond, medical aid or life insurance. (Yes it does sound a bit like we’re bordering on Irvine Welsh’s anti-hero, Mark Renton, in his novel Trainspotting).

This is the kind of job you take to live in the present without the consequences of a future. This is “schmooze” till they find you out. You are a pretender.

I attended a presentation by a financial services company, and an analyst asked me if I was a broker. I don’t know if it was the blazer I was wearing or if my confused expression was mistaken for a serious one. The point is, I could have just played along with the broker explanation. Instead, I went with: “I’m a journalist” which roughly translates to: “I’m pretending”.

You’re playing adult “catch-me-if-you can” and you’re winning.

Journalists are the greatest pretenders. We “roll” with our subjects. Make love with their realities. And when time comes, we pen it down for kicks. It’s not like we’re working for a quick buck (I think I’ve established that there are no “bucks” in journalism). It’s not like we’re working for fame either (journalists are more likely to be infamous).

We are narcissists, there is no doubt- the only reason we write is because we know someone is going to read. But bylines are overrated, after five weeks you’ll get over the print glory. It’s not even the rush of spewing your creativity all over the pages (web and print). It’s the thrill. You’re playing adult “catch-me-if-you can” and you’re winning.

You get to tell the world how you pretended your way into a situation you had no business getting involved in. You’re telling the stories, and you make the rules as you go along. You’re the author. And you can end the game whenever you want to, because “It’s just pretend”.

Meanwhile, in reality, my parents have suggested I keep an eye out for a “real” job. If I recall correctly: “I think this is just a season in your life,” were the words my mother said to me. As tempting as the perks of health insurance, a car allowance, mortgage repayments and general “making money” sound… I’m not done pretending.

#Newsroom 2.0: We were never ready

PARTING SHOT:  TeamVuvu2014 with the last print edition of the Wits Vuvuzela, at the Power Reporting Conference, November 5, 2014. Photo: Dinesh Balliah

PARTING SHOT: TeamVuvu2014 with the last print edition of the Wits Vuvuzela, at the Power Reporting Conference, November 5, 2014.
Photo: Dinesh Balliah

The first time I walked into the Wits Vuvuzela newsroom, the girl next to me, Thabile Manala (who would later become my colleague), asked me “Are you seriously spazzing out right now?”

Yes, yes I was, on account of all the “ooh” and “aaah” noises.  Ever since I discovered words and the pleasure of reading, all I wanted to do was write.  Being a journalist was my golden ticket and the Wits Vuvuzela newsroom was my green light (see that clever Gatsby reference?).

A year later, while I was picking out cakes with my friend Mudi, she pointed out that I should replace those sound effects with real adjectives because “cake isn’t that exciting”.  I see my fault and agree.   I regret using the same sound effects to express my amazement at both those inequivalent things.  Journalism is way more exciting than cake; given the word “exciting” is defined as “life-threatening”.

We ended our Wits Vuvuzela newsroom experience on November 5, 2014 at the Power Reporting Conference for African investigative journalism.  The Wits Journalism Honours class had to work as runners for the duration of the conference.  In exchange we got to sit in impressive talks by award winning investigative journalists.  The thrill of sitting in close proximity to the likes of David Smith, Daniel Ohman and other accomplished, international investigative journalists was embarrassingly euphoric.

Those names may be meaningless to you, but to put it in terms of Star Wars:  An award winning investigative journalist is Yoda, the other accomplished journalists are like Qui-Gon Jinn, the professional journalist delegates attending the conference are like Obi-Wan Kenobi and the rest of my Honours class and I are like Anakin Skywalker, trying to stay away from the dark side, which is PR.

By the way- I learnt that in Sweden journalists can record any conversation and use it if it’s crucial to the story. They also get paid better and get free transport.  (We should all just move to Sweden, it would make our jobs so much easier).

That aside, our class celebrated our last day with drinks at Kitcheners.  The next day I woke up with a heavy heart and an empty head (emotional hangover?). You see, I wasn’t late and getting ready to rush off to the newsroom as I did for the other 226 days between February and November.  I wasn’t going to press snooze on my alarm clock for the umpteenth time that morning so that I could delay stepping into the havoc of a newsroom.  This time I was staring at the ceiling, disappointed about not having a reason to wake up.

Despite that, I quickly invented a reason to go to the newsroom one last time.  I had to collect some of the files I left on one of the computers (the only computer I used all year).  The lab I walked into on November 6, 2014 was a desolate space, nothing like it had been all year.

No life in the four walls that made us stutter with the panic of Monday morning news conference.

No chaos, no buzzing computers with journalists urgently typing away, no miserable subeditors complaining about journalists with poor grammar, no frustrated editors flipping out about how lax we are about meeting deadlines, no journalists yelling at computers and other faulty technology, no newsroom jokes and the accompanying laughter, no fast-food supper we slapped together with the money we pitched in, no late night karaoke and occasional twerking, no life in the four walls that made us stutter with the panic of Monday morning news conference.

I got my files and just as I was leaving, a new face was waiting in the reception area, a potential journalist for #teamvuvu2015.  “I want to be a journalist because it’s in my veins,” she said when I asked her about why she felt she could brave journalism (well, not in those exact words).  “Why is it in your veins?  Is your father a journalist?” I asked, because I knew that’s what the programme coordinators would ask if she said something that ridiculous in the interview.

It’s a cliche, but she reminded me of myself.  One of the interviewers called me into my interview the year before, by my Twitter handle.  “L-dawg, let’s go”.  It’s changed since, and with good reason.   I told her if she was really sure that she wanted to be a journalist, the year 2015 would be the time of her life.

As I made my exit, I thought about how my stories evolved, from boring admin stories, to complicated economic debates (nope, still boring).  I dabbled in sports, the engineers and scientists bailed me out a couple of times with stories, I even got a chance to interview the controversial Mcebo #Sisulu.  A week ago I finally got a break in hard news when, as my online editor would put it: “Lameez decided to find a dead body”.

 I’m sorry that a dead body was dumped near the university.  But I’m not sorry that I got a tip-off about the dead body and subsequently scored a byline for it.  10 months ago I would have given up that story to a more hard-core, go-getter journalist in the newsroom.  Seriously, I had just finished my last write-up for the day, I was ready to go home, it was late and I was starving when I got that phone-call.  But the will to break that story was stronger than any hunger or fatigue.  That night I realised I was becoming an almost-version of the tenacious journalists I look up to, and there’s so much more I have to learn.

Like that doe-eyed girl, I know I want to be a journalist, I just don’t know how to put my reason into words (ironic).   It is like blood flowing in my veins, my heart beats faster when I’m working on a story.  That could be from the Dopamine and Epinephrine that comes when functioning in survival mode.

But throughout the Power Reporting conference and throughout the year, guest speakers have told us that journalism protects democracy, defends human rights and maintains the integrity of the constitution.  Although those are good reasons to be a journalist, one of my old Facebook statuses (pre-journalism) probably provides the best explanation for my decision (ahem, no judging):

Posted October 30, 2014

Posted October 30, 2014

As for Wits Vuvuzela, I can’t say I’ll miss the coffee I never drank, pitching stories at inappropriate hours, the newsroom profanity, or the all-nighters we pulled.  In fact, those are a few of my favorite things and I’m just getting started.