The first line of a story is the most important.

My favourite moment of the long process of writing a book is not the end, it’s the beginning. Unlike some authors I do not work to a plot - a blueprint where the beginning, middle and the end are already known before the author begins. I write how I live, one day at a time, making it up as I go along.

That does not mean I don’t dream, or make plans, or wish, or hope – I do. But life has a way of following its own course, of surprising us, of disappointing us, of finding its own way, no matter how much we try and predict it.  Think of how many plans are on hold or cancelled, today. And so it will be after the virus is gone, or controlled, when life returns to ‘normal’ – plans will be just that; hopes, dreams and outlines.

Sometimes I don’t know the first line of my new story until I’m well into writing it – or living it, as a novel feels to me. Sometimes, ironically, the beginning comes as a flash of inspiration, halfway through, or even at the end.  It appears out of nowhere, a sudden realisation, that this was how it actually began, back in that time before my characters and I knew each other, before I had stumbled upon our shared future.

So it is now.
I could say to you, right now, hand-on-heart: “the first thing I will do when travel is once more allowed is get on an aeroplane and fly to Africa”. Yet, as I sit here, in my ‘other’ home in Sydney, Australia, I am marvelling at the clear skies, the absence of aircraft overhead, the sound of birdsong rather than traffic outside the window of my two-bedroom apartment.

We have been allowed to exercise here in Australia during lockdown, yet I sometimes find myself annoyed at the number of people and pets clogging the pathway where I run. Then, I take a ragged breath and remind myself that just weeks ago these parents were at work, these children were in school, these dogs were locked in their yards, all of them busy or stuck in their day-to-day reality, existing.

Here’s another first line: “The first thing I will do, when I can, is go to my favourite restaurant.”
I probably will, but in the meantime my wife and I have saved money by being forced to stay at home and cook for ourselves. We have enjoyed it, yet I have become acutely aware, perhaps more than ever, of the fact that so many people are struggling to put food on the table. I have donated money to help feed others, half a world away, not out of guilt or because it makes me feel better, but because it had to be done.

Something we writers need is inspiration. It is word that has two distinct meanings for me. One hand inspiration is ‘stuff’ – ideas for new stories or plot twists. Of course, the other meaning is more literal, to be ‘inspired’, to be uplifted. I saw on Facebook, the other day, one of my readers and her daughters packing food parcels in the town of White River, Mpumalanga, to hand out to people in need. That is both inspiration (I may find the basis for a book in this pandemic), and inspiring. If there is one thing that has struck me in 25 years of travelling in and writing about Africa that is greater than the scale of the tragedy, crime, conflict, corruption and disharmony that I have witnessed, it is that intangible yet somehow ever present thing – the indomitable human spirit. The ability of good people to come together at the village, street or community level to help others in time of need is truly inspirational and I have seen no shortage of it during this crisis.

I have been unable to visit friends, not just overseas in Africa, but in the city where I live, but I have found myself speaking to them more often than I normally would have. I reach out to them not out of a sense of duty, but because I know, now, in isolation, how much I truly love them and how much I need them. I yearn for so much. I miss the sound of a lion calling at dusk; the smell of the first rain carried on a baking October breeze; ribs at The Diner in Krugersdorp; the weird hoot of the wood owl at my house near the Kruger Park; the crackle of an open fire; Wimpy coffee, and the pork sausages at Rissington Inn at Hazyview. Yet, I have a roof over my head, food on the table, a loving partner and lovely friends. I have electricity and data and a job, still. So many people now are missing all or some of these and I must not forget nor ignore that, when I write the first line of my next story.

I travel for my work, normally criss-crossing Africa looking for new ideas to write about. In between, I promote my novels, talking to readers and marketing my books. It all seemed so fulfilling, so busy, so much fun.  Mine is not a hard job, not like the miner or the teacher, the domestic or the doctor. But it is constant, never-ending, mostly in a good way. Rarely is there a day when I am not working.

Perhaps, when I am allowed to, I will travel less, but linger longer, maybe even take a (short) break. Lockdown has forced me to slow down and I have realised that without the need to rush I can achieve as much, and still have time to stop and talk, or to look for ways to help others.

Today, as I write this, I live for a walk in the sun on a city street. Perhaps tomorrow, whenever tomorrow comes, I will drive and fly less, to keep the sky just that little bluer, the air that little clearer, my friends a little closer.
Rather than just writing about poverty and poaching and hardship I will try to do more about these things, or give a little more to those doing the hard work of helping.

We all existed before.  We will all, hopefully, exist for a little longer once this is over.

I have decided, at the end of this story, that I now know the first line of the next chapter: ‘When he was allowed to live his life again he decided he would do more than just exist.’