Monday, January 08, 2007

On writing, or the fact that I dont

In third grade, a substitute teacher told us to write a story about a shark. Mine was about a misunderstood grayish-blue shark with protruding teeth and beady eyes. He swam in circles and loved lollipops. Later that day she read us her favorite story- mine. As the quiet child with average marks I was pretty much ignored except when it came to my writing. I dreamed of the day when I would be a writer sitting in coffee shops filling up pages in my notebooks for my next great novel. That is the incredible sweetness of childhood though, your future is a question marked mystery and anything you want could conceivably be yours.

Over the years I've written articles and monthly columns, and these days occasional freelance on and off. But its mostly off. Writing is an integral part of my identity, but if that's really true, then why do I do so little of it?

Seven years ago I worked at a bookstore and ran into the company's book buyer. The topic of writing came up. He asked me what I wrote. Ethnic literature. He didn't hesitate: "Aisha, Write it. Send it. Now. Eastern Lit is going to explode onto the literary scene" Monica Ali, Jhumpa Lahiri and a host of others have proven him right. I won't pretend I could be like Monica or Jhumpa but why didn't I even try? Probably because writing is hard. Its boring. Its thankless. There are a million distractions and no guaruntees. I could use law school as my excuse but it's a cop out and I know it.

Then I heard the gorgeous new Damien Rice CD. What struck me most about his music was the passion with which he sings. How could I learn to channel that same energy? And that's when it hit me. Damien writes from his heart, not for radio play or top ten charts. His lyrics are uninhibited. Me? As soon as I begin typing I'm filled with hesitation. Will this be printable? What will critics think? The truth is I am my own worst critic and my critique is cruel.

I don't want to look back at these thoughts years from now mourning what could have been. I'm going to start writing a little each day. Even if its terrible. Even if its boring. I'm not going to think about publishers or critics. I just want to write from my heart and to know at the end of the day that at least I tried. I will try to tame the fear.

"Keep walking. Though there's no place to get to. Don't try to see through the distances. That's not for human beings. Move within but don't move the way that fear makes you move" Rumi

29 comments:

Mia said...

I can empathize with your feelings exactly. I write for myself and am honestly shocked when someone tells me they like my stuff. Maybe it's a little insecure of both of us. I've always enjoyed and loved what you put out here. It's often moved me to tears or made me think. Not many people have that power Aisha.

Aisha said...

Mia, thanks for giving me your insight. I don't feel quite as nervous posting on this blog, because it is all gut feelings, but you are right when people tell me that they were touched by something I wrote or that it made them cry... I can't believe it... I guess we both are too hard on ourselves. Do you write fiction though? That is very difficult for me. I can see the characters and their conflicts and drama but I have a hard time expressing it on paper/screen.

mezba said...

Please keep me on the list of people you will send your first copies of the book.

I also started to write a book of short stories and another about a novel... hopefully will finish them down the road. Then will come the struggle to find publishers. I will send any down your way if I am successful, and please do the same :-)

Take care and lots of luck.

PS. I loved the shark story.

Rabia said...

go aisha! look at me: nobody reads my loser blog and i still write! ;)

Mia said...

I write fiction as well. I can visualize everything from the facial expressions to the clothes. I don't have a problem letting it spill out onto paper. My problem is once it's there I become so over protective of it and insecure about it. When people ask to read my fiction I have a hard time showing it to them. It scares the jelly beans out of me!

John Miller said...

You're already a more accomplished writer than I ever was, so you've probably heard all the advice I'm going to pass along. But, in case you haven't...

First, from reading your blogs you've got a great voice, you should absolutely be writing a book if you enjoy writing. Between what you choose to write about, and the way you write, your voice is better than a lot of the published stuff I read.

The single most useful advice I was ever given: join a writer's group. Find people working in the same genre as you. They should meet at least once every two weeks. If you haven't been in a writer's group before, check around school. If all else fails, I can point you to the person who ran the best one I was in, and you can start your own. It's a huge motivator, as well as a sobering reality check. It helps underscore what different people get from reading the same text. It can also be a great forum for getting wordsmithing advice to bridge the gap between what you mean and what they get, though you have to be careful in who you listen to and who you ignore.

Setting aside time to write is a very good way to make steady progress, perhpas the ONLY way. I wrote the most when I forced myself to sit at the keyboard for a specific hour (say, 5am to 6am) and not to browse the web or do email or play games, only to write or to sit and stare at the screen. I wrote a lot of stuff just to have my fingers moving, fully expecting to throw it away. Usually I did, but some great things came out of it too.

Edit, edit, edit. It used to feel like cheating to me, destroying the words which so eloquently (in my mind) flowed from me, like some hack surgeon cutting and pasting and rephrasing and throwing away. Whole characters and storylines altered or completely thrown away! It wasn't writing, it was rebuilding a car. I reminded myself that I write to communicate. If the reader doesn't come away with the feeling or concepts I'm trying to impart, what value is there in prose, no matter the eloquence?

Finally, you have to submit. If you're already published, you probably know this. I was greatly heartened and discouraged by the head of my writer's group. Everything she writes is brilliant. She has several dozen stories and a couple anthologies published. Even so, she averaged something like 5-10 rejections for every acceptance. All her work got published, but it had to be sent and re-sent until it found a publisher looking for that type of story at that length at that time. And this was to carefully chosen magazines which were already a match for the type of piece she was sending!

While you work at all this, I hope you keep writing your blog. It's always a pleasure to see a new entry.

Suroor said...

Aisha, you are an awesome writer and I'm not just saying this. I have very selected people on my blogroll and I dont read everyone or anyone or any silly post. I read EVERYTHING by you. You must try and get published!

mystic-soul said...

Ye hui na baat !!!

Haleem said...

Aisha didi, long time reader, first time commentator. You write very well, please don't stop.

khonika said...

Aisha, Congrats that you have started to write for yourself. I love your blog, and will surely read a copy of your book :-)

Maliha said...

Salamaat,
you touched on the struggle all of us "wanna be" writers have.

You are right, there's nothing to it, but actually writing...and then worrying about all the stuff you have to do later.

John, your advice is great! thanks for sharing...*taking notes*

Tee said...

The shark story has a lot of potential for a very cute children's book. :)

I need to get back to writing, too. I was really into it for a couple weeks and knocked out a few chapters but I realized what I was writing could hurt others since it was non-fiction - it boy did that take the wind out of my sails... Since then, I haven't known what to write about.

Just a tip - no editing as you write or you'll end up backspacing and deleting entire paragraphs and then sit staring at a blinking cursor feeling hopeless. (Um, not that I have personal experience. I've just heard that. ;) Hee hee...

Just write, write, write and then LEAVE IT ALONE. Walk away, even for a whole day - and then read it.

Feel free to bounce anything off me through Email. I promise to be objective. I'm good at constructive critisim since I love good writing but don't like to hurt people's feelings. LOL. Good combo for an editor... Hmmmm... :)

Aisha said...

Mezba, aw thanks :) I'll be sure to send you one when/if that day arrives insh'allah. Good luck to you too. You are great at descriptions and dialogue so I'm sure you will write a great book.

Rabia, not true, I read it and I know its not a loser blog!

Mia, hopefully you will be able to share it with someone you trust soon who can give you honest feedback. Its scary to be criticized but its healthy I guess too... :)

John, wow. Thank you sooooooo much for your advice. The writing group is a very very good idea. How did you find yours? Were you in college? Ive tried finding one in the past but did not know where to begin. And yes editing really does make me feel bad... almost like I'm abusing my book. Tearing out parts that I so thoughtfully typed in. I guess you're right though its not a surgeons job but a car mechanic building from scratch... you may have to see if other parts fit better... That is REALLY encouraging to know that ater her rrejections she did get accepted. I sent a few of my things out years back, just to two or three places and when I got rejected I just gave up and lost faith. I have to fight thorgu that. Stephen King said he had a place in his house a tack board everytime he got a rejection he tacked it up there until the whole board was filled with rejections. He said that motivated him... he knew eventually he'd get the yes. HE also talked about it beign like a snowball (publishing). You start smaller and build up and the snowball will gather more snow the more you publish ultimately leading you to the goal. Do you write fiction John? Anyhow thank you so much for taking the time to provide your insight!

Aisha said...

Suroor you have no idea how humbled I feel knowing that you have read my posts. You are a fantastic writer and I look up to you. Seriously. Thanks for your encouragement. It means the world!

Mystic :)

Haleem thanks for commenting and thank you so much for the encouragement! :)

Khonika thanks for the encouragement. It makes me feel more motivated as I will sit tonight for an hour typing away.

Maliha, thanks for your insight. ts true. Do it and then think about what the next step is..

Tee, I remember the idea you were writing about BUT Tee most people write with a bit of their own lves in the story. You could change names and certain circumstances to call it fiction. Sure your family will have an idea but it wont be a public hanging of the dirty laundry. I did not read your story but I know that your topic was great and would make for a fascinating read. I hope you dont give up on it. I would continue writing it even f its just for you and future generations to know what you dealt with. But I think you should definitely continue to write that. STephen King said in his book "On writing" that you have to write honestly and from the heart. Your book was both honest and from the heart. He also said not to be afraid to hurt people because he had to deal with that too, but you are an artist and you were writing your art through what you've experienced. I really really hope you will continue writing that.

Jane said...

Good for you. And tell that little critic in your head to shut up--it doesn't know what it is talking about. You do have a real gift for storytelling. The evidence is here. You've made many fans in the blogsphere and we all keep coming back because we enjoy the read. I know you can do this and do it well. Best of luck to you.

Saadia said...

It also helps me when I just focus on what I care about and forget everything else. That's the good thing about writing and not having to worry about making money.

Saadia said...

also you dont need to think that just some grades in your school make up your talent. sometimes people just get off to a bad start or have a few bad years in school. ur whole family has big brains, i dont think God forgot you or anything. i also had some average grades for a few years and then other times i had excellent grades. it can affect how your perceive yourself greately. honestly i think ive gotten more intelligent by respecting all the illiterate servants i saw in pakistan who had their ears open for any knowledge they could steal (perceptiveness). as long as you keep open and care for things you have a lot to offer and i also love to read your blog because it shows that.

John Miller said...

Hi Aisha -

Rejections are a fact of life for every author. I don't think even the best publisher can get their work published on the first try, at least for short stories. There's too many market factors, too many editorial restrictions ("great story, but this month's issue is about fish. Keep us in mind for future work"). It's all about timing and having the right kind of story for the time & market - assuming you meet the prerequisite of being a good writer (which I think you do). It's no coincidence that in a given genre similarly-themed stories come out in temporal clumps. The story about X is what sells right now, so it's what people want to read, so it's what editors look for. After all, they're in the business of selling magazines and books, not in publishing the worlds best written piece.

Or maybe that's the cynic in me talking, hard to tell after all these years :)

To answer your question, I wrote off and on for maybe 15 years. I've put it on hold recently because I've got too many irons in the fire. Hopefully I'll pick it back up again after I wrap up my PhD. In the meantime, scientific papers are sort of like writing :)

I've been in two different writer's groups, plus taken a couple courses that were basically semester-long writing groups.

In university you can check at the English department. Even if they don't have a formal writer's group, they usually have advanced courses taught once a week (usually for a full evening) that amount to the same thing. You can take these whether or not you're a fulltime student, at least at the schools I went to. Many are run in the same way as a writer's group.

I found Mary's Writer's group by reading local newsgroups about writing - she periodically advertised her group.

I also found one at work. They advertised in the weekly newsletter's social section every few months. Results for that one were mixed because everyone was an employee first, and a writer second (even the professional writers!), so lots of things got put off.

You can sometimes find local writer's groups over the internet, if you craft a careful enough query. It's hit and miss whether it'll be worth joining, but there's no harm attending once or twice to get the flavor of it.

You mentioned doing a law degree - I'd check in your university. Or, if you're wrapped up and moving elsewhere, at the closest college / university of reasonable size.

good luck!
john

wayfarer said...

Do it now. Write before you have kids because once you have kids, it's practically impossible to get the time or train of thought. :-/

i think you can write something great...

frenchita said...

Assalam Alaikum Aisha.
Nice blog..I am reading the archives now:-) Will give the feedback soon:D

Aisha said...

Jane I appreciate your words of encouragement. We've been reading each other's blogs for well over a year now so your support means the world, thanks.

Saadia thanks for your support. I think because grades are such a concrete benchmark we judge ourselves quite a bit based on that. Not worrying about money or anything like that and just immersing in the art is important if real artistic acheivement will be made... at least for me.

John, thank you very much for your advice and providing your perspective. It is encouraging me to continue.

Wayfarer oh no! I hope you are getting your writing done as you wanted!!! :(

Frenchita, welcome and do let me know your opinion :) Constructive criticism appreciated!

Chic Mommy said...

Aww, I think you're a great writer. I'd love to read some of your published work.

momyblogR said...

I've been reading you blog for over a year and in SO many of your posts I hear great passion. I actually feel what you are writing......That is a gift!

You bring people to where you are when you write. Even if I'm completely unfamiliar with something you may have posted, your ability to express just how strongly you feel about the subject makes me think, "Man, I'm not sure about the subject matter but I'm totally on board!" :):)

I agree, write everyday.....Something. Your passion should not sit idle. I completely understand the fear that accompany's a passion, something that is part of who you are.

Now, I'm going to say something I think you may have heard before...." please be confident about your work....." For you have every reason to be!!

Aisha said...

Thanks Chic!!! I'll be sure to send ac opy your way whenever this pipe dream materializes :)

Mommyblogr that means SO much!! :) Thanks for the encouragement.

Wil Smith said...

Great "Rumi" quote. Thanks again.

Ayesha said...

gosh you have so many comments i feel like what's the point of tacking mine on? :) but i have to because i have the same issue. i can't believe i'm 28 YEARS OLD and haven't published anything yet, when i have been "writing" (but never finishing anything) since i was like 7. i could have written about arranged marriage years ago and now the subject is already cliche. argh. :) anyway. that's my resolution for myself for 2007: must at least try to get something published! even with a baby!! and you - you better too! you are most definitely a writer.

wayfarer said...

no, i do get some done but the train of thought just isn't there ya know. It's hard to get interupted...just as you get the flow, someone wakes up. There is always nights though.

pixie said...

You are a fantastic writer and I hope that you do follow your dream. I can say "yes, I read her blog before she was a famous writer...":)

sunehra said...

You have totally inspired me!

Post a Comment

I love to hear from you!