Oh, Where Have All the Blog Posts Gone?

Where have you all been? I’ve written at least a dozen blog entries since I last posted one here more than 2 years ago. It’s kind of sad you didn’t get to read them. They were pretty darn good. They had the exact turns of phrases that make writers giddy with their own ego, and readers faint from the unbearable beauty. Every sentence was a carefully constructed masterpiece that flowed effortlessly into the next, smooth and stunning like an award-winning dessert. Every word had a purpose, not one was out of place.
 
No, you don’t have to undergo trial by fire to prove your worth so I can give you access. I’m not an evil slave-driver, whatever my students may think. All you need is the ability to read my mind. You see, every so often as I’m drifting off to sleep, a gem of a phrase comes floating into my mind. If you know anything about me, you’d know that I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. So instead of falling asleep, as any self-respecting person who had to get up at dawn the next day with no hope of accessing a snooze button would do, I continue to drift. 
 
The phrase turns into a sentence, the sentence melts into another. Words are examined, turned over, and sometimes bitten to test their mettle. Some are buffed to a shine and set in their place, while others are discarded, the bite marks still obvious to the naked eye. Soon I have a piece of writing that would make anyone proud. In the final moments before I surrender to the sweet dark cloud that is sleep, I promise myself that as soon as I wake up I’ll write every beautiful word down.
 
Fast-forward a few hours, and my alarm chirps softly. My mind, still groggy, issues its commands: Must. Write. Now. But I don’t. At least not right away. When I don’t allow my day to take over, when I whip all the crumbs of my self-discipline into a quivering mass of submission, I find myself sitting with my laptop. A few, tentative, scrawny-looking words appear on the screen. I scour my frustratingly self-righteous mind for all those wonderful phrases and sentences. But I don’t have a good search engine installed in my mind. I remember a word or two, or sometimes a whole sentence. But without it’s surroundings, it stares back at me on the screen, stupid and naked in its empty surroundings. I clumsily try to bend and twist a few more sentences to my will. But after a while the inevitable happens, and I give up. 
 
Don’t worry, though. It’s all a matter of time before it happens again. One day I’m sure the cycle will break. After all, nothing lasts forever.

P.S. This is not the blog post I wrote in my mind last night. The fate of that one remains undetermined. 

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On Writer’s Block and Morning Pages

Writing

A friend of mine and I were recently chatting about writing, online writing courses, and our favorite writing books. Then she asked me a question: “How did you overcome your writer’s block?”

I tried to keep down that bitter laugh building up inside me. I could have answered her with one of my blog posts on writer’s freeze, but when I thought about it some more, I realized: I have never gotten past writer’s block, and it’s not really something you get through once and then you’re done with it.

Let me explain. Writer’s block, or the inability to get past one form of what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance” in The War of Art, is something we writers are always complaining about. It’s debilitating, crippling, and a death sentence for a writer’s career. But it’s not a disease with a cure. It’s more of a condition. What I have found is that it is something you just have to grit your teeth and bear, and write through.

Easier said than done. If it’s a block, how can we write through it? One tool I’ve fallen in love with and have found to be indispensable is what Julia Cameron dubbed “morning pages” in The Artist’s Way. Every day, as soon as you get up in the morning, just sit down and write three or more pages. It will take you about 15 minutes maximum, maybe less, maybe more, but the effect on your writing and even your mind is almost magical.

But first, I have to admit something. The longest I’ve been able to stick to a morning pages routine is a couple of weeks. It’s not because they are difficult, they aren’t. It’s not because I didn’t see any effect on my writing, I did. It’s simply a case of lack of self-discipline, and a load of other mental baggage.

And when I did stick to the morning pages routine? I soared. All my mental loops, those trains of thought that go nowhere in my mind, were silenced. The cycle of being preoccupied in our minds is broken when we allow our minds free reign on paper.  The rules are: no editing, no stopping to think about what you are writing, and these pages are for your eyes only. Whether you decide to share any of them with the world later on (as I once did here) is your decision, but you should feel utterly safe writing them, no censors, no taboos.

And once those words start flowing onto your screen, or paper (Cameron encourages writing them longhand), your mind begins to adjust yourself to its new task: writing. The more you do it, the more you are able to do it. And the more excuses you give yourself, the more obstacles and “what ifs” you put in your own way, the more difficult it becomes to break through that Resistance.

So if you want to break through your writers’ block, or any other form of Resistance, start with morning pages. Advice I should take. Thank you for reminding me, Rahma, with your question.

Two excellent posts and a video about morning pages:

Have you ever written morning pages? I’d love to hear about your experience with morning pages, and if you have any tips about sticking to the routine.

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Confessions

  1. The Magic of Turquoise, written by Mai Khaled, translated by Marwa Elnaggar

    The Book I Translated. Refer to confession 5.

    I haven’t written a single blog post since December 2010.

  2. I haven’t written a single word in my work-in-progress since December 2010.
  3. I’m using the revolution that happened in Egypt in January 2011 as an excuse for not writing.
  4. I’ve considered using the hundreds/thousands of tweets I’ve tweeted during the revolution as my “See? I have been writing.”
  5. I did translate a novella, though. And it’s been published. And I’m proud of this achievement. So I’m officially a published literary translator as well as a writer.
  6. Sometimes I’m just too lazy and lack the self-discipline to write regularly.
  7. I regret writing that last confession because I’m ashamed of it.
  8. Sometimes I’m just too afraid of writing to write. What if what I write is garbage?
  9. I regret writing that last confession as well.
  10. I usually don’t wholly believe people who say good things about my writing. You guys are just being nice, right?
  11. I usually don’t wholly believe people who say bad things about my writing. You guys are just nitpicking, right? This is always true when you don’t tell me what’s wrong with the writing.
  12. I’ve started a morning pages routine about a dozen times or so. I’ve even converted other people to this ritual. Despite seeing and feeling a real difference in my writing when I stick to the routine, I still end up quitting after a few days or weeks. Is this deliberate self-sabotage? Should I get therapy? Am I a danger to society?
  13. Sometimes when I see a beautiful work of art, I get jealous, so I go paint or sketch. I feel the same when I read a good story, or even just a well-written sentence or phrase. Do successful writers and artists feel the same when they see or read someone else’s work? I want to know because I’m trying to diagnose myself (am I petty, or does everyone else feel the same way?).
  14. I’m writing this blog post while I’m at work. My job description does not include blog-post writing.
  15. I’m writing this while I’m at work because I’m pretty confident no one at the office reads my blog.
  16. I regret writing those last two confessions. I think they qualify as “stupid”.
  17. If you’ve read this far, let me tell you that I’ve missed your comments and would love to hear one or two of your own confessions (they don’t have to be embarrassing). Or you could berate me for not writing regularly. Or just send me a cookie.

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Useful criticism: 3 tips & 3 things to remember

Useful criticism: 3 tips and 3 things to rememberI’ve written before about how destructive negative criticism can be here and here, and why writers need to be aware of the various reactions and factors that can determine how they evaluate criticism here.

Today I want to suggest 3 tips on how to elicit useful criticism, and 3 things to remember.

3 Tips

1. Always make sure you choose critique partners who are either professional editors/agents or serious writers. “Serious writer” does not necessarily mean a writer who is published, but rather a writer who is working hard, studying the craft, and writing.

2. Ask specific questions and explanation of comments. For example, if you receive a critique and find the comment “This part is boring”, ask your critique partner: “Why? What makes it boring?”

3. Ask questions beforehand, when you submit your writing to a critique partner. Tell them, “I’m looking for comments on my characterization”, rather than just leaving it up to them. If you are more worried about plot development, then by all means, ask your editor to concentrate on that. If you want a detailed line-by-line edit, then ask for it. If you don’t, then specify that.

3 Things to Remember

1. Good critique partners will offer reasons for their reactions to your writing. They will also offer suggestions, alternatives, details, and examples.

2. People will react differently to any piece of writing. What one person finds uninteresting, contrived, or flat, another will find brilliant and inspired. This is another reason you should ask more than one person.

3. Know who you are, and what you want. After you receive all the critiques you asked for, it’s you and your story or poem or article or novel. When it’s published, the words on that page will be attributed to you, so make sure you believe in every single one of them. Don’t ever allow anyone into bullying you to change something you don’t want to change.

For a great resource on critiquing and critique groups, read Becky Levine’s The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any other tips on how to elicit more useful criticism?

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An Interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 2

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed's Love in a Headscarf

The US cover of Shelina's book. It was released in the US October 2010.

Last week I published part 1 of this interview, in which Shelina Zahra Janmohamed talked about her book Love in a Headscarf, why she wrote it, and how it was received.

This week, Janmohamed delves into her own writing process, talks about receiving rejection letters, and offers advice to writers.

M: I want to get deeper into your writing process, how do you balance a full time job with your writing?

Janmohamed: I write because I love it, and because I have something that I want to say. I spend weekends and evenings tapping away, or writing little notes down at odd times (and on very strange scraps of paper) so that when I do find time to write, I have some sparks to kick start me.

M: Do you have any writing routines?

Janmohamed: No. It takes me a while to get into writing something, but once I’ve got going, I tend to write with a passion.

M: Are you part of a critique group? Where do you get feedback on your writing?

Janmohamed: I asked my close friends whose opinions and literary talents I respect to give me feedback on my book. It’s a huge imposition to ask someone to read a book, and not one that I make lightly.

M: What would you say is the single most important lesson you learned when writing (and publishing) Love in a Headscarf?

Janmohamed: Be true to your vision, you are the best supporter that your work can have.

M: Is there anything about writing and/or publishing you know now that you wished you knew when you first started writing LIAH?

Janmohamed: It’s a much harder and slower process than you might imagine. And it’s certainly not lucrative. But the joy of holding your book in print is unimaginable.

M: I know that there are a lot of Muslim women who are interested in writing about their own experiences as a form of self-expression, but may be worried about reactions from their communities and families. What would you say to them?

Janmohamed: The only way to change society is to be brave. If we are not willing to put ourselves out there, then things can never improve. I’d say, have the right intention, ask Allah for guidance, and then start a gentle evolution. Courage is a difficult thing to practice, but we must all try.

M: What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Janmohamed: Ensure that the quality of your writing is the best it can be. When you write, make sure you say something original either in content, or in the way you say it. And make every effort you can to get your work out there. Promotion is your best friend.

M: You wrote LIAH as a memoir rather than a novel. Do you think you are more comfortable writing nonfiction or do you see yourself as writing fiction in the future?

Janmohamed: Non-fiction is a genre that conveys what I want to communicate. However, I veer into creative non-fiction which at times has a storytelling style that is quite like fiction, and has the same qualities to transport you into an alternate domain.

M: Do you mind sharing with us how you found your publisher? From your interview in The Asian Writer, it looks like you didn’t have to deal with rejection letters. How did you decide on which agents and publishers to solicit and which to choose?

Janmohamed: Actually I have a whole folder full of rejection letters from publishers, varying from bog standard photocopies which go out to anyone who has sent in a manuscript, to more personal notes. Eventually I narrowed down my choices to six agents. I met with each of them in turn to understand whether they shared my vision as a writer and also to see if I thought they would do a good job of representing me. I eventually chose Diane Banks – and I haven’t regretted my choice for a moment.

M: And finally, what’s your next writing project?

Janmohamed: Right now I’ve been focusing on writing newspaper and magazine columns, but I definitely plan to write another book in the future – God willing!

Thank you, Shelina, for a fascinating interview.

I hope all of you have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s website: www.spirit21.co.uk

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An interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 1

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf

"My book has been described as a ‘Muslim Bridget Jones,’ and I have mixed feelings about this."

I’d heard a lot about Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s Love in a Headscarf before I read it. It was supposed to be about finding love and a husband, in a chick-lit fashion, but it was also about Divine love. How on earth did she manage that?

Janmohamed is a young British author and commentator who caught the attention of people searching for a Muslim voice through her writings on www.spirit21.co.uk.  A blogger since March 2006, Janmohamed’s writings are intelligent, as well as cool, calm, and collected. Her book has been published in several languages.

As soon as I finished reading Love in a Headscarf (LIAH), I just knew I had to interview Janmohamed. Reading the book, I felt as if I was having lunch with a friend, discussing all the strange, often sad, often mad, and often hilarious situations in our search for love.  Contacting her for an interview, I discovered that she was as friendly and approachable as her book.

This is the first part of my interview with Janmohamed. She discusses her book and how it was received, among other things. In the second part, she discusses writing, gives some advice, and tells us what she’s been up to lately.

M: It’s been more than a year since Love in a Headscarf was published. How do you evaluate it and the reception it received?

Janmohamed: I’ve had a very warm reception to the writing in the book – coverage from all the big national and international media in print, radio and television. I constantly get messages from people all round the world who write to tell me that the book has reached out and touched them, and they’ve been moved to write to me – a response I find very humbling. Most exciting of all is the fact that the book has been published and translated internationally, which says to me that it is reaching across cultures and boundaries.

M: Is there anything that surprised you by how people reacted to the book?

Janmohamed: I’m just delighted that the warmth and humour of the stories has been embraced, and that my motivation in trying to create a new story and a new narrative about Muslim women being empowered, lively and enchanting, is starting to take hold.

M: How did you expect your Buxom Aunties and the mosque Imams to react to the book, and how did they actually react?

Janmohamed: I’ve personally given the book to some younger Imams in the hope they will read it, and use it to understand more about the female experience. I treat both with respect and compassion in my book as I feel they do a difficult but very important job – I hope they get that from my writing. And I hope they realize that my contribution is an optimistic one that will make their work more and more effective.

M: Right now in Egypt, there is a flurry of female writing about the pursuit of “a suitable boy”, and all the comedy and

The UK cover of Love in a Headscarf

The UK cover

tragedy that comes with it. One writer that comes to mind is Ghada Abdel Aal, whose I Want to Get Married has become a tremendous hit, growing from a blog to a book, to a TV mini-series, It’s  been translated into Italian and is now also coming out in English from University of Texas Press.  Do you think that Muslim female writing about courtship and marriage is becoming a trend, and do you think there is an audience for this kind of writing in the West?

Janmohamed: Love and marriage are universal topics, and as human beings we are intrigued by the processes used by other cultures.  I think that’s one of the reasons such stories become so popular. However, the popularity of such works also makes me cautious because whilst they are a good first step towards opening a dialogue about Muslim women, we need to ensure that marriage is not the new one-dimensional definition of women. That’s why I was careful to include deeper insights in my book as to the motivations and development that filled my own story.

M: You’ve said that you wanted to provide the unique experience of a British Asian Muslim woman, but at the same time, I find that there are a lot of shared experiences of Muslim women today all over the world searching for “Mr. Right”, especially since increased travel and globalization have created a lot of hyphenated identities. What do you think is unique about the British Asian Muslim experience?

Janmohamed: Britain has a specific relationship with the Muslim and Eastern world due to its colonial past.  Compared to the Americas also, Britain’s trading, cultural and intellectual relationship with the Muslim world is also much older – we have evidence in the form of coins dating back to the 8th century.  This long history means that many of the Muslims who came to Britain the 20th century already had longstanding links either in their own lives, or through their previous generations. Britain also has an incredibly diverse Muslim population – some says that outside of the hajj it’s the most diverse in the world. These two elements combine together in a very vibrant and lively manner.

M: I’ve read in an interview that you said that you wrote because you “couldn’t find anyone that was expressing a view based on critical thinking and, following the success of the blog, her audience began to suggest she write a book about being a Muslim woman”, and that love was a universal theme, so you brought those two elements (critical thinking and love as a Muslim woman) together. But at the same time, you wrote the book in the tradition of chick-lit memoir. Do you think this choice of genre made some people dismiss the book as being trivial?

Janmohamed: My book has been described as a ‘Muslim Bridget Jones,’ and I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Bridget Jones really captured a zeitgeist and spoke to something very intimate in many modern women. To be compared to something that is now an entrenched part of popular culture is a great compliment. On the other hand, Love in a Headscarf has many deeper elements about asserting your identity, finding your place in the world, and standing for what you believe in. That these have become secondary is difficult, I admit, but overall the book has had such great success and been so widely published and read that the genre I’ve chosen has served the story very well.

M: As a writer who has chosen to write consciously as a Muslim, how do you see the current scene of Muslim writing? Why do you think there aren’t more Muslims writing their own narratives?

Janmohamed: Gradually more and more Muslims are writing, and I think that’s fantastic. I hope the trend continues.  However, I think part of the problem is confidence and encouragement – writers are still perceived rather dubiously in many parts of the Muslim community. And of course it takes practice to write well, and if you’re not encouraged to write you never gain that practice. The other problem is the gatekeepers to the media and publishing industries don’t ‘get’ the commercial and literary value of such works. I’m afraid the misery-memoir and the political ex-jihadi memoir seem to be the only ones that generally get commissioned.

M: Reading your book, I found a lot of explanations of rituals, traditions, values, concepts that would otherwise be self-explanatory to a Muslim reader. Do you think that this bogs down your writing? And does this mean that you are writing more for a non-Muslim audience than a Muslim one?

Janmohamed: For those who are not familiar with Islam, I wanted to ensure that they weren’t lost in jargon, and also that any assumptions that they brought with them as they came to the book were cleared up. For those more familiar with Islam, I felt it was important to take them through my own journey in Islam, so that they could make sense of my stories and decisions.

Read part 2 here.

Here’s more Janmohamed:

Her website: www.spirit21.co.uk

To read her articles on The Guardian newspaper, click here.

Read more about her:  Sense and Serendipity.

Interview in Marie Claire.

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Denying your creativity can kill you

The War of Art - book coverI’m reading Steven Pressfield‘s excellent little book about writing, how to be a professional writer, what that means, what makes you stop writing (or doing any creative work) and how you can overcome it. I’m almost finished reading The War of Art, but from the very fist chapter, I knew this was a winner. It’s one of those books that make you feel like you have to underline every single sentence.

Let me give you an example. Last night, I read a chapter titled “Life and Death”. This is a chapter I wanted to underline, quote, print out and frame, and shout out from the rooftops. In “Life and Death”, Pressfield discusses how a profound shift takes place in the awareness of a person who finds out that he/she has a terminal illness.

“Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed all important suddenly appear meaningless, while people and concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on supreme importance.”

How many times have we heard stories of people who, after being told by their doctors that they have just six months to live, quit their jobs to spend time with their families and do something that takes everyone by surprise?

Tom Laughlin, an actor, lecturer, author, and psychologist who works with the terminally ill, says that this “deadline” makes people start to think about what they’ve always wanted to do in their lives. They start thinking about how they’ve always wanted to play music, or paint, or write, or travel around the world.

The reason this happens, Laughlin says, is that consciousness shifts from the Ego to the Self. As Pressfield puts it, “The world is entirely new, viewed from the Self. At once we discern what’s really important. Superficial concerns fall away, replaced by a deeper, more profoundly grounded perspective.”

So what’s new about that? We all know that, right? Who would continue working in their 9-5 jobs or prefer to spend time in their cubicles or in office meetings when they find out they have six months left? So what’s so amazing that I’m dedicating an entire blog post to this?

According to Pressfield, once people make this mental shift and start pursuing their dreams, they recover from their illnesses.

And Laughlin, as well as Pressfield, ask some crucial questions:

“Is it possible… that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves, now, by living these lives out?”

How much negativity exists in our lives when we aren’t doing what we aren’t pursuing our dreams? And how many diseases baffle doctors and researchers, who end up explaining them as being a result of “negative stress”, among other things?

Call me deluded, but this makes a whole lot of sense to me.

What do you think?

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