Writing ; Forever a juggling act
When I hear some writers say 'writing is my life' I find myself smiling wryly. For truthfully I cannot echo those words: my three sons mean more to me than the three novels. The writing compartment in my life has never been able to compete with my family, extended family and network of human relationships. Not only that it had another strong rival to contend with- my blossoming career in education: teaching, training teachers and inspecting colleges.
Life for the last 20 years has been a constant struggle between the two, with writing, always the pitiful loser. For one brought in a good income the other minor royalties. Work in education and family sapped all the energy in the daytime and evening. Writing, a snatched activity was always relegated to 1-2 hours late at night or over the weekend. And often completely forgotten.
I passively accepted this lifestyle until a few months ago when I finally became brave enough to pull myself out of this creative rut. I turned my back on a fulltime job - the wonderful world of learners - and gained freedom to write. A risky thing to do but no regrets so far. I just wish I had done it sooner!
With the recent birth of my sister's son the family strand has been very dominant with me helping to care for the baby along with entertaining guests eager to see him. Hence the writing compartment was firmly closed for some time. Sister came first. This piece for Irina was inevitably delayed. On top of this Christmas, Eid and New Year meant family gatherings and holidays. A very full but fulfilling life nevertheless.
Prior to that I was doing inspection and consultancy work in colleges in London. Once on the college site, I am totally absorbed in all tasks and activities; observing lessons, holding meetings, sampling achievement data, assessing and gathering evidence, giving feedbacks to teachers and finally writing the formal written report.
When I am with learners the world of writing fails to exist. Another personae simply takes over. I love being with them and take enormous delight in their learning. Fellow inspectors tease me that as a writer drafting inspection reports would be a doodle- easy - for me. I have to remind them that it is a different genre entirely. For here long descriptions are a sin! Only concise evaluative judgments will do.
Writing wise I have three projects on the go: redrafting a story called The Malay Host for an anthology, completing a chapter on inspection work for an education textbook (Toolkit) entitled Curriculum for Diversity for colleges. The main project however is the completion of my 3rd novel. It is crazy but I still have not come up with an appropriate title. The previous 2 novels were so easy to name but not this one.
Now that I have left my 9 to 5 day job in education, I enjoy the luxury of calling time my own. I can now develop my writing career, plan and carry out all the writing activities, audience development, marketing /promotion of my work and going on literary tours-both national and international as well as taking part in readings. Different days, hours and places however are still allotted to my different strands of life.
The translation and publication of my novels The Holy Woman and Typhoon in other countries has led to literary tours of Turkey, Pakistan, Germany and Indonesia. It was in Bali at the Ubud writers' festival that I had the pleasure of meeting Irina Dunn and to contribute to a panel that she was chairing. These tours have opened up a new, exciting and a very fulfilling dimension to a writing career, which is now going from strength to strength. I have come across and made many friends, including with other international writers, academics, Ambassadors and publishers and of course interacted with my readers whether in Istanbul, Karachi, Jakarta or in Stuttgart.
Currently my story a Pair of Jeans studied in Germany, has given me a wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with 100s of German students and teachers and discuss my work with them. I will also be returning to Indonesia next year to do some work in education as well as promoting my second novel Typhoon. The first, The Holy Woman as Perempuan Suci in the Indonesian bhasa has been quite successful. With future publications in the Thai, Hindi and Urdu languages I am hoping to visit Thailand and India. As I have met quite a few Australian writers I would love to visit or attend a literary festival in Australia in the future.
These tours were personally very fulfilling, spiritually and educationally in many ways. I have come away charmed, humbled and with a great sense of respect for each country's faiths, customs, its people and a way of life. As in the case of the Hindu religion of the Balinese people. Janet de Neefe, the Director of the Bali Ubud festival depicts this beautifully in a personal account of her life in Bali in her wonderful book Fragrant Rice; My Continuing love affair with Bali.
Often on these tours it is a two- way process. I learnt from my audience (prospective readers); they learnt from me. They seem to benefit from learning about my two careers and my background of multiple identities as a British Muslim Woman of Pakistani origin. It has proved to be an important exercise in building bridges and cross-cultural exchanges. So important at this moment in time. For literature literally brings people together.
Readers are very important for me. After all most of us write with them in mind, not just for ourselves. I spend a lot of my time communicating with them and enjoy this interaction. I find their feedback useful and rewarding. It is satisfying to know that the readers have enjoyed your work. The primary goal has been achieved to please and entertain them.
I work in 2 genres, scriptwriting and novel writing. Sometimes I work in both simultaneously and that is when I get into trouble! Whilst writing a 14-episode drama serial I was drafting my third novel. The novel now oozes with drama and tension; the chapters seem to have become short scenes, the descriptions - leaner than ever. So much so that I have to keep reminding myself that it is a novel I am writing not a screenplay .So I don't have to keep cutting words.
My real family takes up most of my conscious hours, at the expense of the imaginary one that lives inside me- in my head and heart - the beloved characters that are conceived, grow, develop and enrich my life - are always crying out for attention. For time for them! Sometimes I think my life is not suited at all to writing. For there is never enough private time, to cut myself off with my own thoughts to disappear into my imaginary world and spend time and have dialogue with my characters. Someone or something is always hogging and cluttering my inner landscape; an assignment that my son needs help with an inspection report to write, emails to answer, a presentation for teacher training session to prepare or simply read all the education papers etc. Somehow or other these other duties seem to become more of a priority than writing. The times when I can disappear with my characters are in the bath, washing my hair, driving alone in a car, in bed at night time or cooking the family dinner or tidying away the clutter of my sons books and shoes.
Writing longer novels pose a problem. Getting from one end to the other for redrafting is harder and very time consuming. I shudder at the months ahead of me at the tedious task of redrafting ad editing hundreds of pages. Now I have promised myself that the 4th novel will only be half the length. Why did not it occur to me before - I chide myself often these days.
In the recent months I have produced very little pure imaginative pieces of writing.. Writing the first two novels was a different process to the one for the third novel. For there were no tours, no marketing machinery to deal with, no interviews, no emails to answer or pieces like this to write! One had the luxury to get on with the real task which I have to often remind myself these days is to - just write for that is what writers are supposed to do - Is it not?
Qaisra Shahraz, Pakistani-British novelist, is the author of two acclaimed and award-winning novels, The Holy Woman (2001) and Typhoon (2003). This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
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