Don’t Ask The Writer
Where rejection, horrible reviews, and unpopularity are constant companions: The writer on writing.
As a writer, there are three questions I get asked most often. The first is, “Can you really earn a living as a writer?” To that, the answer is “yes” if you are willing to eat one meal a day, wear rags, and walk everywhere. The answer is “no” if you want to live like a normal human being. Most writers earn their real income by teaching, proofreading and editing projects, or freelance journalism; the money they get for selling actual, original creative writing, fiction or non-fiction, sometimes isn’t even enough to keep paper in the printer. If you want to earn your fortune as a writer, I suggest you go into another, more lucrative field. You will never feed your children through your writing, unless they have a particular fondness for recycled paper.
- Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bi-monthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
- Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).
The second thing I’m often asked is, “I wish I could write. How do you do it?” When I hear this question I long to go to a surgeon and ask him how he performs bypass surgery, or interview a pilot about how she flies a plane. Writing is a skill like any other professional skill: It requires education, practice, time, and effort. But unlike surgery or flying planes, there is that certain extra element to writing that people find mysterious and unfathomable. Governed by imagination, intellect, and intuition, it’s called “talent” by some and “a way with words” by others. I’ve found that it involves being able to look at the world in a way very differently from other people, to take what I see and feel, and use my own mind and body as a sort of crucible in which to boil down those impressions and distill them into palatable ideas and coherent sentences; and all the while to infuse that output with truth, honesty, accuracy, and vision.
I don’t think I always succeed. In fact, as a writer I think I fail more often than I triumph. But writing involves firing a hundred arrows and hoping that one will find its target. If you aren’t prepared to do this, then go into a different field where rejection, horrible reviews, and unpopularity are not your constant companions.
The third question I get asked is, “What inspires you to write?” People usually expect me to say that beauty inspires me, or love, or one of the other positive, romantic ideals that we think writing represents. It might surprise you to learn that while yes, beauty and love and joy all find their way into my work, what really inspires me to write is my own helplessness and impotency, my frustration and anger with the unfairness of the world around me. And living in Pakistan provides me with so much inspiration that I never ever suffer from writer’s block.
In fact, throughout my career, my biggest inspiration has been life in Pakistan. For example, my most recently published story, “The Cripple,” is about a man whose legs are amputated, and whose crutches get stolen—one by a group of street children, the other by a drug addict desperate for money. The poverty, the corruption, the intolerance, the violence that I see here makes me turn on my laptop and write stories in which I try to communicate my understanding of how things became this way, how people act when living in this kind of environment, how people hurt and help each other every day of their lives in this nation.
But because I’m a writer, I can write other things into the story too: Forgiveness and mercy, love and redemption, honesty and integrity. While I don’t find myself writing many happy endings as a Pakistani writer, I at least get to imagine how things could be under better circumstances. And if I can inspire you to imagine them that way too, then I have succeeded at my job, no matter how badly I’m paid for it.