Writing as a profession is difficult for a number of reasons. One has to be creatively inclined, first of all, quite well-versed in the technical aspects of plots and characters, as well as fluent in the language of your novel, of course. But the worst part is the cultural aspect, both Pakistani (where I’m originally from) as well as American (which is now my home).
Traditionally, Desis – people of south Asian background – do not think highly of writing and other creative pursuits. Our parents dream of us becoming doctors and engineers, and maybe if we’re good for nothing else, then teachers. When I was growing up in Pakistan, MBAs were all the rage, and women could go into financial fields without anyone having a heart attack. But writing was not even mentioned as a possibility. After all, what money or prestige is there in writing?
Fast forward to the U.S, where I moved after I got married. I quickly learned that writing may be applauded here, but it is certainly not monetarily recompensed. Writers and poets and artists have to have real jobs, ones that pay the bills. Then you write if you have time after work and kids and stress. But I wanted that more than anything else, so I wrote. What people don’t realize is that a writer must write, and that she may, at any time, have stories threatening to spill out any minute. I was consumed with stories, and often those characters I had made up in my mind were more real than my own family. So write I did, if only to keep sane.
My book was published in the summer of 2015. The journey has been long and arduous, and sometimes I wonder if it was worth it. It’s not enough to write a book, you see. You must also find a literary agent, and then a publisher. You must go through the often humiliating process of having your work called a piece of crap by editors, but then you also go through the wonderful transformation of editing and improving until your book is a little piece of gold, shining brightly in your hand.
Even then, does anyone really care? Publishing is a commercial process. An agent or a publisher doesn’t care how great your book is if it doesn’t have mainstream marketing appeal. So when I wrote a collection of short stories about Pakistan, most literary agents and publishers told me that it was too hard a sell, because no one reads short stories anymore, and no one wants to read about Pakistan, or Muslims. Still, I persevered, because those stories are real and they need to be heard. I finally found a small press FB Publishing that took a chance on me, and Brick Walls was born.
So for those who want to make writing a career (or any passionate hobby), here are some tips from someone who has walked that painful but infinitely rewarding path:
Read. A lot.
It will not only improve your writing by a hundredfold but will also give you motivation when you are down, when you start believing that nobody cares about or needs writers. Think how dry and boring our world would be without (insert your favorite author here) and then get back to your computer.
Network with other writers.
Most of us are a lonely, introverted bunch and we could use a friend or two. Use Facebook and other social media tools to find others interested in writing. Search for actual writing groups in your area, and if there aren’t any, start your own. You need encouragement, support and ideas, don’t you?
Be strong and be patient.
Rejection is the norm for a writer, and over time you will collect an impressive supply of rejection emails/letters from a host of institutions. Don’t start hating yourself because of them. They are a necessary part of the writing process and they can teach you a lot. Some rejections may point out flaws in your work, others may help you understand the market better. My favorite kinds are the ones that make you angry and fuel the fire inside you telling you to keep going, just to prove everybody wrong. Be strong and patient, your time will come.
Very few of us are going to become the next J.K. Rowling, so be realistic about your writing goals. In fact, do you even have writing goals? If not, think hard about what you want to achieve and come up with a plan. My goals were to break stereotypes of Muslims and share Muslim narratives with the world, hence my writing Brick Walls and creating Blue Minaret, a literary magazine for Muslims. Other writers may have different goals, but without knowing your destination, it’s really difficult to find your road.