When you take something you love, be it writing, or art, or any kind of creative expression and make it your profession, it has to involve a degree of practicality, and that could be dangerous.
Trained to be a lawyer, Rafia tried hard to resist the impulse that had been with her ever since she was a child – “I tried very hard not be a writer, I thought that the law profession would structure my life and I would not be restless anymore” – but it didn’t work. So, she decided to do it all! An attorney, a columnist for Al Jazeeera, Dawn, Dissent, among others, Rafia is also a human rights activist and has worked on behalf of victims of domestic violence around the world. Born and raised in Karachi, Rafia now lives between Pakistan and the United States, where she serves on the board of directors of Amnesty International USA.
Why did you try “very hard not to be a writer”, and with that in mind, how would you advice a young person today, who’s confused about pursuing passion versus being pragmatic?
I have been writing since I was little because it’s one of the first ways of self-expression that we learn. But writing is, as most South Asians will understand, not really considered a profession. No South Asian parent wants their kid to tell them, ‘I want to be a writer, or a painter…’ Because, of course there is a lot of uncertainty involved in creative professions. Which is why I ended up going to school and getting a law degree.
I get this question from young people very often, and I say a number of things. The first of course is that there is perhaps a natural, or cultural, or sociological tendency among us all to value those things that can make us money. It’s great to become a doctor or engineer, not just because of the inherent things you do as a doctor or engineer, but also because it allows you a degree of class mobility, gives you stability and most importantly, money. And I am totally guilty of this. I think writing before its marketability or its capacity to earn money, as a form of self-expression, is vital and I think the genesis of writers should be from there. It should be akin to humming a song because it allows you to look inside of yourself and then articulating that. When you take something you love, be it writing, or art, or any kind of creative expression and make it your profession, it has to involve a degree of practicality, and that could be dangerous. You are monetizing it, you are taking it away from the satisfaction it would provide you if it was only your creative expression. Also, the reality of writing and I imagine of other creative professions as well, is that you are going to be rejected and criticized a lot. Before that book or the article ever comes out and anyone ever reads it, it’s going to go through innumerable incarnations and you are going to have that weight on it. So, if you are not using it as a way to survive or make money, then I feel you can take that rejection a little better. Or at least I could… In that sense, my advice is to have something more solid that you can count on, so that you can go on this adventure and not be terrified at every step.
While I would have perhaps loved to get a degree in Creative Writing, I am on the fence in terms of whether you can learn to be a writer… There is an element of inspiration and creative ability that is esoteric and it’s difficult to pin that down.
What sort of formal education is an absolute essential for your profession?
I personally feel that law school was very integral to it, perhaps not at the time – I hated it then because you are bossed into this very formulaic sort of writing, which is very, very precise and you have to be conscious of every single word. I chafed under that because I wanted to write the way I wanted to write, but I think that it was crucial education because no other kind of training could make you so conscious about the value of a single word. When you come out from it, it really gives you a finesse that I didn’t have earlier, it disciplined my writing.
A lot of people consider getting Masters in Fine Arts, and while I think that that can be a good avenue, I have some doubts because it’s an open question on whether you can really be trained to be a writer. There is an element of inspiration and creative ability that is esoteric and it’s difficult to pin that down.
So while I would have perhaps loved to get a degree in Creative Writing, I am on the fence in terms of whether you can learn to be a writer. You can learn the technical skills, you can be taught different forms of narrative and different narrative devices and plot development. On the journalistic side, you can be taught how to create literary journalism. But that dream that is often sold to people recruiting for creative writing programmes – Oh, this will teach you to be a writer – I am not sure if that is true.
What kind of internship would you suggest?
I think that internships, depending on whether you are doing fiction or non-fiction, at magazines or publishing houses are good in the sense that they give writers a good insight into the business of writing. Which, whether we like it or not, is a part of the writing profession. So I think those things are good, but ultimately, you are your own internship. It’s like that Ira Glass quote, in which he talks about doing creative work, and he says how when you first start, you have read a lot, and so you know you are not good because you know what good is, so it frustrates you that your ability does not equal your desire to express, and that journey is ultimately any writer’s real internship. So, you move from knowing what you are doing is not good, but persisting at it until you get to a point where it gets closer to what you want it to be. If you can promise yourself 500 words a day, I can guarantee that at the end of the year you will be a far, far better writer than you were at the beginning. That’s what I tell people again and again. One good way to do that is to find a place where they are willing to edit your work because one of the things that emerging writers struggle with is that a lot of the writing you are going to do at the beginning of your career is writing that is unpaid. But I think it is very important to work with a good editor – for me it was the best education because that is ultimately what teaches you to be a better writer. I think that is something that young writers need to take more seriously – when someone gives you the attention of editing your work, that’s worth far more than being paid.
If you had to draft an elevator pitch for your profession, what would you say?
I’d talk about the most rewarding thing: As a writer, you’re holding up a mirror to the world that you inhabit and you reflect the culture, the world, life, so that others can process it.
For me, writing is the freest thing I can do; it can give you what no other profession can – speaking to an audience that’s far larger than any other person who’s not a writer.
And what is the crucial advice you would offer to someone just starting out?
If I can give one piece of advice to an emerging author, it would be to learn to accept criticism because that is ultimately what will transform you. One of the dangers with writing is that when you write and especially if it is something personal, you hold it very close to your heart – it’s like the inner you spilled on a page. But when your editor is looking at it, they are looking at the piece that is or should be beautiful in itself, and in that sense, it is unconnected from you. I understand it’s an existentially difficult process to have your guts spilled out and then to have someone take a red marker and tell you, “Your guts are very ugly.” But the sooner you understand that the piece of writing you create, once it is out there, is no longer yours, but something in and of itself, the better and more fruitful it is for you. You have to learn to disconnect from it personally, to think of yourself as only the medium for it come into existence – in terms of process, it is the most challenging part, because you have to write from your heart and your soul and from a sense of honesty, and then once you are turning it in you have to step back and disconnect from it so that you can improve it.
Because if you don’t start from that place of honesty, then it’s never going to be any good. No guts, no glory, right? And readers can tell when someone is hedging and only giving half or third of themselves versus when they’re giving all of themselves. To be true to your reader, you have to give them that honest version of yourself.
I understand it’s an existentially difficult process to have your guts spilled out and then to have someone take a red marker and tell you, “Your guts are very ugly.” But the sooner you understand that the piece of writing you create, once it is out there, is no longer yours, but something in and of itself, the better and more fruitful it is for you.
I think with the social dissemination of writing, people read far more now than they did. Even our primary means of communication, in a way, has become texting, which requires reading and writing. To me, that’s a positive trend.
What are the new trends you notice that are changing the complexion of your profession?
I started writing at a time when things were already moving from print to web-based writing, so I owe my entire career to the internet. I hear a lot from older journalists about the heyday of print and how there was more solidity to journalism and how you could make a living from it. I wasn’t around for that, so I can’t really comment on it, but I think the new media has created tremendous opportunities for writers. I think with the social dissemination of writing, people read far more now than they did. Even our primary means of communication, in a way, has become texting, which requires reading and writing. To me, that’s a positive trend. It’s also democratized writing. 15-20 years ago, if you had a column in Dawn, the only people who read it were Pakistanis, but now, you have a global audience. For writers coming in from South Asia, that’s an incredible opportunity, because we grow up learning English and we can make that choice to continue writing in that.
The negative is the flux I suppose we’re in – because the internet is this free thing and people are more and more used to reading articles for free. So, the dimensions of how you construct compensation for authors whose creative work is being offered for free, is the challenge that’ll need to be worked out, with digital media. That hasn’t settled down yet and there isn’t really an answer to the question yet.
I think it will happen once everyone comes to terms with this new landscape, which has not only writers on it, but also people producing all kinds of writing and content with tweets and blogs – It’s already happening in a way, with e-books selling and selling well.
What do you do when you are stuck with a problem?
The biggest challenge with a problem is that you lose perspective – you find your own problem to be larger and more formidable than it really is. Since books are the source of my inspiration and security, when I have a problem, I always feel there’s a book for me out there, which is going to help me through it. And I look for it and read it. So, if it’s a parent’s illness, or a problem with the boss – I’ll consume those narratives that talk about these. When I read books about people who’ve faced bigger problems or similar problems, I’m able to see my life not just for itself, but on the scale of how it exists in the larger world.
When we’re in school, we’re told not to talk to each other, and then as we grow up, we begin to realize that there’s something called “collaborative thinking” and it’s not bad. What’s your opinion on collaborative thinking?
I was always in trouble in school because I was constantly talking – I even got my mouth taped shut in Class II!
I went to a Zoroastrian school and there was so much diversity in the classroom, but there was always this avoidance of issues that were “contentious” – which is actually a handicap that then permeates every aspect of how you learn, what you imbibe. You just never learn how to talk across difference. Difference daunts us all our lives, and prejudice starts from there.
Our students who come out of the formal education system, are not too educated in dialectic, that emergence of your own perspective, which can only come via debate and dialogue (doesn’t happen). For writers especially, that’s essential, because the process is dialectic. When the author works with the editor, that’s a dialectic process, a dialogue – because your perspective is pushed, or your character. And because of this, the civility of dissent and disagreement is largely missing in Pakistan and India, isn’t it? The civility of dissent, which comes with respect for the other’s point of view, which starts with debate.
We have to change our concept of learning and knowledge from this very static ‘I’m giving you this information and you’re supposed to swallow it whole’ to the idea that what we really only learn are ways of thinking and ways of analyses.
Our students who come out of the formal education system, are not too educated in dialectic, that emergence of your own perspective, which can only come via debate and dialogue… And because of this, the civility of dissent and disagreement is largely missing in Pakistan and India, isn’t it?
I spent a lot of time fretting over stuff like admissions, exams. ‘If I don’t pass the Bar exam, my life is over!’ When I look back now, I know that there’s no one thing that makes or breaks you – that’s a myth.
If you could do some time-travelling and go back to meet yourself at 19, what would you say to yourself then?
In general, I would tell myself to not be so terrified of failure. I spent a lot of time fretting over stuff like admissions, exams. ‘If I don’t pass the Bar exam, my life is over!’ When I look back now, I know that there’s no one thing that makes or breaks you – that’s a myth.
So, be kind to yourself, because the world may not be kind to you. Especially for writers, because we’re sensitive people. I think if you can let go of that, you can take your life a lot less seriously – and that’s fabulous for creative people.
Do you still have days when you think, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ How do you get over that, if you do?
100%! There are days when pitches are rejected, stories you worked on for weeks don’t make it…
You have to create mechanisms for yourself where you can force yourself out of that. Everything you read and experience is the soil for what you’re trying to grow as a writer. So, on a day like that, I step back from writing and I know that I have to put some fertilizer into the soil. It could be anything – doing something with friends, reading, or anything that feeds my imagination like going to a bookstore, a park, a museum – stuff that nourishes you, stimulates you.