'And the guilt of fertile indolence has to be borne'. One hell of a line.

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My brothers and sisters repeat often to me,”don’t kills our father with your words.” While others tell me that our story was very unusual, I should write it. Why? I ask. Once I shared with a friend, a brilliant writer, that I couldn’t write the story because I would have to reveal too many secrets. One day, my sister Margarita, came to visit with one purpose in mind to tell me never to speak Ill of our father. He was an amazing and unusual human being, she said emphatically, a man of his time, with an extraordinary courage and beauty. I listened to her, remained silent, but I think of her words often. He was an unusual man of his time Indeed: illiterate but a lover of language and the value of education. He made sure his nine sons went to university: three became doctors, two lawyers, an agronomist, an architect, a math teacher, and to his great disappointment my rebellious brother Bienvenido, a fine musician. He never cared to educate his eleven daughters. We had to be beautiful, to marry military men. What dreadful fate he had in mind for us.

I don’t want to write this story, I concluded. It is a story that haunts me, but I will not write it. It is painful as it was.

Now, I haven’t met a teacher like you, with delight I read your understanding and care for your students. I met teachers more in the style of those who love to show their superiority over words, pointing out if I had used them correctly or not. Some said Spanish will forever intrude in my English constructions and phrases. To them, I gave the finger. I earned my living by teaching the Spanish language, Latin American writers, the golden age of Spanish literature. Teaching Don Quijote, Borges, García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and many more. Yes, I received an education from Middlebury College, Columbia University, courses in Literature from University of Madrid, and Cambridge University in England, and a Fellow at the University of Saint Andrew in Scotland, I never married a military man, but maybe it was inevitable, my father the prophet had labeled me as the daughter that one day “ would break his heart.”

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Reading this entry, I was reminded of two artists, both of whom were gifted singers, musicians, and composers; both of whom are sadly no longer with us.

The first is Scott Walker, formerly of The Walker Brothers. During the closing decades of his life, Walker intermittently released challenging, avant-garde albums that rewarded engaged listening. They were augmented with lyrics that were more like cryptic crossword clues. An illustration of this would be a song titled 'Jesse' which references the one-sided conversations that Elvis Presley would have with his stillborn twin brother during times of personal crisis. The words of the song draw a comparison between the two Presley boys (one living and one long dead) and the twin towers of The World Trade Centre – a pair of American icons. Underlying this conceit is the idea that, the moment one fell, the other was always doomed to follow. I think that Walker does a good job of conveying the abject existential misery of Elvis during these solitary moments.

The music that Walker produced was equally, if not more, obtuse. A song titled 'Carla' (named after Carla Petacci – the mistress of Benito Mussolini) gained notoriety for the slab of raw pork that is re-purposed as a percussion instrument. This serves a dual function: It represents a sparrow, referenced in the lyrics, that has become trapped indoors and repeatedly slams its tiny body against the windows in a futile attempt to escape. It also embodies the sound of the fists of the angry mob, who strung up the lifeless bodies of Petacci and Mussolini by their heels, following their execution by firing squad, and savagely beat them.

Scott Walker's compositions were collaborations, often involving large numbers of musicians, who were all nonetheless bound to his singular vision. He had complex ideas that he wanted to communicate to an audience. However, he was not prepared to compromise his vision to garner wider appeal. The mental image that I have of Walker is of a lone figure, disappearing into thick fog. You are welcome to follow him if you so chose, but he will neither assist you, nor will he moderate his pace, or choice of ground, to accommodate you.

The other artist is David Bowie. Bowie's artistic resurgence is documented over his final two studio albums, which were released following a long period where he lived largely outside the public eye. There are moments on both records when he is imitating Walker. 'Heat' - the final track on his penultimate album 'The Next Day' is both musically and lyrically an accessible Scott Walker homage – a very good one in my opinion. I like the song a lot. On 'Blackstar', which turned out to be Bowie's final studio album, there are moments where he appears to be channelling some of the avant-garde spirit of Scott Walker through the prism of his own creative instincts. That was the genius of Bowie – he could take something challenging, or marginal, and dress it up for a wider audience, in a manner where whatever he was referencing retained its spirit and integrity. The mental image that I have of Bowie is of a great communicator – a man who always faced he crowd no matter how far out he ventured.

I suppose the lesson here is that, if you want broad appeal, aim to be more like Bowie. You can take the road less travelled and bring something back with you. Maybe you can also look towards those who have ventured out even further and bring something of them back with you. Whatever you return with needs to be framed in a manner that balances accessibility and integrity.

In terms of these two mindsets, for better or worse, I stand firmly in the Walker camp. I remember, at school, when I was five years old, acting out a scene, on my own, with a Playmobil set. A boy named Anthony wandered over and said: “He's telling himself a little story.” Some of the other boys converged on me and began mocking me for my transgression against the unspoken rules of playtime. Their scorn, along with any humiliation that I might have felt, did nothing. I am now considerably older. I remain content to prattle on to myself, regardless of whether anyone is paying attention. I may well be doing exactly that right now.

Last November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I produced a 62500 word novel in 27 days. I did no prior planning, beyond acquiring list of Russian names and PDF document of Soviet ministerial titles.

Many participants in NaNoWriMo use it as a springboard to knock out part, or all, of a first draft. I wanted to see what I would come up with, and whether I could stand up to the pressure. When I was finished I deposited the entire raw text online. I doubt that anyone has read all of it. I think that it's probably coherent. It was written for an audience. There are themes and foreshadowing, and it incorporates a device that I wanted to try out, where the protagonist and the antagonist at the beginning of the book are gradually supplanted in these roles by other minor characters. I'll stand by the epilogue which I thought was decent. With all that said, it is a hurried first draft, hammered out by someone who only had a very vague notion of what was going to happen next. Writing the novel was an end in and of itself, rather than a jumping off point. It was a head-down act of creativity unencumbered by expectation.

I think that, when it comes to any creative endeavour, a lot of angst, self doubt and and procrastination can be resolved by working out what you want to achieve, and then reconciling yourself with what you need to do to bring about that end.

I had a crisis a few years ago where I was on a treadmill of writing, submitting and rewriting. I reached a point where I thought to myself: I want to keep writing, but it can't be like this any more, because it's making me miserable.

I thought about it for a while. I realised that what I want from writing is to be able follow my nose and to perhaps engage with a small number of people. That's not a doorway to success or a viable career path, but it's what I needed it to be. I stopped writing under my real name and now write under nom de plume, which is an anagram of my Christian and surname. I lean towards self-publishing. I enjoy that independent spirit where you throw yourself on your own resources and do everything – writing, editing, page layout, cover. I am going to attempt to draw a map in my next novel. Occasionally I will submit work elsewhere, but there is no pressure any more. Only a drive to create. At the moment it works for me.

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Invaluable advice, whether you've been writing for a day or a lifetime. Very helpful. Thanks Hanif. Your hands may be "semi-frozen vegetarian sausages," but you haven't lost your touch.

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There is so much truth in your despatches about writing and the creative process and it is incredibly helpful.For this I want to thank you , and I hope you are slowly improving and getting better. I haven't got anything to give you in return and I wish I had

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Hmm. Do most people actually find themselves making a choice between sex with the self or sex with another? Doesn't each come with its own douceurs? Haha.

The issue of solitude vs community when it comes to writing is particularly timely for me, as I teach writing, mostly to people in their teens and early twenties. My students, it is fair to say, no longer worry so much about dying in a global pandemic, but they have emerged from their bunkers and foxholes or wherever else they have been hiding these past few years in a variety of states which make the issues you raise here quite interesting and pressing. They have, in effect, emerged from a psychological experiment in solitude and separation that has imposed enormous stress upon them in almost every aspect of their lives. They have suffered enormous losses, from the essential - finding romantic partners, keeping up some family relationships, moving forward with an uninterrupted education - to the ritual - forgoing coming-of-age ceremonies like the bar mitzvah or quinceanera, leaving graduations, housewarmings, and funerals uncelebrated and unmarked - and they have put off cherished opportunities to start a new life and experiment with their identities on their own, without the close observation and interference from family. We have all suffered losses during the quarantine, but since I spend most of my time with young people of a certain age who have not yet learned the methods of coping that we tend to develop with age and experience, their plight seems particularly poignant.

One way all this psychological stress is manifesting among my students is an epidemic of crippling perfectionism. They seem to long for the validation that sharing their work might bring, while also finding themselves terrified by the possibility of critique. They subject themselves to their own harsh criticism, and they discount praise from external sources. Their inner critics are so loud sometimes, it is difficult for a teacher to be heard. I have seen some students drop a course because they could not turn in any work. This is a generalization of course, but it’s also a real challenge. Some of them learn from reading, but never enough in my opinion. Writing is a communicative act - it is difficult to imagine writing without caring about connecting with a reader, whatever the pleasure of simply doing it alone. (I guess one is better after all!)

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Thank you, Hanif. What good fortune for your students to be able to learn from a writer and teacher like you! I responded to every word of this wise and generous post.

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Hi Hanif! I have so many thoughts about all this.

"It is amazing that students are so rarely taught to see the connection between studying others and their own work."

Yes, exactly. I was lucky enough to study in a program designed to teach exactly that. We spent a couple of years using our reading to solve our own problems. We constantly wrote tiny, narrowly focussed essays like this: (https://www.peterturchi.com/resources/reading-like-a-writer)

I read and wrote an enormous amount and came away full of ideas and excitement.

However, with apologies for rambling about myself, that was nearly a decade ago. I'm still not really happy with what I've written since then, and very little of it has been published.

I'm horribly familiar with that helpless, discouraged "dip or crash." Also the "guilt of fertile indolence." (To make it worse, a few years ago I married the least indolent person I know. So that's a constant.)

In the last few months, though, something has shifted. Unexpectedly, what got me unstuck was George Saunders's advice to think line by line. Make each sentence and each section as perfect and amusing as possible, then move on to the next one. Keep an eye on on causality and escalation as you go. But -- even in revision, he says, which to me is the really radical claim -- don't let your imagination get subverted by abstractions (ideas, image schemes, structure, &c). Let those emerge as a result of thousands of micro-decisions over time.

For me, at least right now, I think the George S. method is working. But to be fair to my former teachers, those micro-decisions are subconsciously informed by years of careful, thoughtful reading. At least I hope so.

"[I]n the end, she is writing for others. Writers are entertainers"

Again, yes! I can only write if I'm reasonably confident that someone will read and expect to enjoy the result.

Those are fascinating stories about your students, by the way. They're lucky to have worked with you. Thanks as always for taking the time to dictate this for us, and thanks too to the family members who are helping you.

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Very good piece Hanif. Shouldn’t it be “orientate” rather than “orient. Though I rather like “orient.” A touch of the E Said’s. Wasn’t it Beckett who said one of the breathing’s about Joyce was his ability to accept o incidence as his collaborator. Of course the real reason I am posting this academic drivel is to prove that I have actually subscribed to your excellent and lucid writing. Hope the physio going ok xxxNige

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Mr Kureshi, where do you recommend one goes for such critical, honest, and helpful feedback? I find it difficult to know whose opinion to trust, to be honest. Maybe I am too precious about my work, but I really just want critical feedback that helps me, and I am not sure even how to find that.

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Your writing is so beautiful and I enjoy all of your Substack posts. I just subscribed and wish for you peace in your healing. I’m sure the writing is helping.

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Thank you Hanif 🙏🏽 wonderful, timely food for thought for this writer and teacher. Much appreciated.

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Feb 19·edited Feb 19

I am enjoying your writing. Thank you for each one. And this piece was timely for a project on which I have recently embarked.

“Conversations with a teacher should enable the student to get an idea of what an ordinary reader might make of her work, and how she must bear in mind that, in the end, she is writing for others.“

Just what I needed to reinforce feedback I received on my work. The draft I created seemed so obvious to me, but that was just me, not the reader.

Thank you.

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To the next person that asks how I am, I shall respond: "Fine, thank you. I have been spending my time cultivating the guilt of fertile indolence." Sorry Hanif, but I am going to have to pilfer that gem of a line! Although, truth be told, I never feel much guilt about indolence, whether fertile or not. I'm sure there must be a witty Oscar Wilde epigram in praise of indolence.

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Man Utd 2 Barcelona 1. I'm watchin the game and thinkin once Anthony side foots into the net the drinks go flyin and we are in each other's arms. Yeh, bhai saab.

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"It was also helpful for him to be told that he needed to develop a sense of story, rather than slamming scenes together in the hope the audience might notice some connection." This captures pretty well the problem I have with writing. It seems like my brain is spitting out so many scenes that ring true and that I absolutely must write, but I can never quite get to weaving them into a story - which, as far as I am concerned, is pure artifice. Is the craft of writing, the useful, consumable kind at least, arranging moments of truth against a solid scaffolding?

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