31 Mar 2019


When you think of a writer, do you imagine a person who is brilliant, eloquent and deeply philosophical? Someone who is charming and witty, able to hold forth on any subject and illuminate the workings of the inner and outer worlds? Or perhaps you think of a writer as a genius who worships at the altar of words, who is never seen without a book in their hand, who looks at the world and never fails to find inspiration in it. If you believe any of this, chances are you have never met a real writer.

It may be hard to identify a writer-in-embryo: children are all delightfully weird in their own way, and that little kid who can’t make friends and lives with her nose in a book may not necessarily be preparing to win the Booker Prize; she might just be intelligent and bored. Similarly, a child who is overly talkative or displays a faculty with words beyond his or her peers might actually grow up to be a smooth-talking con artist instead of a writer. Most teenagers feel, at some point in their lives, that they don’t ‘fit in’; some may start writing poetry or keeping a journal or putting out ‘thoughts’ on social media in order to express themselves. Don’t worry; your child is still normal — at least outwardly.

But then something happens inside the embryo’s mind: the bookworm realises that the books he’s reading aren’t fulfilling a deeper need inside. Writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi describes the moment he knew he was a writer when he thought, “I can think of a better story than this.” This is the point of metamorphosis for many writers: recognising the urge to create literature instead of passively consuming it. The change is irreversible; once the truth about what one aspires to do and be is glimpsed, it can’t be unseen. A writer will either spend all her life trying to write that better story or — thwarted by life’s circumstances and a lack of support and self-belief — become the most miserable person on earth. Sometimes both happen at the same time.

Not unlike Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who goes to bed a human being and wakes up a cockroach, the writer goes to bed a human being and wakes up in a state not dissimilar to that of a cockroach, scrabbling around all night trying to escape the shoes hurled at its unsightly carapace. The carapace is actually an accumulation of habits and personality traits that serve to further the process of writing, but also makes the writer look incredibly strange to other people.

For example, James Joyce wore a white coat when writing to cast light on the cardboard he wrote on — in crayon. Virginia Woolf wrote only in purple ink. John Cheever wrote only in his underwear, while Victor Hugo took off all his clothes and wrote while wrapped in a blanket. Mark Twain, George Orwell and Marcel Proust could write horizontally but not vertically, lying in bed or on a sofa. Voltaire drank 40 cups of coffee daily, but Honore de Balzac beat him by drinking 60 cups a day. Agatha Christie sat in her bathtub, eating apples, waiting for inspiration to strike.

God help anyone who has to live with a writer; it has been described, variously, as ‘difficult’, ‘unpleasant’, and ‘hell on earth’. There is a reason V.S. Naipaul, a brilliant writer, ended up having so many divorces. If you are familiar with writers such as Ernest Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson, you’d be forgiven for thinking of all writers as irascible misanthropes who hate everyone and need to drink a bottle of whisky daily just to inoculate themselves from the mediocrity of the world. Or, as in the case of Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, as recluses who are too sensitive to deal with their monumental success.

It’s true that writers sometimes come off as crabby, unfriendly, grouchy or utterly unsympathetic. Narcissistic is another descriptor for someone who spends a lot of time in their own head. While other people are enjoying the company of others, the writer’s mind is off working on something inexplicable.

It’s true that writers sometimes come off as crabby, unfriendly, grouchy or utterly unsympathetic. Narcissistic is another good descriptor for someone who spends a lot of time in their own head. While other people are learning social skills and enjoying themselves in the company of others, the writer’s mind is off working on something intangible and inexplicable. While you look at a beautiful evening sky and witness a magical sunset, a writer despairs over the end of time and the inability of humanity to escape its incessant pettiness. You can never quite tell whether a writer is listening to what you say or constructing a story in her head about someone who quits Earth and finds a happier life in outer space with a couple of aliens and a Mars Rover.

But it’s more than just eccentricity of behaviour that sets writers apart from the rest of the world. There’s a unique personality that develops, one that is geared towards being as protective of the writer’s inner space as possible. In this mental and emotional space, thoughts and ideas develop, and this is the writer’s most prized territory, more than any table and chair, beloved writing spot or daily habit. This inner space is cultivated by several things: silence and solitude; the absence of people who intrude on one’s concentration and focus; a discipline that gets the writer into the crucible where intellect and emotion interact; a fierce determination to guard that space because it is precious and sacred.

Writers come in many shapes and sizes, but there is one irrefutable truth about them: they are eccentric and weird, selfish and self-absorbed, somewhat cynical and always wary. But writers have made an art out of being crazy and, to paraphrase Rumi, that craziness becomes the art that they spend their lives trying to create, so that you, the reader, can enjoy. In the spirit of generosity, forgive them their foibles along the way, if you can.

The columnist is a Karachi-based author of seven books

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 31st, 2019