Published March 21, 2021
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi

Gen Z and millennials are known as the generation of hustlers. We crave the notion of consistent productivity. We respond to texts and non-urgent emails within the hour, as we continuously update our followers on social media platforms about the minutiae of our existence, all the while feigning the image of #livingourbestlives.

Generally, it’s a struggle for us to slow down. In fact, we don’t really know how to. It is our naive belief that a culture of workaholism will somehow translate into a happier life. Even as we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, the same rules apply.

I’ve been a freelance journalist, writer and poet for almost three years. Writing was initially a creative outlet for me, a way to digest all my thoughts about the noise of the world into a well-structured article. Slowly, my writing acquired a sizable readership and soon I was writing for noteworthy publications. However, over time I noticed that, once purely an exciting endeavour, writing assignments now only brought on a wave of anxiety.

On Twitter, often considered the ‘LinkedIn for Writers’, I would be met by an onslaught of ‘personal news’ updates: of poets landing book deals or young journalists having scores of bylines. Tweets like, “I sent out 11 pitches today” or “I just got commissioned by my dream pub [publication]!” became the cause of gut-wrenching anxiety for me. I questioned my own approach to the art of writing — why was I not churning out content like other writers my age? It seemed as if one needed to remain prolific in order to maintain an active literary presence online and offline. Soon I, too, succumbed to the productivity bug.

I began pitching various ideas to every publication under the sun, in the hopes of racking up my byline count. The second a pitch would be commissioned by an editor, I would be strategising my next write-up. Subconsciously, I was aware that I was betraying the writer in me; I was hurrying the creative process and was refusing to sit down with my words. I wasn’t enjoying the journey of writing, re-writing, reflecting, researching and editing to create a piece of writing. The art, which was once so meaningful to me, was now something I resented and considered a chore.

A Gen Zer freelancer believes the pressure to churn out words is exacting a toll on young writers’ outputs

Author Robert Greene wrote, in his best-selling book Mastery, that Leonardo Da Vinci became one of the greatest painters in the world simply because he forwent the desire to be prolific. Da Vinci gave his pieces the due diligence and reflection they deserved, ultimately creating art which had depth. Whilst his peers at the time were producing abundant work, their art only managed to scratch the surface. Similarly, a writer cannot create from a place of pressure, because the writing will ultimately be flavourless.

Writers, must therefore, actively seek out unstimulated moments in their day; periods of complete disconnect and unreachability. Even the greatest writers experienced their epiphanies in periods of disengagement — Nietzsche would have some of his best ideas during his two-hour walk every morning, where he’d quickly jot down a thought or a concept in a notebook when it came to him.

Although detachment is key for creative writers too, such a luxury isn’t afforded to all. Journalists, for example, may need to remain connected to the online world constantly, or similarly those whose writing profession is inextricably linked to social media. On the flip side, many journalists often feel that the drive to be productive or the ‘hustle culture’ has pushed them to creativity. Iman Sultan, a 25-year-old freelance journalist who’s been published in Elle and Al Jazeera, explains how her work as a journalist has helped her find ingenious ways to meet the industry’s demands.

“As a freelance journalist, you have to meet the requirements of the news cycle,” Sultan says. “So, if an editor puts out a pitch callout, you need to tailor a pitch which will make sense to them, and which they will run and pay you for. Therefore, you monitor the news, social media and different things happening in the smaller orbits of information, so you can make some kind of intervention as a writer.”

However, many journalists, particularly those based in Pakistan, don’t necessarily feel the same excitement in pitching stories for publication. Many feel that freelancing in Pakistan has become a relentless search for stories that would only interest white editors at foreign publications.

Zuha Siddiqui, a 26-year-old journalist who writes for international publications such as Slate and Buzzfeed News, says the pressure that comes with freelancing is “exhausting”. “The pressure to write more, for me, has less to do with being productive and more to do with the hustle associated with freelancing in Pakistan in particular,” says Siddiqui. “The number of stories that editors abroad are interested in is decreasing steadily. There aren’t a lot of themes or topics associated with Pakistan that are relevant globally anymore.”

For journalists working in Pakistan, there are only a limited number of stories and newsworthy hooks which capture the attention of foreign publications and magazines. The lack of financial and administrative support that is provided to Pakistan journalists who may want to work on long-form features or pen investigative pieces, has also thwarted the progress of the literary art-form in the country.

Similarly, many young writers in Pakistan also feel as if they’ve inadvertently become cogs in the machine.

Amna Chaudhary is a 27-year-old fiction teacher and freelance journalist who has written for Guernica and Himal South Asian. “I feel the pressure to be productive as a writer, because there is very little structure or institutional support that is provided to us,” she says. “Therefore this places the burden of ‘being successful’ directly on our own shoulders.”

Ultimately most writers don’t hustle out of want, but simply because they find themselves in unstable times with a fledgling economy and a poor job market. So it is natural that many have become unforgiving in the pursuance of an elusive goal, without questioning whether it’s truly something they even want.

Chaudhary says, “Productivity is a response to living in a capitalist society, which places everyone in direct competition with each other. We all fall victim to the pressure of being productive, because there aren’t enough resources being allocated to whatever the thing is we wish to do. Writing is no different.”

The writing and journalism sector in Pakistan has always been severely underfunded, and now finds itself struggling with budget cuts and furloughed employees in the midst of a global pandemic. Lack of funding and equitable compensation has ultimately led to the creation of a survivalist industry, where every writer feels pitted against the other. All writers have a desire to get their stories out into the world, but reasons beyond our control — an unpredictable market, a lack of resources, and financial backing — have made it difficult for many to sustain a literary livelihood.

Writers are the source of the stories we relate deeply to and so readily consume. But without the support of a literary institution and a progressive system which sustains the artistic process and the craft of storytelling, writers globally, and especially those in Pakistan, will be unable to cultivate the art-form which is a necessary contribution to society.

Neha Maqsood is a writer and poet. Her debut poetry book will be published by Hellebore Press in the summer of 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 21st, 2021


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